“How did I get here?”
It’s a question I’ve found myself asking many times before. Here again, late at night, wondering just exactly how it is that I am where I am. But this isn’t the late-night existential pondering of a person lying in bed, staring at the ceiling and contemplating life’s meaning; nor am I David Byrne, looking back at my life with freaked-out regret — although there is an element of both the nocturnal and the regretful in my question.
Instead, I’m staring at my computer screen and the blank word document looking back at me. It’s some ungodly hour in the middle of the night. My second coffee of the night-now-turned-morning is next to me — I guess the purpose of the first cup was just to get me to start thinking about writing this paper that’s due tomorrow. The blinking black text cursor in the top left of the sea of white seems to be mocking me: “When I’m blinking, that means you’re not writing!”
This is not a new experience for me. I’m pissed about it.
“How did I get here … again?”
The simple answer, of course, is that I’ve procrastinated. In spite of telling myself “Never again” after my last all-nighter, and the one before that and the one before that, I’ve inevitably found myself in the same situation all over again.
Ah, procrastination: the bane of many a student’s existence. I’ve been a serial procrastinator for a long time, and even though I’m aware of it and I hate it, I can’t seem to overcome it. How did I become such a prolific dilly-dallier in the first place? It’s clear that for me, the Internet is the main culprit, and getting my own laptop for the first time in 10th grade — along with the world of potential distractions it brought with it — was a salient event on the path to my current condition of computer-induced pseudo-ADD.
As I think about all of this, still sitting in an empty library, my paper hardly started, with harsh fluorescent lights serving as the only reminder that I might not be the only person up at this hour, I naturally decide it’s time for a break. All that staring at a blank screen is tough work. I decide to look up the root of the word “procrastinate.” From the Latin procrastinatus, from pro: forward + cras: tomorrow. I contemplate this for a while before realizing, “Hey, it is tomorrow. Yes, that same tomorrow that this paper is due!” Frustration wells up within me, because this is probably the 30th time tonight that I’ve let myself go down one of these Internet-enabled tangents.
I want to throw my computer away. I really do. I frequently envision myself during these moments getting up from my desk, picking up my precious laptop and chucking it at the nearest trashcan. Or maybe just at the wall. But this fantasy obviously isn’t plausible, nor would it solve anything. Like many students, I need my computer for basically all of my schoolwork. So I sigh, and I do my best to refocus and get back to work.
Now, this isn’t the old condemnation of the Digital Age that calls for us to return to ye (g)olden days when people wrote letters, read, had greater attention spans and actually talked to each other, by goodness! While I do sometimes wish for those “simpler” times with their fewer distractions and stimuli, that argument is narrow-minded and gives no credit to the incredible ways in which technology has improved our lives. I just know that I’m more susceptible to the diversions offered by the Internet than other people are. My laptop is a portal to an entire world of things that can distract me, from Facebook to YouTube to fantasy sports. Yes, there’s the SelfControl app, but even that has its loopholes, and there’s always your handy smartphone with 3G or 4G. To all of you who are able to sit down in front of a computer, block everything out, and finish an assignment days before the deadline: I envy you. And I’m trying to get on your level.
My struggle with procrastination is clearly a struggle to be more disciplined, to practice more SelfControl. The weird thing is that in many other ways, I am disciplined. In spite of my bad habit of doing homework at the last minute, I’m a dedicated student and I devote myself fully to my work — once I actually get around to it, that is. Another weird thing is that as unhealthy as my habits are, they’ve always worked. My procrastination may cause me more stress and sleep deprivation than I’d like, but I always finish my work. Set a deadline for me and I’ll meet it. So what real reason have I had to change my ways, other than the constant thought of “Eventually I’ll have to”? This way of doing things probably won’t work in the real world after college, but do I really need to fix them this instant?
The answer, though, is an unequivocal Yes. Pulling all-nighters is obviously unhealthy. But just as important to me is the fact that my biggest source of frustration throughout my years of being a procrastinator has been the sheer amount of time I’ve wasted doing utterly inane shit on my computer. I want to be more productive with my time. I’m an English major, but I haven’t read nearly as many books as I’d like. I hold on to a pipe dream of one day becoming a screenwriter, but my list of movies to watch and ideas to write down keeps getting longer and longer. I want the time to just go for a walk every once in a while. I know that if I didn’t procrastinate so much, I’d be able to do more of these things. Yet my mental block has lingered, and I haven’t been able to figure out how to fix it. Until recently.
Several months ago, during one of my wonderful procrastinatory frolics across the Internet, as it happens, I came across something that may have finally given me the impetus I needed. A quote from Gustave Flaubert, a writer I know next to nothing about, but who I’d like to think I’d be more familiar with if I weren’t always wasting my time in front of a screen:
“Be regular and orderly in your life, so that you may be violent and original in your work.”
The combination of a desire for discipline but also excitement and creativity seemed to intertwine perfectly with my own frustrations. I’ve often looked down upon the idea of a perfectly ordered life, considering it artificial and unfulfilling, and I think that mentality contributed to my habit of putting off work. I thought a “regular” life and an exciting one were mutually exclusive, but that’s not the case. I can have both. It’s the old mantra: Do what you have to do now so you can do what you want to do later.
That may seem like an obvious lesson to most, but it’s one that took me years to fully embrace. And my new mindset is already paying dividends. Every time I have the urge to check Facebook when I should be working, I think of this quote. Every time I think “I can just start this later,” I think of this quote. And as I finish this piece of writing with (a decent amount of) time before my deadline, with the insanity of midterms behind me and a free weekend ahead of me, I really think Flaubert might’ve been on to something. So if you’re someone who has grappled with the same affliction that I have, consider this message. Focus on the things you need to do now so you can do violent and original things with the time you save. Go read a book. Go build something. Write a screenplay. Throw your computer in the trash. OK, maybe not that violent, but you get my point.