The Perverse Seductions of Procrastination
An audio version of this piece is available for paid subscribers here.
I have greatly disobliged myself in my own faulty Remissness. I cannot account for it.—The novelist Samuel Richardson, in a letter of 1749.
Often, our most shameful secrets aren’t secrets at all: they are obvious to anyone who is paying attention and our scrabbles to deny them are about as effective as the flamboyant scratches in the ground a dog makes with its hind legs after defecating, sending earth showering up in twin arcs, but burying nothing. In many cases, we don’t even bother to try to cover our tracks—as we reach for another cookie despite our resolutions to do less overeating; as we casually splash a fourth whisky into our glass despite our aspirations to moderate our drinking; as we have mysteriously reached season 5 of the Netflix series we don’t have time to watch; as our wrist betrays the intoxicating scent of that expensive perfume we didn’t have the money to buy. We hope no one is keeping score, totting up the calories, units, hours, pounds and pence. We hope no one can see the scale, the blood pressure reading, the Word document of that piece we are “working on,” the credit card bill. We hope that if people do notice our behaviour, they will be too polite to remark on it—we’re children, putting our fingers over our eyes in the hopes that it will make us invisible.
The Second Swim is a reader-supported publication. To receive new posts and support my work, consider becoming a free or paid subscriber.
Or, at least, I am. My current problem is intensely shameful, completely public and extremely common. I’m addicted to Twitter.
It's tempting to think that my Twitter overuse is the fault of the platform itself, with its carefully designed algorithms and slot-machine-like unpredictable rewards, reinforcing my behaviour as if I were a rat in a Skinner box. But my problems with time-wasting long predate social media. I did my doctorate in the days of dial-up, when loading a webpage required the patience of a Zen master and none of us carried the entire internet around in our pockets. And still, I could have finished my thesis in half the time, if I had not found a million ways to distract myself. My supervisor, John Mullan, is one of the most brilliant thinkers and eloquent writers I’ve ever encountered, but my relationship with him was fraught with sneaking avoidance, mendacious denials and painful sensations of inadequacy. I was constantly trying to hide from him how little I had done. I was constantly failing to hide it from myself.
Every generation believes that the human mind is uniquely ill equipped to handle the new technologies of the time. The 1695 lapse of the Licensing Act, coupled with advances in printing technology, led to a proliferation of reading material, including the first affordable, widely available books and periodicals (I’ve written about this here). People had always complained that there were too many bad books. But, just as the Enlightenment got into its stride, for the first time in history people complained that there were too many publications full stop. Lady Mary Wortley Montagu tells Jonathan Swift in 1734: “I’m glad you’ll write./’Twill furnish paper when I shite.” (Now, as Derren Brown puts it in his book, Happy, “we tweet spite from the toilet.”)
By the mid-eighteenth century, these developments had sparked a moral panic. Women, in particular, with their supposedly weaker faculties, many argued, would be rendered powerless, enthralled by fiction, which would lead them to neglect their work, families, friends and children—to be distracted from everything that mattered. Though they didn’t put it this way, they were describing the experience of being captivated by an artificial world and rendered walking zombies, disabled from full participation in the real one. The concern feels familiar—even though reading novels is now usually considered one of the life-enriching activities from which social media distracts us. Perhaps in the future some other technology—holodecks, hallucinogens, time travel—will distract us from the more productive activity of whatever form of social media our descendants have. It seems to be human nature to be always one step away from the thing we actually want to be doing.
Social media is aspartame to the sugar of face-to-face connection. Like artificial sweeteners, it has its uses if sugar isn’t available or desirable. Many people go online because their real lives are socially impoverished or to find people who share intellectual interests that would bore their local friends. But there’s something else at work too—otherwise we would be addicted only to chatting and commenting on threads, whereas we also watch baby turtles being hatched and click like on photos of chicken biryani. Nor is it all about dopamine hits and arousal: I often scroll glassy-eyed through my feed, not actually wanting to be online, but wanting to want it, not so much ambushed as deliberately hunting for something to distract me. I’m not alone in this. At this very moment, as I glance over at my housemate, I can see from the telltale upward flicks of his finger on his phone screen—one per second, like a heart rate—that he’s riding that Ferris wheel without a view right now.
Like so many other recalcitrant personal problems, this one isn’t caused by lack of information. I'm a veteran consumer of articles and videos offering time management strategies and productivity hacks. Reading about how to avoid distraction has become simply another distraction.
