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Doing Nothing & Procrastinating Aren’t the Same Thing

Doing Nothing & Procrastinating Aren’t the Same Thing

    You sit down to write a paper. You’ve done all the research you could possibly need to do, but for some reason, you just can’t get started.

    Does this mean you’re procrastinating? Ask most anyone and they’ll tell you that you are, but it’s not necessarily true. The things we write aren’t simply a culmination of the research we’ve done into a topic. The mind needs to process new information before it can work with it, and even then, there’s still the matter of what you are going to write about it.

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    You might think you just need to do some research and get writing, and this is why you sit at the screen unsure of where to start. You haven’t let the project germinate, and it’s like trying to harvest the fruit from a tree while it’s still a seed in the ground. Your brain needs to process that research before it can work with it.

    Now, I’ll add a disclaimer here because statements like these often become excuses for those who are truly procrastinators. Just because you sit down and can’t get started writing doesn’t necessarily mean you need more germination time. It may just mean you’re plain lazy. If you’ve been sitting on that 500 word article for a month and haven’t started writing yet, I’d put a bet on the fact that you’ve had enough time to incubate your ideas. But this is all relative to the size of the task and, continuing with writing as our analogy since that’s what I do all day every day, a month’s germination time won’t be anywhere near enough time to mentally flesh out a twelve-book fantasy saga.

    I’ve spoken to computer programmers in the past who have found the same thing; if they run head first into coding, they hit walls, even if they’ve sketched out some diagrams that look workable. On the other hand, if they spend the afternoon washing dishes while the programming is relegated to the back of their mind, or they sleep on it, the subconscious gets the time to process all the information and goals and feed the mind with ideas.

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    Allowing a germination period works so well that programmers, writers and other creators alike can often end up spending just hours or days tackling a project that would’ve taken weeks or months had they rushed in.

    Not Just for Creatives and Problem-Solvers

    This principle doesn’t just apply to those who produce the written word or computer software or works of art for a living. It applies to everyone who has to do something that doesn’t come with an instruction book.

    For instance, if you know you’re moving house in a month but you’ll only have a weekend between the time you get your new keys and the time you give the old ones back, the best thing you can do is let that problem sit in the back of your mind unattended for a few days, maybe a week. The first instinct most of us might have is to panic. This interferes with problem-solving, whether it’s conscious problem-solving or background problem-solving.

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    Once you return the problem to conscious thought, you may find you’ve got a good idea of how to prepare things in advance so that your move only takes a weekend (even though it’ll probably involve hiring a removalist and a cleaner!).

    No Manual Required, But it’s Not Easy

    This is such a simple concept. How is it that we miss the signs that we’re simply not ready to get started on the production phase of a project?

    I recently read somewhere that many Westerners confuse thirst for hunger because we’ve been trained to eat to solve all of our problems. I’m not vouching for the truth of that statement, but it’s a similar thing we’re talking about here. Western culture wants us busy all the time, producing, producing, producing. Unproductive workers are bad for the bottom line.

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    So, spending some time thinking is discouraged. We have to produce results NOW. Unfortunately (or fortunately?), the mind doesn’t work that way. It needs to spend the time taking information in, and then it needs to be left alone to do the “pre-production” as we say in the music production world.

    Thus, it’s not easy to set a project aside and wait until it is ready to be tackled (whether that’s an hour away, a day, or more). That doesn’t make it difficult, but it’s not easy, either. Even as a guy who works from home and doesn’t have to keep up appearances looking like a busy bee in the office, I feel guilty when I put the production work off and let some information settle into the empty vortex at the back of my skull (back where my brain used to be).

    I can’t offer a quick way to help you feel less guilty about doing this, unfortunately, because this is a part of the way you see the world and that makes it a mental adjustment that takes time. It’s hard to get out of the negative feedback loop that the guilt of taking time to think causes while others think you’re just procrastinating. Persevere, stick with it, and when you’re estimating the time it’ll take to complete something, factor it in.

    I’m still getting to that guilt-free stage myself.

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    Joel Falconer

    Editor, content marketer, product manager and writer with 12+ years of experience in the startup, design and tech digital media industries.

    How to Master the Art of Prioritization The Importance of Scheduling Downtime How to Make Decisions Under Pressure 11 Free Mind Mapping Applications & Web Services How to Use Parkinson’s Law to Your Advantage

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    Last Updated on January 21, 2020

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

    The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

    Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

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    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    How to Self-Taught Effectively

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

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    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

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    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

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    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

    More About Self-Learning

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

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