Thursday, March 15, 2012

I’ll do it later

On Shabbat afternoon, I was reading a magazine article about preparing for Pesach. I anticipated the month ahead with excitement, all the planning, shopping, cooking, cleaning and learning for the holiday, culminating in the seder night. I actually felt excited as I thought about the cleaning, since it was Shabbat and I couldn’t actually DO any Pesach cleaning.

Like many procrastinators, I am full of optimism about what lies ahead. I imagine some future version of myself zipping around the house, getting ready for Pesach while spring unfolds outside my window. This version of me, by the way, is twenty pounds skinnier, better rested, and has excellent posture.


The article I was reading began with a tale of how the author helped a hapless housewife who was so overwhelmed by the idea of cleaning for Pesach that she, “did what many women do: she procrastinated! When Pesach was a mere four weeks away, she knew she couldn’t push it off any longer.”

Emphasis mine.

Now, let’s set aside the fact that this article, the first in a series, was actually published four weeks before Pesach, and assumes that the reader has not started yet. So the author’s going to help her, but not before she gets in a little dig.

But I want to raise a different point, which is this: Really? Seriously? Four weeks away was the longest she could put off starting her Pesach cleaning? This woman is clearly an amateur procrastinator. Friends, she certainly could have put it off longer. Believe me, I speak from experience.

* * *

I am no amateur. I am a serious, life-long procrastinator. I am married to a procrastinator. I procrastinated on writing this blog post, and now I am putting off washing the dishes by writing instead. I call to you from the depths of procrastination.

I really don’t want to dread getting ready for Pesach. I love Pesach. I do everything I can to stay focused spiritually and to keep it simple; I don’t take on extra stringencies in the cleaning. But there’s only so much simplifying a person can do. Getting ready for a major holiday involves a lot of details.

And details overwhelm me. So I procrastinate.

In my life, I have suffered consequences from putting things off: opportunities missed; late fees and express mailing charges paid; time spent rushing around filling prescriptions, buying bread etc. because I didn’t plan ahead and stock up.

And then there’s the shame. Embarrassing conversations, other people’s disappointment, yes. But mostly just the inner cringe of not measuring up to what I could be, of not having my act together.

* * *

My husband and I moved to New Jersey two weeks before our twin daughters were born. I had 60 days to transfer my driver’s license, but of course I was sort of busy. And then I put it off.

So, when my girls were about five months old, and I was still in a new-parent fog, I got pulled over for making an ill-timed left turn. And I still only had my Arizona license with my New York address (agh, don’t ask).

“Where are you headed?” The officer asked.

As it happens, I was headed to a support group that was held in a church basement. But that seemed like an awful lot of detail, so I just said, “Church.”

Now, I’m glad the cop didn’t wonder why an Orthodox Jew was headed to church on a weeknight, but okay. She did want to know what the deal was with my license. And on top of that, I couldn’t find the car’s registration.

I fumbled around and started to stammer and cry. She didn’t ticket me. She just looked at me with exasperation and said, “You are so not together.”

I nodded. Woman, you don’t know the half of it.

* * *

I am so not together. That is my resting state. But I have become a planner, an organizer, a maker of lists. Left to my own devices, I am dreamy and forgetful and, of course, a procrastinator. But I don’t like living with the consequences of my nature. So I compensate with external structure: schedules, charts and plans.

And yet, whether it’s my weekly Shabbat preparation , an event or a larger project, I usually end up cramming at the last minute, just as I did when I was in school.

And when I was a student, there was always this poison moment when my procrastinator’s optimism wore off. Then I was left with dread and despair and shame. I would be afraid I couldn’t finish in time. I would realize that I could have done so much better and enjoyed the experience more if I’d only planned better and started earlier.

That last-minute shame stayed with me through adulthood, through my working life and my current turn as a homemaker. I would plan carefully and bribe myself to start early, but if there was work undone at the last minute, I felt like a loser and played a loop of recriminations inside my head.

* * *

This is how a Facebook status update changed my life. Seriously. One year, as Pesach was approaching, my friend C posted an update that read something like, “I have to admit that I am just a last-minute person. I was like that in college, and I guess that’s just the way I work.”

The teeniest firework went off in my brain. What would happen if I stopped shaming myself about my procrastination and just embraced the last minute?

For all the advantages of starting early, the last minute has its own distinct pleasure. I love the sense of focus and direction I feel as I buckle down and get to work. I like to play music as I work and ride a wave of adrenaline. If I’m going to end up rushing at the last minute anyway, why spoil the experience with a grouchy internal monologue? Instead, I can follow C’s example and just say, this is who I am. It has its own advantages.

* * *

I heard about an academic who has taken this self-acceptance a step further and actually uses his procrastinating ways to his advantage. You can read more about that here. That path isn’t for me, though. I still hold out hope of being an ordered person, a brave person, a person who gets an early start on projects.

Pesach is a recreation of the exodus from Egypt. The Torah calls Egypt “Mitzrayim,” a state of constriction. Yetziat Mitzrayim, the exodus from Egypt, stands in Jewish thought as an exodus from limitation and constraint.

So I’m not giving up. I want so much to be reborn, to transcend my bonds. I don’t want to live in fear of deadlines, in physical and mental disarray. I want to leave Mitzrayim.

But maybe this year, I will arrive at the last minute with work undone. Then, I will turn the music up loud and attack my projects with purpose and determination and joy, as spring unfolds outside my window.


Pamela said...

You are brave. Are emphasized. Any one can plan, pace and present. Voila. But it is the magic, the unpredictable outcome that delights. You probably remember all of the Pesach surprises that were unplanned and, yet, created wonderful memories for our family. I hate to disagree with authority, but daughter, you are so together.

israeli mom said...

I love reading your blog, and it was definitely worth procrastonating this morning and starting work a bit later ,just to read it! I especially enjoyed the story with the cop! ("Im going to church", I can just picture that!) Just as we must learn to accept our children for who they are, and embrace their ENTIRE personalities, so must we embrace our ENTIRE selves as well. I for one am not a "planner", have to use lists for everything, etc...but what would life be without spontenaity? THanks for sharing your thoughts with us- SHabbat Shalom!!!

Shoshana said...

Wow, this post was like looking in a virtual blogospheric mirror. You just described me to a T - I'm almost getting chills here! I love that you've embraced your inner procrastinator - it's something I've struggled with my entire life. I, too, have felt the shame, the disappointment, and shuddered at the disapproval, from both myself and others. I'm also just learning now to embrace the last minute life, and find the good in it. Here's to you, me, and all our fellow procrasti-sisters out there finding some inner peace and purpose in our Pesach preparations this year, and throughout our lives!

Sara said...

Thank you soooo much for sharing this. I always feel like I'm the only one "not together" and am constantly beating myself up about it(when I'm not scrambling around trying to get myself out of pickles). You really gave me some comfort about this. Bless you!

shoshana said...

love the link to structured procrastination site! what sometimes works for me for short-term projects (but NOT pesach cleaning, unfortunately!!) is to pretend i'm an organized person and then act like an organized person would act. sounds stupid, but it sometimes works for me. like the structured procrastination prof says, procrastination (effective and otherwise) requires a lot of self-deception!
p.s. i tried the sh...m...a... relaxation technique you mentioned once in passing, and it really helps with tantrums, where breathing and counting have failed! thanx!

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