The Perils of Procrastination

Spring is the best time to build a boat in Pennsylvania. I can work comfortably in shirtsleeves any hour of the day and I don’t need to worry about the plastic resin glue failing to set when the temperature drops.

Unfortunately, spring is also the busiest time around our house. After the slow pace of winter, I am suddenly pulled in a dozen different directions—all urgent, all needing immediate attention. The vegetable garden needs to be planted, the lawn mowed, and the flower garden weeded.

And that’s just for starters. I also need to keep up with all the nettlesome items on my daily “to do” list—from washing dishes to (oh, yes) earning a living.

Even before I started the boat project in March, I was run ragged by the competing obligations of work, home, family and my many and various hobbies, from woodworking to home brewing. I didn’t have a free moment. I never wondered how I would fill my hours–ever.

And now I am trying to build a boat? What was I thinking?

A week passes without any progress. Is it my imagination that my boat is looking a bit dusty and forlorn? Every day I go into the garage for one reason or another (to get the lawnmower, grab a hoe, look through some boxes…) and I am confronted with fourteen feet of glued plywood. It’s too big to ignore and many, many months (years? decades?) away from completion. It sits there, accusatory, the proverbial elephant in the room. This is one problem I can’t sweep under the rug.

Suddenly I recall all those ads in boating magazines placed by builders trying to unload their beautiful, but unfinished hulls. “Must sell,” they say. But is there a whiff of desperation, too? Behind the tone of regret, are they also saying, “Please, for the love of God, just make it go away! I am so sick of this stupid boat!”

At three in the morning, I have a small wave of panic. Have I made a mistake? Am I over my head? Will it sit there, moldering for years to come? How do you get rid of an unfinished plywood boat, anyway?

Optimism returns with the sunrise and when I go out to the garage and look at my work, I am relieved to realize that I still feel a sense of excitement and pride. No, I’m not going to abandon the project and I did not make a mistake. This is something I want to do.

But I notice that a law of physics, “an object at rest tends to stay at rest,” applies to projects like this. When I devote myself fully to a task, whether it’s cleaning the car, digging a garden, writing book, or (in this case) building a boat, I feel a sense of momentum. I get caught up in the work, make it my top priority, and want to see the job done. This momentum also helps carry me past the inevitable frustrations and mistakes.

But when I leave the project, the momentum slows and, in time, disappears. Other tasks take priority and my boat can feel more like a burden than the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. If I wait too long, will my interest disappear forever? I pride myself on finishing what I start, but I’m not perfect. I can recall at least two books that faded for lack of interest and countless woodworking projects that never left the woodshop.

The trick, I decide, is to keep working, even if it’s just for a few hours a week. Don’t focus on all the work that remains; don’t become preoccupied by slow progress. Instead, I should try to simply look at the next step and do what I can, even if means that I do nothing more than cut one piece of wood or loft one curve.

In the spirit of this resolution, I head out to the garage to accomplish two small tasks.

No, it's not capsizing. I'm getting ready to screw braces and stringers.

No, it's not capsizing. I'm getting ready to screw braces and stringers.

First, I lift the boat off the floor and onto its side, resting the keel on two small workbenches. It’s an ignoble position for a boat (it produces uncomfortable associations with capsizing), but I need access to the underside for the next two or three steps. Lifting the unwieldy, tenuously attached assembly is “a bit tricky,” as the instructions acknowledge, but with good spirited help and advice from my oldest son, it is accomplished in a matter of seconds.

“Now we’re on a role!” I say.

With this step accomplished, I have the motivation needed to tackle the next little task, which is to cut, glue, and screw a single 1 x 3 piece of pine over a seam in the bottom boards. There was nothing especially interesting or important about this insignificant piece of pine, but by limiting my goals and finding satisfaction in this incremental step, I left the garage content.

This, I think, is how the whole project will have to proceed. With the excitement of the first cuts relegated to the past, satisfaction comes this sense of forward movement.

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