My post this week is a follow-up on last week’s suggestion to plan for failure (https://www.katherinefusco.com/the-mindful-academic-writer/this-semester-plan-to-fail ), in which I suggested the importance of being honest about when in the semester it’s unlikely you’ll get writing and research done.
If that’s a more macro look at the time of an academic life, what I’d like to say here is that being mindful about how we spend the minutes of our days can be a similarly important way to be gentle with ourselves, if we frame it right.
Time logging gets a bad wrap, and, at times, rightfully so. In my first book, I wrote about industrial engineer Frederick Winslow Taylor who subjected workers to his infamous stop watch in order to develop “one best way,” a process of labor organization that privileged systems over individuals. Too, in American literature courses, I often teach the time logs of both Benjamin Franklin and Fitzgerald’s Gatsby. My students and I often remark on the rigidity of such systems.
But I think part of the trick here is that while time logging often makes a bad master, it can be a good tool (and I suspect that Franklin, who has a pretty good sense of humor throughout his biography—often noting his failings—would likely agree).
If a time log isn’t being imposed upon one as a managerial tool, it can be a useful method to reflect on the way we spend our hours and minutes—which is to say, the way we spend the days of our lives. And though this may still feel a bit scary or bad (realizing, as a 2016 Nielsen survey suggests, that we spend upwards of five hours a day watching TV), I’d like to suggest that used well, time logging can be a way of freeing ourselves from guilt and mindfully setting more realistic expectations.
Here’s a little example—I like to write in the mornings. Historically, I have maintained a faithful 8-10am writing time, either tucked away in a corner of the cafeteria adjacent to my building or at the internet-free coffee shop near campus.
This year, I have had a repeated disappointment. Each morning, I’d crack open my laptop and see the little digital clock display reporting out an unavoidable truth: 8:25, 8:45, 8:50. Kind of disappointing.
But, logging my time, I came to a realization: the shift in my writing time was reflecting a change in a different area of my life. After several years, I have finally purchased a non-scary bicycle that I’m riding to work most days. This shift has health, economic, and environmental benefits. Also, and this is super-banal, it means I need to blow dry my hair in the mornings so I don’t have crazy helmet-hair. Between this nod to vanity and the extra time that biking takes, the truth revealed by the adjusted time log in my planner reveals that it’s now more reasonable to imagine that my writing time needs to shift to somewhere closer to 8:45 or 9:00.
This now means that rather than whipping myself over my failure to show up for my appointed writing time each morning, there are decisions to be made. Do I want to write until 11, rather than 10? That’s possible on days I don’t teach. Can I add an afternoon writing session or two? Yes, but I’ll need accountability. Whichever the case may be, an adjustment is in order, but not a bunch of guilt. Though this year, it’s biking that means the way I pass the hours of my days has changed, it could as easily be something else: a family issue, health concerns, a change in course schedule or departmental commitments.
If time tracking sounds interesting, I’d point you to Laura Vanderkam (http://lauravanderkam.com/). I’m especially fond of her book I Know How She Does It, which, in addition to showing the time logs of many successful professional women who have children, makes an argument for encouraging young women to enter the sort of high-powered professions perceived as incompatible with family life. Her tone is refreshingly matter of fact. As it turns out no one, really no one, is working 80 hours a week!
Used as a tool to impartially diagnose, tweak and readjust, time tracking can be a way to see if time spent matches priorities and also to get real in a way that may mean setting yourself up to succeed rather than inflicting upon yourself a daily Sisyphean task that guarantees guilty feelings. It needn’t mean doing things faster or more efficiently; instead, it might just mean becoming aware of how your time is being spent. After all, who has time for guilt? Have you been watching the new American Crime Story? There’s so much good TV to watch!
I am a proselytizer for Kerry Ann Rockquemore’s National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity (NCFDD) program (https://www.facultydiversity.org/) —if you’re affiliated with a university, you should check and see if you have an institutional membership! One of the hallmarks of this program is the “Every Semester Needs a Plan” workshop, which involves identifying out and planning goals every semester.