Nir Eyal, who has written two books—one about how to create what he calls “habit-forming products” and the other about how to avoid being suctioned into addiction by them—writes that such products aim to “solve the user’s pain.” He makes the startling claim that all “all behavior is driven by the desire to escape discomfort” and that “time management is pain management.” Despite knowing better than almost anyone how the conjuring trick is performed—having written a kind of magician’s handbook—Nir himself fell under the spell and became a compulsive surfer of Twitter and Wikipedia, while writing a book on the topic of how to avoid such distractions.
Nir wrote in a letter to me that he turned to online distractions to “anethetise” certain feelings. It’s easy to empathise with this wish for erasure in someone who has suffered trauma. In The Wire, the dope fiend Bubbles, at his lowest point, has lost his money, his health and access to his son and has accidentally caused his best friend’s death. “I don’t want to feel nothing. No, no, no! I don’t want to feel nothing,” he sobs, batting away the Narcotics Anonymous counsellor who has come to comfort him. But Nir was, at the time of his tech addiction, he told me, a successful, prosperous man with friends and a happy family life. And I, writing this in the sun-drenched garden of the house I share with beloved friends, also feel the tug, the desire for distraction. I have to resist the constant impulse to close this screen and open Twitter instead. So what pain are we trying to escape?
Perhaps, when I'm scrolling my feed looking for things to opine upon, or seeking out Babylon 5 memes instead of writing, I’m avoiding coming face to face with my own limitations. Perhaps I prefer to think I could be an amazing writer, if only I knuckled down to it than to actually knuckle down to it and discover otherwise.
Or perhaps it’s more fundamental than that. It’s about the one sorrow we all share, no matter what our circumstances are: that our lives are finite. In our fantasies, we are free from limitations. Often, when I overindulge in food or buy something beyond my budget, it’s not so much for the pleasure of the thing itself as because I want to be the kind of person who can eat as voraciously as Lorelai Gilmore, spend as profligately as a Russian oligarch and yet stay effortlessly slender and solvent. I am trying on the fantasy self for size and am about as convincing—even to myself—as a little girl shuffling around in her mother’s high heels, smeared with her lipstick and damp with her perfume. In sleep a queen, but waking no such matter. And in those daydreams I have also transcended the most intractable limitation of all. I can tweet all day and still have all the time in the world. I can get round to the central business of life later.
My personal hero, Samuel Johnson, was what we would probably think of today as a freelancer, engaged in what he called “the anxious employment of a periodical writer.” He vividly describes the effects of constant procrastination on anyone who depends on their labour for their livelihood:
Life is languished away in the gloom of anxiety, and consumed in collecting resolution which the next morning dissipates; in forming purposes which we scarcely hope to keep, and reconciling ourselves to our own cowardice by excuses which, while we admit them, we know to be absurd. Our firmness is by the continual contemplation of misery hourly impaired; every submission to our fear enlarges its dominion; we not only waste that time in which the evil we dread might have been suffered and surmounted, but even where procrastination produces no absolute increase of our difficulties, make them less superable to ourselves by habitual terrors.
For those of us who write or edit for a living in particular, sites like Twitter masquerade as speciously work-adjacent. I need to use Twitter to promote my actual work and to contact podcast guests, writers, publishers, etc. and I have also had some tweet conversations that have helped me formulate my thoughts. But once I’m there, it's all-too-tempting to slide into mindless scrolling and reactive commenting, keeping the dread moment of having to actually work at bay, while trying to trick myself into thinking that I am almost working. I'm just a few clicks away from the document I should be focusing on, after all. Meanwhile, I’m lost in a sterile no man's land that is neither work nor play, which neither offers intense pleasure in the moment of doing nor brings the satisfactions that come from something worthwhile having been done.
In Indistractable, Nir Eyal speculates that,
In the future, there will be two kinds of people in the world: those who let their attention and lives be controlled and coerced by others and those who proudly call themselves “indistractable.”
I hope and trust this dystopian vision of a society made up of a superior caste of indistractables and a mass of attentional zombies will never materialise. I think individuals will always have to struggle with the problem of how to live a fulfilled life, of how to minimise unwanted distractions and focus on what is truly enjoyable or meaningful to them. I don’t know how we can best achieve that. But I’m sure that we must begin by being honest with ourselves.
If you have enjoyed this piece, I hope you will subscribe. Subscribing is free to you, but helps me: a feel-good win-win.