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Sometimes procrastination can be a good thing

May 22, 2009

Starting when I was a teenager I noticed that I procrastinated. Well, to be more precise, I noticed that other people procrastinated. It bugged me, and I realized I did it, too. Everyone had an excuse.
I was always motivated to utilize my time efficiently for some reason, and I didn’t like excuses. I decided to change, and to start keeping track of everything I needed to do.
I quickly realized I could never keep everything I had to do on a list in my head. I started writing things down — small things I needed to do (buy new sparkly blue eyeshadow at drug store) and longer-range goals (grow up to be pretty and smart).
For 40 years I have written down my to-do lists each day — in tiny writing on small pieces of paper that I could carry with me. I can’t remember when I started carrying a planner but it hasn’t been more than a few feet from my person in decades. Post-it notes were my iPhone beginning in 1979.
Fighting procrastination has become such an obsession that I actually write down the maximum number of things that I think I can accomplish each day.
That worked well for me when my life was controlled by, well, me. I got a lot accomplished. But it really hasn’t worked well for years, and it’s especially not working well right now because my life has become more complicated than I ever could have imagined.
I’m not an astrophysicist or even a Web master, but I am a woman in mid-life with a husband, two teenage children (one of whom is applying to colleges), a home in a densely populated part of the United States, a position as a university academic, a professional journalist, a writing coach, a would-be book author, a Twitterer, a blogger, a member of an extended family, and an active, responsible person and community member. And, I have at least one friend, and she occasionally needs attention.
This Post-it note system, as I say, has served me well in the past. I’m two-thirds of the way through my life goals list, as a matter of fact!
But I find now that I keep frantically writing down my list and quickly running out of Post-it note space. And, so many of the items have sub-activities and involve this technical glitch and that bit of research, that I get lost and confused. I have a lot of electronic organizational tools, too: My e-mail is strategically categorized in folders; my desk is pretty clean; I’ve now begun using Zotero to organize my e-mail and Web sources for my writing and teaching.
But I can’t help thinking that this “do-the-maximum” approach needs to be modified. By trying to do the most each day, I’m burning myself out and failing to enjoy the sunset years on the highway of life — or, if not the sunset years, the dusk years — that time when you’re still energetic and productive (if waning a bit), and you still look pretty good because, well, no one can see that clearly on the road at dusk.
Besides, “do the maximum” used to be do-able. Now, the number of things we can do as individuals armed with a cache of electronic tools that bridge the time/space divide and render geographical boundaries moot, is virtually infinite.
No wonder I’m a bit tattered at the end of a long academic year. And, you should see my poor date book.

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