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April 07, 2021


It would be a lot faster to tell my stories of non-procrastination (when I get around to it - *rimshot*).

'Tis better to have lived and loafed, than never to have loafed at all.
Words to live by!

Why put off until tomorrow what you can put off until next year?...

The second semester of my freshman year of college one of my classes was English 101, composition, and due by the end of the semester was the longest paper we were required to write (maybe all of 5-7 pages), a research paper on topic of our choice. My older brother and one of his best friends came up from Florida to pick me up once I was done with final exams, and the timing was such that we were able to an afternoon Braves game before going back to the dorm to load up my stuff.

Not finished writing the paper, I took what I had along with my research notes, and sat there in Fulton County Stadium scribbling with some haste. About the 8th inning my brother looked over and could tell I was wrapping things up and jokingly said "In conclusion. . ." I was less amused than he was. Back on campus, I dropped off the scrawlings and some cash outside the door of a friend who I knew was going to be there another couple of days with a note "T***, I'm desperate, please type this up and deliver to room ### of building XYZ by [time and date]". Then it was on the road to Florida hoping for the best. It was enough to keep me from failing the class, escaping with a C-.

Don't know that there was any real procrastination involved in writing the 250+ pages of my dissertation. There was a lot of struggle to say difficult things clearly and simply and to put all the moving pieces in the right order. What looked like procrastination from the outside was actually a mostly internal war against despair and imposter syndrome. Easier to read another book to shore up one shaky idea than to spend a day trying to create the handful of words that will give that idea a less shaky shape.

And the absinthe. Lots of absinthe.

Convincing the writer is much harder than convincing the reader.

I am forever grateful to my committee for how they handled things at the end. A co-chair was going to Afghanistan to embed with a unit there for research and was leaving a month before I had to turn in my diss or lose my fellowship and have to pay full fees myself. When I came into that last meeting she and the rest of the committee had already signed off on the drafts and told me to spend the last month polishing off the last chapter and copy editing. I had done the hard work of proving my ideas already in the work that I had done.

Assembling, proofing, and formatting 257 pages actually took a lot of that remaining time (and I know from having revisited it a few years ago that there are still typos and grammatical foibles throughout the last chapter), but I was determined that I would get it done a bit ahead of the deadline just in case. I had until Friday to make the deadline.

I got it done on Wednesday.

I was going to take it to Graduate Division on Thursday, but before I got to campus a RWNJ preacher tried to visit the campus to burn a Koran in front of the Admin building. He was blocked from coming in, but the whole area got closed as a safety precaution. He swore he would be back.

Thank goodness he did not come back. Another day of delay and his stunt would have cost me several thousand dollars.

I got it submitted with five hours to spare.

every big project i've ever tackled has been preceded by a period of procrastination that' probably 1/5 of the total project time. i think about the project looming, but i don't start working on it. it sits there, dreadful, looking totally impossible - career-ending. crushing weeks of imposter syndrome. but i don't start.

eventually i do start and chug through it. and then it's done.

it's a stressful and wasteful way of doing things, and i hate it. but it's my process.

I'm procrastinating right this minute. I'm working on a project involving Internet domain names and the Latin script. (Which I may have mentioned here.) It's looking more and more like I am going to end up sufficiently unhappy with the results of the project that I will be writing a Minority Report.

If so, it will have to be ready for the Public Comment process in a month or so. Haven't started laying out the details yet. Even though the possibility has been apparent for a couple of years now. (I have been thinking about how to approach it. But that's not quite the same as actually putting pen to paper.)

Skipping class and cramming is more or less a type of procrastination - cramming especially. I'll party and sleep in and watch stupid stuff on TV until it gets closer to an exam (or whatever), then I'll bust my ass at the end. That was most of my process in school.

I'm guessing it's why, to this day, I have the occasional "I forgot to go to this class for the whole semester and now I have a final" dream. Sometimes it also involves not knowing exactly where the final is being administered and running around a fictional campus I'm somehow not very familiar with.