Having these goals is crucial to measuring progress as you go and also having something to aim at to focus your energies so that you don’t fritter away the weeks on work email and TV murder mysteries (insert your own addictions here).
But as important as it is to plan for success, it’s also important to plan for failure. Part of being mindful about one’s writing or other creative practice means knowing both what doesn’t work in a generalized way—in my case, writing in the evening—as well as special circumstances that tend not to pan out.
Sometimes failure sneaks up on you. For example, I happened to have low-level anemia when I was pregnant. As it turns out, no iron, no energy. As a result, rather than making the progress on my book and blog that I had hoped for, I spent a lot of time on the couch binge watching The Killing and reading Karin Slaughter novels (I highly recommend Cop Town, by the way). For matters like personal or family illness, it’s hard to know how to plan ahead.
But sometimes, if you reflect on the rhythms of semesters past or the way infrequent but recurrent events have tended to go, you can plan for certain kinds of “failure.” To take this particular season of the academic calendar as an example, you might think about what kind of work you tend to accomplish when your department is hosting job candidates for campus visits. If you’re neither a super human nor a jerk who doesn’t contribute to the good of the department, chances are, you’re unlikely to make major progress on research or writing goals for this limited period. Ditto the weekend your parents come to visit. In the comments below, feel free to add other examples of events that are both disruptive and predictable.
Of course, I’m not suggesting that we write off whole semesters or let ourselves off the hook entirely. Rather, I think we’re more productive and have a better time with both our writing and these disruptive events when we mindfully plan for periods when work might unfold at a different pace or not at all. Perhaps for the week of campus visits, you might write in your agenda “enjoy meeting job candidates;” or perhaps you could set a modest and optional goal, “if I can rough draft X grant application, great.” This way, you’re not setting yourself up for a guilt trip over a task that you never should have assigned to yourself for this particular period in the first place.
The flipside of planning for failure is also reflecting on your process and calendar to see when and whether there are super-productive periods coming your way. For me, travel to and from conferences is often hyper-productive because there’s simply nothing better to do on an airplane or in an airport than work. So, while you may give yourself permission to fail at your regular writing practice for a few weeks of the semester, perhaps you’ll also identify certain periods as super work times.
The point in either case is to look ahead and do a little planning that reflects what you know to be true about the rhythms of your work and personal life. This doesn’t mean that you’re letting yourself off the hook or being lazy; instead, being realistic about both your creative work and the things that may disrupt it may just mean you get to enjoy both more.
In 2011, I was living in Nashville, Obama (bless him) was still the president, and none of my hair was gray. Also, Lindsay Lohan was in the news for her bad behavior and the leaked photos from her disastrous Playboy photo shoot.
I do research on celebrity and matters of identity, so I was fascinated by the fact that Lohan, a star in decline, was recreating famous Marilyn Monroe photographs in the upcoming issue of Hefner’s magazine. For the first (and only?) time in my life, I bought an issue of Playboy, I poured over photos of Lohan and Monroe, and read creepy interviews with Hefner—the man bought a cemetery plot next to Monroe, saying “Spending eternity next to Marilyn is too sweet to pass up." As someone who had recently finished graduate school and was beginning to emerge from the attendant insecurities, I also identified strongly with the two actresses who struggled to be taken seriously. (It’s still the case that any time someone mentions the Monroe reading Joyce photo, I want to punch him)
And so, over a series of months in 2011-2012, I wrote an article. I sent it to a pop culture journal, where I received a very dismissive review that explained that because the reviewer had not heard about the Playboy spread, it wasn’t culturally relevant. In the meantime, I was on the job market, working on my first book, getting married, and starting my first tenure track job.
In general, the Lohan-Monroe essay languished. It remained on my CV as a “work in progress,” and, periodically, I’d add it to a list of yearly to-dos. In 2013 or so, I submitted it to a feminist journal that was probably a sight too high for the piece. More rejection, more languishing.
There are a couple such pieces in my life, including a significantly more high brow essay about Saul Bellow and The Partisan Review, which a reviewer described as “a very strange piece” and a piece of literary nonfiction about my husband (Maybe he’s happy to have the piece molder? It’s a loving essay, but still.).
