Procrastination

Reading about how to avoid procrastinating is amongst my very favourite ways of procrastinating. It’s a lot easier than whatever you’re supposed to be doing, and neatly neutralises the guilt that you’d otherwise feel with a seductive promise that in the long run, this will prove to be the most useful hour you’ve ever spent.

There appear to be at least two main schools of thought regarding procrastination. There are certainly those who treat it as an evil that can be combatted, either head-on or deviously, but there are also those that embrace some degree of procrastination in the service of sifting project-wheat from errand-chaff.

There are people who spring out of bed at 5am, chanting ‘get thee behind me, Slashdot’, who are all too willing to tell you how to ‘maximise your productivity’. Steve Pavlina‘s intoxicating account of how he ostensibly graduated from college in CS in three semesters is the best example of this. Look how easy life is if you don’t waste any time whatsoever, he whispers to you. He’s either making it all up, or a superman, but he does tell an interesting story. And his polyphasic sleep experiment is worth a read.

Then there’s this bit of mental judo for using procrastination as a force for good. Basically, the idea behind ‘structured procrastination’ is this:

“Procrastinators seldom do absolutely nothing; they do marginally useful things, like gardening or sharpening pencils or making a diagram of how they will reorganize their files when they get around to it. Why does the procrastinator do these things? Because they are a way of not doing something more important. If all the procrastinator had left to do was to sharpen some pencils, no force on earth could get him do it. However, the procrastinator can be motivated to do difficult, timely and important tasks, as long as these tasks are a way of not doing something more important.”

Continue procrastinating. But instead of reading The Onion, procrastinate by doing something you’ll have to do eventually. This may not be the thing you should be doing most of all, but it’s better than nothing. And it won’t feel as much like work, because you still get to feel that you’re avoiding the thing you’re not supposed to be avoiding. Everyone’s a winner.

In opposition to this idea, Paul Graham argues that there are good and bad forms of procrastination:

“There are three variants of procrastination, depending on what you do instead of working on something: you could work on (a) nothing, (b) something less important, or (c) something more important. That last type, I’d argue, is good procrastination.”

He and Joel Spolsky are in remarkably close agreement on this (and related issues). Difficult and important things, like research, need big chunks of time and get completely minced by interruptions and any kind of task-switching. If blowing off a few errands means that you don’t get knocked out of the zone, and work solidly on a hard problem for three days straight, then that’s the way to be. And often, the things that you’re procrastinating about will disappear of their own accord – that’s a sure sign they weren’t that important to begin with.

I think there’s a final point to remember about procrastinators, as people. It is possible to be very successful and still procrastinate horrendously. For this to work, you need constructive panic. People who constructively panic thrill a little in the throes of that total focus you get when you realize that you have no time left to waste. You have exactly as much time remaining as you need to get things done, assuming you sleep as little as humanly possible, and view the whole world through a hole the size of a pinprick with the unblinking eye of your deadline staring back at you. Procrastination brought you here, and constructive panic will get you out.

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