I'm guessing it's why, to this day, I have the occasional "I forgot to go to this class for the whole semester and now I have a final" dream.

lol. i have that one once a month, it seems.

it usually involves wandering around some building trying to find a classroom i've never been to, and i don't even know if it's the right day or time.

There was a lot of struggle to say difficult things clearly and simply and to put all the moving pieces in the right order.

Your struggle bore fruit, nous. Based on your stuff here, I would say that doing this is one of your distinct talents.

I'm guessing it's why, to this day, I have the occasional "I forgot to go to this class for the whole semester and now I have a final" dream.

I somehow escaped that college nightmare. The one I had instead was from honors calculus when I was freshman. Prof. Lewis would stop partway through a proof or problem, turn and look across the puzzled faces, and then ask, "Mr. Cain, what comes next?" Other people got asked also, but I seemed to be the favorite victim. Enough so that on the way back to the dormitories one afternoon, one of the women asked me, "Mike, why does Dr. Lewis hate you?"

At least once years later my wife shook me awake in the middle of the night to ask what I was dreaming about that had me whimpering. She was really confused when all I said was, "Mr. Cain, what comes next?"

My school anxiety dreams got replaced by military anxiety dreams.

lol. i have that one once a month, it seems.

Yes! Thankfully, with advanced age, they have subsided.

I recall many an all-nighter cranked up on under-the-counter and/or illegal stimulants writing term papers. That was par for the course for liberal arts majors in between the real work of overthrowing the capitalist order.

The researching part was usually done (index cards!) on time.* The writing, ugh! Not so much. Major writer's block.

The typing was done on a small manual typewriter using onion-skin type paper and white-out...sometimes carbon paper was an added feature.

Walking to school uphill both ways (my grade school days) was nothing compared to this.

Today's kids don't know how easy they have it.

*We also had to conduct book research by opening boxes of little white cards using the Dewey Decimal System....no google for us.

Hey, let's not knock the Dewey Decimal System. For example, the New York Public Library was (and, I believe still is) organized by size and color of the book cover. Picture trying to find the book you want in that!

My favorite is a story about looking like I was procrastinating...

I worked in a department that did a wide variety of testing. One other guy and I were the ones who built the weirdest one-off test rigs. One day the department head called the two of us into his office, described a new test situation, and said that he was trying to decide which of us to give the problem to.

Before I could say anything the other guy jumped in. "Here's the deal," he said. "If you give it to me I'll start hacking code together this afternoon. In six weeks I'll have something that deals with the one particular situation. Don't ever ask me to make it handle anything else.

"If you give it to Mike, he'll spend six weeks pulling weird stuff out of the tech library, writing cryptic things on the white board, taking long walks along the bicycle trail that runs behind the building, and mostly look like he's goofing off. Then he'll announce that your problem is just a special case of something much more general, the general solution is 'obvious', and bang out something elegant. Six months later when you learn that there's a related situation, Mike will say it's just another special case and you can have the modified version tomorrow."

The department head thought for a minute then handed the folder he had out to the other guy. "Six weeks is fine," he said. Then he pulled a much thicker folder out of his desk and handed it to me. "The folks up on the third floor have this crazy idea. They say it's a one-off, but I'm sure they'll be back with related problems." Got a patent out of that one. Looked like I was goofing off for longer than six weeks, too.

It's what the playwrights and authors I know call "head work". Long hours where nothing appears to be happening, before any words get put on paper. But if you don't do it, the who thing will be a mess. It's like the "measure twice; cut once" deal in a shop. Measuring more than once seems like a waste of time. Until you fail to do it, and waste a lot of material cutting something 1" too short.

I had the reality of walking in to the room expecting to take a Physics final and it being empty. Discovered I had misread the guide listing day/time/location, I had missed the exam, and had to go plead with the professor for a chance to take it anyway. Dr. Rao was a pretty mild mannered fellow and this was the third class I'd taken with him; it helped it was one of the two pass/fail classes we were allowed to take.