I suspect that lots of writers and creative workers engage in a similarly optimistic to-do list shuffle, bumping failed or failed-for now projects from calendar to calendar, CV to CV, despite the guilt or sinking feeling such projects inspire.
In addition to making a new calendar this particular New Year’s season, I’ve also taken on Apartment Therapy’s January Cure (https://www.apartmenttherapy.com/categories/the-january-cure), a very manageable challenge that involves doing one small thing each day to whip one’s house or apartment into shape (clean one drawer, buy a plant).
Day three of the cure introduced an ingenious mechanism: the outbox. Not a trashcan, not a storage container, the outbox is a place to park things you suspect you should get rid of but that maybe you’re having a bit of trouble letting go. The idea is that you let things sit in the outbox for at least a week before having to make the decision to keep, donate, or discard. For items that feel emotionally loaded or guilty, it can be a way of easing your grip slowly. As a quick example, my outbox now contains a (in my opinion) crappy book by an author I normally love as well as five or so yoga straps. About the first, I have a weird guilty feeling about getting rid of this author’s book, as though she’d somehow know. About the second, getting rid of the yoga straps counts as an acknowledgment that I’m not planning to teach yoga anytime in the near future—unless you got really into Fifty Shades of Gray and built your own dungeon, no one besides a yoga teacher needs the fifty feet of straps I’ve acquired. The outbox is a nice place to park these things. Normally, when faced with the idea of donating or selling these two, my response is a whiny but…maybe…I want that? No, the answer is no, I don't, but I need to ease out of my ownership of these items.
This is true, too, for some of these bad old writing projects. They need an intermediate parking place while I come to terms with the fact that La Lohan is unlikely to have a career renaissance at this point.
Inspired by Erin Marie Furtak, I have a “publishing pipeline” drawn into my planner (https://www.chronicle.com/article/My-Writing-Productivity/236712), but I’m thinking that in addition to quadrants for the various parts of the writing process—brainstorming, reading primary sources, reading related scholarship, abstract drafting, etc.—I need a special place to contain the projects that probably need to be let go, even if I’m not quite ready to do so just yet. I could mix my metaphors and call this my “out box” or, keeping with the pipeline metaphor, maybe this is my sewage pile or the leak into my aquifer. In any case, it seems valuable to park these languishing projects outside my to do list or calendar—capturing them somewhere so they aren’t forgotten, but also recognizing that perhaps their time has passed.
Unless some screenwriter is currently putting the finishing touches on a Lohan project I don’t know about--please?
Whether you are a semester-based person or someone whose job operates year-round, January is a moment of fresh starts and new commitments. Also, for those of us who try to maintain a creative practice, it can be a time of trying to get back in the saddle.
I have to admit, starting something new is often more appealing than recommitting to the old. In addition to its lack of shininess, the old is often freighted with guilt. During the fall semester, I didn't blog as much as I would have liked, and I rarely made it to my morning yoga class. Recommitting to these practices for the New Year entails reflecting on the way I didn’t always follow through on my goals for 2017.
Recently, I had a provocative reminder of the way practice is a special kind of commitment to one’s self. I’m participating in the wonderful Meggin McIntosh’s “Academic Decluttering” workshops (they’re ongoing, if you want to join me: https://meggin.com/classes/academic-decluttering/). In a recent session on calendar clutter, Meggin asked a question that knocked me back a bit. Where on your calendar are you lying?, she asked. The surprise of this no-nonsense phrasing inspired me to take a hard look at the previous months of my electronic calendar.
To my disappointment, a lot of what was on the calendar was more a wish list than an accurate reflection of how I was spending my time. In particular, my non-academic writing and my yoga practice were the unicorns here—fantastic beasts living in the fictional world of my calendar, but nowhere to be seen in my real life. Taking stock of the way I was lying to myself wasn’t fun, but it was a useful shakeup as I was closing out the old year and looking forward to the new.
