• October 30, 2014

What Looks Like Productivity

Writing Illustration Careers

Brian Taylor

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Brian Taylor

I was not even midway into an explanation of what I call "procrastination productivity" when my friend Candace stopped me and said, "I know exactly what you mean. I'm the laziest busy person you've ever seen."

I suspect I appear hard-working, efficient, even productive. Every morning I'm at my station, the same table at a local coffee shop, sitting at my computer, doing what looks like writing. Often, it is. I'm writing e-mails. I'm writing letters of recommendation. I'm drafting proposals for projects that someday I'm actually going to write.

Don't get me wrong. I meet deadlines. I accomplish things. I have a lengthy list of publications. I'm on the graduate faculty of two universities. I travel and do talks, presentations, and workshops. Yet most of the time I feel like a slacker. Because, while I may be working, I'm often not doing the work I think I'm supposed to be doing.

This is entirely internal. But in truth, it makes me twitchy when people ask questions I don't want to answer, like: Where is your next book? What big project are you working on? At some point, someone always asks, "Which project do you really care about?," and then wonders aloud why that's not the one I'm spending all my time on. When I ask myself those same questions, I tell myself I have reasons.

In The Big Chill, Jeff Goldblum's character says, "I don't know anyone who could get through the day without two or three juicy rationalizations. They're more important than sex."

Tom Berenger says, "Ah, come on. Nothing's more important than sex."

Jeff Goldblum replies, "Oh, yeah? Ever gone a week without a rationalization?"

My productivity, or what looks like productivity, feels at times like a bunch of rationalizations.

Of course I have to prepare for class. During the school year, you can't shirk on the teaching. If you don't put in the time, it's obvious to a roomful of people who will anonymously eviscerate you at the end of the term. If you don't make it to committee meetings, or do the departmental tasks you've been assigned, you face the cold shoulders of peers who have to pull your weight. If there are real deadlines—like when a grant application has to be postmarked, or a tenure file submitted—you don't let those slip.

But to me, those tasks are like vacuuming when you know you have to clean the toilet. They're still unpleasant, but they're the lesser evils, the road less arduous. You're still accomplishing something—just not the thing, the big thing, that's always hanging over your head. The thing, in fact, you might not even be willing to talk about.

When people discuss productivity, I tend to remain quiet. Not long ago, I had a conversation about publishing with a group of faculty members at a good liberal-arts college. One taciturn guy turned to me and said, in the desperate pitch of the untenured, "How do you do it? How are you so productive?" He even went so far as to say, "I want to be like you."

I told him that really, no sane person wants to be like me. I confessed that one of the main reasons I am as "productive" as I am is because I have no life.

"But I have no life!" he replied.

The truth, other than the fact that I have no life, is that I tackle the things I think I can handle, do them, get a vague sense of accomplishment, and then go back to feeling crappy about what I'm not doing. I have a hunch I'm not alone in that. I have a hunch, based purely on anecdotal evidence, that I am not the only one in academe who suffers from procrastination productivity.

It's not as if the things I'm accomplishing aren't worthy and important. They're fine. They're good. But they're not what I think I'm supposed to be doing. Likewise, some of my friends, when they have books due, become master gardeners. Or knit complicated sweaters. I have been the recipient of many extravagant meals because someone didn't want to work on an article. There have been houses built in place of manuscript pages.

In academe, especially when it comes to writing, we have few hard deadlines. Our jobs are self-determined. We get to write about what we want, how we want, and, unfortunately for some of us, when we want. The problem is, often we don't want to write. Or, like Dorothy Parker, we don't like to write; we like to have written.

We keep busy. There are conferences at which to give papers, articles to be crafted from those papers, chapters to be contributed to someone else's book. When you're faced with a project that seems overwhelming, like writing a book, those discrete tasks can look appealing. How long, you ask yourself, could it take to write a paper? An article won't take long, right? And then your procrastination projects are subject to the same delays as the thing you're avoiding.

Not having a life makes my problems seem trivial compared with, say, a professor who has three kids who need to be fed, chauffeured to soccer, and taken to the emergency room when they shove macaroni up their nose. Or people who have to care for an elderly parent, or have a spouse or partner they want to spend time with. Or all of the above. For those people, so pressed that they don't have the time to wash their hair, procrastination products would be a luxury. For them it's always a matter of triage.

Having recognized, named, and admitted my problem, I've tried to think about how to deal with it. I give lots of advice about writing. Now I have to start taking it myself.

There's always going to be something else to work on—or not. I know enough writers to know that all of them have ways in which they trick themselves into getting the work done. One of the most common is the daily word quota.

I've long resisted such quotas. I like to tell myself that I work in spurts; if I'm not writing for a while, it's because my mental field needs to lie fallow for a while. When I'm ready, the words will come. Sometimes I repeat Hemingway's get-psyched self-talk: Write one true sentence. That's all it takes. But if you're not writing anything—if you're grading papers, doing research, or knitting scarves—you're not likely to get even one sentence, let alone a true or good one.

My problem is getting started. I like to put things off. Until summer. Until I have the syllabi ready for any courses I might ever teach at any point in the future. Until I've finished marathon training. Until I take the dog for a walk. Until, until, until.

Not long ago I heard a writer I very much admire, Susan Orlean, talk about her process. She said she paid an editor to call her daily to ask how work on her biography of Rin Tin Tin was going. That daily call was mightily annoying. But it kept her accountable. She didn't show the editor a word of her prose until the manuscript was finished, but being checked up on helped her finish.

I've performed that same thankless task for many writer friends. Asking how the dissertation is coming along is not the best way to ensure popularity. Wondering aloud if that second book is almost finished can make some people stop returning your phone calls. I don't think I ever realized how irritating that habit was until people started asking me about my unfinished—and sometimes unstarted—work. I point to all the things I am doing in an effort to dodge talking about what I'm not.

This past summer, I decided it was time for a change. I made a whole bunch of rules for myself. Some were common and obvious. I took on the quota of writing 1,000 words a day. Only after I met that goal could I go back and fiddle with revisions. The only reading I allowed myself was for my book project; no fiction until bedtime. If getting the words down meant sacrificing going shopping with a friend, there would be no new shoes. I gave myself a real deadline and knew exactly what I wanted to produce in that time. I made sure it was a manageable amount and not crazy-ambitious. I had some other rules, but they're too specific and neurotic to share.

My new rules worked. I wrote a lot of words. Many of them turned out to be unusable. But the writing got me to do the thinking, which is getting me closer to the book. That feels like real productivity.

Rachel Toor is an assistant professor of creative writing at Eastern Washington University. Her Web site is http://www.racheltoor.com. She welcomes comments and questions directed to careers@chronicle.com.

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