Living in your head

Art Life , Op-ed Oct 29, 2010 2 Comments

Putting off that thing that you just haven’t got around to doing? Well, Carrie Miller eventually got around to writing this post on procrastination and argues that wasting time is actually aall part of the creative process…

You’re doing it now, aren’t you? Go on, admit it. I’m guessing you can justify it because you’re in the art world and this is a website about the art world so, technically speaking, reading this is not really doing it.

Actually, I’m doing it too. I have an important PhD deadline and writing this could wait.

Procrastination is a common behaviour – people are always putting off mowing the lawn, doing their taxes, even telling their partner the relationship’s over.

The standard psychological view is that procrastination stems from anxiety, a low sense of self-worth, and a self-defeating mentality. Moreover, the process of procrastinating can result in feelings of guilt and stress, compounding the original feelings that lead to procrastination in the first place.

Thus procrastination becomes an habituated pattern of behaviour – one that becomes hard to break, particularly in a world where cats that look like Hitler photos are so easy to upload on Facebook. For a bit of recreational procrastination, check out all the websites on handy hints to overcoming it.

Apparently there’s even a stigma attached to it which prevents people from seeking help for the condition (sounds like procrastination to me).

On the standard view then, procrastination doesn’t seem to have much going for it. From the time you’re a kid and had geography homework to do, till you get into relationships where your job is to take out the garbage, someone’s nagging you to quit putting things off.

Well, as a life-long procrastinator, I’m interested in whether it can be re-conceived, maybe not as a virtue, but at least as a necessary, productive, part of the creative process.

Because there does seem to be something specific to creativity which intensifies the need to procrastinate. I know this because I spend hours on the phone talking to writers and artists and academics ruminating over our inability to start, finish or continue a project.

Some would say that the high levels of procrastination by creative people is just because the stakes are higher in their activities (which are often deeply implicated in who they are) than in more mundane activities. In other words, they get paralysed by a type of existential anxiety.

But even if this is true, wouldn’t it be better to conceive of your inability to produce in positive terms rather than freaking out and fearing failure constantly?

That’s why I theorise that my need to slack off is actually a process of getting out of my disembodied head and back into my body – the site of future actions and productivity.

Think about it. When people procrastinate they usually indulge in sensual pleasures, pleasures of the body – I take long baths, eat chocolate, watch really mindless TV and read serial killer books (which are definitely corporeal).

And this gets me anchored back in my body. I’m no longer a Cartesian ‘mind in a vat’ but an embodied person capable of action again. And sure enough, I do get back to work and meet my deadlines.

So, I reckon that, contrary to all the moralising about laziness and lack of willpower, doing nothing is sometimes integral to doing something, especially something creative. And I’m not talking about ‘productive’ procrastination of which this column is an example. I’m producing something while avoiding producing something else.

I mean I think it’s important to lay on the couch eating crappy food, watching reality TV, playing computer games, surfing YouTube, not bothering to answer the phone. This type of seemingly meaningless lack of goal-directed action returns us to a state of almost infantile embodiment which necessarily short-circuits the infinite regress of trying to solve conceptual problems in our heads.

Creative people often live in their heads and as we all know, the best antidote to being stuck in your head is taking action. That’s what all the self-help books will tell you, you lazy slug.

But there are times when, for whatever reason, it’s not that simple. You’ve been there and so have I. So instead of compounding procrastinating behaviour with feelings of guilt and worthlessness, I propose you let go of your negative self-evaluating and treat your body like an amusement park. Go low-brow. Pull on your trackies, get under that unwashed doona, put on Celebrity Rehab while jamming Tim Tams into your mouth and surfing porn on your iPhone. It will be good for your practice.

Carrie Miller


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  2. Kimberley

    As I have been procrastinating for a good week or so now, this article assisted in the process. It was an insightful read yet I am still in two minds about procrastination – i do feel somewhat guilty but at the same time i think “stuff it, i deserve to do nothing after working hard this year for my painting degree”. Interesting article 🙂

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