Despite the downer of reflecting on how I haven’t measured up to my ideal self—she’s also thinner, wealthier, and better dressed, while we’re at it—I know there’s good news about practice-based goals. Unlike performance-based goals, such as selling x amount of something or running a 10k at a certain pace, practice-based goals are less zero-sum.
On the one hand, calling oneself a writer but never writing makes a liar of you (and not the good, fiction-writing kind), as does calling yourself a painter when you’ve not picked up a brush, or a meditator when you’re not sitting in silence. But, the refreshing thing about making a practice-based goal rather than a performance-based one is that these goals are largely in our control and simply executing the action, whether well or poorly, puts us back on track. It’s a nice low bar—I like it.
Unlike the performance-based goals at which I might fail (running a sub-55 10k) or over which I have no control (winning a teaching award), my practice-based goals are relatively low-hanging fruit. When I post this blog entry, I’ll be back blogging. When I showed up bleary-eyed to the yoga studio, I was back practicing yoga. Now, it’s always possible that I may not continue, but just getting myself going counts for a lot. I’m not promising to write beautiful prose or to execute the perfect Chaturanga; I’m just committing to regularly doing these things, however badly.
When I do a little online research on “practice’s” etymology, I’m reassured that the word’s history supports the modesty of my aspirations. Coming from the Latin practicare, which means “to do, perform, practice;” by around 1400, the word takes on the simple meaning “to do, act.” Nowhere in the entry is there any promise of excellence.
So, as I approach the New Year, I’m trying to move beyond self-flagellation to think about tweaking behaviors so that I can make good on my promises to practice. To help myself get to yoga, I’m trying to build in both habit and accountability: I’m planning make more regular my visits to the studio by making them always Tuesdays and Thursdays, and then I’ll attend a rigorous weekend practice at least once a month to keep me honest. For my blog writing, I’m using a strategy of conviviality: joining a new Friday writing group that meets during the time I want to write my blogs.
If you realize that you’ve fallen off from practicing, what might help you get back doing the thing? Are there barriers of location, isolation, or timing in your way? What might help you back towards being the person who performs the activity, however messy your practice may be?
It’s that time of year, the time when the semester shifts from class to committee meetings. The time when class planning wanes and grading rolls in. The time of parties with colleagues and vacation planning. The time to look back upon that beginning of term to do list and despair.
When I look back at what I imagined back in August, it seems a hilarious enough fiction that I experience a kind of break in subjectivity. That planning self of five months ago is so unreasonable and demanding that I cast her out, speaking of this cruel and stupid woman in the third person as “August Katherine.”
I hate August Katherine. She’s full of summer optimism but never seems to hang around to see things through. Come December, when I look at her list of semester goals, I want to punch her in her Pollyanna face.
In truth, though, August Katherine had her own troubles when she glanced back at May’s summer to do list. What she did at the time to help overcome the dread nausea of insufficiency was pretty smart, I have to give her that, despite our current rift—I plan to execute the strategy this week on our “dead day.”
Rather than merely wringing my hands over all I did not achieve this term (though there’s some of that, too), I’m also writing out my list of accomplishments and at bats.
For the same list-making heart that weeps over the check marks never made, tracking what did in fact happen over the term is cheering and satisfying.
While I did not complete two book chapters, I will have completed one, and that’s worth copying out as an achievement of note. In addition to the tasks I intended to do and completed, an end-of-term tallying allows me to see the things I completed that I hadn’t accounted for in my August planning. For example, some conference friends and I are planning to apply for an NEH collaborative research grant and have begun initial strategizing. I was nominated for a teaching award and completed those application materials. There was a talk I had forgotten to make prep time for in my calendar that nonetheless took up a good chunk of mid-semester—funny how that works. Too, this list can account for the boomeranging nature of academic work, the journal articles and book chapters that we just can’t quite seem to get rid of as they cycle back for yet another set of “final” revisions.
This settling up with the tasks of the semester is both a nice snapshot of what I have done, and a reassuring reminder that the reason I didn’t finish a second book chapter isn’t because I eating gummy bears and looking at pictures of Armie Hammer on the internet—I was busy!
