Category Archives: Procrastination

The Not Chair

DislineatedIn a drawing class a few years ago, a teacher asked us to draw a chair by depicting all the spaces around it. Drawing the not-chair, he told us, restarts the mind, tricks it into bypassing the brain’s assumptions about how a chair should look. The exercise does, as he promised, force you to scrutinize the scene afresh.

Figuratively speaking, I’ve been drawing the not-chair a lot recently.

With my 60th birthday approaching Paperclipsand after 36 years of teaching, I’m working part-time this year, meaning I have not only fewer classes but also fewer responsibilities as advisor, club sponsor, or coach. My schedule is largely open. I arrive a little before I teach. I leave a little after I finish. This new regimen is only a couple of weeks old but feels mostly like not-teaching. Assumptions about my life’s purpose have changed.

Like probably most people, furniture fills my day. Usual tasks take up its room: exercising, making a bag lunch for work, commuting, visiting Starbucks, and engaging in various other regular activities you may know as well as I do. And most of that furniture—until this fall—surrounded work. I had little time left over after planning for class, grading papers, meeting with colleagues, and answering student emails.

Now I look for ways to occupy my newly expansive day. I already have one other sort of furniture—writing a daily haiku for my haiku blog—and, in June, I added another by creating Instagram account (@davidb.marshall) for a daily doodle. “Doodle,” though, may not be the right term for what I post there, some of which take hours to complete. Perhaps because it’s easier to draw patterns than it is to think about what I really need to do, I spend a lot of time brainlessly coloring in shapes or painting pages in preparation for making shapes to color in. Maybe as long as I have the time to doodle there’s no harm in it, but I’m never sure whether I’m using time or filling it in. I believe in any endeavor that I can regard as practice—that’s what I tell myself, anyway—but how does one become a more skilled doodler?

Devil's TableclothSo I also work on work more than necessary—planning, grading, and planning some more. My son correctly predicted I’d have trouble kicking workahol, and he was right. I’m still waking at 4 am to reread what I’m teaching and put the finest of finishing touches on lesson plans. I’ve discovered you never need run out of work if you can think of more work to do. I’ve concluded everything takes exactly as long as you have to do it.

Plus, what I want to do stands little chance against what others want from me.fuzzy A life of fulfilling expectations, keeping appointments, and meeting deadlines hasn’t prepared me for initiative. For a workaholic, a fine line divides idleness and guilt. Relaxation seems out of the question. I read the back pages of the paper, listen to podcasts as soon as they appear in my feed, and try to do those household chores I too often neglect. I’m embarrassed to admit how often I check Instagram. Yet I wonder about where I’m going,  who I am now that I’m only part time me.

So far, I’ve found time for everything but redefinition. Where does identity come from—circumstance or choice? Once you remove the chair, how do you draw the not-chair?


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More Grading To Do

image08My new metaphor for grading is climbing an electric fence. I used to say grading papers was like sticking your finger in an electric socket a number of times equal to the number of papers you need to mark, but that comparison implies too much choice. Once you collect student work you have to keep climbing until you’re over the fence and standing on the other side. You really can’t pause to decide if you want more.

Both metaphors involve electricity because, as any teacher will tell you, being locked with another mind on paper is an intense experience. Teachers may do nothing more important than helping students write, and wanting to do a good job contributes to the agony. When you have to guess what the writer means, when you have to complete circuits, when you must make thoughtful suggestions for revisions (which you may then also have to assess), you begin to feel like a masochist who never quite reaches the pleasure part.

Sometimes—foolishly—I complain to students about all the grading I must do. Their response is predictable. “Then don’t assign so much writing,” they say. The trouble, of course, is how to teach writing without having them write. Computers make it easier to compose, correct, and revise, but they don’t (yet) create essays. The labor of getting ideas down is the same, and no technological substitute (yet) transforms thoughts into coherent sentences, paragraphs, and compositions.

The same is true of grading. I can lean on rubrics. I can “track changes” on Word. I can create a catalog of frequent comments on Each might improve the feedback I offer, but none save time. The synapse between their thinking and my response gapes regardless. Student writers still present patchy thinking, trip into what I’ve suggested they avoid, and abandon exploring ideas just when they reach the interesting part.

