Old Business

I’m always a little relieved to discover that I’m not the only person in the world with procrastination and lack-of-work discipline issues. We watched the movie “Adaptation” again; we saw it on DVD around the time it came out, but I didn’t remember it well, and I certainly didn’t recall how much it dwells on the scriptwriter’s neuroses and lack of productivity. One passage, a voiceover as the writer sits down to his assignment, is perfect: “To begin… To begin… How to start? I’m hungry. I should get coffee. Coffee would help me think. Maybe I should write something first, then reward myself with coffee. Coffee and a muffin. So I need to establish the themes. Maybe a banana nut. That’s a good muffin.”

So, after having gone to the kitchen to refill my coffee cup, here’s something new on the procrastination/discipline front: a Wednesday op-ed from The New York Times on the biology of willpower. The basic take is this: We only have so much self-control; if you spend it on one thing–getting your writing assignment done on time–then you won’t have as much left over for that other good habit you want to pursue, like working out. But that’s not the end of the story. If you understand you’re working with a limited store of self-control, you can manage the supply; and the researchers say that practicing this kind of control is a form of exercise: it actually helps you develop more willpower:

“… It can be counterproductive to work toward multiple goals at the same time if your willpower cannot cover all the efforts that are required. Concentrating your effort on one or at most a few goals at a time increases the odds of success.

“Focusing on success is important because willpower can grow in the long term. Like a muscle, willpower seems to become stronger with use. The idea of exercising willpower is seen in military boot camp, where recruits are trained to overcome one challenge after another.

“In psychological studies, even something as simple as using your nondominant hand to brush your teeth for two weeks can increase willpower capacity. People who stick to an exercise program for two months report reducing their impulsive spending, junk food intake, alcohol use and smoking. They also study more, watch less television and do more housework. Other forms of willpower training, like money-management classes, work as well.”

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And speaking of procrastination: Here’s something held over from a week ago. Robert Fagles, the most recent great translator of Homer and Virgil and others, died last week (here’s the New York Times obit; and here’s a little side-by-side comparison of his translations compared to past masters of the art–Fitzgerald, Pope, and Chapman). Nothing to say, really, except to take note of someone who was a superb storyteller in his own right.

“… They harnessed oxen and mules to wagons,

they assembled before the city walls with all good speed

and for nine days hauled in a boundless store of timber.

But when the tenth Dawn brought light to the mortal world

they carried gallant Hector forth, weeping tears,

and they placed his corpse aloft the pyre’s crest,

flung a torch and set it all aflame.

“At last,

when young Dawn with her rose-red fingers shone once more,

the people massed around illustrious Hector’s pyre . . .

And once they’d gathered, crowding the meeting grounds,

they first put out the fires with glistening wine,

wherever the flames still burned in all their fury.

Then they collected the white bones of Hector–

all his brothers, his friends-in-arms, mourning,

and warm tears came streaming down their cheeks.

They placed the bones they found in a golden chest,

shrouding them round and round in soft purple cloths.

They quickly lowered the chest in a deep, hollow grave

and over it piled a cope of huge stones closely set,

then hastily heaped a barrow, posted lookouts all around

for fear the Achaean combat troops would launch their attack

before the time agreed. And once they’d heaped the mound

they turned back home to Troy, and gathering once again

they shared a splendid funeral feast in Hector’s honor,

held in the house of Priam, king by will of Zeus.

“And so the Trojans buried Hector breaker of horses.”

–Robert Fagles: “The Iliad,” Book 24

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