What’s more, as opposed to the didactic, even bullying nature of the to-do list, in an end of semester list there’s room to generously account for “failures” or “at bats.” For example, I participated in half of a academic Nano-Wri-Mo this fall. A failure of sorts (I only made it to the fifteenth of November), but also a try at something wild and different that resulted in nearly 15,000 words toward a new book project. Those words go on the list! As do the three grants I applied for and did not receive: a major national grant, a library fellowship, and a residential research grant. Each of those failures represents something that took time and energy. And though these particular tries didn’t pan out, they nonetheless represent a good effort toward improving my grant writing skills.
So, if you have a little time this week, consider this list an act of kindness to yourself, a small celebration of the work that did get done, your August self be damned!
I’ve always loved fall daylight saving time. That extra hour gives such a sense of freedom one Sunday a year.
This year, though, I find myself dreading the early dark that’s coming because it means the sun’s cycle through the sky will interfere with my own new and fragile cycling habit. After many years of thinking about riding a bike to work, I’ve finally started. And I really like it: getting a bit of light exercise on the way to and from the office, time that’s chatter free (no phone, no radio, no companion), and it gets me out of doing daycare drop off! But it’s a new habit for me, so I know it’s a bit vulnerable to change. I don’t like riding in the dark, and as it gets colder, there’s more gear and effort involved in getting on the bike.
I’ve experienced the negative effects the changes in my own life’s seasons can have on other habits before. As a relatively new parent, I am still struggling to see where my yoga practice lives relative to the rhythms of my work and family responsibilities. As a childfree person, I had routines of yoga, meditation and writing that were relatively easy to maintain. But now that my pacing about the house (let alone doing a more vigorous yoga practice) in the early morning hours risks waking the baby, things have felt a bit funky.
I experimented with getting up and going to 5am class at the local studio yoga over the summer, which was okay. But now that I’m tired and the semester is back and it’s darker--whine, whine, whine—I’ve found it impossible (okay, unappealing) to rouse myself and drive in the dark to practice.
And because I’ve conceived of the 5am class as the perfect one, I’ve had a bit of a block on my practice since it’s become more challenging to get there during the school year. It’s the class that I see as being the most disciplined, the most serious, and the most authentic. It also has my favorite teacher. And yet, it’s the class I’m not going to at the moment.
I admit to being a slow learner this go round: I have a perfect class that I never go to, but there’s also an option that’s not perfect (shorter, less “serious”) that I can go to during the semester. Aha.
I’ve been guilty of fetishizing routines a bit too much. As a somewhat anxious person, I like knowing how things are going to unfold. And many of my more famous writers have hyper-disciplined practices. Writing, exercise, or meditating at the same time day after day, year after year. These lives of ticking regularity I admire and covet. I think of Stephen King, who describes writing every day at the same time, even on vacation. Or Murakami, whose routine of running and writing is a wonder to contemplate.
My fascination with such figures and somewhat panicky attachment to my own routines can backfire. I have a tendency to prefer the perfect thing to the imperfect. I’m not proud of this, but I have been known in my household to have small fits involving declarations that if we can’t afford nice furniture, I’d rather leave a room barren than have another “sad, compromise” couch. As a writer, if I’ve not been able to work during my favorite morning time, ideally starting somewhere between 6:30 and 8:00 am and finishing by 10:00, I’ll feel that the day is ruined and my writing window for the day has dissolved. And honestly, I’m a bit of a grump about it.
I do wonder, sometimes, how does Murakami’s wife feel about his routine? Does she dare disrupt it? What’s his version of grumpy look like? How do King’s relations feel about his removal from vacation activities? Does he worry that Tabatha’s family will find him selfish? Do they resent it when he doesn’t help make sandwiches to take to the beach? Whatever it says about famous novelists’ family relations or my own, I know that my family, both extended and immediate, expect more flexibility from me.
As does my schedule. One particular challenge as well as joy of the academic life is that our work changes seasonally. We have periods of break over the winter and summer holidays, our teaching calendars change semester to semester, and even within the relatively stable period of a particular semester, there are shifting rhythms of committee work, grading, conference attendance, and so on.
