I used to be your standard, everyday, garden-variety procrastinator. I’d start folding laundry, and get distracted by the movie I was watching at the time, and keep watching the movie instead of getting the next load of laundry. I’d play computer games instead of paying the bills, cut flowers out of my rose garden instead of pulling weeds, and read novels instead of washing the dishes.
Now, though, my brain has ascended to a whole new level of procrastinatory subterfuge. Instead of finding myself suddenly in the mood for online Scrabble and British chick lit (which are easily identifiable time-wasters), my brain has a new strategy: USEFUL procrastination.
Oh, it’s devious. I have gradually gained the self-discipline to say to myself, “Self, NO. You do not need to knit a scarf for the homeless right now. Yes, that is a worthy activity, but you know perfectly well that you do it for fun, and that as soon as you put that scarf in the Salvation Army basket, you’ll start another one with that lovely fuzzy brown yarn you’ve had your eye on. Go do your work.” But when my brain tells me to clean out the fishbowl, I’m completely derailed.
The fishbowl? Really? I hate cleaning the fishbowl! It smells funny, and I always end up spilling stinky water on myself. Fishfish (official name: Leif Erikson, in honor of our Norwegian heritage and my daughter’s recent school project on our Viking friend) freaks out every time he’s moved. Since I bought a bowl that’s round on the front and flat on the back so that I can tuck it neatly up in front of my box of imported teas, it’s a royal pain to get my hand into the odd little corners and scrub out the algae. The little rocks fall into the sink, and they’re hard to gather back up when they’re wet. And then there was that heart-stopping moment when Fishfish made a break for it and came within a wiggle of going down the garbage disposal.
There is no earthly reason why I should suddenly be overwhelmed with the conscientious urge to clean out Fishfish’s bowl, but such was the case today when I sat down to the computer to work. I do occasional freelance editing for a local publishing company, and I just started work on a new manuscript. This afternoon I had a clean desk, a nice block of time, minimal interruptions from family, and a goal to get through Chapter 1. Perfect! Of course, I would need a cup of tea. (pause for ominous music)
Now this is where my old brain would have gone on vacation. “Oo, a cup of tea! Yum. Black tea or herbal? British Breakfast, Earl Grey, PG Tips, or Sainsbury’s Red Label? In a bag or loose leaf? Wonder Woman mug or bone china with hand-painted violets? This water is taking forever to boil, I’ll just lean on the counter and read a book while I wait. [Two hours pass.] Mmm, good tea, good book, I love a quiet afternoon!” But no. My new-and-improved brain, now in Stealth Mode, said instead, “It would be a good day to pull hundreds of dandelions out of the front yard!”
I was a little startled, needless to say. Some days I really like going at the dandelions, but it hadn’t crossed my mind for a while. My brain continued, “Or sort out the toys in the family room that have been half-sorted into bins for a year! Empty the dishwasher! Organize your scrapbook materials like you’ve been meaning to do for the last several weeks! Go do some laundry!” But then my brain, high on self-righteousness and reckless optimism, made its fatal blunder: “You want to clean the fishbowl!”
“Ahhh,” I thought. “I’m not THAT desperate to avoid my editing.” It wasn’t about motivation at all! I wasn’t really in the mood to pull weeds, and if I’d given myself permission to do so, I’m quite sure I would have gotten distracted and ended up reading a novel on the front porch instead. It was all about procrastination, and my clever subconscious had simply devised a more oblique route to its usual destination (tea and good books, and possibly knitting). I was onto myself. I wasn’t about to lose this one!
Sadly, I was smarter than I thought. Today, in a desperate attempt to avoid the red pen and thesaurus, I reorganized the kids’ toys, cleared a bunch of space in the family room, vacuumed, cleaned off the knick-knack shelves and dusted all of the precious items on display before carefully replacing them, did a load of laundry, drank a pot of tea (British Breakfast, loose leaf, Wonder Woman mug), read three chapters of my novel, and, I am embarrassed to admit, cleaned out the fishbowl. I didn’t mean to, but I couldn’t just leave that basket of toys sitting out, and … well, you see how that ended.
This evening I have a block of time, the kids are about to go to bed, and I even have a mug of tea right here. There is no reason in the world that I shouldn’t finish editing that chapter, now that I’ve figured out my brain’s insidious new technique of suggesting useful activities to avoid real work. I will completely ignore it if, for example, it comes up with a ludicrous time-wasting suggestion such as “You should post on your blog!”