Procrastination, Newton’s Law and Aretha Franklin

by Kimberley Lovato 

Here’s what I did before sitting down to write an article today.

I got a fresh cup of coffee. I re-read an assignment I had for school, and then printed it out (perhaps it looks less ominous on real paper). I looked online to see if airfare to Europe had come down at all. I asked my daughter what she thought she was good at, then what she thought I was good at. “ You’re good cook. And you’re good at writing.”  Oh yeah, writing, I need to do that today. But first I sorted laundry, made the other half of the bed, and wrote out a grocery list, the latter task being somewhat auspicious. I did write the grocery list after all.  I patted myself on the back.

Yes, I am a good mom, and a good cook, and I’d like to think I am a good travel writer (I’m certainly good at traveling). But what I’m really expert at is procrastination (gasp), or what I like to call, my Inertia Games. 

Newton’s Law of Motion says, in some form, “In the absence of force, a body at rest (mine for the sake of argument), will stay at rest, and a body moving at constant velocity in a straight line continues doing so indefinitely.” Inertia. Inactivity. Yawn. In non-physicist English this means that until a fire is lit under my ass, nothing is going to happen. The game becomes discovering the flame that will light the match.

Why do I procrastinate? I know there are a lot of you who think you know the answer. If I had announced this at a dinner party, there’d have been hushed whispers behind the backs of hands, and maybe some pointing too. “That’s her, the procrastinator. She’s lazy. But nice shoes!”

Procrastination is not about laziness, at least not in my case. Laziness implies an unwillingness to work, or a lack of caring. Procrastination, for me, is a desire to work while brooding over the process of how to get the work done, and in doing so, distracting myself from thinking about the work.

(By the way, I just stopped writing to read a Travel & Leisure article about 2012’s top must-visit destinations. Seriously, no joke.)

Putting off work has never been easier. Daily tugs of household chores that would normally be performed only under duress become fun when facing a blank page. Remove sticky residue left by price tags on the bottom of my wine glasses? With pleasure! But these days, in-home chores are not the only culprit. Online housekeeping has become a regular regimen. Facebook, Twitter, Skype, email---they all lurk on my keyboard in the same space where productivity used to be the sole occupant.  Suddenly, updating my Facebook status to read “pro-cra-sti-na-ting” seems paramount. And whisking away to see my niece’s dance recital via 143 newly posted photos, critical. Awe…isn’t she cute?

But I digress. We procrastinators do that.

It’s not laziness that drives me here. What drives me to procrastinate is the fear of failing. I can't fail if I don't do anything.  And if I do fail, it’s because I didn’t have enough time to do it, right? Fortunately the perfectionist side of me saves the stupid side of me from consoling myself with this argument. But the churning agony of believing my work has to be perfect feeds fear of failing’s soul. You see the vicious cycle forming? When I sit in front of a blank screen, I don’t feel giddy with excitement or inspired. I hear those three witches in Shakespeare’s Macbeth incanting, “Double, double toil and trouble; fire burn and caldron bubble.” Little did they know what they were describing the feeling in a writer’s stomach, this writer’s stomach, when staring at a blinking cursor.

But again, I digress.

The second part of Newton’s Law of Motion says when force is applied to said resting body (again, mine), said body accelerates.”

It’s too bad there’ s not a medicine to cure procrastination; to launch me from neutral to fourth gear; a fizzy tab I can dissolve in water and drink every time I decide to alphabetize my pantry instead of open my computer. Where does this force come from? Where do I find that needed match to light the flame under my procrastinating ass? 

Short of sacrificing live animals, I’ve tried just about everything. Writers are superstitious, like athletes. Did you know tennis champion Bjorn Borg prepared for Wimbledon by growing a beard and wearing the same shirt? He won five straight tournaments, so maybe he was on to something. No, I am not prepared to become the bearded lady at the circus, though wouldn’t that be a great story to write about? But having a ritual, whatever it is, can help zero in on the task at hand. I like a pen and a notebook to my right, and I like the rest of my desk uncluttered.  I like to read through various travel websites. A morning routine of exercise really works for me too, especially when writing has rooted in behind ‘organize shoes by color’ and ‘clean the ice maker’ on my priority list.

But the most effective force I apply to my bad habit? The best fire under my butt? In the words of the great Aretha Franklin---Think! Which leads me to the third part of Newton’s Law of Motion, that for every action, there is an equal an opposite reaction.  Basically, you get out what you put in.

I used to work in the marketing department of a large telecommunications company, where 15 of us shared a maze of cubicles and sat obediently at our desks, appearing productive and creative when the boss cruised by, which was about every hour.  One day, as I leaned back in my chair, hands clasped behind my head, staring blankly at a space on the wall, the boss popped in to my office.

“What are you doing? Why aren’t you working?” he barked.

“I am working,” I responded.  “I’m thinking,”

He left without saying anything, but came back 10 minutes later and said,

“You know, I wish more people would do that.”

People are more productive, and get more satisfaction, when they put thought into what they do, not in spite of it. It may take me a while (I am a procrastinator after all), and there may be a few relabeled boxes of Halloween decorations and searches on airline websites sitting between an assignment and me, but I get there.

My desire to succeed, to be a better writer, a better traveler, a better everything, far outweigh my Scarlett O’Hara tendency to wait until tomorrow, but I want to think about it for a while; to let my fear of failure, my perfectionism, and my procrastination meet up inside my head, light a fire, and read travel magazines to the tunes of Aretha.

And now that they have, there is only one thing left to do. Write.


Kimberley Lovato is a freelance travel writer and procrastinator, based in San Francisco.

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