Procrastinating productively & eschewing urgency

I’m having an overly challenging year, mostly due to situations of my own contriving: two brand-new course preps and too many volunteer obligations. I’ve learned my lesson; eagerness for new challenges is one thing, and wearing myself out is entirely another! So I will make better decisions in future years, but in the meantime, I have this challenging year to get through. But I hate having “just get through this” as my daily mantra! I want to thrive, not just survive. So I’ve thought a lot over winter break about the “thriving” part that has been missing during the first half of the year and how to get it back.

And here’s what I’ve come up with: I miss the productive procrastination that has traditionally been a major part of my work life. Years ago, when I read John Perry’s essay on “structured procrastination,” I felt a wonderful rush of recognition: Someone had put into words what I’d been doing for ages! Perry writes,

“the procrastinator can be motivated to do difficult, timely and important tasks, as long as these tasks are a way of not doing something more important. … The list of tasks one has in mind will be ordered by importance. Tasks that seem most urgent and important are on top. But there are also worthwhile tasks to perform lower down on the list. Doing these tasks becomes a way of not doing the things higher up on the list. With this sort of appropriate task structure, the procrastinator becomes a useful citizen. Indeed, the procrastinator can even acquire, as I have, a reputation for getting a lot done.”

For years I’ve been doing interesting (at least to me) work that isn’t urgent, which I do mostly by taking advantage of the time that more conscientious teachers would fill with urgent work. This often takes the form of not wanting to grade and so therefore spending time thinking about the novel I’m teaching or writing new and interesting assignments. So my students are actually beneficiaries of my productive procrastination; it might take another day or two to get back their papers, but our class and our work together is more engaging. (And even then, I’m not actually slow about getting back work; I just have an overactive conscience in this regard.) But it also takes the form of reading and thinking and sometimes writing about things that aren’t related to school at all but that help me keep learning and being an interested (and therefore interesting) person.

But because of the two new course preps and the fact that I’m also teaching an extra class this year (a one-time favor to the department that I won’t be repeating, because it’s wearing me out!), I went into this year determined to stay on top of things, to be extra organized, to grade and return everything as quickly as I can, to make the best possible use of my time so that I don’t drop all of the balls that I’m trying to juggle.

The result: I’m having less fun and feeling less creative, and I’ve been dropping balls anyway.

So here are my New Year’s resolutions for the rest of the school year:

  • Eschew urgency. Resist as much as possible the sense that everything is on a tight deadline, because it probably really isn’t. (Dave Stuart, Jr. helpfully wrote a blog post on this very point just yesterday.)
  • Welcome my own tendency to productively procrastinate. Sometimes my inner Calvinist gets on my case and makes me feel bad about being a slacker, and that has absolutely been the case this past fall. But if “slacking” really just means “reading and writing things that aren’t immediately necessary,” then slacking is the recipe for the good life! Notice that I haven’t written in this blog for over two months, because there was always something that was urgent waiting for me, and clearly the blog doesn’t need to be written; but today, with grading awaiting me, I decided to write this instead — and of course the grading will still get done, because it has to.

And, in a larger way,

  • Seriously rethink the “more is better” tendency that my pedagogy has taken over the last few years. With the best of intentions, I’ve kept adding to the thinking and the work that I do for and about my students. Yes, I’m a better teacher now than when I began, but I’m also more exhausted. And when I wear myself out over a class, I always need to stop and ask myself if I’m wearing out my students as well.

I have a lot more thinking to do on that last point especially … and I’m totally going to do that thinking at some point, perhaps when I really ought to be doing something else.

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