The Curious Irony of Procrastination

Do writers procrastinate more than other people? I wouldn’t know for sure just because I have no idea how much procrastination counts as the norm and what depths practitioners of other trades sink to. But I procrastinate a great deal. (Thank you for indulging me in my description of myself as a ‘writer’; if you prefer, I could just use ‘blogger.’) At any given moment, there are many, many tasks I can think of–not all of them writerly–that I intend to get around to any hour, day, week, month, year or life now. (I procrastinate on this blog too; I’ve promised to write follow-ups to many posts and almost never get around to doing so.) This endless postponement is a source of much anxiety and dread. Which, of course, is procrastination’s central–and justifiably famous–irony.

You procrastinate because you seek relief from anxiety, because you dread encounters with the uncertainty, frustration, and intractability you sense in the tasks that remain undone. But the deferment you seek relief in becomes a source of those very sensations you sought to avoid. The affliction feared and the putative relief provider are one and the same. It is a miserable existence to suffer so.

One of my longest running procrastinations is close to the two-year mark now; this period has been particularly memorable–in all the wrong ways–because it has been marked by a daily ritual that consists of me saying ‘Tomorrow, I’ll start.’ (I normally go through this in the evening or late at night.) And on the day after, I wake up, decide to procrastinate again, and reassure myself that tomorrow is the day it will happen. As has been noted in the context of quitting vices, one of the reasons we persist in our habits is because we are able to convince ourselves that quitting, getting rid of the old habit,  is easy. So we persist, indulging ourselves once more and reassuring ourselves of our imagined success in breaking out of the habit whenever we finally decide we are ready to do so. (But habits are habits for a reason; because they are deeply ingrained, because we practice them so, because we have made them near instinctual parts of ourselves. And that is why, of course, new habits are hard to form, and old habits are hard to break.)

Similarly for procrastination; we continue to put off for the morrow because we imagine that when the morrow rolls around, we will be able to easily not put off, to get down to the business at hand. All that lets us do, of course, is continue to procrastinate today. The only thing put off till the morrow is the repetition of the same decision as made today–the decision to defer yet again.

Now, if as Aristotle said, we are what we repeatedly do, I’m a procrastinator; I’m an irrational wallower in anxiety, condemning myself to long-term suffering for fear of being afflicted by a short-lived one. That is not a flattering description to entertain of oneself but it is an apt one given my history and my actions.

Ann Althouse on Rush Limbaugh: ‘Smart People’ Offer Weak Tea

Some nineteen years ago, I was working at Bell Laboratories in New Jersey, surrounded by a host of seemingly very intelligent men and women. Name the best technical schools in the country and the chances were you would find a graduate from most of them in any average corridor in the five-storied building of the Middletown location. All around me, over-qualified, high-achieving, electrical engineers, computer scientists and mathematicians, did their best to make sure I acquired a gigantic inferiority complex, equipped as I was with merely a puny masters degree in computer and information science from a small technical school in Newark.

Then, one day, suddenly, I didn’t feel like an intellectual midget any more. During my lunch break, as I partook of my three-times-a-week run in the surrounding environs, a car pulled up next to me, and a colleague of mine, one of those absurdly, over-qualified graduates from one of the nation’s best technical schools, popped his head out to ask what I was up to. As we exchanged pleasantries, I could hear Rush Limbaugh on his radio. Puzzled, I asked, “You listen to Limbaugh?”  He replied, “Yeah, he’s great; you should check him out sometime. He’s got lots of smart things to say. Makes a lot of sense.” And then, my colleague drove off, my expression of puzzlement still writ large on my face. But I felt strangely pleased too.  I might not have gone to the schools that these guys had, but by golly, I was smarter than them!

