One can never underestimate the self-sabotaging power of procrastination.
I spent four days this week at a remote retreat center near St. Martins, New Brunswick called In the Stillness (www.inthestillness.ca) because I wanted time to jumpstart a special project. I whined about needing a place with no interruptions and no distractions. No stifling, familiar surroundings, no domestic duties.
When I arrived on top of the mountain retreat overlooking the Bay of Fundy, my hostess led me to a tiny, rustic cabin in the midst of an overgrown stand of aged spruce. On the deck was a dishpan and drying rack atop a long wooden bench beside a water source. Across from the deck was a lazy hammock hanging among the tall trees.
Inside the cabin was a twin bed, a desk, a couple of chairs and two lamps. An electric heater for chilly nights and a cooler for coffee cream. But no Internet or cell phone access, no television or radio. No connection to the outside world.
No distractions. My husband gave me one of those looks and he snickered. “Hey, look! It’s exactly what you wanted!” he said. “I bet you’re going to have a great time. See you Friday.” And then he was gone.
I sat on the bed, panicking a little. Through the window, I watched a little red squirrel skitter along dead logs and branches in front of the deck. I watched him eat. I’ve never seen a creature nibble so fast, like his life depended on it.
At that moment, I felt just as manic as he. I imagined myself at a twelve-step meeting. “Hel-ll-llo… I’m… Rh-rh-onda Bulmer and I’m a procrastination addict.
You see, I came here to put a huge dent in a big project, but now I don’t think I can do it. There’s no Facebook, no email messages, no Internet surfing, no telephone (except up at the main house, and who wants to walk all the way up there?) There’s no kitchen to take one-too-many snack breaks or reheat my coffee. I’m actually going to have to do what I came here to do and produce something—anything—decent, or I’ll feel like a big, fat fraud. It’s too much pressure! I can’t deal with it! ARRrrgh!”
Then I shook myself. Good grief—There’s fantastic coastline to explore, even though it’s an awfully long trek down. There are walking trails, too…if you’re not afraid of bears or coyotes. (Maybe cougars!) Come on, I thought, this is going to be great. By the end of it, you’ll only wish you’d had more time.
So I arranged my work on the desk close to the window. Every once in a while I glanced up, wondering what the squirrel was doing. I noticed the water spigot on the deck was leaking. My goodness, maybe the owners should know about that. I mean, who wants to waste water? I pull on my rubber boots and squish through the soft moss to report my findings.
They thanked me and I returned to my perch by the window. It’s so quiet here. I put my chin in my right hand, thrummed the desk with the fingers of my left. What am I going to do for the rest of the day?
I looked at the bed.
So I lay down to read until the book grew heavy and I took a nap—a good one, actually.
When I awoke, I went to the computer and wrote a paragraph.
But then I had to pee. So I put my boots back on and trudged up to the bathroom at the main building.
I came back and wrote a couple lines of dialogue.
Then I looked at the bag of Easter-coloured peanut M&Ms sitting by my laptop and popped a few in my mouth. Would the squirrel like some? I threw him some walnuts instead.
A mouse appeared and grabbed a fragment greedily and then darted back through a hole under a tree root. I was angry. “Those aren’t for you, you dirty little monster!” I cried, tapping at the window.
Later, there was a tap at the door. The owners’ daughter brought me a couple of chocolate chip cookies. “How sweet,” I said. “Thank you.” She smiled shyly and left.
Well, if I have cookies, I should have some coffee. I waited while I brewed a pot.
There’s always a way to procrastinate.
In her book Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking, Susan Cain references the work of psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi on the state of being he calls “flow.”
“Flow is an optimal state in which you feel totally engaged in an activity—whether long-distance swimming or songwriting, sumo wrestling or sex. In a state of flow, you’re neither bored nor anxious, and you don’t question your own adequacy. Hours pass without your noticing.”
I have experienced this during writing sessions, but not often. Mustn’t something come easy to you in order to experience flow?
The answer is in the next paragraph. “The key to flow,” writes Cain, “is to pursue an activity for its own sake, not for the rewards it brings.”
Dare I suggest two other keys to flow: maybe discipline and persistence?
My muse the squirrel stayed with me all week, lured by copious amounts of walnut fragments. I did manage to put a dent in my project and developed a roadmap to finish—but not as much as I hoped. Let’s face it, I’m unrealistic. My reward-oriented brain expected more, but despite all that I did experience a couple of magic flowing moments.
And I suppose that’s the lesson a hopeless procrastinator needs to learn: That life cannot be a continuous stream of perfect productivity. But if you’re persistent, there can be beauteous moments of “flow” flanked by long periods of simply being in the present—what C.S. Lewis refers to as, “God’s eternal Now.”