Productive Procrastination

June 21, 2018

In college I wrote occasional articles for the arts section of the student newspaper. Once I was assigned to interview a visiting poet who had recently had his first collection of poetry published by McSweeney’s. I learned the story of how he had written the collection and how it had come to be published only after I’d already read and enjoyed the poems, and it surprised and stuck with me.

At the time he was about to finish a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering, and he explained that he’d written most of the poems on his iPhone as a form of “productive procrastination” – work that he allowed himself to do when he wasn’t doing his school work. He kept a list of such tasks, and when he felt the urge to procrastinate on his work he’d switch to one of them.

He’d take the poems to show a poetry professor. He’d taken one class with this professor early on in his time at the university, and then they continued to meet for private tutoring sessions. Unbeknownst to the poet, the professor collected the poems into a manuscript and submitted it to a contest for publication. It wasn’t until McSweeney’s contacted the poet to tell him that he’d won that he found out what the professor had done.

I like this story partly because of the elements of coincidence, accident and serendipity, but also because it gestures towards the possibility that many small moments can add up to something larger and lasting. There is no substitute for putting in the time to do the work you love, but maybe that work does not have to be all-encompassing – you don’t always have to give up everything else to create something meaningful. Sometimes it can fit alongside the rest of your life, and perhaps even be better for it.