More broadly, as human beings who happen to be academics, we move through changing life seasons. In my own period of time on the tenure track I planned a wedding and married my partner, learned about a new health condition, got pregnant, bought a home, and had a first child—all life events that have shifted my relationship to the clock and calendar. During one’s professional career, it may be the case that a writer has to care for an aging parent or will deal with illness, whether physical or mental.
So though there seems to be a kindred relation between an intensely regimented writing practice and the mindful life—both remind us of a kind of monastic discipline—it’s also useful to remember that part of what it means to be mindful is paying attention. Paying attention, for example, to how changes—whether something as depersonalized as dwindling sunlight hours or something as deeply intimate as divorce—may affect our daily practices. As we settle in to new periods in life, it’s worth taking a pause to see what’s still working, and what’s not functioning as well as it might.
Insisting that things should go the way they always have or should be the perfect schedule is a way of layering an external narrative on top of reality in a way that’s guaranteed to produce dissatisfaction. The simple truth is that my daughter seems to have a supernatural sensor for when I’m up and about. Though I’ve developed an elaborate and panicky routine of unplugging the coffee maker just before it beeps and fixing my first coffee by candlelight, it’s as though the child can smell me. King and Murakami be damned, I cannot do my old 6am meditation and writing routine without waking the whole house. I can be mad about this, or I can recognize that in this particular season of my life, I have to adjust. I need to go to noon yoga, not 5am; my writing is shifting closer to an 8:30 or 9:00 am start time. As it turns out, things don’t have to be perfect to be just fine.
And, just as I know that come spring, I’ll be able to bike home in daylight hours again, I know, too, that the rhythms of my life will keep shifting. I’ll have to keep observing, keep taking stock, and keep shifting the ins and outs of my writing life.
Every once in a while, I’m confronted by irrefutable visible evidence of the gap between the kind of person I might aspire to be and the one I’m stuck being. The most recent embarrassing instantiation of this gap was the appallingly strong answer to the question, “are we the kind of family who can handle buying in bulk?”
No. It’s a no on that. Decidedly, we are not those people.
Faced with a “Family-Sized” box of graham crackers intended for the baby of the household, the two adults in the house managed to eat somewhere in the neighborhood of ten servings a piece over the course of a week. On a particularly bad evening, I took a whole sleeve and a glass of red wine to bed with me while grinding through a stack of student writing.
The end of the box (and the baby’s snacks) offered a clear sign: I cannot handle foods with “cracker” in the title in anything like a responsible manner. They are so tasty to me that they override my ability to eat mindfully. Other things I can handle in moderation: chocolate, not a big deal; fried stuff, easy-peasy.
Other signs and signals can be a little harder to read, but they’re still present. When working on writing, there’s a fairly clear inverse relationship between mornings I have Facebook open and those when I push through good paragraphs. The problem with Facebook and Twitter is that they are just too easy for me to consume. For me, social media is like those graham crackers--who can eat just one serving? Who logs in for just five minutes?
Like many Nevadans this week, I have found the temptation to obsessively check the news overpowering me, such that I terrified the sleeping dog by throwing my phone across the room. I needed to physically get the thing away from me in order to plan my class for the next day.
But even on the best days, it’s too hard for me to be a mindful consumer, and so it’s better to not even be tempted when I’m trying to do my creative work. Sometimes this means putting my phone in another room; at work, I may need to close the office door; other days I choose to write in the miracle coffee shop that has resisted pressure to provide wifi.
The other grown up in my house is writing a dissertation this year, which is a particularly daunting kind of writing project. One recent week, he bemoaned a lack of writing productivity. Specifically, he wasn’t getting much done in the afternoon. Now, because I happen to know this particular dissertation writer pretty well, I suggested a piece of evidence for his consideration. Is it because you come home and putter around in the afternoons? For him, the house is a productivity zapper, each potential distraction is overwhelmingly temping to him. Though I appreciate coming home to folded laundry, far better for him to stay at work and write.
