Saturday, May 9, 2009

Getting Away With Nothing (Or, Kara Goes All Dr. Phil On Your Ass On A Saturday Night)

One of my huband's nieces has just finished the final exams of her freshman year at university. Last week she facebooked (that is an acceptable verb now, isn't it?) that she'd just survived her first all-nighter. I was completely nonplussed at this little update. How on earth had she made it through the entire school year without pulling an all-nighter? I couldn't help but comment on her status, expressing disbelief that she'd gone so long without one and crowing about how I was the queen of the all-nighter when I was her age.

Ahhh, the all-nighter. The spiritual home of the procrastinator. And I am the veritable Queen of the Procrastinators.

I'm doing it right now, as a matter of fact. I should be writing about the fine art of hamburger making. I should have been writing about the fine art of hamburger making all week. The deadline for the piece on the fine art of hamburger making is Monday. And yet, what I'm writing about is how I'm not writing about the fine art of hamburger making. Oh, and watching the NBA playoffs (oh LeBron, how I adore thee). And doing laundry. And checking my twitter page. And arranging for a haircut before we leave for Germany. And checking my e-mail. And wondering how Kate survived the first communion party for her son. Undsoweiter, undsoweiter.

I suppose if I even had the hamburger document open and had written anything other than the sad excuse of a working title ("A Beautiful Thing", with apologies to Harvey's), I could claim that I was multi-tasking instead of avoiding doing the actual work. Let us pause for a moment while I do that...Oh, who are we kidding, I'm not multi-tasking, I'm procrastinating. And it's something I've done all my life, possibly my one true skill and biggest failing.

When I was a kid, starting around age 7, I had a paper route of sorts (it was the 70s, when kids were allowed to roam the neighbourhood free and unfettered), delivering flyers every weekend. I hated the job. HATED IT. The flyers were heavy and awkward to hold, the ink rubbed off on me, dogs chased me (it was the 70s, when dogs were allowed to roam the neighbourhood free and unfettered), and there were two homes on the route that housed teasing, mean teenagers. Oh, how I hated every minute of that stupid paper route.

The flyers were delivered on Thursday evening and had to be delivered by Sunday. Logic would dictate that, much like homework, the smart thing to do would have been to deliver the darned things on Friday and free up the rest of the weekend for other, more fun pursuits. But you know that's not what I did. You know what's coming. Yup, almost every weekend, I'd let the flyer bundles fester on the front porch, driving my mother crazy and provoking arguments wherein she told me to just DO IT for God's sake while I sulkily countered with "what difference does it make WHEN I deliver them?"

The die was cast early. I was one of those people who would leave everything to the last minute. This was how I was going to manage my life.

In school, procrastination was a kind of twisted badge of honour. For Grade 13 English Lit. (yes, Virginia, there used to be a Grade 13, t'was a wonderful thing, a kind of finishing year, and it meant that by the time you started university you were likely 19 and thus of legal drinking age), I wrote my major paper, longhand, the night before it was due. And got an A. From the toughest, most discerning English teacher at the school. This trend continued through university, my projects always feverishly completed within hours of the deadline. My undergraduate thesis paper, for goodness sake, possibly the most important document I had to produce in that four year period, was almost entirely written in a marathon 72 hour session right before I had to hand it in. And I got an A. From a notably tough professor.

Which was kind of the problem. I kept getting away with it. I kept getting good marks*, despite the fact that everything was written with an undercurrent of pure white-hot panic. I began to believe that I needed that white-hot panic in order to do my best work, that the only way I could REALLY do anything was under an inordinate amount of pressure. When I graduated, right into the mini-recession of the early 90s, I ended up working for Wal*Mart for two years as the Fabrics & Crafts department manager (Oh, God, I was so very bad at that job, my apologies to all my former employees and customers) and regularly screwed up inventory day for the entire store by leaving the pre-counting tasks to the very last minute, pulling (you guessed it) all-nighters to try and measure 50 million bolts of printed cotton, or count 75 bajillion individual silk flowers. When I eventually got out of retail and into the not-for-profit arts world, I regularly gave myself and my boss hypertension by leaving major grant applications to the last minute, staying at the office all night (trend?) to write my pithy arguments on why various arts councils should give us several thousand, or several hundred thousand, dollars in support.

In short, my bad habits have continued to work for me. But, recently I've realized something that I think I've known for years but conveniently managed to ignore -- that while these last minute efforts did earn me the marks, and have earned the organizations I've worked for the necessary funding, by leaving things to the last minute, I haven't left enough time to do my best work. It might have been good work, good enough to get an A or whatever the goal was, but it wasn't my best work. If I'm being completely honest, for most of my life I haven't been working to full potential (wait...that sounds familiar...must dig up grade school report cards at parent's house) and essentially have been getting away with nothing.

My goal, therefore, having shared this cosmic A Ha! moment with you, is to change my errant ways. My 39th birthday looms large on the horizon and life is too damned short to waste it with half-assed efforts. Meeting deadlines is important, but meeting deadlines with the best possible work is more important and that means Not Leaving Everything To The Last Minute. That means stepping down off the Elite Level Procrastinator podium and handing that crown and sceptre over to someone else (note to husband's niece: Not You) who's content with half-measures.

Thus endeth the lesson for this Saturday night. Time to write about the fine art of hamburger making, BEFORE the very last minute. Truly, a beautiful thing.


*I kept getting good marks on written work, I should clarify, not on other types of work. I started out in a fine arts program, believing that I had some sort of future as a visual artist. I was woefully out of my league in the studio courses from the minute I arrived on campus and lacked the self-confidence to persevere. In the case of my studio courses, waiting 'til the last minute to complete the assignments wasn't procrastination so much as outright defeat. Hence my decision to switch to Art History and English Lit partway through second year.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I often think you are me, with far more style and a larger vocabulary.

I have yet to leave my blanket of procrastination behind. It is far too cozy and warm to discard. But one day, I too will put away childish thing ... just not yet.