Wibbly-Wobbly, Timey-Wimey Stuff: On Procrastination and Deadlines

Time, like the wind, goes a-hurrying by, and the hours just fly.
Where to begin? There are mountains I’d climb, if I had time.

Back in 1968, a singer from Kawerau named John Rowles had a hit in the UK with the song If I Only Had Time. The lovely irony of the earnest ballad – “So much to do, if I only had time, if I only had tih-hime” – is that John was just 21 years old.

As his young showman’s voice belts out the incongruous song, it makes a sweet kind of sense; time is (ha!) relative. For a strapping chap who – in song at least – has just met the woman of his dreams, time is suddenly the enemy; there’s just not enough of it.

“A whole ceeeen-tu-ry-yee isn’t enough to satisfy me,” he wails, as he wanders around a naval yard, dressed in a trenchcoat. Ahhh, John. Everyone wishes for more time. Or do they?

Time is a fickle friend. It seems there’s oodles of it just lying around taunting you when you don’t need it, then it vanishes into the ether when you do.

I’ve had time on my mind a whole bunch lately. It’s been intriguing me. How am I capable of leaping into action for a tight deadline, yet other projects drag on through the years? How can I treat my own projects the way I treat the projects I do for other people (other people who pay me, that is)? Do I want to treat my own projects that way? Is the work I do within a tight timeframe as good as the work I do when I have an open-ended deadline? Maybe it’s better? Aargh!

The Interweb is awash with advice for “unleashing your creative potential” and “harnessing the enemy of time”. From day to day, the advice is variously useful and useless. I’m learning to go with whatever works for whatever I’m working on, with a woolly “it takes as long as it takes” sort of mantra.

But it is consoling to know how other people work with time, or make time work for them. So in that spirit, I’ve gathered together snippets of interviews I’ve done recently, articles I’ve stumbled across, and good ol’ anecdotes about that wibbly wobbly timey-wimey stuff.

FEAR IS SCARY. SO ARE DEADLINES.

When a creative project is open-ended, and nobody in particular is waiting for it (probably because they don’t even know it exists in your brain yet), time can easily slip away.

I reckon this is particularly true of personal projects; ideas without a commission, or funding, or a broadcast or publication date. If nobody is breathing down your neck, what’s the rush? If what you’re working on isn’t guaranteed to immediately earn household income, how do you prioritise it over your family’s needs? If a glass of wine at the end of a fulltime working day seems easier than voluntarily tackling your screenplay, what will motivate you?

A deadline could be just the distortion you need.

“Set tight deadlines, force yourself to do it faster. You get scared if you have too much time.”

That’s Geoff Vuleta of ideas agency Fahrenheit 212, in a recent Idealog magazine story. (The original article has other thoughts from Geoff on motivation and creativity. I quite like his “Put it on the porch and see if the cat licks it” analogy for figuring out whether an idea has paws. My own, less cat-licky version is “Put it in the Ideas Bank and see if it earns interest.”)

“Without deadlines, it’s chaos.”

New York-based-artist Max Gimblett told me this in his pleasantly rumbly voice, when I went to visit his studio for Home magazine. He sleeps next door to the studio, and his life is set up around his art. After four decades as a full-time artist, Max is beholden only to himself. Apart from the occasional deadline to ship work to his dealer galleries in New Zealand, he has nobody breathing down his neck.

That’s not to say he puts off making work for lack of pressure. On the contrary, Max would probably work all day and all night, if he could. So he sets his own deadlines as a way of reducing the chaos of impulse. “You’ve got to have deadlines!” said Max.

The unique quality of a deadline is its capacity to distort our perception of time. A recent Welsh study suggests that our ability to concentrate on what’s needed to get it done can be reprogrammed with a tight deadline.

Apparently, if a project is daunting and scary, our perception of time will stretch until the end of the project seems a very long way away. (Hello, Procrastination!) But apply a deadline, and the project suddenly looms scarily close. (Hello, Motivation!)

Mind you, every study has its opposite. Other research suggests that while a deadline might get the job done, that job won’t be very good. The old quality control issue. It’s true: sometimes you do have to shoot the film on the seventh draft of the script because the cast and crew are available right now.

THROW SOMEONE ELSE INTO THE MIX…

“Sometimes having too much time is more a hindrance than anything else.”

That’s musician Bic Runga, a few months back in the Sunday Star Times, talking to Duncan Greive about her new collaboration with Kody Neilson of The Mint Chicks.

“I’m just happy to have a collaborator,” she says in the article, “because I can spend years on a record, and disappear into a vacuum with it…”

Finding someone to work with can definitely hasten things along; you can locate the ‘sweet spot’ of pressure a little better when you’re wasting two people’s time.

If collaboration isn’t the right thing for your project, then artificial restrictions like paying for rehearsal time or office space or childcare can create instant structure for your seemingly unstructured time.

(“Force yourself into it,” says musician Jack White, in this illuminating excerpt from Under Great White Northern Lights.)

The next problem, of course, is what you do with the time and space that you’ve just created for yourself. You know what? That’s entirely your business. If you intend to write 2,000 words but end up staring out the window or baking a cake or schlepping around the mall with your Mum, more power to me you. On that note…

WANDER AWAY FOR A WHILE

I spent three years and tens of thousands of dollars on a degree in broadcasting. We studied journalism ethics, documentary making, editing, economics, politics, te reo Maori and more.
But the single greatest piece of learning I took away was the importance of “head-time”.

