I want to confess into the Internet ether that for months and months I’ve been stuck with this blog. Badly stuck. This post is about the learning arc – how I wound up in a procrastination sinkhole, and how I’ve managed to start crawling out.
Procrastination can take over a person’s life like chronic disease. Left untreated, it can turn one’s mind into a sinkhole of anxiety and avoidance, a fetid gaseous swamp strewn with the skeletons of late essays, superannuation forms, expired kale, unfinished novels and unused gym subscriptions… a place where schedules and dreams go to suffocate and die.
Early diagnosis is therefore important.
In Mae Sot I flailed under the weight of self-imposed expectations (to write every day, blog 3 x a week, etc.) Not posting on events as they happened made me stressed, pressured, behind. I thought it meant the blog would be a flop. But I couldn’t seem to squeeze out more than one a month, and as the weeks went by and the events and ideas and experiences and photos and hyperlinks and draft posts started mounting I felt more and more behind, like Sisyphus with his boulder on a pathetic mound of mediocre grass.
In the New Year I fell into the sinkhole and by then even the thought of blogging invoked anxiety and frustration, which worsened my aversion and, from there, my avoidance. It was like being encased in wet, hardening, mental cement. Like a window was closing but I couldn’t jump through.
Towards the end, I started entertaining the thought that maybe everyone was right – maybe it didn’t matter that I hadn’t blogged that much about the Thai-Burma border while I was there on it. Huh. Then I started reading more about how others have found it hard to maintain their blogs and writing practice. This helped to detangle my negative thoughts and turn the heaving, leaking vessel that is my procrastinating mind around.
There’s a lot of advice out there for writers and would-be writers. A list of some practical tips and insights I’ve been finding helpful:
– Aim Low. This one is hard. It means replacing perfectionistic delusions with Realistic Expectations (RE). The problem is that sometimes aiming high works and when it does it tends to attract a lot of positive feedback. However, clinging with white knuckles onto an unrealistically high bar is invariably a bad idea. Leaving you dangling in mid-air, petrified, your lofty goals eluding you, it leads to discouragement, dissatisfaction, tiredness and feelings of failure, which can lead to real failure – the failure to do anything at all except whimper on the floor with a sprained mind. Lowering the bar is therefore a critical first step (like Airway, Breathing, Circulation).
– “Keep your doing and your deciding away from one another” — this nugget was airdropped into my inbox from Raptitude, which is like a humanitarian blog for internal-conflict-affected writers. It made me realize that most of writing, and living, comes down to micro-decision making – what David Foster Wallace called ‘the work of choosing’. This is something that takes a lot of practice but is easy to avoid. And when you’re a chronic over-thinker, infected with self-doubt, it makes sense that you would go to pains to scurry away from it.
– “Worry destroys the ability to write” — Hemingway. Yup. Fear disables decision-making. Anti-anxiety strategies are therefore essential.
– Distraction is a never-ending threat. Fear + Doubt + Distraction = the worst. Being ‘on the grid’ in this situation can mean paralytic indecision, hence this incisive piece of wisdom from Zadie Smith: “Work on a computer that is disconnected from the internet.”
– ‘The Redirect Technique’ – one of Life Hacker’s ‘Six scientifically-supported ways to crush procrastination’. This is about procrastinating well, with intention e.g. by doing the washing up, or going for a run (the best). Virginia Woolfe advocated ‘gentle exercise in the air’ and getting ‘out of life’ as ways to overcome writer’s block. She is also quoted as saying “My mind works in idleness. To do nothing is often it’s most profitable way”.
– Self-forgiveness = another effective, evidence-based antidote. No matter what you’re procrastinating about, it can lead to guilt, however nonsensical and indulgent that guilt might be. When this happens, self-flagellation is never a good idea. Unlike with aiming high, it doesn’t work. It makes everything worse, always. Giving oneself a break, both literally and morally, is very important. Learnt that the hard way….
Remission – out of the sinkhole
On that note, I’m going to re-start this blog with a less self-defeating, flea-like, dilatory mindset and some revised aims: to embrace failure; let go of what I was trying to do; remind self that every post is a small, irrelevant experiment, not some legally binding public document.
Also, to be more optimistic. When I told a friend about my blogging woes she told me to stop whining and think of “Proust and the biscuit”. This is in reference to a well-known part of In Search of Lost Time where biting into a Madeline evokes a flood of involuntary memories in the narrator, who relives them all in the one compressed moment.
What I take from this is that life isn’t linear. Blogging definitely isn’t linear. This means it really doesn’t matter if I blog retrospectively about Mae Sot from London, or wherever. Maybe there will be upsides to doing it this way.
Even if not, everything is still clear in my mind. And I’ve been taking a lot of notes.