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Monkey mind musings

Posted by Robin Abrahams  May 13, 2008 09:45 AM

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I'm not exactly sure where I'm going with all this, but let's play the thoughts out and see where they take us ...

The major thing I'd hoped to accomplish in Duxbury, more than any particular body of writing, was cognitive/spiritual. I wanted to grow my attention span back. Too much blogging, and reading of blogs, had made it difficult for me to write more than 500 words at a time, or read anything longer than a magazine article. (I still read books, of course, but was noticing a disturbing tendency to stop every few pages and check e-mail, or play with Milo, or something.) In graduate school I could spend all day reading and all night writing; I knew I could do it, but the mind is a muscle and works on the use-it-or-lose it principle the same as your abs do.

And yes, I did "grow it back." I found I could sit on the couch and write for several hours at a stretch, until my body said it was time for lunch or a walk on the beach. I didn't miss e-mail. I didn't miss the blogs.

This morning, on the surface of it, I'm right back to my old ways. I've been formatting a couple of columns to send in, and putting the laundry away, and catching up on e-mail, and making a pot of chicken soup, and writing up notes for a short feature story about why people sing to their pets (inspired by this; answer as of now: I have no idea why people sing to their pets). Did my bad habits catch up with me so soon?

I don't think so. I could pathologize this pleasant Tuesday morning, but I'd rather not. Come noon I'll have a pot of soup, and be caught up on columns and correspondence, and have a blog post up, and about half of my "Pet Sounds" piece written, and will be able to turn undivided attention to whatever I like--probably some research reading for the book.

I'm making a choice. This morning my energy felt all multitasky, so I decided to go with it. Later on I'll make a different choice.

This is all on my mind because Slate is doing a special issue on procrastination. I used to be a pretty bad procrastinator when I was a kid, and got progressively better until I don't really consider myself one any more. Sure, I'm not as disciplined and productive as I'd like to be, but who is? Procrastination is one of those psychological terms, like addiction, that the more I think about it the less I know what it really means. This is the best essay I've ever read on procrastination.

Is procrastination always bad? There was one particular chapter of my book that I kept dragging my feet on, that was giving me no end of trouble, that I kept avoiding. Finally, in Duxbury, I sat down and blasted the entire thing out in two days. Was this a triumphant victory over procrastination--or had I needed that time for my unconscious to do its work? If I'd tackled the Problem Chapter earlier, might I have merely frustrated myself and done substandard work?

What is the relationship between multitasking and procrastination? Am I putting the laundry away because I don't feel like writing? If so, what of it? The laundry needs to get put away, and perhaps by the time I've finished I will feel like writing. I think, pre-Duxbury, I'd been judging myself too harshly. I had gotten into bad, compulsive habits regarding e-mail (and blogs, and eBay ...) but I'm not sure that seeking the pure mindfulness of a Buddhist nun is necessarily the answer, either. Rather it's balancing when you need to be mindfully attuned to the task at hand, and when it's not at all a bad thing to absentmindedly stir the soup while one-hit wonders from the 1980s run through the conscious part of your mind, and the unconscious does its behind-the-scenes magic.

What do you all think? What are your experiences with attention spans, multitasking, procrastination? How do you know when you're honoring your processes and when you're just making excuses for yourself? How do you train your children to have good habits?

This blog is not written or edited by or the Boston Globe.
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8 comments so far...
  1. Your perspective is a little different than others, because your work isn't as "task" oriented - your work is creative, and you can't always churn it out at will. So I think you've hit upon a good solution for when you aren't feeling the creative juices - you do other tasks that need to get done while you are waiting for inspiration to strike.

    I'm a big believer in not wasting time. Even my leisure time is planned to the extent that I get done what I need to get done in time to just relax on a nice Saturday afternoon (for example). So when I have to do something unpleasant, like call a client to tell him we can't do what he wants us to do, I either do it right away and get it over with, or I muster my strength while doing something else I need to do anyway.

    Posted by Worker Bee May 13, 08 11:51 AM
  1. Hi Miss Conduct! I'm actually hoping you don't publish this because it's a little off-topic and I'm sure most people won't be interested, but I thought you might be so here goes. I wanted to let you know that I laughed at the part about the mental soundtrack because I can relate! I recently attended a nine-day silent retreat during which the lyrics from Morrissey's "Hairdresser on Fire" ran through my head repeatedly throughout the sitting and walking periods. I guess what I wanted to say is that that sort of thing isn't contradictory to mindfulness, it's just all part of what's happening in your mind in the present moment. After the retreat, as we transitioned from retreat back to usual life, my teacher took care to tell us not to expect that the quality of our attention would be exactly the same while going about daily activities in our lives as it was during the retreat - it's more of a lighter touch, a feeling of presence in the body and awareness of what's going on in terms of sensory inputs and mental activity. I should think that stirring-pot-80's-music practice fits right in! ;) I do find that as I practice more with attention, both in a formal setting and as I go about my daily life, I tend to procrastinate less - I'm more able to notice the level at which the procrastination doesn't actually feel that good, and also to tolerate and move through whatever negative feeling usually is at the root of my procrastination (for example, I may have an underlying conviction that the project won't turn out well.) It's a long process, though, and seems to have its own timeline for unfolding.

    Robin says: Well, I do think this is interesting and on-topic, so I hope you d on't mind that I published it! I think a key element is being able to control--or at least be aware of--the attentional state you're in. Attention is like light: sometimes you want a laser beam, sometimes you want a table lamp, sometimes you want a Klieg with a soft pink gel that makes everyone look FABULOUS, darling.