This was from a producer who had just taken us through the intricacies of television production budgets and contracts. He leaned back in his chair, looked at us, and said “If this all seems too complicated, it’s always alright to walk away for a while and see where your brain takes you. Never forget the importance of head-time.”

This stuck with me not (just) because it was a license to procrastinate, but because, back then, it seemed strange to me that a producer – the most managery person on a set – would need their own creative head-time.

Nowadays, it’s one of my favourite creative tricks. I know too well how necessary it is to shift your focus when ideas aren’t flowing, or when something’s not quite gelling in the edit suite. A creative budget needs a creative focus. I find that I need to get out, wander the streets and visualise what the shoot will be like – the people, the weather, the light, whether there will be good coffee nearby, what time nightfall will arrive. Imagining all of these things feeds into the money decisions in a way that gets the idea executed (and vice versa: as much as a tight deadline can fire creative energy, so can a tight budget).

I love head-time. I’ve noticed even in the band that space from a project has its benefits. Some songs are instant classics: the arrangements come easily and the enthusiasm is unstoppable. But there are others that get thrown in the too-hard basket. Years later – because we’re better at what we do, or because somebody in the group has a renewed passion for it – the song comes back around, and is all the better for it.

Albert Einsten was a great fan of long walks on the beach; Tim Burton likes to stare off into space.

Surely you have two minutes with which to do nothing.

THE POSTHUMOUS DEADLINE

Ah, mortality. The fear of running out of time is a big one for us humans with our short, short lives. But it’s possible to think past that.

The visionary New Zealand artist Len Lye (1901-1980) knew he wouldn’t be around to see a lot of his ideas come to life. As he said in Shirley Horrocks’ documentary about Lye and his incredible kinetic sculptures, Flip And Two Twisters:

“My work is going to be pretty good for the 21st Century. Why the 21st? It’s simply that there won’t be the means until then… to have what I want.”

Max Gimblett, who was mentored by Lye during his early years in New York, said of Len: “He didn’t waste too much of his time building it, he really got into imaging it. He’s a figure that’s sort of dancing and all this stuff’s just pouring through him and he doesn’t have the time to make too much of it manifest. That’s up to us to do.”

The mortality lesson is one that hip hop artist David Dallas – who is still in his twenties – is just learning. I interviewed to him in Harlem a few months back, where he was based for the (entirely free) release of his new solo album, The Rose Tint.

The bit that didn’t make National Radio’s Music 101 documentary, but that stuck with me, was when I’d asked what it’s like when the muse doesn’t come. Does he panic?

“I don’t really panic about those sort of things any more. Because I’ve been through those phases like, say, when I worked on the last Frontline record, Borrowed Time, I felt like I wrote that album to death, almost. I was like ‘I gotta write this album like this might be the only chance I ever get to say everything I need to say on a record’. Even the title implies that.

“When I came to my solo album, I was much more casual in my approach to it, because I realised you write a record, and then you write another record, you know what I mean? And records, all they are, they just represent you at that point in time.

“And once you start looking at things in that perspective, like ‘well this is just me at this time,’ it’s fine, it doesn’t have to mean everything to everybody. And when you realise ‘I’m gonna make another record, I’m gonna make another record after that,’ when you think of things in those terms, I think creativity comes a lot easier.”

DO IT. OR DON’T.

This postcard sits above my desk:

Postcard by Rarrarrpress

I found out the other day that my friend Scott, who runs a museum, used to be a writer. The highlight of his writing career was being published in the New Yorker. He wrote his short, comic Ken Burns parody in one night and sent it off the next day. It was picked up immediately. He never wrote for them again.

The same thing happened to me a year or so ago, when the idea for a saucy short story plopped itself down in my brain. I had a specific destination for it – Bust magazine, one of my all-time favourite publications – and I knew that if I didn’t write it then and there, I probably never would. So I did, and I sent it to my sister, and she said “Don’t change a word; send it straight to Bust”, and I did, and they published it.

You can’t necessarily force this stuff. As Len says in Shirley’s doco:

“You don’t get into devising anything… until you’re in the mood. Because unless you can keep trying to find something that’s simply fascinating to you, there’s not much point. So you wait until you’re in the mood… and you gradually get a grip of an idea.”

Scott and I laughed the laugh of bemused, delighted fakes about our “instantaneous success”. As exciting as it was, it was also kind of ridiculous. Both of us published by our favourite magazines, having spent, ooh, less than a day on our pieces, never to do it again. (Well, never say never.)
Sometimes that’s the way it works.

Here’s John Rowles again, this time in tight shirt and white pants. Same song, twenty years on, because a little cheese is good for the diet.

P.S. You have all the time in the world. Also, life is short.

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2 Responses to “Wibbly-Wobbly, Timey-Wimey Stuff: On Procrastination and Deadlines”

  1. Robyn

    My tip is to have conflicting projects on the go, so I can neglect one and turn to the other, and vice versa. It works well, so long as there’s still something there in each of them that’s pleasurable enough to keep me coming back.

    Reply
  2. Rachael King

    Great essay, Gemma, and so timely (har har) today since I have finished one project that has been lingering, standing in the way of me starting other shiny new projects. Now I am faced with the decision about which one to start next and I do have that sense of urgency about ALL of my ideas, but the knowledge that my creative time is so limited at the moment that I just have to relax and see where the muse takes me. To begin with. Then I’m gonna kick its butt.

    Reply

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