Daily Rituals

Edgar Allan Poe, Franz Kafka, and Other Great Procrastinators
Arts, entertainment, and more.
April 29 2013 5:50 AM

Daily Rituals

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Kafka was a great procrastinator.

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So far, this series has made artists sound awfully industrious. They get up at 4 a.m., skip meals, and take amphetamines to extend their productive hours. Even the nap-lovers turn out to be workaholics. It reminds me of a quote by V. S. Pritchett, from an essay about the English historian Edward Gibbon. Pritchett writes, “Sooner or later, the great men turn out to be all alike. They never stop working. They never lose a minute. It is very depressing.”

It is depressing. Fortunately, it's also untrue. Many great men (and women) slacked off occasionally, and some were downright lazy—at least part of the time. (Edgar Allan Poe: "I am excessively slothful, and wonderfully industrious—by fits.") In researching Daily Rituals, I took special delight in finding stories about procrastination, both because I am guilty of this habit myself and because I suspect that a certain amount of procrastination may be beneficial to the creative process.

Franz Kafka is a good example. In 1908, Kafka landed a position at the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute in Prague, where he was fortunate to be on the coveted “single shift” system, which meant office hours from 8 or 9 in the morning until 2 or 3 in the afternoon. This was a distinct improvement over his previous job, which required long hours and frequent overtime. So how did Kafka use these newfound hours of freedom? First, lunch; then a four-hour-long nap; then 10 minutes of exercise; then a walk; then dinner with his family; and then, finally, at 10:30 or 11:30 at night, a few hours of writing—although much of this time was spent writing letters or diary entries.

In his letters, Kafka complained that his day job was holding him back, but as Louis Begley argues in his excellent biographical essay on Kafka, this was really just an excuse. Begley writes, "It is rare that writers of fiction sit behind their desks, actually writing, for more than a few hours a day. Had Kafka been able to use his time efficiently, the work schedule at the Institute would have left him with enough free time for writing. As he recognized, the truth was that he wasted time."

He was hardly alone in this. William James was another chronic procrastinator. He told one of his classes, “I know a person who will poke the fire, set chairs straight, pick dust specks from the floor, arrange his table, snatch up a newspaper, take down any book which catches his eye, trim his nails, waste the morning anyhow, in short, and all without premeditation—simply because the only thing he ought to attend to is the preparation of a noonday lesson in formal logic which he detests."

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Then again, most of us would probably kill to get as little done as William James. Obviously, procrastination can be productive in its own way. The Stanford philosophy professor John Perry is a proponent of structured procrastination, or avoiding doing your most important tasks by dealing with less pressing (but still worthwhile) items lower on your to-do list.

That's one approach. But I think many artists needed to procrastinate simply to ratchet up the pressure, whipping themselves into a state of near panic that, while bad for the nerves, is pretty good for the work. The playwright Tom Stoppard has noted that the only thing that really gets him to write is fear—he has to get “frightened enough to discipline myself to the typewriter for successive bouts.” Edward Abbey expressed a related sentiment in a letter to his editor. “I hate commitments, obligations and working under pressure,” he wrote. “But on the other hand, I like getting paid in advance and I only work under pressure.”

The trick is to put things off just enough to create this pressure but not so much that you wear yourself to a nub—or fail to get to work at all. Maira Kalman is one artist who seems to have found this balance. When she is on deadline, she told me in an email, she stays in her studio alone for most of the day but will got out for walks or take breaks to clean or iron. “I procrastinate just the right amount,” she said. We should all aspire to do the same.

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