Slate editor Josh Levin and writer Seth Stevenson were online on Washingtonpost.com to chat about the nature of procrastination, the biggest time-waster of all time, and slacking off in general. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.
Josh Levin: Josh and Seth here, ready to take your questions.
St. Louis: In Bill Watterson's "Calvin and Hobbes," Calvin once said creativity doesn't turn on and off like a faucet—you need the right mood: "last-minute panic." What effects do you think procrastination has on human creativity and art?
Seth Stevenson: I think procrastination can be an aid to creativity. Rather than locking your mind into the task, I think you might get more interesting results if 1) you let your mind wander where it will, and then 2) you use that "last-minute panic" to focus you in as the deadline approaches and let it force you to be succinct and efficient in your expression of the creative ideas you formed while lollygagging.
Josh Levin: I confess to writing the bulk of my article for Slate's "Procrastination" in one (very) long night. It definitely took that last-minute panic to get me to transition from playing lots of Solitaire to writing about Solitaire.
New Castle, N.Y.: Not to downplay the importance of "Solitaire" and "Minesweeper," but "Tetris" has to be the most or second-most important computer game, no?
Josh Levin: Interesting question. I'm going to go with Solitaire at the top spot, because it's been around longer than Tetris. It paved the way. In tribute to Solitaire, I am going to start playing classic Windows Solitaire in Vegas mode. I will report back at the end of chat on how much money I am up or down. Since I'm doing this chat for free, I'd appreciate if at the end of the chat everyone here chips in to pay me the amount that I'm up. If I'm down, I will donate the money to the Seth Stevenson Guitar Hero Fund. (Note: No money will be donated.)
Seth Stevenson: Guitar Hero III is the most important computer game ever. Second place is Pitfall.
Washington: Seth, I loved your letter to a young procrastinator. Spliffs, "Guitar Hero," and "Gilmore Girls" all have been staples of my procrastination repertoire at one time or another. I thought you'd enjoy my MySpace "General Interests": "I'm about to start work on a book called 'The Well-Rested Brain.' It will be based on my study tactics ... first you play some 'Spider Solitaire.' Then you work for five minutes. Then you check out the food sections of all the major U.S. papers. Then you work for five minutes. Then you read Slate. I think it will be a five-year project, so look for it in stores around 2012. It'll be pretty cheap though, because I only have the stamina to write about 20 pages. Maybe I'll just turn it into a blog where I post once every three months."
Seth Stevenson: I'm glad to see those are staples of your procrastination routine. But have you ever tried all three simultaneously? I'd be interested to hear the results. I look forward to the book— given your timeframe, I expect to be reading it ... never.
Josh Levin: A side point, but I think blogging is an underrated procrastination tool, especially for journalists. If I had a blog, I would probably never finish an article. Or never get to complete a game of Solitaire.
Portland, Ore.: Hi. What worked best for me while teaching a university course called "Procrastination, Writers Block and Creativity" was to have my students stand up before the class and share their progress fighting the fight against the dreaded effects of writers' block, a large component of which was procrastination.
Seth Stevenson: I think "writer's block" is probably 80 percent procrastination. But there may be an element of intimidation, too. The blank page is an intimidating beast, and everyone fears creating something subpar or, worse, laughable.
Josh Levin: What I've found to be really helpful recently is to start writing my stories in Microsoft Outlook. I've always heard the advice that it's a good tactic stylistically to write like you're sending a letter to a friend. But I've found that it works mechanically, too ... it's a good way to trick yourself into getting started. Because everyone loves writing e-mail!
I'm down $32 in Vegas Solitaire, by the way.
Bellmore, N.Y.: My 16-year-old son is a major procrastinator, in the classic sense of the word. I can't relate and am constantly frustrated by his actions (or lack thereof). You'd think I'd get used to it by now and accept the behavior, but I can't. Any advice for those of us who have to live with a procrastinator?
Seth Stevenson: Probably the most foolproof cure for procrastinators (in terms of actually spurring some production) is a deadline with consequences. If you can create that for your son, it might get him moving. But then you can't complain when he procrastinates as the deadline looms—let him do his thing, hope he springs to life as time ticks down, and judge his output on its own merits when the deadline has passed.
Josh Levin: Agree with Seth that fighting through procrastination is something that you have to do on your own. Nagging him about a deadline as it's approaching isn't going to change his behavior. If the deadline has teeth, then hopefully he'll learn (eventually) how to structure his time to meet it.
Columbia, Md.: Did you really expect people to show up spot-on at 1 p.m. for this chat? Great work in Slate this week. What a fabulous way for me to procrastinate even more, and what a timely topic as I stare down three deadlines that I have no choice but to meet, that I've known about for six weeks, and that I haven't done the first thing to address. I always wonder what's wrong with me that I do this, so it was nice to know that I'm in good company with 20 percent of the population.
Josh Levin: Our "Procrastination" issue was really spectacular ... all praise to my colleague Dan Engber for putting it all together.
Actually, to be perfectly honest, I haven't read any of it. But people who got around to reading it told me that it's really good.
Seth Stevenson: I'm planning to read it sometime next week.