Procrastination and the Concept of “Work”

There is no sexier allure, when you are in the midst of procrastination, than reading an article on procrastination itself. Even I, the relaxed volunteer leading a freewheeling life in Africa, have tasks that need to be accomplished, and therefore, procrastinated upon. So there I was a few days ago, reading a magazine and escaping work that still to this moment has only been half-heartedly completed.

 

At a recent gardening training of mine. Preparing for an upcoming one is an impetus for procrastination.

James Surowiecki writes in the October 11 New Yorker about the psychology behind procrastination, and even admits to indulging in fastidious apartment cleaning—a procrastination favorite of mine—while writing the article. He points out that procrastination is an irrational act: by putting off a task, you knowingly set yourself up to suffer. It is costly (think late income taxes) and time-consuming (think late nights at the office due not to legitimate work, but to all those web-browsing minutes adding up).

Even in the moment, procrastination does not make people happy. Yet we all do it! Guilty as charged. Surowiecki writes of the growing market for anti-procrastination services: “In 2008, a Ph.D. candidate at Chapel Hill wrote software that enables people to shut off their access to the Internet for up to eight hours; the program, called Freedom, now has an estimated seventy-five thousand users.”

Imagine that: you can buy “Freedom.” I understand the impulse entirely. I have the option to pay for the proverbial 21st century Peace Corps luxury: wireless in the hut. After all, I live in a city, have near-constant electricity, and get paid more than village volunteers. I often find myself with a semi-urgent e-mail to send, or a burning question to which only Wikipedia would know the answer. Other volunteers, especially the villagers, think I’m crazy for abstaining from a home Internet connection. Yet every time I consider installing it, I think about how much time I would waste online. I think about how the Internet, at the end of the day, makes me anxious.

I have the tendency to click links to only mildly entertaining videos. As I wait for them to load, I flip through all my open browser tabs like they are cards in a deck. Logically, it would make no sense that in the 2.5 seconds since I last checked Gmail that I would have any new emails, yet I click over anyway out of reflex. I re-read the headlines of the New York Times, or worse, Gawker or the Huffington Post. This then leads me to even more initially promising but ultimately disappointing blog posts and video clips. Five hours later, with little accomplished and a few bits of Hollywood gossip gleaned, I feel exasperated and empty.

These days, I read more and am probably more clear-headed than I was in the States. I am enjoying this rare period in my life where I do not know—and do not need to know—every detail of world news. The mere thought of signing into Gmail after it’s been a few days is exciting. I tend to hear about major world events from my host dad, who keeps up with such matters.

According to the article, I chose to “self-bind,” which is not surprising to me. I respond better to outside authority than to that vapid phenomenon called “self-motivation.”  I am a go-getter, not because I naturally wake up every morning with a spring in my step, but because out of some perverse masochism I love performing what others have told me to do. Unlike subscribers to the software Freedom, my choice to abstain from the Internet actually saves me money. It is therefore, from a philosophical (yet not pop cultural) standpoint, rational. Still, it reminds me of what Surowiecki writes of as “the extended will.” In discussing a study that found that most students would choose staggered deadlines for papers rather than handing them all in at the end of the semester, he says, “instead of trusting themselves, the students relied on an outside tool to make themselves do what they actually wanted to do.”

The work I was supposed to do, and am still supposed to do, is planning for an upcoming gardening training. I like trainings themselves, but the preparation is immense: gathering materials, visiting the site, coordinating drinks, printing certificates, transporting supplies, etc… While trainings are a joint effort between my Senegalese work partners and me, I often feel that I’m on my own when it comes to the behind-the-scenes preparation.

 

Abou and Mamadou, teaching, like they do.

