Discomfort is kicking my ass today. It’s that twitchy feeling I sometimes get in my chest when I have to do something hard and an inner voice is telling me I suck and since there’s no way I’ll succeed, I may as well put it off. Procrastinate.
Decades ago, when I used to get that feeling, like while I was writing my doctoral thesis in Zurich or preparing a seminar before I knew how or pumping myself up to have a difficult conversation or an argument with someone who I perceived as stronger or better than me, I would reach for my hard pack of Camel Lights.
Smoking created a ritualized space for my mind to wander. It bought me time and helped me find my rhythm. I’d start with tapping on the carton. Tap. Tap. A single cigarette breaks loose from the pack. I rest it in my lips and free my hands to strike the match. Bring fire to the tip of my cigarette. With my head slightly lifted I draw my breath in. The tip comes alive with a red cylindrical ember. So many years later, and I can still feel the hot, harsh, pleasure-pain as smoke hits my lungs. Slow exhale. Sharp inhale. Exhale again, but this time clicking my jaw to push perfect smoke rings skyward. Watch them float. Up. Dissipate. Disappear. An empty space. Before the next inhale.
And the door is open to Dreamtime.
Always, when I went back to my desk or to my personal drama, a shift had occurred, something flowed, something unexpected. These little breakthroughs felt so intimately coupled with my smoking ritual that I believed I would never be able to complete a project or meet a goal without it.
At least that's how I remember (romanticize?) it now.
These days, when I hit a snag I surf the Internet. In the past two hours I have checked my email five times, tracked down several online articles about the pros and cons of procrastination, had an unexpected Skype chat with a relative in another country and checked my Facebook more than once. (Plus peed three or four times and pet the dog.)
The Internet is busy: the opposite of empty. But still, could it be a 21st century version of my cigarette break? For better and for worse.
If I’m stuck or antsy for a nanosecond I can jump onto an on line amusement park ride that has equal power to invigorate my cause and send me soaring, or spin me into a disoriented stupor like the ride we called the vomit wheel as kids. On line, the world is at my fingertips. It can fill me up with bright and shiny things that either support my ideas and direction or prove with no uncertainty that someone (everyone) has already done whatever I’m attempting to do or say. But better.
The cigarette break provided a ritualized time for emptiness and dreaming. The Internet can stuff my head with detritus. Or, it can also help me dream—but in a different way.
For example, here’s where I wandered today: Procrastination can be particularly conducive to creativity. It allows us to solve problems at moments when we are unfocused.
Yes, indeed! All right. High five.
In his new book Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, Adam Grant busts some myths about procrastination, as evidenced by luminaries like Martin Luther King Jr. and Abraham Lincoln, who postponed writing their best speeches until the last minute. Or like Leonardo da Vinci, who started painting the Mona Lisa in 1503 but put off completing it until close to his death in 1519. At the time, Leonardo’s critics believed he was wasting his time during those intervening years, distracting himself with the study of optics—which of course turned out to be vital to his originality.
Apparently, research says, true originality or genius cannot be kept to a schedule.
The point being: I’m a genius.
But shit! As I surf a little further I come upon 10,800 scholarly articles addressing the pitfalls of procrastination, including of course, how to overcome it using these five or seven or four bombproof strategies.
Such is the Internet. You can find research to support whatever point of view you need (or think you need or didn’t know you need, or that your critic needs) in any given moment.
I call this modern dreaming.
How do you create ritualized dreamtime? What do you do to allow your mind to be original?