Downtime

Do Better, Barbara

Why I procrastinate by watching a 1950s motivational video.

Girl crying superimposed on an animated vortex rabbit hole.
Animation by Lisa Larson-Walker.

Rabbit Holes is a recurring series in which writers pay homage to the diversity and ingenuity of the ways we procrastinate now. To pitch your personal rabbit hole, email humaninterest@slate.com.

A black-and-white video opens to a grainy title card, as 1950s instrumental string music, florid with a slight air of concern, swells in the background. A camera then slowly pans across a teenage girl’s bedroom while the music continues, now joined by the sounds of sobbing, until we see her, blond and dressed in a modest little sweater and circle skirt, standing in the corner and crying. “It’s a little late for tears, isn’t it, Barbara?” interjects the narrator, heartlessly introducing us to perhaps the most motivating clip on YouTube.

In Habit Patterns, an educational video created by McGraw-Hill in 1954, we observe Barbara throughout her day. The narrator’s goal seems to be a slow destruction of Barbara’s psyche, by scrutinizing every one of her missteps and identifying the bad habits that led to them: her unmended collar, her stained clothing, missing breakfast, missing a ride to school. “Looking for your hairbrush? Can’t remember where you left it?” the narrator asks her sarcastically as Barbara struggles to get out the door. The narrator is the voice of a passive-aggressive relative, a frenemy who haunts Barbara, reminding her that she didn’t make her bed, and now she has to lie in it.

I watch this video a lot because I find it hilarious but also because, for me, it is genuinely aspirational. There was a time when I watched this video every Sunday night as part of my preparation for the week. My fiancé and I have turned it into a joke, and we’ll remind each other “not to be a Barbara” about things we’re slacking off on. Someone needs to empty the dishwasher? Let’s not be a Barbara; one of us needs to get moving or else we’re going to end up eating from paper plates. Laundry spilling out of the closet? OK, Barbara. Pull it together, grab some Tide Pods (don’t eat them!) and be on your way. As silly as I find the narrator, there is a kernel of value in what she says that hits me every time I watch: I always find myself sitting ramrod straight by the end of it.

The truth is, as a procrastinator, the firm hand of Habit Patterns is something I crave in my daily life. I feel virtuous after watching it, even if I’ve accomplished nothing tangible. Feeling bad about myself for a few minutes and then promising to be “better” in some way feels like I’ve done actual work. Of course, there’s irony in the fact that if I used those 14 minutes to hang up clothes or write those last few emails instead of procrastinating with this form of self-flagellation, I’d actually get more accomplished. But I find Barbara comforting to watch nonetheless, basking in the idea that if I could just get out of the rut of poor habits, I could become the master of my existence.

I know I’m not alone in dealing with the tension between wanting to improve my life and struggling with the implementation. Right now, many of us are reckoning with, or have already been bested by, our New Year’s resolutions. (To wit: The delightful Marie Kondo, who would probably be extremely dismayed by Habit Patterns for the attitude alone, rules Netflix and about 30 percent of all BuzzFeed articles at the moment.) Our inner narrators have admonished our inner Barbaras to put on our running shoes when it’s still dark out, or to swipe right on that guy who would have gotten a left-swipe back in October. There is a comfort and sense of control in taking small, routine steps to build a better future for ourselves, and it is this comfort, as well as the hilarious cruelty the narrator relentlessly inflicts on Barbara’s spirit, that keeps drawing me back to Habit Patterns.

As an immigrant raised by immigrants, Habit Patterns also offers me a fascinating look into the mores of the 1950s U.S., and how narrow and rigid the social conventions were back then. This helps me to understand the segment of the American population today who is terrified by evolving norms to the point that they yell at people speaking Spanish in the grocery store. And it also makes me feel real gratitude that I live in a time that allows for a far wider range of “acceptable behavior” and that embraces my individuality more and more with every passing year.

Sometimes, I wonder what happened to Barbara. I imagine that once she rounded the corner into the 1960s, with its wave of social change and focus on self-actualization, she was better able to find the right environments in which to flourish. Maybe she became a fan of the Stooges and graduated from one of the Seven Sisters. Though it’s true that her battle with her (and my) superego gives me some schadenfreude, she deserves happiness. Ultimately, I hope that she found her way to a life like mine, where I have the ability to make choices on the amount of discipline I want to pursue in my life, instead of having those choices made—or narrated—for me from above.