    Posted by Linda May 13, 08 01:41 PM
  1. I think writing procrastination is different than other kinds. I've been working on my novel in various iterations since high school. When did I get the most work done on it? In a Writing YA Novels class my junior year of college. Having chapters due was a more powerful motivator, sadly, than my just wanting to write the book. I think with things like the class, or your retreat in Duxbury, we let ourselves procrastinate because we know exactly when they will get done.

    You have to be good and ready to write (or maybe I just have to be, heh.) Sometimes it's at 3 am. Sometimes it's when the dishes are done and blogs are read and Full House reruns or watched. Maybe it's because when your mind is clear, then your characters or ideas can finally be heard?

    Posted by Amy R. May 13, 08 01:58 PM
  1. Hi Miss Manners,
    This is my first time commenting on your blog, though I've been reading it for months and enjoy it immensely. As I was reading this post, I had two thoughts. First I thought, "oh god, that's me!" When I'm at work, I can suddenly find myself in the middle of doing three things--just today, I was writing a letter, responding to an email, and walking to the postage meter because a co-worker had just let me know that postage had recently gone up and the 8 packages I had in the office out-box probably didn't have sufficient postage on them and I better fix them or they'd get returned. When I got back to my desk after fixing the postage, I resumed my email, then resumed my letter. All of this is to say that I don't think that it is procrastination that necessarily leads to multi-tasking, but the need/desire to respond immediately to emails, phone calls, and other requests. A different me could have written a little post-it about the postage, and then returned to my email--or better yet, not have even turned on my email, because I was working on a letter!

    My other thought is that I always have a running to-do list, and my friends operate this way as well. It doesn't feel like procrastination, but rather there always seems to be so much to do, and so little time!

    I'm not sure where I'm going with this, but did want to respond and let you know how your blog make me reflect. Thanks!

    Robin says: Thank *you*!

    Posted by Diane May 13, 08 07:52 PM
  1. Always-available internet is terrible for my attention span, and I go to great lengths to avoid it when it's not really being useful to me these days (clearly, this blog is on the useful end of the spectrum!). I do a lot better when I'm on things that use more of my senses, rather than just my eyes and fingertips.

    It's been my experience with kids that I work with (and adults too, but the effect is more obvious with kids) - focus gets better and calmer with some engagement of multi-sensory experience. I wonder if with computers, it's so easy to forget what time it is, or how much time has passed. The internet is all on, all the time, all day, all night, instant update with another click, so time takes on a different meaning.

    Linda, I've done the same sort of long-term silent retreat, and it's pretty amazing how your focus and attention really change when you give yourself permission to do nothing for a while! I really wish more people would give it a try.

    Procrastination for me comes in several different flavors - the kind where I'm trying to avoid an unpleasant situation (usually supplemented by pounds and acres of sheer laziness) and the kind where my mind just wants to be free to wander and notice things and gush around in the mud puddles of life. For the first type, either the consequences will come around and bite me in the butt or i'll choose to deal with the unpleasantness up front. It's good enough for me to be mindful of that choice. For the second, whopee! Forget the darn laundry and the pile of bills, there's ice cream and a sunset, and I'm SO THERE!

    Posted by verena May 13, 08 08:58 PM
  1. and I also think that letting your subconscious work things out in its own good time isn't procrastination, it's patience!

    Robin says: You're right--but self-knowledge is key! It's easy to lie to yourself, intentionally or un-, about the benefits of multitasking, putting things off--I did that a lot in my younger years. Once you know your processes you know when you really *are* putting your subconscious to work and when you're just goofing around!

    Posted by verena May 14, 08 07:44 AM
  1. I'm writing a dissertation, and Miss Conduct's blog is part of my daily "wake up my brain" routine (as is Slate!). It looks like procrastinating, and to some extent it is, but it's also a ramp up that gets me going, instead of sitting down to work first thing, and being flummoxed by an empty screen. We also have a nearly 2-year-old, so chronic sleep deprivation is a factor here.

    I also suspect that my morning rituals light a fire under my keister at the end of the day, creating a kind of mini-deadline to get my day's work done. I work best against deadlines, and apparently I need to manufacture them when in the middle of a long stretch of similar work!

    Posted by Kellie May 14, 08 12:37 PM
  1. Procrastination can be your friend if you take advantage of it. I procrastinate chores by doing homework and vice-versa, so everything gets done. I've started reading your blog while I brush my hair at night so now I don't rush brushing (since I want to read for as long as possible!), and I'm not using your blog to procrastinate.

    Robin says: You should definitely read the "structured procrastination" essay I linked to, then! Sounds like you've figured out some of the principles on your own. (I floss when I read blogs.)

    Posted by ACS May 14, 08 09:55 PM
About Miss Conduct
Welcome to Miss Conduct’s blog, a place where the popular Boston Globe Magazine columnist Robin Abrahams and her readers share etiquette tips, unravel social conundrums, and gossip about social behavior in pop culture and the news. Have a question of your own? Ask Robin using this form or by emailing her at

Who is Miss Conduct?

Robin Abrahamswrites the weekly "Miss Conduct" column for The Boston Globe Magazine and is the author of Miss Conduct's Mind over Manners. Robin has a PhD in psychology from Boston University and also works as a research associate at Harvard Business School. Her column is informed by her experience as a theater publicist, organizational-change communications manager, editor, stand-up comedian, and professor of psychology and English. She lives in Cambridge with her husband Marc Abrahams, the founder of the Ig Nobel Prizes, and their socially challenged but charismatic dog, Milo.

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