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How to Procrastinate

How to Procrastinate

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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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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    The Productivity Paradox: What Is It And How Can We Move Beyond It?

    The Productivity Paradox: What Is It And How Can We Move Beyond It?

    It’s a depressing adage we’ve all heard time and time again: An increase in technology does not necessarily translate to an increase in productivity.

    Put another way by Robert Solow, a Nobel laureate in economics,

    “You can see the computer age everywhere but in the productivity statistics.”

    In other words, just because our computers are getting faster, that doesn’t mean that that we will have an equivalent leap in productivity. In fact, the opposite may be true!

    New York Times writer Matt Richel wrote in an article for the paper back in 2008 that stated, “Statistical and anecdotal evidence mounts that the same technology tools that have led to improvements in productivity can be counterproductive if overused.”

    There’s a strange paradox when it comes to productivity. Rather than an exponential curve, our productivity will eventually reach a plateau, even with advances in technology.

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    So what does that mean for our personal levels of productivity? And what does this mean for our economy as a whole? Here’s what you should know about the productivity paradox, its causes, and what possible solutions we may have to combat it.

    What is the productivity paradox?

    There is a discrepancy between the investment in IT growth and the national level of productivity and productive output. The term “productivity paradox” became popularized after being used in the title of a 1993 paper by MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson, a Professor of Management at the MIT Sloan School of Management, and the Director of the MIT Center for Digital Business.

    In his paper, Brynjolfsson argued that while there doesn’t seem to be a direct, measurable correlation between improvements in IT and improvements in output, this might be more of a reflection on how productive output is measured and tracked.[1]

    He wrote in his conclusion:

    “Intangibles such as better responsiveness to customers and increased coordination with suppliers do not always increase the amount or even intrinsic quality of output, but they do help make sure it arrives at the right time, at the right place, with the right attributes for each customer.

    Just as managers look beyond “productivity” for some of the benefits of IT, so must researchers be prepared to look beyond conventional productivity measurement techniques.”

    How do we measure productivity anyway?

    And this brings up a good point. How exactly is productivity measured?

    In the case of the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, productivity gain is measured as the percentage change in gross domestic product per hour of labor.

    But other publications such as US Today, argue that this is not the best way to track productivity, and instead use something called Total Factor Productivity (TFP). According to US Today, TFP “examines revenue per employee after subtracting productivity improvements that result from increases in capital assets, under the assumption that an investment in modern plants, equipment and technology automatically improves productivity.”[2]

    In other words, this method weighs productivity changes by how much improvement there is since the last time productivity stats were gathered.

    But if we can’t even agree on the best way to track productivity, then how can we know for certain if we’ve entered the productivity paradox?

    Possible causes of the productivity paradox

    Brynjolfsson argued that there are four probable causes for the paradox:

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    • Mis-measurement – The gains are real but our current measures miss them.
    • Redistribution – There are private gains, but they come at the expense of other firms and individuals, leaving little net gain.
    • Time lags – The gains take a long time to show up.
    • Mismanagement – There are no gains because of the unusual difficulties in managing IT or information itself.

    There seems to be some evidence to support the mis-measurement theory as shown above. Another promising candidate is the time lag, which is supported by the work of Paul David, an economist at Oxford University.

    According to an article in The Economist, his research has shown that productivity growth did not accelerate until 40 years after the introduction of electric power in the early 1880s.[3] This was partly because it took until 1920 for at least half of American industrial machinery to be powered by electricity.”

    Therefore, he argues, we won’t see major leaps in productivity until both the US and major global powers have all reached at least a 50% penetration rate for computer use. The US only hit that mark a decade ago, and many other countries are far behind that level of growth.

    The paradox and the recession

    The productivity paradox has another effect on the recession economy. According to Neil Irwin,[4]

    “Sky-high productivity has meant that business output has barely declined, making it less necessary to hire back laid-off workers…businesses are producing only 3 percent fewer goods and services than they were at the end of 2007, yet Americans are working nearly 10 percent fewer hours because of a mix of layoffs and cutbacks in the workweek.”

    This means that more and more companies are trying to do less with more, and that means squeezing two or three people’s worth of work from a single employee in some cases.

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    According to Irwin, “workers, frightened for their job security, squeezed more productivity out of every hour [in 2010].”

    Looking forward

    A recent article on Slate puts it all into perspective with one succinct observation:

    “Perhaps the Internet is just not as revolutionary as we think it is. Sure, people might derive endless pleasure from it—its tendency to improve people’s quality of life is undeniable. And sure, it might have revolutionized how we find, buy, and sell goods and services. But that still does not necessarily mean it is as transformative of an economy as, say, railroads were.”

    Still, Brynjolfsson argues that mismeasurement of productivity can really skew the results of people studying the paradox, perhaps more than any other factor.

    “Because you and I stopped buying CDs, the music industry has shrunk, according to revenues and GDP. But we’re not listening to less music. There’s more music consumed than before.

    On paper, the way GDP is calculated, the music industry is disappearing, but in reality it’s not disappearing. It is disappearing in revenue. It is not disappearing in terms of what you should care about, which is music.”

    Perhaps the paradox isn’t a death sentence for our productivity after all. Only time (and perhaps improved measuring techniques) will tell.

    Featured photo credit: Pexels via pexels.com

    Reference

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