Confession: I’m Really Bad at Starting Stuff

Does anyone else find that starting things is unspeakably difficult? There’s something daunting about a blank page, a large and/or complicated project, or a big stack of midterms (which was my project this past week). It’s funny, because once I get started, it’s never that bad. Sometimes, I even really enjoy it. But sitting down – being at the beginning – fills me with dread. Beginnings aren’t all bad. By definition, they represent the start of something new, and potentially exciting. There’s an energy present, and that energy is useful if one can harness it and channel the momentum away from anxiety and towards productivity. It’s just that, oftentimes, this is easier said than done.

Occasionally, I wonder if this is an age-related thing. Perhaps the older I get, the more I hate being pushed out of my comfort zone and into something new. But when I really think about it, I don’t think I’ve ever really liked to be at the beginning. For that matter, I’ve never really liked to be at the end either. I’m a “comfy-middle” sort of gal, and I often just want to immerse myself in the challenge at hand, enjoying the steady rhythm of a difficult but familiar foe.

Lately, I’ve been struggling with my hatred of beginnings in both my research and my teaching. If I’m being honest, the book project is probably stalled less by the threshold of a new chapter, and more by a genuine lack of time. Not to mention the distraction of a particularly aggressive strain of identity politics, which is currently being played out around me here in Quebec. But in the past, I’ve managed to juggle more balls, and even to be more politically engaged, so I can’t shake the feeling that what is really holding me back is that clean, empty, white page.

In terms of teaching, my disdain for starting new tasks has been palpable this year. I am teaching what is pretty much my dream course (although I have traded an historical focus for a philosophical one), and I get to talk about how people use and abuse the public sphere on an almost daily basis. I also love my students, who have turned out to be a very smart, curious, and engaged group of young people who email me because they want to continue the conversation beyond the classroom. And yet still, every time I open my computer to write a new lecture, I temporarily seize up.

My usual tactic for overcoming my skittishness is to do every other possible thing on my “to do list” – you know the trick, the one you learned in grad school, where you procrastinate by simply doing other work. I also check Facebook about 6000 times, and go get at least one more cup of coffee. Eventually, with nothing else left to do, I commit to defacing that blank page and I start writing about a new topic; one day I draft a lecture on gender in the mainstream media, the next I tackle the questions raised by international attempts to control how people use the internet. Sometimes I do a great of job and at other times, it’s merely OK – but I do always slay the dragon, and I almost always find it fulfilling. You’d think that eventually I’d figure out how to sit my ass down without freaking out; however, this hasn’t happened yet.

Thus, it’s hardly surprising that when I came home from the office on the Friday before reading week, I didn’t rush right to my desk and start grading the stack of 100 midterms that I had in my bag. Instead, I had a beer. Actually, I had several, and I assume that my students were doing the same thing. But when I did start working – alright, I confess, I caved by Saturday afternoon – I opted to finish the half-written lecture I had managed to start back in my office instead of cracking that ominous pile of little blue books. Unlike most people, I don’t even mind marking, I just hate starting to mark! (For the record, I did get started – and I even finished the pile – but it wasn’t until I had a very clean apartment, had finished last week’s blog, and had gone to the grocery store.)

All of this behavior is completely irrational, not to mention ridiculous. This is especially true since those of us who work in higher education don’t exactly have time to spare, dicking around at the computer and jaunting off for another cup of coffee. Just “get ‘er done,” I tell myself… because that always works. I suspect that I will struggle with getting started throughout my career, and I can’t help but picture a grey-haired version of myself looking at that book that I always swore I would read when I got the time… and then turning on the TV. “I’ll start it later,” I mumble, and then search for the latest episode of whatever cheesy crime drama the future holds.

So, why am I telling you all this? Well, first of all, an admittedly small part of me hopes that someone will have some sage advice and leave it in the comments. Maybe the omniscience and communal brilliance of the internet will cure me, once and for all, and I will no longer procrastinate. But as we approach the deadline for my students’ second paper, I also thought it was timely to remind myself not to get annoyed when my students email me at what seems to be like the last minute, betraying the fact that they haven’t yet started their papers. If I can’t bring myself to take the first step in a timely fashion, how can I expect more of them? Perhaps one day I’ll overcome my hatred of beginnings, but until then, I am going to try to avoid judging others for the same flaw. 

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