Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task. ~William James

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Raising Recovering Procrastinators

Procrastinating does not seem to be a particularly high order talent.  Even monkeys do it! Nor are we likely to run short on practitioners, human or otherwise.  Experts appear to be divided on whether or not goofing off in the face of deadlines and commitments is an inherited trait.  But nature or nurture, by hook or by crook, I find myself surrounded by time-challenged individuals.

I don't remember my parents having major issues with delay when I was growing up.  But then I wasn't paying that much attention to them.  Housekeeping standards were somewhat lax, about what you might expect with a perpetually absent physician father and five children.  But sometime after I left home, I began to notice some organizational issues.  No one in my family of origin seems to be able to keep track of keys.  Most of us can't seem to mail packages.  And now that we depend on the mail to bridge the distances that separate us, annual holiday gifts and greetings routinely arrive embarrassingly close to the next occasions--Christmas gifts by Mother's Day, birthday greetings by Thanksgiving, etc.  "Manana" would be an apt motto for our family crest, if we had one.

In the family I am still bringing up, I am genetically related to two of my three children.  Two of my children are serious procrastinators--and I gave birth to only one of them.  They are also my two youngest, and still in a life stage at special risk for displaying such behavior.  Perhaps they will "mature out" of this unfortunate group.  But both foot-dragging siblings have grown up in the shadow of my most desultory performances.  And both seem firmly committed at present to living out this bequest. 

My eldest could be called an anti-procrastinator.  She is currently finishing her thesis while juggling family, work and a failing dog.  Her ubiquitous lists are not elegant--they litter her dining room table, written on every available scrap of paper--but they keep her on target.  Her thesis supervisor recently sent out a revised deadline which alarmed her, but she was told on inquiring that this prod was for "the other students"--the procrastinators--and not for her.  Over the years as a responsible and conscientious worker I have found myself in many "good" groupings--but not, in my memory, in the on-time, on-schedule category.  I am in awe of my daughter's capability in this foreign arena.

With all of my children, I attempted to teach what I knew (in my head, anyway) about how projects and deadlines should be handled.  When they were young, this teaching was at a nitty gritty level which required me to keep to the schedule with them, shaping long-term work in stages.  But when it was time for them to take on more and more ownership of their processes and products, when the scaffolding of my supervision was removed, the inner tarriers emerged.  Even my daughter, who would go on to timeliness glory, had to learn the hard way that self-created last-minute pressure hurts!

I suspect that at the heart of my family's difficulties with keeping on task is the contradiction between our free spirit personalities and immersion in modern enterprises and institutions which are better suited to automatons.  But calling ourselves dreamers, artists, or Bohemians doesn't really get us off the hook.  Because the habit of procrastinating doesn't just annoy the IRS and aggravate academic bodies--it kills dreams.  

So as with virtually everything we do after we have children, we have the responsibility to get it right, not just for ourselves, but for them too.  I keep on trying to learn what I can about getting the stuff I care about done, because I need to, and because they are watching.

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