I know writing is challenging. You have a picture in your mind of a finished product and can’t quite get there or, perhaps worse, the picture changes as it stretches toward new interests, new connections, new insights, new organization and phrasing. To use another metaphor, writing is building a bridge from one bank, a process filled with reconsidering and shoring up, all while you watch currents churning beneath you. Rarely do essays turn out as you expect and even more rarely do they turn out as you hope.

Yet, sympathizing doesn’t help me grade any faster. I stand before that fence, dreading the climb. Once I begin, I want it over but, until I begin, I wait for dedication and courage. My policy is to allow three or four class days to return student work, but, if that span doesn’t include a weekend, uh oh. A full day teaching doesn’t prepare me to sit before a stack of essays, and any diversion will draw me off. I’m avoiding papers right now… though, when is that not true?

In education, we are always after a better way. Seduced by project based learning, collaborative learning, authentic learning, outcome-based learning, quantifiable learning, differentiated learning, deep learning, experiential learning, technology-enhanced learning, empathetic learning, focused learning, mixed modality learning, brain-based learning—or whatever new learning will be uncovered this week—we look for entry, another means to reach students. Yet, no matter which method we choose, we serve them—our clients, our charges, our object, our learners.

And maybe it’s that necessity, finally, that makes marking papers so arduous. After more than 30 years teaching, I know what will happen when I turn this Sunday’s papers back. Some students will read comments closely and some will turn to the last page, but few will appreciate my aching eyes, my buzzing mind, my gratitude standing on solid ground again.

All of us will groan—students outwardly, and me inwardly—when the next assignment arrives, but, at least for a few seconds, I’d love them to know I’ve done something important.

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Right now, I should be doing something else—the something else someone intends for me or the something else I meant to do some time ago and pushed off and back and over and under and out of sight.

Everything feels like procrastination. I could be philosophical and ask, “Isn’t life procrastinating—living to avoid the alternative?”  But that’s exactly what we procrastinators do, dwell in abstractions to wiggle out from under anything pressing.

In another context, any task can be diversionary… or essential:

  • Continue working on a painting when I ought to help clean the house, procrastinating.
  • Clean the house to avoid opening e-mail, procrastinating.
  • Answer e-mail to avoid writing my blog post, procrastinating.
  • Write a post on procrastination to avoid the stack of papers pulsing in my satchel…

If I’m too weary to go on, that’s procrastination too. Once I overcome the inertia to begin, just short of the finish line, I stop to wonder what pen this cap might fit and go looking. I stack fruit into a tower. I remove “that” from my prose or take notes on not procrastinating.

Ambition is procrastination of the worst sort. I can rehearse jigsaw solutions down to the last piece or devise Rube Goldberg solutions that turn every step into seventeen.  Each task takes hours because I know everything about work but nothing about the pleasure of completing.  I believe any insane excuse before I believe finishing will feel good.

I’m hypersensitive when, with growing  insistence, people illuminate how little I’ve accomplished.  How easy, non-procrastinators say, to stop thinking and begin doing.  “If you put in half the energy you do into grumbling,” the well-adjusted begin…

All true. I have no believable defense.  Psychological reasons for procrastination—perfectionism, fear of failure or success, thrill-seeking, passive aggression—all neurotic. Try to come up with reasons—”pressure motivates me” and “never leap without looking”—and the well-prepared sense your talent at delusion.

My defenses can’t be trusted.  I’m the boy who cried, “Later.”

You recognize my guilt.  I’d like to celebrate not doing, but can’t. Those pleasurable respites—the cups of coffee, the movie I’ve seen, the leisurely floats in the jetsam of the web—are never as deserved and enjoyable as I mean them to be.  They might be, if I could be happy with now, giving myself wholeheartedly to the present with no pesky, shadowy obligations lurking.

Impossible. I might always give myself to what I’m avoiding, seek pleasure in those tasks, in that present. If I could enjoy what’s required, I’d be cured.  I ‘d deserve dessert at last.

I mean to. I mean to see time as a field for cultivation, not an infinite jungle.

But my procrastination is unreasonable and unreasoned, a faith in time’s plenty, an unshakable belief that odious tasks will always be waiting… no matter what I shouldn’t be doing right now.

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