Every time one of my letters disappears from this box, mail comes back with topic suggestions. I really appreciate these ideas. One of the most frequently requested is “procrastination” — a subject of which I’m proud to be an authority. Just as it takes a somewhat recovered alcoholic to stand up in an AA meeting, I’m your guy.
For those who are so afflicted, a good place to start is the realization of how insidious and dangerous it is. Procrastination ruins careers, pocketbooks, marriages. It saps energy and hinders creativity. I’m not going to go into its causes this time, but I will show you how to get it under control. So debilitating is procrastination, so difficult to overcome, that it requires a minor religion.
First, you need a symbol. This symbol is the circle. The circle means that you can start any process at any point on a circle. This is a basic principle — there’s no single spot in the book where it says: “start.” You need to pin the circle on the wall over by your colour-wheel.
Then you need a statement of faith: “There is always now,” is one of the most holy. It should be printed out big and hung on your easel. “Do it now,” and “Simply begin,” are others. I think the best are where you put your own spin on your statements.
Then you need a prayer. This is not to ask for a special dispensation from a higher power — it’s an affirmation of intention and commitment.
Then you need a retreat. For most of us it’s right here in our studios. We artists have a deep need to become one with our work — unsullied, un-tempted, unspotted and uninterrupted. Incidentally, genuine contemplation-time is not procrastination. It’s a part of working. When you are properly in retreat your work grabs you.
Finally you need an anthem. “Start” can be simply when you turn on the radio — or it can be favourite canned music. Music that encourages marching or dancing is good — it stirs the blood. Incidentally, when you turn the music off — you can be off as well. You’re outta here. One day at a time.
PS: “Great journeys start with the space between one’s feet.” (Lao Tzu)
Esoterica: For chronic procrastinators, making lists can be a bad idea. Lists imply order, and the creative mind is not always ordered — nor is it always desirable to be so. The creator needs merely to “keep going” in the direction of most immediate and effective accomplishment. Thinking on your feet, big and difficult tasks can be divided into smaller and easier tasks. As well, multiple projects are more finely realized through the gift of simultaneity — “keep busy while the paint dries.”
The world’s engagement of beauty is my bible,
And Art is my religion.
I come to it as a child,
and I add all the grown wisdom I can gather.
Creativity is my salvation.My easel is my altar.
My paints are the sacraments.
My brush is my soul’s movement,
And to do poorly, or not to work, is a sin.
Wrong to mention sin
by Karen Hatzigeorgiou, Benicia, CA, USA
I like the Artist’s Affirmation until the last line “And to do poorly, or not to work, is a sin.” I think the fear of doing poorly is one of the culprits of procrastination. I think we need to live fearlessly with our art and not worry about the “sin” of not making something that’s “good enough.” In my classroom wall, I have this quote by William Faulkner: “You have to write badly in order to write well.” I think this applies to art and a lot of other aspects in our lives. Faulkner also said, “Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything really good.” That’s my mantra!
Community that refuses to procrastinate
by Joseph Gilland
Having just last night started an animation project on which I have procrastinated for years, I read your piece on procrastination with special interest. What was it that made me start? Well, finally feeling like all the peripheral stuff (that was supposedly keeping me from my beloved project) was out of the way and taken care of… but more importantly, a deep feeling of guilt and shame brought on by exposing myself to lots and lots of artists who are not procrastinating. Nothing woke me up so much as being in the company of people who are in it, working their fingers to the bone and not thinking twice about it. So that’s my little piece of advice for someone stuck in the quagmire of procrastination. Oh yes, the prayers, the affirmations, the statement of faith, the wheel… all great. Surrounding ourselves with ways to start and removing the tools of procrastination, a wonderful idea. Be part of the community that refuses to procrastinate. Perhaps procrastination will cease to be an option, like booze for the recovering alky.
Procrastination dangerous to life
by Ted Berkeley, Portland, Oregon, USA
As a neurosurgical resident assisting my seniors, some of them very well-read and clever, but not worth a damn as technicians, I remember them messing around indecisively and procrastinating, thus lengthening operations unnecessarily. It used to drive me bonkers. Their response was of course “you’re too ‘asty Berkeley.” And this type of procrastination has more serious consequences.
(RG note) Ted Berkeley, as you might have gathered, as well as being a painter, is a retired neurosurgeon. It is apparently “in the head” where he learned the downside of procrastination.
