The Marginalian
The Marginalian

Anna Deavere Smith on How to Break the Paradox of Procrastination

“Live immediately,” Seneca exhorted in his timeless 2,000-year-old meditation on the shortness of life. “Hurrying and delaying are alike ways of trying to resist the present,” philosopher Alan Watts wrote in contemplating the art of fruitful timing. Half a century later, we seem to go through life on a ceaseless seesaw oscillating between the extremes of haste and procrastination — the more we worship at the altar of productivity, the more we find ourselves lulled by the distractions of busyness, forgetting somehow that, as Annie Dillard memorably observed, “how we spend our days is, of course, how we spend our lives.”

Productivity, today, is the active procrastination par excellence.

How to break out of that paradox is what actor, artist, playwright, and educator Anna Deavere Smith explores in one of the missives in Letters to a Young Artist: Straight-up Advice on Making a Life in the Arts for Actors, Performers, Writers, and Artists of Every Kind (public library) — the spectacular volume, modeled on Rilke, which gave us Smith on what self-respect really means and the discipline of not letting others define you.

Anna Deavere Smith (Photograph: Mary Ellen Mark)

Acknowledging that procrastination befalls all of us at one time or another, in one form or another, Smith considers its paradoxical nature:

We think of the procrastinator as lazy and inactive, but procrastination is active. Not to get all psychological and heavy on you, but procrastination is actually “active avoidance.” I like the word active, because it shows just how powerful your avoidance tendencies are.


The most heavy-handed thing I can say is: If you procrastinate, you are only robbing yourself.

She examines the basic psychological mechanism by which procrastination lays its claim on us and the simple, powerful counterforce by which we can break it:

The main fuel for procrastination is thought. Sometimes procrastination abounds because you really don’t have a clear idea of what you are trying to do, and where it’s going. Then the exercise of visualizing what you are trying to do, what you want, what your goal is, can be helpful.

If you are basically a motivated person, without too many deep, dark reasons why you are conflicted about success, then procrastination can be met head-on by “just doing it.”

In a sentiment evocative of Picasso’s insightful observation that “to know what you’re going to draw, you have to begin drawing,” Smith adds:

Give yourself an image of what you are trying to do, and just start. The doing gives you energy and ideas. If I swim a mile, the first half hour might be drudgery, but somewhere in the middle it catches fire.

Complement this particular portion of Smith’s thoroughly vitalizing Letters to a Young Artist with Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius on how to motivate yourself to get out of bed each morning and the great French artist Eugène Delacroix on the cure for idea-procrastination, then revisit Smith on how to listen between the lines in a culture of speaking.

Published May 25, 2017




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