Topic: How do you even know if you’re procrastinating? (and some kind of update on how my next book is coming along)
Reading time: 1700 words
Executive Summary: The difference between legitimate preparation, recreation, recharging and recovery on the one hand, and procrastination on the other, lies in the long term outcome. Pay attention to whether your important projects are progressing as desired or not.
It was a catastrophe
Loud electrical noise hit my eardrums, sparks flew and smoke rose from my new toy race car track and the two cars, that I was so excited to start controlling and racing. One car had jumped up and off the track. A sharp chemical tang was abusing my olfactory cells (which by the way are very versatile, and have recently been used to cure quadriplegics from paralyzation).
It was my 7th or 8th birthday and I had just happened to bypass the power adapter (it wasn’t pre-assembled and I didn’t read the manual, so I had just put two naked electrical cords into the wall socket) and ended up burning and short circuiting my new toy race car track, including a couple of the cars.
Since then I’ve always read the (entire) manual before using a new device.
Learning a new skill – procrastinating
A few days ago I set out to turn my notes in Google Docs into a real book. I had a cup of coffee, turned off all notifications and sat down with my computer to do some Deep Work.
Right at that moment I realized, Mr. Mania was in control. Mr. Mania didn’t really care about the future; he just wanted to get off to a start, thinking and writing. Now, most writers would say starting is a good thing…
I, however, realized that jumping right into the writing would be a kind of procrastination and sub-optimizing. Consequently, I paused and thought “Hey, wait a minute, perhaps I should use a real text editor this time and make it right from the beginning. I mean, I want this book to feel like a proper book rather than just some sloppy pdf document”
So, I bought Scrivener (Wait? What? I know, Mr. Mania just went ahead and did it). After installing it, I was just about to import my lengthy notes and start writing, when I stepped in again: “I probably should read the Quick Start Manual to get a feel for the program first”. Again, was that smart preparation… or procrastinating?
What did I do? Instead of writing or browsing the quick start manual, I spent yesterday and today reading the entire manual, going through all example exercises. I did in to two lengthy sessions of total focus and concentration. Once in a while, though, I thought to myself “is this smart, is this manic, is this procrastinating? Is this 8-year old Sprezza afraid to destroy his toy for lack of reading the manual?”. I still don’t know.
However, now I have this article ready, as well as know all I need to know about Scrivener – a new skill!
During the above process, I realized a few things regarding procrastination:
The most dangerous thing with procrastination…
…is that there is nothing dangerous at all about it. You’ll get whatever needs doing done in time eventually. And if you don’t, nobody ever died from missing a deadline.
However, if you want to get things done, but also believe in sound preparation, being rested, fed and inspired, you should pay close attention to the actual progress of your projects. For some it’s paramount to just get started to get anything at all done, while others thrive when and only when the circumstances are perfect (somehow Bobby Fischer springs to mind)
The second most dangerous thing…
…is that you often don’t even know you are procrastinating.
Writing this post, e.g., instead of outlining the book I’m (supposed to be) writing. I mean, I am supposed to put out a blog post about every week, so writing this is not procrastinating, right? It’s better to get these thoughts off my mind and then focus on the book, right?
Sure, that’s the P(rocrastination) snake talking, but it could just as well be being effective, or alternatively Mr. “just do it, do it right now” making an appearance, or as I like to call him: Mr. M(ania).
The P snake is a sneaky bastard that can rationalize any behavior: “It’s fun, it’s what you really want, it’s even more effective than doing project X, live a little…” and you won’t even realize what’s going on.
Mr. M is his cousin. Supposed to study for an exam? Mr. M suddenly wants to do some spring cleaning, or visit your parents in law, or doing taxes, working out or some other actually important and sound activities. Like writing this post.
I often sound like and advocate of Mr. M’s. I think you should “just do it, start right away, try stuff, commit and quit…”. It is good for you, provides a healthy dose of variation in your life and gets things done. On the other hand, it’s a bit manic, isn’t it? In addition, without some planning and afterthought you risk climbing the nearest hill instead of the right one.
