Archive for December 28th, 2010

Procrastination: Jonathan Franzen’s superglue solution, and Victor Hugo buck nekkid

Tuesday, December 28th, 2010
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Better with clothes on, I expect

I am supposed to be writing a wise and insightful essay on a poet over the next few days.  Supposed to be.

James Surowiecki’s recent article in the New Yorker points out the basic irrationality of procrastination.  We know we need to cut the grass, pay the traffic fine, study for the exam, meet the deadline, finish the essay …

Of course, writing is 90 percent procrastination, and I find I have to lock myself into solitary squalor as the dishes pile up, putzying about the house in bathrobed anxiety, letting phone calls roll to the answering machine, looking up random words in the dictionary, seeking for odd small tasks to distract (giving the pills to the dog, taking coffee cups to the kitchen).  But there are only so many snacks one can prepare for oneself; and too much caffeine to jack oneself up to a simulacrum of creativity might eventually require medical intervention.  Above all, I must be careful that I don’t do anything that appears to be work.  That will successfully justify non-writing.  And of course, one must limit checking email to only 25 times every half hour.  Katherine Ellison, who (ironically enough) has just published Buzz: A Year of Paying Attention, knows what I am talking about:

I finally had to acknowledge that I was helpless in the face of my addiction, which has had me, especially in recent weeks, tapping my e-mail “refresh” button like a lab rat trying to get cocaine …  Why labor over a metaphor when I can check my moment-to-moment ranking on Amazon? Why struggle with a transition when Google Alerts may be telling me at this very moment that my book was featured on yet another tiny blog?

What makes it all worse is that my publisher has encouraged me to leap into the mind-sucking Internet vortex: to put up a Facebook page and post on it regularly, to join LinkedIn, send e-mail “blasts” and tweet away. And this raises a particular problem, in that my book chronicles my yearlong effort to curb extraneous distractions so as to focus on what’s truly important.

She points out that bestselling novelist Jonathan Franzen has confessed to using superglue to block the Ethernet connection on his computer. Ellison has resorted to an internet-blocking program called Freedom, which, for a one-time fee of $10, will shut off your portal to the outside world for up to eight hours.  Wizard Fred Stutzman has sold his program to more than 75,000 people.  His new program, Anti-Social,  shuts off your access to top time-wasting sites including Facebook, LinkedIn, Friendster, StumbleUpon, EHarmony, DateHookup and OkCupid.

Surowiecki tackles the problem at its roots:  Why do we procrastinate?  He calls it “a complex mixture of weakness, ambition, and inner conflict”:

… the person who makes plans and the person who fails to carry them out are not really the same person: they’re different parts of what the game theorist Thomas Schelling called “the divided self.” Schelling proposes that we think of ourselves not as unified selves but as different beings, jostling, contending, and bargaining for control. Ian McEwan evokes this state in his recent novel Solar: “At moments of important decision-making, the mind could be considered as a parliament, a debating chamber. Different factions contended, short- and long-term interests were entrenched in mutual loathing. Not only were motions tabled and opposed, certain proposals were aired in order to mask others. Sessions could be devious as well as stormy.” Similarly, Otto von Bismarck said, “Faust complained about having two souls in his breast, but I harbor a whole crowd of them and they quarrel. It is like being in a republic.”

My metaphor, the internal parliament, has been stolen.  I’m sure of it.  I’ve been saying that for years.  It will never be mine again. Maybe I should think of filing a lawsuit today.  That’s what I should be doing today…

All is forgiven, however, when Surowiecki drops this gem:   Victor Hugo would write naked and tell his valet to hide his clothes so that he’d be unable to go outside when he was supposed to be writing.”

Back to work…

Postscript 12/29: The trick, I think, is to learn to procrastinate faster