"Out of Habit": Necessity, Procrastination, and I Am Still Trying to Figure Out What Order Everything Goes In

I like to think I’m not really a procrastinator. I generally use the definition academically, I suppose, and in that field, the statement is and has been true. I don’t think I’ve ever finished a paper on the day it was due, I’ve never pulled or had to pull an all-nighter to get an assignment done, and I know that I’ve never turned in anything for a grade that was a first draft. That’s probably good because I teach writing, have always wanted to teach writing, and I’d have to look at myself very sternly if I did. 

Hang on. Let me push up my glasses. They’ve slipped a bit down my sanctimonious nose.
But something this morning (and a lot of days for a lot of years, if I’m honest) caught me out. I’ve had this small task to do (literally updating the formula on two places in an Excel spreadsheet and then making sure it copied correctly down twenty columns) for more than a week. I have a meeting later today that requires said spreadsheet to be updated. I’ve been avoiding it–complete with that sour feeling of knowing I’m avoiding it and knowing that’s stupid–for each of those days. So last night, in champion procrastinatory fashion, when I could have done it and didn’t, I said that I would do it this morning. 
Problem is, in the morning, I write. And this morning is all wonky because I usually get up very near to five a.m. and try to be actually writing before six, but I slept until a little after seven because I was up much too late. I blame baseball and the fascinating process of watching Bill take his stitches out. So everything’s a little broken, as daily habits go, and now there was this Task I didn’t want to do hanging over it. 
My whole adult life, I’ve been fighting with, around, about (and other prepositions) putting my writing first. Thinking the art is worth it–my own, of course, because it’s easy to believe that everyone else’s is worth it, but not so easy when it’s mine–has been a struggle. It’s something I keep talking about, keep fighting with: grade the papers, then write, because you have 90 students and that is cumulatively more important. Or the opposite: you will write right now before you are allowed to do anything else, you ridiculous writerly slackass.
Either way, not a really healthy relationship with the idea. And maybe it’s because I listened to a lot of Ani DiFranco when I was in my most formative years (and still–I love her), but I’ve always been coveting that fragment from “Out of Habit”: “Art is why I get up in the morning.” And it’s in a song that’s about the idea of habit, and I’m not going to get all analytical about the lyrics, but those things are connected. Art. Habit. Every day. 
I have habits: wake up, cup of tea. It is automatic. It is easy. It is something I wouldn’t think of not-doing. I am fairly cross when I don’t do it, even though I can function just fine without it. I wake up and am alert and capable (as opposed to my functioning during afternoons, which are awful and fit only for the gym and for naps). I don’t need it in any kind of physiological way (unlike the way I need to eat something in the morning to avoid murdering anyone by ten). But aside from the deliciousness and the pleasure of the ritual and the sheer stupid happiness I get from my mug collection, it isn’t necessary. Still, I will go out of my way to be certain that I can make that cup of tea happen: I will wash out the teapot the night before. I will be certain that I have Good Tea in the tin. I will even wash all the mugs so I have all possible choices awaiting me in the morning. It’s not necessary, but I’m surely doing everything I can to make the tea happen. 
Is my writing necessary?
I’ll be honest: nope. I know that because I so often don’t do it. Aside from the nagging guilt, which I feel about most everything, I suffer no really ill effects. 
But by God, this summer, I’m doing everything I can to make it happen, even updating that spreadsheet within four minutes of sitting down at my computer (even though there were five hours between me and the meeting), because I said there must be no writing until that (ridiculously easy, quick) task was finished. I just had to put that task in front of something I wanted more. 
In this case, it turned out to be easy to keep it there (probably knowing it would be easy if I just did the damn thing). That is the eventual solution to procrastination: the task has to be entrenched between oneself and something one wants. For most of us, the want is something like a passing grade or a desire to keep a job. The consequence of not-doing it becomes a large enough stick to beat one into action (or a large enough carrot to tempt us into completion for the reward). 
I’m not sure how to use that to overcome the initial issue that got me started on this post, though, that nigh-interminable avoidance of the task. The constant circling of the thing to be done: I know it’s there, I know it will not go away, and I know no one else will (or can) do it. Things like phone calls for appointments, returning those e-mails that didn’t require an answer the second I opened it but should be addressed–even things I actually like doing, like replying to blog comments. Why the evasive maneuvers? Why the sidelong glance?
But now that I have a big enough carrot, so to speak, something I want to be doing all the time, which is the writing, and that’s still gloriously weird to say, maybe the trick is to put everything between me and it. Maybe that will backfire. Maybe it won’t. But writing this means that I’m actually going to call the tailor right now, and maybe I’ll have to listen to her laugh at my hope that I can get a dress altered in a week, but I will have actually made the call I’ve been avoiding since May.

2 thoughts on “"Out of Habit": Necessity, Procrastination, and I Am Still Trying to Figure Out What Order Everything Goes In

  1. It will not surprise you to learn that I find everything you say here supremely relevant. Also: well said.

    What gets me is the almost universally trivial nature of the things I procrastinate over. Honking big things, things that actually might be difficult, annoying, wildly time-consuming? I am usually on those with the kind of speed and determination that is, frankly, probably overkill. Putting stamps on those envelopes and trotting them out to the mailbox? OMG, it is the end. Distributing that box of tissues, stick of deodorant, and bottle of shampoo to the appropriate bathrooms from the kitchen table where they landed when the groceries got unpacked? It is just too, too hard.


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