Easily Distracted

This muggy and overcast afternoon inspires neither work nor play, and is not conducive to rest. In the cafés, with their plate glass windows, in the offices, behind closed doors, and in the library, with its long tables, people are procrastinating. Students would like to pass courses, yet are reading Facebook. Faculty would like to be admiring offprints, but are perusing IHE. Administrators would like to transfer files from their “in” to their “out” boxes, yet they welcome visitors. I would like to be making progress toward my book, but about six hours ago I looked up the words procrastination and sloth. Now I have written this essay about them.

Not Working

Procrastination appears to be one of humanity’s greatest and oldest plagues. Aesop and Hesiod warn against it, and sloth is one of the seven deadly sins. Samuel Johnson repeatedly decries delay and deferral in pithy remarks: “[I]nstead of living, [we] let year glide after year in preparations to live.” Nero is said to have “fiddled while Rome burned;” in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, government officials dithered while New Orleans sank.

But high officials are not generally vulnerable to accusations of procrastination or laziness. Laborers, on the other hand, are often unfairly accused of both. Upwardly mobile by definition, the middle classes are supposed to be their own watchmen in the matter of productivity. When their rate of production slows, they fret. Their frustration involves both their work and their self-image. They expect to produce; if they do not, they do not exist. The self-doubt this avenue can engender only compounds the malaise.

Procrastination is said to be endemic to academia, and much advice is given on how to overcome it. But our work-oriented culture tends to value speed and quantity over quality of production, and excessive diligence is often deemed heroic. Those who internalize these errors often end up substituting procrastination for play. They then find ourselves playing, surreptitiously and halfheartedly. Play and work can be merged in a positive way, but procrastination seems to be a strange brew made from the detritus of each.

Planning time for recreation is one of the suggestions often given to procrastinators. Other suggestions are to work daily at a reasonable rate, not to neglect other practical aspects of life, to set realistic goals and deadlines, to eschew perfectionism, and to work through the fears that will impede progress if one allows them to gain ground. This is excellent practical advice for people who have not yet heard it. But my own experience with procrastination and procrastinators indicates that there may be other reasons that cause them, like Melville’s Bartleby, to prefer not to begin work.

Attacked by the Midday Demon

We tend to confuse procrastination with laziness, and laziness with sloth. A closer look at sloth, however, reveals that it is hardly rest. Edmund Burke identifies with haste a “lazy but restless disposition, which loves sloth and hates quiet.” The association of laziness and restlessness, and the distinction of sloth from quiet, may be usefully compared to the combination of distraction and immobility which characterizes procrastination. Both haste and stasis seem to be born of an agitation which transports the doer away from the task at hand. Burke’s emphasis on restlessness also carries echoes of theological discussions of sloth, which are actually less judgmental than popular discourses on laziness.

Following St. Thomas Aquinas, the Catholic Encyclopedia indicates that sloth is less a disinclination to work than it is “sadness in the face of some spiritual good which one has to achieve.” In the Summa Theologica, Aquinas affirms earlier scholars’ definitions of sloth as “an oppressive sorrow, which . . . so weighs upon man’s mind, that he wants to do nothing” and a “sluggishness of the mind which neglects to begin good.”

Pope Gregory the Great, who introduced the seven deadly sins, derived them in part from the writings of the Cappadocian monk Evagrius of Pontus (345-349 CE). This scholar identified eight harmful passions, all resulting from an obsession with self. Sloth or acedia was the “midday demon” which distracted ascetic monks from prayer. In On the Eight Thoughts, Evagrius finds the man assailed by this spirit looking out the window, dreaming of visitors, and jumping when the door creaks.

When he reads, the one afflicted with acedia yawns a lot and readily drifts off into sleep; he rubs his eyes and stretches his arms; turning his eyes away from the book, he stares at the wall and goes back again to reading for awhile; leafing through the pages, he looks curiously for the end of texts, he counts the folios and calculates the number of gatherings.” (Sinkewicz 84)

In the end, he falls asleep over his book; yet his sleep is troubled, as the demon is still upon him.

Associated with tristia, or sadness, sloth has been considered the most oppressive of sins. To overcome it one must get back to work, but that may not always be a simple question of restarting. To the contrary, it may require distance from the emphasis on productivity, and from the identification of achievement and self which contemporary work environments so strongly encourage. The battle with the midday demon may be a call to reflection.

