Capability and Procrastination: De-stigmatizing How We Labor

Kendyl Harmeling, Assistant Director for Graduate Student Writing

I had a lot of small, unformed ideas on what to write this blog post about. Knowing I had this task in advance, I spent the last few weeks musing over what I could spend the couple hundred words in this space discussing. My guiding question in these considerations was: what about writing, writing centers, process, or the UofL community feels most relevant and useful to reflect on here and now? I thought about potentially discussing campus trends toward the virtual and multimodal; or about the importance of both in-person and virtual writing communities; or exploring digital sustainability in debates on waste and AI. But amid all these thoughts on what to write – on how to use this space – I’ve been struggling in a combination of family-related emergencies and bodily/mental exhaustion. And now that it’s writing time, deadline day, I’m here with a few drafted-and-deleted ideas. In line with Andrew’s recent post on writer’s block, I offer here a play-by-play of my writer’s block, how I am processing it, and considerations on combating both internal and external stigma on “procrastination.”

A Mid-Morning Scene: As I write this, it is 12:48pm. I opened this document at 10:00am. I’ve played with the formatting, bolding and un-bolding potential titles, changing font sizes and adding page numbers to re-format them. A few times, I’ve gotten so lucky as to get a sentence or two on the page. But shortly after they appear, I revoke them. And I’m left with a blank page again. I read and re-read the UWC blog posts from this semester to see if there’s anything I have to add that’s in line with what’s already been talked about, or if there’s anything new to cover. I return to my blank screen and write some key words. But I don’t feel connected to them. I delete them, like their earlier sentence-ancestors I deleted a half an hour ago. I close my eyes and try to conjure a topic, or a gripping scene I can narrate into a more writerly discussion.

It’s been stormy lately – is there anything to that? Can I use the tornado sirens as a metaphor? Do I have anything to say? More times passes, and I un-bold and delete the placeholder word “title” from the top left corner. I take a short break to get water. I return to a still blank page because, shockingly, a ghost hasn’t appeared and begun to type for me while I was in the kitchen. The more time passes, the more anxiety I can feel in my fingertips and behind my ears. It manifests in the form of my heartbeat. Shame and embarrassment start to bubble up – others got their blog posts done, probably way more on time than me – why can’t I do this? END SCENE.

            When I was in undergrad, I used to plan to write my assignments just before the deadline to combat this feeling. If I had the most urgent pressure – less than 48 hours to produce a document – I could get my work done. And, though it wasn’t all the time, it was normally work that I was proud of once I had done it. I knew that my friends didn’t work like this, that their time management was better than mine by light years. Someone I worked with once shamed me for this, saying that it was not only my own personal failure to rise to the level of productivity that college work required but also it was a general issue of people my age. This has stuck with me for years, now in a PhD program and still unable to regularly and routinely get my work done “productively.” Notwithstanding discussions of neurodivergence, disability and ableism, and how these affect labor and capitalism’s expectations for productivity, this line of thought is toxic to hold yourself to and to hold others to more generally. It’s damaging, and even as I write this, I feel the echoes of that stigma attempting to shame me for writing this when I am able to – and not when a system or a social norm excepts me to.

            Not only are breaks important to take in academia and in any work environment, as Charlie’s January blog post implores, but too it’s essential to validate your work processes. I work how I work – and I get the work I need to do done in a manner that works for me. It is not a failure of my productivity to use what resources I have to complete a task. It is especially not a failure to use resources that social norms and capitalistic expectation stigmatize the use of. If you need to use time as a resource, it shouldn’t only be valid to use it in extension; tactically using deadlines to complete labor is just as useful to the person it benefits as planning labor out months in advance for someone else.

            In medical ethics and philosophy, there’s a concept called “the capabilities approach,” which is used to evaluate the equity and justice of medical access. The capability to access medical services is one step, but the functional ability to use them is another. This outlook on justice isn’t located solely in medicine – it affects every aspect of life. Take, for example, a wheelchair-user who needs to take the bus to get to the grocery store after a snowstorm. The city doesn’t shovel sidewalks, and though the bus is wheelchair accessible and there is a sidewalk for the individual to use to get to the bus, the city’s inability to shovel the snow and ice hinders this person’s functional ability to use the bus – despite the capability to do so that the bus lift and sidewalk offer them. The capabilities approach applies much the same to writing or work-related labor. Having the capability to write is one thing – and is expected of us as college students and workers. But having the functional ability, whether due to inaccessible processes or internal challenges, varies for each of us even down to the day. And, if we feel functionally unable to meet our capability, shame sets in. We must all work to validate, and not stigmatize, the ways we need to function in order to meet our capabilities – if that is what we want to do.

Abiding by someone else’s metric for function, for ability, for productivity and correct process is not a restorative approach to your own bodily and mental well-being. Further, holding others to your metric for function and productivity is ableist atop being reductive and stigmatizing. It also reinforces the harmful systems which already marginalize, disable, and exclude, let alone harms your relationships with those you’re not allowing to work in the ways that they need to. Everyone benefits when we are all not only allowed but encouraged to be “productive” in ways that we individually and communally make meaningful, despite the overarching capitalist social norm. We are not sustainable resources – we do not have endless wells of energy inside us, and we must tend to what we have with nurturing care. Do not burn out for this system, but work through it tactically. Be mindful of how your body and mind speak to you about your energy – and work how it feels most useful and helpful to you. I need to work close to deadlines – regardless of how many have and will tell me that’s wrong. I know my process and my work better than anyone, and you know yourself. Respect that process, restore your energy, and relax. Most importantly, know that however you labor is valid.

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