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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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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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