Reflecting on Perfection

It is often said that people procrastinate out of perfectionism. Their expectations of themselves are too high, and their projects loom larger and larger over their heads. As with Johnson’s learned bishop, self-doubt gives rise to indecision. The desire to compose a perfect lecture in fact leads the writer to produce a haphazard piece. This is why procrastinators are well advised to lower their standards. Stories abound of people who have found themselves doing excellent work on a dreaded project, completing it on time and with pleasure, after according themselves the freedom to do only an acceptable job. Most of us would have Johnson’s bishop do not what might be ideal, but what is currently possible.

Procrastination, however, may also arise from a lack of perfectionism, or the deferral of the pleasure in a job well done. This is because commitment is difficult to conjure up when a goal is muddied, or when “practical” considerations have so transformed a work plan that its most central objective has been deferred. At that point the lowering of standards results in too great a compromise. Interest and commitment are replaced by their opposite, which is ambivalence. Could more perfectionism – not in the sense of excessive self-criticism, but of commitment to the essence of a project – go further to solve the problem? Might we set aside the definition of self through achievement, and consider instead the development of self through contemplation or work?

Perfection is not flawlessness but completion. And completion implies wholeness, or integrity. When procrastination first assailed me, I already knew so well how to disregard doubt and finish a project, how to tell myself that I could write what I really wanted to write next time, that I blinded myself to the fact that the next time had already arrived. If procrastination is undue deferral, what I deferred unduly was the development of my own voice. It was not perfectionism I had avoided, but the integrity of my project or my connection to it.

Similarly, my attempt to “lower standards” was actually a refusal to take authority in my own work. This evasion or relinquishing of the work itself in favor of delivering a finished product did not result in freedom, but quite precisely in acedia. At once mired in my project and alienated from it, I then “languished away in the gloom of anxiety” we call procrastination. Had I known what Evagrius knew about the “midday demon,” I would have better named my ailment. Restlessness could have turned to reflection, and dissipation to creativity far sooner.

Walking Back to Work

A student just came by to give me his paper. “I skipped the pre-writing exercise,” he apologized. “I was thinking about it on the way home, and my opening line popped into my head. I wanted to start the real paper right away. Everything else seemed like a stalling tactic.” I told him I was writing this essay and asked if he had any further thoughts. He said the hardest part of writing is not the difficulty of finding something worth saying. It is being able to say it. “Access to language” was his phrase. “Access to voice” would be mine.

Degas, as we know, could not write poetry despite having more than enough ideas. To this Mallarmé responded that one does not create sonnets with ideas, but with words. Choosing words and ordering ideas takes judgment. Yet in the name of compromise and the avoidance of perfectionism, I have been known to renounce not only my own voice but also the judgment necessary to the accomplishment of any task. This left me rudderless in seas which should have been familiar. And sloth or acedia, we remember, is separation from the object of contemplation. It is hardly surprising that the renunciation of both voice and judgment should rouse the “midday demon.”

In these cases procrastination, understood as a momentary lengthening of the time one allows to think about what one is doing, may be indicated. Perfectionism, understood not as imperfect self-love but as respect for oneself and the work, may serve as Ariadne’s thread. For some time I evaded this perception, identifying it as just another stalling tactic. I jumped back on the treadmill only to run in place, as the slothful in the Divine Comedy were obliged to do. I now see that the appearance of that midday demon may be a sign that it is time to stand back.

Standing back we can stop forcing progress and let the work show us the form it is about to take. In my own case, standing back, I saw I had spent years thinking something had gone wrong with me, when really there was an architectural flaw in my project design. Trying to say it was “good enough” only wound the shroud about it more tightly. Saying I was “procrastinating” and being a “perfectionist” only drove my attention further away from the work and toward my own putative flaws. Standing back, we can shift our focus from our own slowness to the work’s incomplete beauty, and see it once again as something separate from ourselves. But its meaning for us arises from our own hand. Seeing this, we can walk straight toward it.

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  1. Anne says:

    Thank you. Not only a poetic response, but a different take on something I’ve been struggling with for almost a decade with predictable results of self-hatred and immobility. I love the clarity of your reasoning and your engagement with the “problem” of procrastination as a process that we can address and accept rather than solve.

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