Other than wetting my pants when I was three (because I never wanted to stop playing to go inside to pee) or having my father threaten to throw away every single toy on the floor (because I never wanted to stop doing anything to clean my room), the first time I remember getting in trouble for procrastinating was in the third grade.
I was bored in math class. This would become a recurring issue for me in school—I was bored in _________ class. It’s not that I’m a genius or anything, but I was always bright and quick in school-matters and I still bore easily. Fortunately, I have also always been able to compensate for my tendency toward boredom with a vast capability to amuse myself.
To make math more fun, I would wait to start a math worksheet until the teacher started collecting worksheets from other kids. This was very dramatic! I was probably doing a play-by-play in my head as I did it—“only one row left to collect! I have three problems left to do! Will I finish in time?” No. I did not finish in time. Ever. So the teacher called my parents, got invited to dinner, and I was told that we were going to have a conversation about how I was doing in school.
The teacher was a genius in this case. I don’t know if she knew exactly what I was up to, but she knew I could do the math and that I wanted to please my parents. Nancy Germann, even after a lot of other teachers in high school, then college and two rounds of grad school, is so firmly planted in my mind as a great teacher, maybe the best I ever had.
Leading up to the dinner, I completely panicked and scrambled for a way to show them all I wasn’t stupid (though of course no one had suggested I was). I ended up making a book out of construction paper with poems that were highly plagiarized versions of Beatles songs and Hallmark cards. I still have it somewhere because she gave it back, knowing we’d want to keep it. I remember Mrs. Germann coming for dinner, but I don’t actually remember ever talking about my performance in school. The problem with the unfinished worksheets went away. I don’t remember ever getting in trouble again with that particular teacher. This did NOT turn me into a diligent student who always followed directions, however. It simply turned me into a savvy student who never got caught not following directions promptly.
Three years later in the sixth grade, someone noticed my reading skills were advanced and set up a program where I could read at my own pace through some eighth grade readers. It might have worked if they’d let me pick my own books from the library—I read The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich and David Copperfield just for fun about that time. But in that reader (from the 1960s somewhere, with two-color illustrations), I made very slow progress. I think I read three of the stories the whole year.
I think that’s always been part of the appeal of procrastination for me. It’s sort of like disobedience, but not glaringly obvious—the directions get followed eventually. It’s a handy way to combine my basic contrary nature with my strong urge to be a good Baptist girl (when I’m 90, there’ll still be a part of me trying to be a good Baptist girl and fucking it up. Oh, please—I’m 90. I can swear if I want.).
But one of the main reasons I procrastinate is just constitutional—it’s part of who I am. I don’t know if this part can change, the response that is so automatic it’s nearly primal. My mother had two weeks of false labor before I was born, for example. Upon setting a goal or being given a task, my first thought is always “How long can I wait to do that?”
I have gotten better over the years at estimating how long something will take me, and I’m relatively good at meeting firm deadlines because I work backwards from the deadline, using my time estimate. Very recently I’ve begun the brilliant practice of giving myself a cushion of time in addition to how long I think something will take, in case something goes wrong. Brilliant.
If deadlines are mushy at all, though, I still really struggle with not procrastinating.
I define procrastination as doing things in the wrong order such that undone things cause anxiety and other diminished results for myself or other people. I want to clarify that sometimes we call something procrastination when it’s simply a matter of time management. We can’t do every task we need to do immediately upon learning of the task—it’s not possible. For me, it’s procrastination when there’s something I could do, and should do, but don’t.
Returning student work promptly is something I’ve struggled with my entire professional life. When spring semester 2012 begins, I’ll be beginning my 25th year teaching college students. Somehow early on, I got it in my head that as long as students got papers back within two weeks, that was o.k. It’s not o.k.—it’s much too long. But the thing is, there’s never been a clear-cut penalty for me for taking that long or even longer to return student work. Because I did other things well in the classroom and put helpful comments on papers, and never asked students to turn in a new assignment before they’d gotten the previous one back, I almost never got negative comments on my student evaluations about taking too long to return work. Students learn less when too much time has elapsed between the effort of the assignment and the feedback, but that’s hard to measure, and since my students always seemed to be learning A LOT, it was something that made me feel kind of bad, but feeling kind of bad wasn’t much of a motivator to procrastinate less. This hearkens back to my third grade adventure—becoming savvy enough to not get caught following directions promptly.
I thus honor my inner weasel.
I’ve told students for years that I’m a recovering procrastinator, but until recently, there was precious little evidence that I was in recovery at all.
I’m happy to report, however, that Fall 11 was the third full semester in a row that I’ve been able to return student work faster than I ever have in my professional life—my overall average is under a week.
Tomorrow (or maybe the next day, depending) I’ll report on those exact numbers and describe how I got to this point in my recovery. But right now I want to watch a Rom-Com, and maybe take a nap.
There is something graceful and flirty and coy about procrastination—a way of dancing with time, coming in close, and backing away. The inner weasel frolicking in the deadline woods. Two lovers teasing each other by delaying the inevitable. Right. Well, anyway. Until tomorrow.