Saturday, December 17, 2016

The Structured Procrastination Trap

A wise professor once told me to take advice with a grain of salt, as it is mostly highlights and wishful thinking. Structured procrastination is a prime example of wishful thinking doled out to students eager to ease growing pains.

Structured procrastination promises a productive life with minimal pain. The basic premise is that if you always do something other than the task you are supposed to do, you will be able to always be doing something that you want. Don't want to write that report? Play ping-pong with your students instead, and people will be impressed with how easy you are taking life. Don't want to respond to emails? Read papers you like instead, and people will be surprised you make time to read papers. If you keep waiting, you will want to do that thing that you have been procrastinating, and then you can live a completely pain-free life!

Now let's look at the premises for structured procrastination. It requires that there is always a task that you can and want to do that is productive. It requires that deadlines make tasks miraculously desirable, and it is the fact that something is due soon that makes a task easier to do, more so than other factors (like how easily you are able to do the task). It requires that you have a good sense of how long tasks should take. For structured procrastination to make sense, you need to be at a point where life is simply a matter of execution.

In my many years of being alive, I have discovered that these premises often do not hold. When I was a graduate student and looking for shortcuts to the Productive Life, I felt like I was doing something wrong. When I aggressively tried to apply structured procrastination to my life, I produced a lot of bad work. There were long periods of time when I would try to get into immersive "flow states" where I could have pleasurable levels of focus, but everything felt difficult. I've spent a cumulative total of days, maybe weeks, of my life wondering why it takes me so long to write a paper, or to prepare a talk, or to debug my code. For years I thought that it was possible for life to always be easy, but I had somehow not figured out how to do it.

What I realized is that life is hard, and especially hard if you want to do things you have never done before. If you are doing something that requires you to grow, what you need is a lot of time, and the discipline to force yourself to keep doing something even when it feels like the most painful thing in the world. If you are doing a high growth activity, you need to abandon the idea of structured procrastination. You need set hours that you are going to sit down (or stand up, and lay down) and stare at your notebook, or laptop, or the wall, where you are dedicated to making progress on the Very Important Task. Limiting these hours makes it psychologically bearable. Making these hours the same time every day makes it more likely you can keep this.

Of course, structured procrastination is not all bad. I have recommended this technique to many people, as it is a great way to get oneself out of unproductive loops when a looming deadline kills all desire to do anything. If you allow yourself to admit that you are not going to work on your Very Important Task, then you can at least do "productive" things (like make Ryan Gosling memes) instead of sitting around angsting (which could also be productive according to some value systems). Procrastination is also a good way to trick yourself into doing more things, because deadlines often do make people more efficient.

While structured procrastination provides a useful execution framework, there are times in life when you need to suck it up and do the Very Important Task. In fact, structured procrastination may be most seductive when what you need most is structure. For this reason, you should always think before you procrastinate, and avoid the trap of false busyness.

1 comment:

kaletzkya said...

Structprocr is very useful was to me in time-limited "unfinishable" exams (which were the most common tests in 1960s Australia) - get all the easy [for you] points first, ensure you get max credit for them and then go on to the hard stuff in what time is left. That was drummed into me in high school and served me very well up to around 1st year of uni.

Unfortunately, real R&D life isn't like that and yet the habit has stayed with me, it's a conditioned response to a situation perceived as competitive.

Arthur Kaletzky