Flash forward. A couple of days ago, Ann Althouse, law professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, NYU Law School graduate, and considered a ‘conservative intellectual’, offered a critique of Limbaugh, which includes: First, the the usual, quaking-at-the-knees qualifier that any ‘critic’ of Limbaugh from the right feels compelled to offer (in Althouse’s case: “I like Rush Limbaugh, and I get his concept of media tweaking, and I get that he’s lampooning government regulation”) and then, after unpacking the various misrepresentations in his analysis, the following:

Quite aside from the lack of a factual basis for his humor, it’s just mean to aim words like “slut” and “prostitute” at a woman, especially a young woman, even if the metaphor is apt. Even when you get the joke and agree with the criticism of the policy she’s advocating, it feels ugly. The humor backfires.

“Even if the metaphor is apt”? If the “metaphor is apt” then why does it feel “ugly”? And why does Althouse then say “Even when you get the joke and agree with the criticism of the policy she’s advocating…The humor backfires.”? What was the joke in there? If I call Althouse a “retard” for liking Rush Limbaugh, is that a joke? No, its a polemical broadside. And why is someone who agrees with Sandra Fluke’s criticism find themselves in a position where they think the non-existent “metaphor” used to describe her is “apt” and “get” the non-existent “joke”?

Really, if Althouse was worried about Limbaugh going after her, or that she would lose her legions of feral commenters, she shouldn’t have bothered writing her post.

Update: I owe a hat-tip to David Auerbach, who directed me to Althouse’s post.

Nietzsche on Bloggers and Blogging

Today, continuing my series of posts on In Nietzsche You Can Find a Line for Everything, I give you Nietzsche on bloggers and blogging.

(The first two posts in this series drew on Human, All Too Human: A Book For Free Spirits, translated by RJ Hollingdale, Cambridge University Press, 1986 (this version includes Volume 2: Assorted Opinions and Maxims); that trend continues here, and will continue do do so for a while, though I suspect that as I teach my current semester’s seminar on Nietzsche, I will draw on other sources as well. The reliance on Human, All Too Human is grounded in my marking many of its passages as sources of sources of blogging inspiration; I will only move on when I have exhausted them. Which could, of course, take me many years. But who’s rushing? )

So, without further ado we have, first, from Volume 1, Chapter 8, “A Glance at the State”, Section 482:

And to repeat. – Public opinions – private indolence.

And then, from Volume 1, Chapter 9, “Man Alone with Himself”, Section 525:

Adherents out of contradictoriness. – He who has raised men up in rage against him has gained a party in his favor too.

I’m tempted to let these pass without comment but since this about this post is about the indulgences of blogging, why not bloviate a bit?

Section 482’s suggestion of private indolence’s entailment from public opinions is certainly provocative, and like most good Nietzschean aphorisms cuts uncomfortably close to the bone. How much easier to pontificate, prescribe and preach in public than to practice in private! (Apologies for the rampant and extravgant alliteration, it was entirely unintended.) The blogger invites diagnosis and treatment by his visible neurosis, on his insistence on exposing us to his need for public exposure. What private tasks has he left unaccomplished in his rush to publicize his ramblings?

Section 525’s linkage of blogging success and visibility to contrariness is even more suggestive. To be more than a speck of foam in the ocean of bloggers and blogging, conflict and engagement seems necessary. Votes of approval, chimings-in of support, acolytic hosannahs of one’s fellow-bloggers and writers simply will not do; better to rush on headlong into conflict, provoke outraged reaction, and to dispense advice, correction and critique freely.  Deploy the polemicist’s arsenal; drop all pretense to politeness; honey is over-rated; bring on the vinegar!

But Section 525’s real punch lies in helping us understand Nietzsche’s writing, his “will to power” even better. He wrote to make us read him; to re-read him, to return to him again and again to understand him, to figure him out. He might have feared a lack of comprehension of his ideas, a rejection of his claims. But he feared even more a systematic lack of attention, a casting aside and passing on. By writing again and again in a way that went straight for the jugular of so many of our safely established moral and intellectual comforts, he forced us to keep reading him, even if not  in agreement (and certainly, sometimes in angry disagreement). He knew all about bringing in the clicks and hits. A man for our time.