My friends see this continual activity and can’t imagine that I procrastinate, I’m always so productive. And yet there are some things that remain on the top of that list while other things get added and completed. I recently read an article by Dan Levitin for the LA Times that added a dimension to what I’ve read on procrastination. There my name was in neon. Apparently I’m a procrastinator of a different variety - a fun-task procrastinator. . We experience a jolt of dopamine when we complete a task. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter, a chemical that is released that relates to reward and motivation. It is a feel good chemical.
So here is what Levitin wrote that resonated:
"We tend to put off those things for which we will not get an immediate reward: projects with a long event horizon such as those undertaken by academics, engineers, writers, housing contractors and artists. The output of their work can take weeks, or months or sometimes years to complete. And then, after completion, there can be a very long period before they receive any praise or gratification. And so there is a very strong pull from the brain's reward center to engage in something — anything — else that will deliver a more immediate sense of satisfaction.”
Now one person’s fun task is another person’s challenge. Today my fun tasks include such things as building websites or writing a blog. Not that they aren’t at times onerous, but by and large I know how to do them and once done I have a sense of satisfaction. It is the things I have no idea how to do that loom and I remind myself that today's fun tasks once resided on that list. So what remains challenging? Well on my list I have writing a book and completing a series of paintings on a new topic that requires me to work with a new community to exhibit them. These are exactly the multi-stage projects Levitin references that have no immediate reward. When I did the Jewish Identity and Legacy project of interviews, video-editing and artwork, it certainly fit that profile as well. There was one different variable that spurred me onward - I received two grants to do the interviews. Now I had the reward, I just had to do the work to earn it. That is the value of grants, they sustain us through that daunting learning process.
Writing a blog gives me a quick hit of dopamine, writing a book with no certainty as to publication does not. It also requires a different quality of time. Similarly thinking about a series of artwork can be overwhelming, especially when I hope to change my approach or market.
His suggestion to move past these impasses is to break them into bite size chunks and feel the satisfaction of each piece. And so I am trying to think in terms of chapters and paintings rather than books and exhibitions. This week I began a painting in my memory series, moving the image from my head to the canvas. One step at a time in my search for a dopamine jolt.