As for dreams, in addition to ones similar to what y'all describe, I've had involved dreams about going back to Austin to live for a semester because of one required class I needed for graduation. And then would skip most of the classes, variety of scenes of me doing things, sometimes with friends, with the anxiety hovering in the background. Facing the prospect of having to retake the class again. After waking up it would take a bit for the anxiety to fade, but seeing my M.A.diploma hanging on the wall snapped me out of it.

I would like to note, however, that not all "head work" has to be done in the head when it comes to writing. One of my go-to statements with students during the draft workshop stage is "don't mistake desperation for inspiration."

Holes in your thinking or process often do not become visible until you put something into words and then read them back and think "can I actually claim this?"

Hence my earlier anecdote about reading an entire book before writing a difficult paragraph. The head work was prompted by the actual attempt to write.

The worst case of this for me was when I realized that I had chosen the wrong methodological approach for my research project during my exam phase, and had to do an additional year of reading to build a base for my actual approach. This is how a five year process becomes a seven year process.

Once in a while, I’ll have a dream that I have to go back to high school to take a class because of some new requirement. Those dreams are unpleasant because I know in the back of my conscious mind how stupid it is, though my dreaming mind still goes with it. It’s an icky sort of feeling.

*insert graceful segue*

My sophomore year, I got the dates for my physics and principles of EE finals mixed up. I had been studying for physics thinking it was the first of the two. I found out the day before the principles exam and decided to blow off principles and kick major ass in physics. I went to the principles exam not caring one way or the other. I was so relaxed that my mind was flowing freely and I was deriving equations on the fly during the exam. Not giving a sh*t pays off sometimes. Today I don’t even remember taking the physics exam.

Have had the high school version too, fortunately only once.

I spent 10 years in graduate school. By the time I defended the dissertation, I had one son with a second on the way, owned a house, had held a tenure-track job for three years, and had founded a new research group in an unrelated subfield w/ funding & publications in the pipeline... For impetus, I guess I have to thank the state law that would have required my new university to fire me had I not defended that spring?

I'm still working on this; it took me 9.5 years to get above entry-level at my current non-academic employer, which used to have a tenure-like "up or out at 5" policy. Contra wj, it's not always "head work".

Tom H: impressive, and I don't just mean the procrastination!

I have the mother of all academic procrastination stories to tell on myself, with accompanying nightmare sweats repeated deep into my adult life throughout the subsequent decades, but as I am a certified professional procrastinator, I fear I must request the powers to be grant me an Incomplete on this comment thread, with assurances that I will turn something in at a more distant deadline of your choosing.

I'm sorry, no, I can't supply a forwarding address, nor can I commit to a face-to-face meeting to discuss this latest, and I must admit, chronic, but unavoidable cockup of my own making.

I know, I know, you'll want to know how far along I am on the assignment, but to be honest I haven't actually started typing the comment yet, in fact, it's news to me at this parlously late date that a comment was due ... syllabus schmabyllabus ... so I don't see how I can turn anything in before this latest fiercely looming deadline, especially when, as with my previous assignments, I attempt to negotiate the ever-lengthening and shifting maze-like hallways to your good offices, the walls of which are pierced with and writhe with the disembodied outstretched grasping hands of winsome barmaids who ceaselessly make off with my writing implements, and which inevitably lead to either bluntly final and dank, subterranean cul-de-sacs clotted with meaningless unconnected duct works and pipes venting soporific lulling steam or to unmarked exit doors and slides which deposit me into unrecognizable vacant lots in vaguely familiar foreign capitals.

Yes, I agree that I don't seem to be living up to my potential. It's not that I don't want to, necessarily, but it's that I am nagged by a sort of Falstaffian ressentiment that there are expectations that I do so.

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