Mindless time-suck habits are particularly insidious because they make us feel bad at the end of the day when we reflect back at how the hours have been spent. Unlike truly fun goofing off—sneaking out to see a matinee or taking a mid-day break to see a friend—mindless productivity killers often aren’t even that good. To flog this metaphor a bit longer, graham crackers are off my diet, but they aren’t really a treat, so there’s little pleasure in having eaten them.
All of this boils down to a fairly simple question: what are the things that are so easy to do—too easy to do—that we don’t notice our doing them?
There’s a new writing project that’s been on the horizon for me for going on a couple of years now. A new book is a big undertaking, and so though it’s been glowing out there temptingly, it has also taken the back burner to the other demands of daily life: writing projects with more pressing deadlines, preparing lesson plans, the upkeep of a home life that includes a new baby. But still, I’ve been watching it out there, enjoying the warmth of the new project onto which I project all matter of writerly possibilities.
The etymology of this linked noun and verb comes from the Latin proicere, meaning to throw forth. This source word has a bit of violence to it that seems right to me when I consider how forceful hopes and wishes can be. Throwing forth my various fantasies of writerly joys--ah, I’ll write this book in a cabin during summer mornings and then play with my wonderful family at the edge of a sun dappled lake--and successes--this will be my crossover book; I’ll say yes when Teri Gross asks me to come on Fresh Air, but maybe I’ll tell Charlie Rose no for his recent poor judgment—these more and less preposterous fantasies have a way of dooming the thing itself since the actuality of doing the project never quite measures up. As it turns out, my family doesn’t love the outdoors: I prefer movie and museum to trails and lakes and the husband and child alike are a kind of pale that requires near medical grade sunscreen. And who am I kidding, I’d tell Charlie Rose yes, too.
The problem I’m facing is one of starting. And in part, the trouble I have setting one foot after another to begin this journey comes from the fact that I’m not quite so foolish as my fantasies lead one to believe. I know that beginning means mess making, pulling the perfect projection down into the imperfection that is the process of working through any creative project.
I had a simple reminder of this conundrum at my local snooty coffee shop. It’s one of those where you aren’t allowed to use artificial sweeteners or have coffee served actually hot because it damages the smoky flavor of the only roast being served that particular day. The upshot is that they make very pretty designs in the foam of your lattes and cappuccinos. Once a year there’s a contest for this.
In any case, sitting in the tasteful Scandinavian-inspired coffee house, I was tickled to see a whimsical teddy bear design carved into the top of my almond milk latte. The bear was adorable and now that I’m on the wrong side of thirty-five, I also found it adorable to be gifted this childlike design by a hip young man some ten years younger. So, I didn’t stir in my smuggled packet of sweetener. I turned the cup this way and that, admiring it. I had a sip of water. I wrote a couple sentences. I took a picture of the latte and sent it to my family. Finally, after about twenty minutes of admiring the thing, I had a sip.
The latte was fine, a little cooled from my waiting and admiration period, but still a perfectly good latte, as these treats always are. The bear did not survive, but that’s not, after all, what a latte is for. Lattes are for drinking.
And for me, a person who makes sentences for a living, books are for writing. And, at the end of the day, what I most hope for is to make a series of perfectly good books across the years I have to enjoy.
The golden dream that is the future possible book will inevitably become tarnished by its contact with reality, a reality that includes my skills and their limits, the structure of daily life, and the bounds of what even the best books can be. Nonetheless, beginning the daily work that inevitably makes a mess of things means that the book will someday exist, rather than being relegated to the scrapheap of regret, which is, after all where unrealized potential projects tend to end up. Mine contains the titles of several unwritten novels.
How, then, to begin? I like to sneak up on a dream, so that neither it nor I fully realize what’s happening until it’s too late. A few strategies have helped in the past, and I’m hoping to invoke their powers with this new project:
Finally, while it’s inevitable that the lovely future thing will be a bit dinged up through its contact with the real, it may also be useful to flip this dismaying scenario, instead reframing to think of how the real world becomes elevated by regular contact with creative work.
Sometimes forms of procrastination are so varied that I’m tempted to think of procrastinators (myself included) through a revised version of Tolstoy’s famous line: “each procrastinator is a procrastinator in her own way.”
