Amanda Gorman, America’s first youth poet laureate, wrote in The New York Times last week that she came very close to declining to deliver her blockbuster inauguration poem a year ago.
“I was terrified,” she wrote.
From a safety point of view, she had plenty to be terrified of. From a poetry point of view, the last thing she needed to worry about was that her poem wasn’t any good.
But she did.
“I was scared of failing my people, my poetry,” she wrote.
I can relate.
For two weeks I’ve known I would have to write this column. I’ve thought about it every day. Yet here I sit, jammed up against another deadline.
I guess I procrastinate because I am terrified that I will fail my quintet of readers.
In the fascinating book “Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals,” British journalist Oliver Burkeman suggests that fear is actually behind most procrastination.
Fear of death.
That’s right. You know, that thing that we don’t want to talk about.
“For (the procrastinator, by which he means me), procrastination is a strategy of emotional avoidance – a way of trying not to feel the psychological distress that comes with acknowledging that (the procrastinator/me is) a finite human being.”
His book is a slam on the booming industry of time management strategies. His point is that the strategies those hucksters are selling don’t work because, thanks to “finitude,” we simply do not have time to do everything that needs to be done, and only when we accept that will we set ourselves free.
Burkeman explains that as you check off items in your planner, you make room to add new ones that need to be checked off. But there isn’t time to do them all and eventually after a lifetime of checking off to-dos and adding new ones you – well, you know. (Four thousand weeks is the number of weeks you will live if you make it to 80 years old.)
Burkeman calls it “the paradox of limitation:” “The more you try to manage your time with the goal of achieving a feeling of total control, and freedom from the inevitable constraints of being human, the more stressful, empty and frustrating life gets.”
Oh, the stuff you learn at 70.
For many years I have tried many things to improve my lousy time management.
A while ago I thought an app called Doist would save me. But its fatal flaw is that it allows you to move all your undone to-dos to the current date. Over and over again. My list from today, Jan. 21, has 15 “overdue” tasks, like “write for one hour,” “meditate,” “breathe.”
But If I click “reschedule” in the upper right-hand corner then hit “today,” suddenly nothing is overdue. This same list has been on there for weeks.
Apparently, I’m afraid of death.
Then again, Burkeman may have it all wrong.
Maybe I procrastinate simply because if I perish sometime in the two weeks before my column is due I won’t ever have to write it, though eventually if I stay alive, I will have to face reality, as I have this evening, and grind out another column.
So each column is a milestone. As long as I write columns, I am alive.
But he does have a point, and it’s something Amanda Gorman might consider.
Dispiriting as this might sound at first, it contains a liberating message: “If you’re procrastinating on something because you’re worried you won’t do a good enough job, you can relax – because judged by the flawless standards of your imagination, you definitely won’t do a good enough job. So you might as well make a start.”
I can live with that.
Andrew Marsters is an award-winning Maine journalist and former journalism instructor at the University of New Hampshire. He lives on Munjoy Hill.