The mechanics of failure
by Mary Bakker, Zeeland, MI, USA
As a current university student, one of my instructors gave an analysis of procrastination as a fear of failure. So long as one waits until there is no time left then there is always an excuse if it is not “good enough.” “I didn’t have time. I only got to this last night. I was just so busy.” This way there is always reason for mistake or missing greatness, a way out of a failure. If one had time and gave all effort and it still was not “enough” then who is to “blame” but ourselves? Therefore, eliminating procrastination has to come from an awareness and willingness to accept fault in our work or in ourselves. Perhaps, this is the place to begin.
(RG note) I’ve found it’s more than a way out of failure — it’s a way out of success. For many artists, fear of success is even more insidious than fear of failure.
Procrastination battle gear
by Linda Muttit
These are four items in my personal procrastination battle gear:
1. A relaxed set of clothes that means, “I’m off to work now.”
2. Music that brings up the spirits.
3. Wonderful friends, with great advice, who say things like, “You just have to do the work.”
4. A hope, a belief, a prayer, a knowing… that surprises, and an uncertainty that searching within the process of doing, creates some of the most exciting work.
by Alev Oguz, Istanbul, Turkey
Sometimes it helps to take small steps. You may have a huge goal; it is too far and unreachable. Why tie up all your energy in the final goal? Start small; start with something easy to achieve. The first step will get you to the next. Trying to lose 5 pounds — start with a goal of one pound. When you are there you will be motivated for the next step. An empty canvas? Just put on an aimless bush stroke. It is not empty any more, and you can always paint over it. No ideas? Just start with the object in front of you and brainstorm the possible links. Or look at today’s paper. Something worth reading may guide you to a brilliant subject.
Only the words needed
by Gisele Lapalme, St. Lazare, PQ, Canada
I was running out of time for a coming show this summer, and I wrote down your lines, “Start now,” “Do it now,” “Simply begin” and the mountain has disappeared just saying the words. I have no reason to feel this way because I’ve been selling a lot, receiving a few awards, but I’m not as productive as I wish. I’ve stopped giving classes so I would have more time painting but it’s not the case. I’m missing the socializing and sharing. And the money too. We should enjoy the things we love and do what we have to do with love.
The circle of life
by Jack Stone
I see the circle as the globe, the earth, life, that is slowly turning (albeit speeding up) and I have permission to get on at any point at any time. This probably reflects the painter/guilt syndrome and also the painter/obsession addiction. The problem is that as the body ages and the speed of life increases it will become harder to get on. With regard to the uses of lists, I find that lists not only interfere with the working creative mind, but they also give the subconscious mind the idea that it has already been taken care of — hence prolonging procrastination.
by Roger Hynd, London, UK
There’s a remarkably simple habit that brings remarkable results. It’s so obvious that it’s easy to overlook. It’s particularly good for artists and other self-starters.
The magical rule
For you and for me —
Just pick up the tool
Just do it and see.
The tool is not just the brush or chisel. It’s the phone, pen, the hammer — it’s all those instruments that put creative power into your hands and get you started on a process.
Dealing with procrastination
by Mary Madsen
I thank you for not pathologizing procrastination. It is what it is, deal with it. Artists aren’t the only ones who deal with this demon, it’s just that nobody’s watching if we hit the snooze alarm, or tapping their foot in anger if we’re late punching a time clock. We also don’t have a dependable payday Friday to keep us going. It’s all up to us. For years I struggled with my creative issues — my fear of failure, my fear of success, my fear of being blocked, my fear of just about anything you could name that might be causing my problem. Then one day I asked myself how the average person would behave if they had my job. What if they awoke to find a beautiful day outside their door, and nobody would know when and if they were working? What if they had no guarantee of wages earned for time spent on the job? Would they haul it out and go to work, or would they step outside, just for a minute, to enjoy the day? I think they’d go for the enjoyment of the day, just for a minute, and step right into the jaws of procrastination. It wasn’t my tortuous, blazing creative nature that nurtured my procrastination, it was simply my human condition.
Another thing that keeps me coming back to the computer, which is my medium, is a screensaver I’ve programmed to pop up if I’ve been away too long. Against a stark black background, big bold letters of red ask, “Where do you want to go today?” This screensaver not only reminds me that my work is the greatest journey of my life, it also teases me back to the surprises awaiting all who live their lives in partnership with creation. I may have to act as my own CEO, board of directors, and staff, but at least I can leave the job of corporate morale to the hired help of my screensaver!
