How Can I Stop Procrastinating?

Marina Abramovic, Sleeping Exercise, 2014, at Fondation Beyeler at Art Basel Miami Beach.
Marina Abramovic, Sleeping Exercise, 2014, at Fondation Beyeler at Art Basel Miami Beach.

Dear BURNAWAY,

I’ve been commissioned by my friend’s mother to do a painting for her new condo in Los Angeles. While we were having the conversation with his mom — let’s call her Agnes — I eagerly said, “Yes! Of course I can create the perfect thing for your living room.” With the help of my friend hyping up my artwork, I showed Agnes my website and she loved my style (or, at least pretended like she did). I asked what she wanted the painting to look like, but she basically just gave me a few general size and color preferences and said, “Do whatever you want.”

She offered me an extremely generous amount for the commission, way more than I’ve ever made off a single painting. She paid me before I started the painting, which I’m regretting, because that was six freakin’ months ago. Now, Agnes is expecting the painting and I have nothing but a crappy far-from-finished canvas! I’ve had the biggest artistic block of my life with this commission. I’ve already been paid, yet everyday I walk in front of the essentially blank canvas and shudder. I just can’t think of anything to paint. I can’t do it. All of my ideas are stupid. I’m turning to you for a kick in the behind. A boost. I need some words of advice. Something!!!

Sincerely,

The Worst Procrastinator on Planet Earth


 

Dear Procrastinator,

Do I ever feel your pain! Don’t we all! First of all, let’s get this out on the table. You are not alone. I think deep down a lot of creators, whether they’re making paintings or poems or songs, are procrastinators. It’s just a part of the life of producing things out of, essentially, thin air. We put things off. There are a few of those golden-easter-egg types who aren’t procrastinators, but they are far less common than you probably think. So uncommon, in fact, that I haven’t met a single damn one. So keep that in mind before you get too down on yourself. I am not saying it’s good, I am saying it’s common.

Maybe a little less known for his chronic procrastination, Leonardo da Vinci's The Virgin of the Rocks, commissioned by the Church of San Francesco Grande with a seven-month deadline, was finally completed 25 years after the commissioned date.
Leonardo da Vinci was commissioned by the Church of San Francesco Grande to paint The Virgin of the Rocks, with a seven-month deadline; it took him 25 years to finish.

That said, cupcake, part of being a professional is learning how to work under the pressure of a deadline. Sometimes that pressure is on you from the outset, and sometimes you create the pressure yourself. In your case, that’s what you did. You’ve waited until the very last minute to do the work, despite having ample time. That was a choice you made, whether you want to admit it or not.

So this is the professional lesson you’re going to have to learn right now: you’ve got to figure how to procrastinate and still deliver the goods, something we all have to learn at some point in our careers. Think of it as a test, a test that you are going to pass with flying Windsor & Newton colors! You’re going to knock it out of the sculpture park! (Okay, okay, I’ll stop.)

Sometimes, like right now, I’m convinced that the key to becoming a successful, independent professional is mastering your own procrastination habits. So often we adults load ourselves with work commitments and projects. And worse yet, if you’re in the creative field, so many of those projects are brand new things — tasks you’ve never done before, bosses you’ve never had to please. It’s like starting a new job every day. We’re not just producing the same thing over again, we’re in the business of ideas, and ideas are not easy to spit out on a whim, no matter who you are or what or you do.

So sometimes, we just have to wait until we come up with a good idea, until something hits us. And in some cases, that brilliant stroke of genius never comes. What does come — right on time, every time — is the deadline, so you go with the best idea you’ve got and you pull it off. Now and then, that’s just how you have to manage.

Sean Landers, Fool Failure, 2003, oil on linen.
Sean Landers, Fool Failure, 2003; oil on linen.

The elusive notion of your own creative genius is destructive. Sometimes you just have to show up and do the work, without seeing some grand light at the tunnel. You just have to work, and it will feel very much like work. But other days — and you can never predict when they will be — you will start working and something will zoom through you, some beautiful current of paranormal electricity will move like fire from your heart straight onto the canvas or notepad or piano keys. Your work will be effortless and perfect and mesmerizing, even to you. Those are the moments we live for, but unfortunately, we can’t have them all the time. So, you have to figure out how to accept the moments when the current is not there; you have to learn how you work through uninspired moments. You never know when that fire will show up, but you better be at your easel when it does.

The only way to make this painting is to start making it. Right now. The more you think about it, the worse it’s going to get. Thinking isn’t making. Remember that. Shove Agnes out your mind, shove the money out, shove L.A. out, shove it all out, and just do your thing. Don’t just stare at it anymore. Go to the canvas right now and make a mark — a good mark or a bad mark, it doesn’t matter. Then make another mark, and another. You can paint over it if you need to, but just get something down. Get your hands dirty, love bug. You’ve got this.

Sara Estes is a writer and curator based in Nashville. She is the lead visual art writer at The Tennessean and an editor at Number, an independent arts journal of the South. She also works with David Lusk Gallery and Cumberland Art Conservation, and is co-founder of the gallery Threesquared. Her writing has also been featured in The Bitter Southerner, Nashville Scene, Nashville Arts Magazine, ArtsNash, ArtNow, and others. For more: saraestes.com.

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