Daily Archives: February 1, 2010 7:44 am

Come on in, the water’s lovely: what swimming teaches about procrastination

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Dunwich in Suffolk last summer

At the pool yesterday, I was fascinated to watch a group of  5-year olds having their swimming lesson. One instructor was in the pool ready to catch the poor things when the other instructor, on the side of the pool, ‘encouraged’ them to jump into the water.

A few were quite easy and nonchalant about it, and just dropped themselves in and swam to the steps. But others had emotions ranging from mild distress to pure terror. One just cried and cried and shook his head and his hands and stepped backwards from the edge  in a combination of gestures that couldn’t have said ‘no’ more loudly if they tried.

I smiled, not because I’m cruel, but because I had a feeling that the same child would pretty soon probably enjoy jumping into the water, and might even like  the slight frisson of terror as he does so.  How is it possible to be so upset and terrified and apprehensive, and yet be so wrong?

I smiled also because all that little-boy stepping back from the edge, tears, apprehension and hand- and head-shaking is remarkably similar to how I feel when I know that I have an essay to write or some other big, complex task.  Talking to friends, I discover that I’m not the only one with an ingenious array of techniques for avoiding starting stuff – the best one being ‘I’d better do the washing up first’. Curi0usly, on most days, I’d happily leave the washing up until tomorrow.

Watching those kids trying to jump in the pool made me think that the thing with procrastination is that it’s not a fear of the thing you’ve got to do, it’s apprehension about jumping into it. Surely, you think to yourself, the best way to start is to prepare, to ease yourself in gently, to wait until it feels right, to let yourself acclimatize to your working conditions, to make everything around you comfortable and convenient.

In life as in swimming, this is nonsense.  If you’ve ever swum in the sea in England, you’ll know that there’ll never be a good time to get yourself in the water. Whether it’s an essay or the English channel, it’s there, it’s cold, you have to get on with it and jump in.