Value of audiobooks
by Helen Zapata, Arizona, USA
Regarding the concept of anthem, I like to listen to audiobooks while I’m painting. I pick a good book that I know will keep me interested, and I only listen to it while I’m painting. When I go to paint, the first thing I do is start listening to my book. Even if I’m not in the mood to paint, just turning on the story gets me pumped to paint. I can’t not paint while I’m “reading” my book! It definitely says, “Start!”
The tyranny of resistance
by J. Bruce Wilcox, Denver, CO, USA
After years of working on myself, I’ve come to understand that the word procrastination is an illusion, speaking about an ‘effect.’ The correct term is resistance. A person can go into physical, mental, spiritual or creative resistance, but what they most often go into is emotional resistance. Going into mental resistance happens when we’re just plain brain-tired. However, we all had experiences growing up that left us in emotionally charged situations that we tend to avoid, rather than deal with. These emotional charges, because of their magnetic nature, will continuously draw back into our life situations to help us look at, and therefore hopefully deal with, resistance, as resistance carries a negative charge that gets in the way of completion and/or manifestation.
When a person completes something, they open themselves up to being judged on both sides of the success/failure issue. This triggers the “I’m not good enough” pattern. If you never finish anything, then no one can say you failed at it. If your inner child is still holding on to negative/destructive patterns (based solely on your inability to complete) then you will endlessly find something else to do, i.e., go into resistance as deadlines approach, or as expectations to manifest something (both from within and without) trigger your success/failure patterns. Learning to complete is essential to manifesting a successful life experience.
If you were told as a child you weren’t creative, then finding your creativity as an adult can be very difficult. Yet your creativity will endlessly call out to you, because creativity is far more important to the individual human being than our society wants to acknowledge. The creative individual is a lot harder to control and manipulate. If early repression is successful, your creativity may never be fully realized. This creativity block causes a great deal of mental illness, because a lot of mental illness is emotionally based. We are taught to deny our full range of emotions that, when expressed correctly, actually help to heal an individual.
Many people procrastinate because they love the adrenaline rush they get when forced to work extra hard on something to complete it because they have a looming deadline. This society is completely set up as a continuum of endless deadlines. You can call these people adrenaline junkies, a term that also applies to a lot of people who are sports/competition fanatics. This rush can cause an addictive behavior because putting things off to the last moment will facilitate getting your fix.
There are regular times when I get to a point in my work where I am tired — recognized by the fact that I’ve just made a second mistake. Being tired/in resistance to one thing doesn’t get in the way of working on something else. This is the reason I always have many things going on at once. There was a time where going into serious resistance to one thing got in the way of working on everything. I had to heal this dysfunctional pattern.
There is no difference between success and failure, because each leads to further growth. A profound freedom is gained when this reality is accepted. You cannot fail at your life experience as long as you are pursuing your creativity relentlessly. It is helpful though to heal the negative patterns that stand in the way, because resistance is futile, as we all know from Star Trek.
The eternal moment-to-moment
by Donald Kruger, Culver City, CA, USA
‘There is only now’… in this eternal moment-to-moment. The rest is delusion. The attached hangs on the wall over my workspace, the quintessential tension of both procrastination and productive mastery.
oil on board
You may be interested to know that artists from every state in the USA, every province in Canada, and at least 115 countries worldwide have visited these pages since January 1, 2004.
That includes Barbara who wrote, “My favorite saying to eliminate procrastination is, ‘Creative blocks are optional.’ ”
And also Moncy Barbour of Lynchburg Virginia, USA who wrote, “I’m surprised at how well this letter describes me in my studio. I contemplate and when I’m ready I turn the radio on. I use uplifting music and when I’m finished working the music goes off. And I say that great journeys begin with the space between one’s ears.”
And also Peter Carter who wrote, “When I was in grade school, my teacher told me it wasn’t good to procrastinate. When I finally got around to looking it up, I found she was right.”
And also Mary Merz who wrote, “Procrastination has its benefits. What we put off and doesn’t really need to be done, can eventually be eliminated from the list, saving lots of energy. Lists are useful, too, we know just where we are in avoiding things to be done.”
And also Brad Greek of Mary Esther Florida, USA who wrote, “How’s about ‘I always wanted to procrastinate, but I never got around to it.’ ”
And also Jennifer Seymour who wrote, “Procrastination is like any addiction in that you’re never cured. I recommend The Creative Habit: Learn it and Use it for Life by Twyla Tharp.”
And also Marie Nevis who wrote, “When you never begin, you can never fail.”
And also Carmen Mongeau who wrote, “I have a sign in my studio which says: “JUST PAINT.” It works for me!”