The concept of “work” here is so different, not only because of the culture in which I live but also because of the organization for which I work. My job is so prone to procrastination because it is self-directed and comes with minimal punishment if I do not “accomplish” a certain set of objectives. If I need a day to myself and decide to reschedule a meeting last-minute, it is generally O.K. My Senegalese work partners do the same thing to me. If my lack of preparation at a training event is evident, my job will not be at risk. My Peace Corps boss may not even find out. We will all just move on.

“Work” is considered fulfilled when I meet the needs of my community in a timeframe that is mutually acceptable to us. As long as I keep in constant communication with my work partners, the job will eventually get done. If not, there is usually a reason for it. Since time is not as fixed an idea here as it is in the States, I exploit my procrastination capabilities almost without thinking. I can take a nap, chat on the phone, or listen to music, all simply because I desire to. It is scary to think of how much more productive I could have been this past year if I had had American-style deadlines and penalties. But then, that whole line of thought taps into a different concept of work.

I try to remind myself the rewarding aspects of gardening trainings: seeing people work together, ending with a pretty garden space, hearing that people felt they learned skills and were a “part of something.” The most recent training I conducted was successful for the most part. I am putting up pictures here and will write more reflections once this weekend’s training is over.

 

The participants at my last training. So much fun, in the end.

Now that I have so much leisure time to exploit, I feel balanced. I feel happier in general. Sometimes I think maybe this is the amount of down time humans actually need.

I wonder if procrastination in the American setting is our way of forcing leisure activities upon ourselves in order to find the balance we truly need to be mentally sane. Since we are told that we are not supposed to take vacations, not supposed to take naps, and not supposed to be idle, we squeeze in furtive moments of entertainment and frame them as byproducts of the stress of work. We are not allowed to willfully zone out, so zoning out must be something that happens to us. After all, leisure time in the U.S. only seems O.K. if you later get punished, or punish yourself.

In a day I will be forced to confront all the duties related to my training. I hope I don’t hate myself too much for what I haven’t done.

So, after all this talk, what is your favorite mediocre online video or time-waster? I’d love to know.

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5 thoughts on “Procrastination and the Concept of “Work”

  1. Maya,

    Again, I love reading your blog. It tells me so much about Peace Corp life in Senegal. When I call my son in Senegal, I always feel like I am interrogating him. Boys and men just are not as verbal as girls when you ask questions, especially about their life. So please keep writing and updating us on your adventures.
    My secret waste of time is watching “Y & R”. And please don’t tell any of my students at UCLA, it will affect my credibility as a teacher.

  2. I like especially the first of your photos. As for my favorite time waster, I’ll ruminate on that while I check Facebook here at the Law Library, where I’m trying to finish an affidavit.

  3. I recently downloaded my first (and maybe only ever) game for my iPhone, Angry Birds (that’s what I get for reading the NYTimes columnist’s opinion on the 10 Must-Have Aps for the iPhone.) Oh my god. Angry Birds is like crack for my brain. I think it goes beyond garden-variety procrastination (which is why I don’t play video games normally.) So I will stop. As soon as I’ve mastered all the levels.

  4. Maya, I love hearing that you feel so balanced with all the free time you are having. I feel the same way now that I’m retired and I spend lots of time doing nothing of much consequence – but things I enjoy. My favorite quote from my college days (and one I often repeated to myself during my guilt-inspired working days) was from my friend Barby Hils “Time you enjoy wasting is not wasted time.” I feel more balanced, sleep more soundly, wake up in a better mood and feel more “motivated” since I’ve been in charge of my own time. Even though I ‘waste’ a lot of time – I still get a lot done – and I think that people of all ages need more free time. You know that U.S. employers give less vacation time than their counterparts in other countries. This is done in the interests of “productivity” – but the end product is stress, illness, lack of time with one’s family and too little time to just think, daydream, create, and have fun. I’m so glad you’re finding this balance now – it took me about 30 years to find it.

  5. Interesting when read with your june 14 2009 post in mind. “Cubicle epiphanies” was it? How would you retitle this one, “permagarden epiphanies?” Kolda~NYC

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