The third most dangerous thing…
…is that it’s all too easy to quit procrastinating, and hence just as easy to keep at it, since you know you can quit anytime you like (sic).
I could put this post aside right now. But, I just won’t. Besides, I’m so close to finishing now anyway.
I actually can stop procrastinating whenever I like, and in fact I often do. I don’t need rituals do get into working mode, like some people seem to need. I can just switch on and off my Deep Work mode and start. I just need to get my priorities right to do it.
Since I know that, it’s even easier to just keep procrastinating; tweeting, e-mailing and doing other shallow work that doesn’t add any long term value.
Then again, my “job” is spreading my gospel, my life advice, and the more I engage on social media, the wider I get to spread whatever quality wisdom I’m able to produce in between my social sessions.
So, how do I know what to do about the shallow work and procrastination?
Resolving the issue
If you try to minimize it or avoid it completely I think you end up doing it a lot more of it instead.
Thus, I think the best way to deal with procrastination is to embrace it, to acknowledge it as a part of life, a part that can be quite enjoyable even.
I don’t have a specific check list for how to do it, but whenever doing shallow work, stop for a minute or two to explicitly go over your priorities:
- What do you want to accomplish the coming month?
- What should you first and foremost do to accomplish that?
- How does what you’re currently doing fit into that scheme? (e-mailing, tweeting, surfing on Facebook, Youtube etc.)
Do not let the gut reaction of “charging my batteries, getting into mode, searching for inspiration, preparing, marketing etc., or ‘all of the above'” be your final answer.
Explicitly state why you should use up even one more minute doing what you’re doing, instead of digging into your highest priority project, the one you want to have finished in the future, as opposed to activities that only pass time (albeit superficially supporting your long term goals).
Sure, blogging and tweeting amount to expanding my network (apart from the fun, relaxation etc.), but without doing real work on my book, there is no real value created that can be leveraged by the network. In addition, doing shallow work, having fun, marketing, e-mailing etc. feels so much better after real work on the right projects than before. That’s when it’s really relaxing rather than anxiety inducing.
Step 1: Acknowledge procrastination isn’t bad or dangerous at all, and that’s exactly why it’s so damaging. Pause, reflect, prioritize and put off the shallow work instead of your Deep Work.
What I mean is that there actually is nothing wrong in procrastinating for a few minutes. But three minutes can easily lead to three more and then three more after that. If three minutes is OK then why shouldn’t three more be too? Therefore it’s better to not do it at all and proceed directly to:
Step 2: Before peripheral (albeit important) tasks, first do that which you in the future want to have accomplished, i.e., your real work
Step 3: After step 2, relax with the shallow and supportive tasks that you put off in step 1
The hard part lies in knowing what is primary and what is secondary work. Specifically, in my case, was buying and learning Scrivener procrastinating or was it doing Deep Primary Work that truly furthers my important book project?
I think it was the latter, and the right thing to do. On the other hand, that was on Thursday and Friday, and now it’s Sunday and I still haven’t written a sentence on my book.
However, I imported it and structured it and was just about ready to begin writing, when two parties came between me and today, not to mention this year’s heaviest workout session so far (which coincided with my being heavily hungover on Saturday, which is just another example of how my habits control me rather than the other way around. I can’t not go to the gym, if it’s scheduled for that day, no matter how hard I partied the day before).
So, once again, the hard part isn’t avoiding procrastination, it’s realizing when you are doing it. For that, you need to have your priorities sorted and a thorough knowledge of yourself.
In other words, trial and error. Try just jumping right in for a while and gauge the outcome over a few weeks or months. Then compare it to a more thorough approach where you focus on preparation and recreation before working.
Please share this article with anybody who ever missed a deadline, or your entire social network, to make them realize that it’s exactly because there’s nothing wrong in doing so that makes them do it.
If you still haven’t read my free e-book about how this lazy, Aspberger’s afflicted, bullied little guy came to manage the European Hedge Fund Of The Decade, and not least what you can learn from it, now is the time.