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21 August 2023

The noble art of procrastination

I expend more energy planning work than doing it, but the writing routines of literary titans, from Balzac to Patricia Highsmith, show I’m not alone.

By Hannah Rose Woods

“There is no more miserable human being,” thought the philosopher William James, “than one in whom nothing is habitual but indecision.” The importance of a daily routine to free the mind for more interesting or productive matters was one of his favourite themes. Pity the person who lacked the autopilot of habits, “for whom the lighting of every cigar, the drinking of every cup, the time of rising and going to bed every day, and the beginning of every bit of work, are subjects of express volitional deliberation”.

James would know. He was a chronic procrastinator who could rarely keep to his schedules, and experienced his own life as a “buzzing blooming confusion”. An insomniac, he would sometimes resort to scheduling his bedtimes with chloroform.

I’ve fallen out of my own routine this summer. Partly, I am blaming the weather, which has comprehensively mocked my plans of morning walks in which I might enjoy something like sunshine before beginning work for the day. I had plans to work outside at café tables; I had plans to attend to emails in sundresses on park benches. Instead, I’ve been at home, alternating between desk and sofa and bed in search of a flow state, feeling slow and stupid, and emerging from work in the evenings wondering how I can have so little to show for it. Occasionally, a rush of alertness will arrive with staggering precision a few minutes after I have decided to get an early night.

After weeks of negotiation with the NHS, I have been diagnosed with a mild vitamin D deficiency. This has, at least, freed some of my already depleted reserves from the exertion of being in denial about my own levels of tiredness. Nevertheless, I’m using a perverse amount of mental energy devising new routines for myself that might free up mental energy.

For a while now I’ve been collecting stories about the writing routines of historical figures and literary titans – if only to reassure myself about my own comparative lack of dysfunction. Why on Earth am I worrying, for instance, about the line between under- and over-caffeination, when Honoré de Balzac sweated through Herculean quantities of Turkish coffee to sustain his orgies of travail?

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[see also: The right don’t own tradition, but they can keep Morris dancing]

And why worry about working from bed, when Truman Capote described himself as a “completely horizontal author” who couldn’t think unless he was “lying down” while continually “puffing and sipping”? Or Patricia Highsmith, who produced a corpus of 33 books in the foetal position, surrounded in bed by cigarettes, ashtray, a mug of coffee and a doughnut with an extra saucer of sugar for dipping it in, because the only way she could work was to do it without any sense of discipline.

For every canonical morning lark who was writing at dawn – WH Auden thought that “only the ‘Hitlers of the world’ work at night” – there is a Flaubert who began work at 10pm. I am desperately reassured by Gertrude Stein, who never managed more than half an hour of writing in a given 24-hour window. “To be sure all day and every day you are waiting around to write that half hour,” she reflected in her memoirs, but “it makes a lot of writing year by year”.

On the other hand, I’m astounded by discipline. Anthony Trollope wrote for precisely three hours a day, placing a watch by his notepaper and requiring himself to produce 250 words every 15 minutes. If he kept up this rate for ten months, he explained, he could produce an output of three three-volume novels each year.

Three hours a day. And he allowed himself a two-month holiday.

The weather, though. What a dissonant experience it has been, in the most dismal British summer I can remember, to watch news of unprecedented heatwaves, fires and flash floods unfolding elsewhere. On the app formerly known as Twitter, I scroll past graphs of melting sea ice and rocketing marine temperatures and try to stop myself reading the inevitable replies: “It’s called weather.” There is something new in the tenor of our current phase of climate denial, and if I was a theorist I’d begin with a close reading of the cry-laugh emojis. I watch more news, as the Conservatives and Labour alike retreat from climate policies.

What is the normal amount of emotion to have about this? I’m angry and anxious, and also not nearly angry and anxious enough. For the great majority of the time I am functionally in denial as well.

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This article appears in the 23 Aug 2023 issue of the New Statesman, Inside Britain’s Exclusive Sect