not for reading

What do you do when you have a document to read, except you don’t really want to read it? Maybe it’s that dull research paper you have to comment on, or a painfully detailed email from someone at work. My infallible solution to this problem is to print it out. This is the best way of ensuring that you never read it.

Once you print it out (feeling the requisite guilt about the trees, of course) you can bring it home, put it on the dinner table for a few days and stare at the first page, maybe move it to the living room hoping for better luck there, and finally take it to the bedroom, where the document breathes its last and the death knell is sounded. Because if you do this often enough, not only do you learn to automatically ignore all the skeletons of reading matter by your bedside, you even stop feeling the subconscious guilt. It just becomes the Pavlovian response to bringing a document into the bedroom.

This is what I call evolved procrastination, a procrastination so practised and subtle, that it acts beneath the conscious mind. I love it.

And I can add, I’m pretty good at it too. I doubt I am the only one though. Studies show that people are massively lazy. Anyone who stays at work for the stipulated eight hours apparently only really works four hours or so. The other four hours are spent postponing the productive periods, so clearly, we all have a lot of experience at this by now.

Staring out the window is easily my favourite method of procrastinating, if a window is indeed available. If it is raining, all the better, it can put me in a hypnotic daze. When I was a kid, my desk was by a window, giving me ample opportunity to stare instead of studying. If my father passed by, he would say, “Are you studying or looking at the sparrows?” (“Abhyas kartiye ka chimnya baghtiye?”) and there was never an honest answer to give. Not that he needed one, he knew the score perfectly well.

There are no sparrows to be seen out the window here in the US, and it doesn’t rain too often where I live either, but I still do a pretty good staring job. A major drawback of this method is that you can’t do it too well at night, but that only provides good training for staring into empty space, which is a good skill to have when your flight is delayed.

(Incidentally, many years later, when I was an undergrad, the only time I got yelled at by a professor was when I was staring out the window during his (very boring) lecture. I have to admit it gave me an odd sense of pride, as if I were asserting my sovereignty.)

Yet another effective method of procrastinating is to make a “To Do” list. Once everything is committed to paper, you can stop worrying about actually doing it. The same end result can be achieved by thinking up a proposed plan of action and emailing it out. This is even better, because in one stroke it enables multiple people to stop worrying about actually doing anything. Sending out an email about a useful article is also good in the same way — it obviates the need for anybody reading it.

Another favourite way not to do things, especially at home after midnight, is to rummage around the kitchen for snacks. Peanuts are pretty good. Well, all nuts are great. Crackers are good too. Sweets and most fruits don’t work for me because I can’t seem to eat them indefinitely. Grapes are the honourable exception.

I am sure I’m not alone in wondering how people did their fair share of procrastinating before there was the internet. I mean, there was no browsing? Honestly? How did that possibly work? I have no idea what I would do if there were no sport pages of newspapers (go OBO!) and no Cricinfo. (Checking the cricket score is like eating peanuts — I can do both indefinitely.) Foodblogs are my other vice, and perhaps the only one I want to get rid of, or at least reign in. My ratio of reading recipes and making them is probably about 100:1, and that’s too much even for me. The most ironic form of procrastination is also included in the browsing category: reading Oliver Burkeman’s articles on procrastination, and better yet, productivity.

As I was writing all this, it seemed to be taking way longer than seemed necessary, which was a ittle frustrating. I chuckled when I realized that, appropriately enough, I was exercising several of the above methods as I was writing. Talk about self-reflexivity.