Just when you’ve figured out a way around one time waster, up pops a new one – it’s like the world’s worst game of whack-a-mole.
At present, I’m struggling with what I’m dubbing “anxiety-tasking,” a special form of procrastination that pops up when I’m working on writing that’s particularly new and scary. By new, I don’t just mean a new essay or article, but a foray into a new genre or field of study, a place where I feel not at home and newly uncertain of my abilities.
In my case, I’m starting work on my next academic book, which will include chapters on new research areas. This is exciting, but in a way that shades into panic inducing every now and again. At the end of the summer I’ll present a very small, initial paper at a conference. The paper will be short, not more than 5 pages or so, and at conferences in my field, it is not uncommon for people to write things days before presenting and to seek feedback on relatively raw new work.
Thus far, I have produced something like 20 pages of notes, none of which are in the shape of the conference paper, and I keep adding films and books that are adjacent to my topic to my reading and viewing lists. “If I’m talking about X, it would be fair for someone to ask me about Y,” “If I’m presenting on Z, I should double-check to make sure no one’s already written on Q.”
Some of this is good scholarship, due diligence. But some of this is “anxiety-tasking,” an avoidance of the main task by way of what Eric Hayot calls “virtuous procrastination.” It’s a kind of charm or hex against future pain, one I see frequently in more novice writers (“once I’ve read everything, then I can finally start drafting my dissertation”) and the more experienced.
Anxiety-tasking is sneaky because it feels like doing the task at hand, but it’s really just another clever subterfuge for avoiding scary new work.
One way to overcome this anxiety-tasking may be to promise your scared self that you’ll indulge in this behavior later on. When sitting down to write, allow yourself to write sentences like “insert qualifying language here,” or “add defensive research here,” or, to sound less freaked-out to your future reading self, instruct yourself to show the tip of what Hayot calls the research “iceberg.” By placing these spaces for anxiety-tasking within your writing, you may be able to reassure the scared, procrastinating self enough to be able to move on for the time being and say what you need to say. Then, later, your calmer revising self can come in and add what truly needs to be added (hint: it’s probably not everything that’s ever been written on the topic).
For the curious, here’s a link to Eric Hayot’s excellent book: https://cup.columbia.edu/book/the-elements-of-academic-style/9780231168014
Two things that are true:
1. I like lists and planning
2. I hate budgeting and am bad with money
In my marriage, I am a spendthrift and my husband is what I will charitably call, “frugal.” As the years have passed, it’s become important to me to change my ways, both for marital harmony and because I’ve come to realize that I am still paying for fancy jeans I bought in 2003 even though the pants are long gone.
As a part of coming in to grown-up financial responsibility, I have a new, recurring task that I try to complete each week: “read something about money.” I’m now reading the personal finance classics, listening to a podcast about money, etc.
Last week, I had my annual meeting with the wonderful TIAA-Cref representative for my campus. We talked retirements, Roths, college savings for my daughter—real-deal grown-up financial stuff. I took notes, we made plans, I came home with goals and a new commitment to work through the budget.
But this meeting wasn’t a book or article, and, like some weird to-do list originalist, I kept my “read something about money” on the calendar.
By the end of the week, I had not successfully completed this task as literally described by my plan for the week. As a result, the predictable bad feelings.
But while I hadn’t met the “letter” of the law, I had far exceeded the spirit of the thing, doing a lot more for my family’s finances than a reading of Rich Dad, Poor Dad would have gotten me.
Upon reflection, I think it’s worthwhile to not be too much of originalist (whether that comes to the to-do list or other matters….though that’s a topic for another day). The founding author of the document (the me of a week ago), couldn’t foresee all that would happen across the course of the days as they unfolded.
Too much rigidity can be its own form of both procrastination and workaholism, a way of filling one’s schedule with tasks present for their own sake rather than their real importance. Better, at least in the case of the to-do list, to be a bit more open to interpretation, treating it as a living document that should reflect the needs of the person it serves.
Get a Life, PhD
The Professor is In
The Thesis Whisperer
Tenure, She Wrote