Tuesday, August 09, 2005

The obstacle of perfection

Several people have discussed the challenges of dissertating lately, and finding the best methods for getting research & writing done (especially in environments where teaching is more immediately pressing and rewarded) is an ongoing topic for the academic folks.

Personally, I’m fairly sure that there *isn’t* any best method, since every person’s ideal situation is different; the book piles and loud 80s pop music that works for me will be nowhere near the spotless desk and soundless room that works for you. Not to say that the discussions aren’t helpful; they’re often both valuable and interesting. I just don’t think there’s a single magic exorcism for the age-old demons of procrastination & distraction.

I’m going to propose something else, though, and argue that even if you do come up with the perfect combination of desk condition, ambient sound, snack food, time frame, and whatever other psychological carrots and sticks get you going, that might not be as helpful as you think. First of all, you can burn up most of your research time creating (and/or waiting for) the “perfect” conditions. Second, it trains you to focus your attention on all the things that you perceive to be in your way: I can’t write until I get my desk cleaned up, I can’t write because my husband’s playing music too loud, I can’t write until the kids go to camp, I can’t, I can’t, I can’t.

While I was staying with my husband’s family for two months this summer (lots of people in a very small space), I had very little hope of getting much work done, aside from the mornings I spent in the archive a few times a week. We had one computer with an internet connection, shared by three people who needed to use it every day, and one laptop that my husband and I were sharing. There was no separate quiet space to work in; we had either the dining room table or (more often) the living room couch, with the TV tuned to Mexican soap operas. Family members would often drop by with small children, and both the next-door neighbors and the folks across the street had home-improvement projects going that seemed to involve a great deal of pounding. Oh, yes, and the chairs in that house are the most butt-punishingly uncomforable I’ve ever known.

In other words, all the circumstances were lined up against getting any kind of work done (and, besides, we were mostly on vacation, so I didn’t have big plans to get a lot done anyway). But I tried to sneak a little work in here and there, everything from class prep for the fall to actual thoughtful writing. What’s odd is that I don’t remember doing much work; I don’t remember even having tried very hard. But every time I open up a file, thinking “Oops, I’d better work on getting x done in the next couple of weeks,” I’d find it finished. When the hell did I do that? Oh, yeah, during the episode of Clase 406 when Fercho got shot by the guy on the boat.

I’ve noticed something similar going on, oddly enough, playing tennis, which Husband and I do every morning. When it’s a rare perfect day, no wind, not too hot, hair perfectly tied back, clothes comfortable… I don’t play so good. But give me a twisted sock, a sweaty lock of hair in the eye, an unraveling seam in my shirt sleeve, and that’s when I start making the killer shots, again and again. WTF? I was really baffled about this for a long time, until I thought about it alongside the amount of work I got done this summer under equally difficult circumstances. If everything’s perfect, I get scatterbrained, as if thinking only about what I'm doing somehow becomes an obstacle in itself - sort of a mental hall of mirrors. If something’s in my way, that makes me focus on the thing I want to get done, and I’m thinking of how I can instead of why I can’t.

This has been particularly clear in the last two weeks since we’ve been back. I’m back to my quiet house, my own speedy computer, my comfy office chair, my perfectly-ordered desk, and I can’t focus to save my life. Unfortunately I’m not sure if this leads to any kind of solution or recommendation – somehow I suspect that engineered distractions won’t work quite the same way.

Where are my mother-in-law and her Mexican soap operas when I need them?

No comments:

Post a Comment