How to Procrastinate

In December 2005, Paul Graham published an excellent essay entitled “Good and Bad Procrastination.”  It is an essay that is worth revisiting from time to time.  In it, he argued that at all times we can work on one of three things: a) nothing, b) things that are less important, and c) things that are important.  He refers to these as type A, type B, and type C procrastination.  Type B procrastination is destructive while Type C procrastination is actually quite productive.

Graham’s essay applies the important principle that there is no free lunch.  By its nature, the act of doing something means sacrificing the opportunity to do something else.  To the extent that we are giving up the opportunity to work on important things in order to work on unimportant things, we are wasting our time.  To the extent that we are giving up the opportunity to work on unimportant things in order to work on important things, we are making good use of our time.  This can be distilled into a few points.

1.  “Good procrastination is avoiding errands to do real work.”  Graham defines “errands” as minor tasks that have no chance of being remembered.  In the pre-digital world, Errands 1.0 included things like answering mail, housekeeping, picking up friends at the airport, and mowing grass.  Checking email is probably the best example of Errands 2.0, and to add insult to injury most of Errands 1.0 haven’t gone away.  Productivity comes not from making lists and checking them twice, but from eliminating less-important activities in order to work on those that are important.

2.  “Clean up in a dull moment.”  This is one of my favorite quotes from economic historian Deirdre McCloskey.  Large blocks of otherwise uncommitted time will tend to get consumed by housework and other little tasks, each of which provides a psychologically comforting feeling of accomplishment and completion but which stands in the way of a larger, more important project (like your dissertation, if you’re a graduate student, or that paper you’re working on if you’re a junior faculty member).  But dull moments will come.  Since you can’t work at a high level nonstop, McCloskey advises waiting for lulls in creative energy and enthusiasm before cleaning the house or cleaning the office or what have you.

3.  Don’t allow yourself to be driven by interruptions.  Graham notes that Type-B procrastinators are “interrupt-driven.”  Don’t allow yourself to be driven by interruptions, and do what you can to avoid helping people who are driven by interruptions encroach upon your time and attention.  This is really, really, really hard, especially for people who are especially social.  Fundamentally (and fortunately), the degree to which you allow yourself to be interrupted is your choice and yours alone.  Choose not to subject yourself to an unending stream of interruptions.

4.  Identify and eliminate clutter.  Here’s an interesting thought experiment inspired by Graham’s essay.  Imagine your goal were to reach your deathbed without writing The Great American Novel.  What, specifically, would you do to prevent yourself from writing it?  Be specific.  As Graham writes, people don’t fail to write by sitting and staring at a blank page all day.  They don’t write because they let their time get eaten up by other commitments.

4a.  Ask “If this were burned, would I miss it?”  In a 1982 essay for the journal Reviews in American History, economic historian Gavin Wright made mention of a fire at the University of Michigan that had consumed some of his notes for that essay.  As I wade through the accumulated dross of this past semester during a protracted dull moment, I’m coming to the realization that my life would be no worse if it were burned.  Assorted piles of books I’ve ordered, papers I’ve printed, and notebooks I’ve filled could disappear overnight and I, my teaching, and my research would be no worse for it.  If anything, they might improve.

5.  Answer this question: “What’s the best thing you could be working on, and why aren’t you?”  This is Graham’s generalization of some questions originally asked by noted scientist Richard Hamming in his famous lecture “You and Your Research.”  This is a hard question to answer because for most of us, it involves some serious soul-searching and some serious reckoning with the decisions we have made.  Here I’m speaking of an all-too-human tendency to want to blame circumstances.  It is easy to blame other people, the weather, traffic, and everything else under the sun for everything that goes wrong, and it is easier (and perhaps, self-delusionally romantic) to assume the role of the tortured martyr whose genius is squelched by external forces.  This, though, denies that we have choices.  Our choices are constrained by the incentives we face, but for those of us who are fortunate enough to be in the idea industry, we should be able to re-arrange our commitments in such a way as to allow us to work on the things that are really important.

Every decision involves a cost, and organizational methods should recognize that for some people, there are some things that just aren’t worth doing.  With the right focus we can, to quote Graham, get the right things done and “leave the right things undone.”

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