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Breaking Free from the Cult of Self-Discipline

Breaking Free from the Cult of Self-Discipline

Procrastination, often dubbed as the art of doing the wrong things at the wrong time, has emerged as a significant concern in our productivity-driven society. While everyone seems okay with wasting resources, squandering time is a major no-no. Strategies to maintain perpetual efficiency, rebranding rest as self-care, and turning hobbies into side hustles have made procrastination an undesirable habit people are eager to eliminate. Oliver Burkeman insightfully remarked, “Today’s cacophony of anti-procrastination advice seems rather sinister: a subtle way of inducing conformity, to get you to do what you ‘should’ be doing.” Through this lens, procrastinators are almost revolutionary, using their time aimlessly. They resist conforming to the productivity dogma, metaphorically taking to the barricades and doing absolutely nothing.

Novels have historically been criticized as a potent vehicle for wasting time unless they offer some sort of improvement to the reader. This sentiment was hilariously skewered by Jane Austen with her portrayal of Catherine Morland in Northanger Abbey. Rosalind Brown’s debut novel, Practice, offers a fresh perspective for those who worry about their dithering. It presents procrastination as a vital, life-affirming antidote to the cult of self-discipline while providing readers with a delicious narrative to enjoy during their leisure time.

In Practice, Annabel, a second-year Oxford student, wakes up early on a foggy Sunday morning in late January. Her only task for the day is to write a paper on Shakespeare’s sonnets. However, being a creature of routine, she must follow her established habits: starting with tea, keeping the room cold and quiet, and structuring her day with reading, note-taking, yoga, and a perfectly timed post-dinner break. Despite these plans, Annabel’s self-discipline is constantly thwarted by her own mind and body, diverting her attention away from Shakespeare. Very little writing actually occurs, as Annabel’s attempts at focus are repeatedly interrupted by her own whims and bodily needs. She epitomizes procrastination.

Brown’s novel elevates procrastination into an essential act, suggesting that the little pockets of time between moments of productivity are where true living and creating occur. Procrastination becomes a form of rebellion against the relentless pursuit of efficiency, a silent way to fight a myriad of tiny battles each day. It’s argued that the novel is a perfect format for examining this anarchy, created by wandering minds who are often underpaid.

Practice might be labeled a campus novel, but it more accurately complements recent workplace fiction that questions the purpose of our working hours. Many Millennial authors, who grew up in an era of prosperity but entered adulthood just as traditional markers of success faded, have centered the workplace as a source of dissatisfaction. They were told they could do anything and that loving what they do would make work effortless. However, the reality is far from that ideal. Workplaces fail to meet these expectations, and systemic issues like inadequate health care, escalating rent, and underfunded arts leave this generation feeling like they are constantly treading water.

Several novels highlight these themes. Helen Phillips’s The Beautiful Bureaucrat depicts a young woman entering endless series of numbers into “The Database” at an enigmatic office, where her work is crucial but she receives no recognition or basic human dignity. Halle Butler’s The New Me follows a 30-year-old temp at a design firm, unable to ascend the office social ladder and spiraling into loneliness. Hilary Leichter’s Temporary portrays a young woman taking various bizarre gigs but yearning for a stable, predictable life.

These stories depict contemporary workplaces as mechanisms that fragment our intellect, reducing us to machines and diverting our attention to the whims of higher-ups. What these characters lack is the mental space for rumination, crucial for a creative and fulfilling life. Brown brilliantly elaborates on how procrastination is intrinsic to the imaginative process. Annabel, despite her adherence to a schedule, often interrupts her routine to revel in moments of drifting thoughts and reflections.

Annabel’s musings and distractions are where her creative mind flourishes. She spends as much time pondering how to spend her time as she does actually engaging in it. She heeds advice to “look away from the text and out the window,” allowing her mind the freedom to wander. This leads to a mingling of lightly connected memories and ideas, offering rich material for creativity. Rather than focusing solely on producing output, she listens to birds, thinks about past relationships, and recalls her studies of Virginia Woolf, who also thrived in the spaces between productive moments.

Like Woolf, Brown understands that life happens in these in-between moments, and forcing productivity doesn’t always yield the desired results. Annabel’s admiration for Woolf is fitting, as both authors acknowledge the importance of mental meandering. Annabel’s decisions—from her academic work to personal choices—are given the same weight as her daydreams, showcasing the blend of productive and idle thoughts.

Annabel’s day, filled with seemingly trivial yet profound moments, beautifully illustrates the intersection of discipline and creativity. From breaking a cherished mug to making important decisions about her relationships, her day is marked by small but significant events. By the end, she achieves only a few notes and words on Shakespeare’s poems but gains a deeper understanding of herself and her life.

The essence of procrastination lies in confronting inefficiencies and embracing fleeting pleasures. By allowing ourselves to float in these in-between moments, we find space for creativity and self-discovery. Perhaps, embracing a thoughtful, self-aware novel like Practice can be the perfect companion in this journey.

Source: Atlantic