Some Thoughts on Procrastination

When I was in high school and I had a week to do a paper, I would put it off. Not until two days before it was due, not until the night before it was due, and not even until the morning it was due. During the period before it was due, I would whip out my tiny Toshiba Libretto laptop and start churning away at it. Teacher’s didn’t mind, because it looked like I was taking notes for once. I’d be editing and touching it up right until the bell. When I got to my next class, I’d tell the teacher that I wasn’t able to print it at home, and ask if I could go print it in the library.

I got a lot of Cs.

I think that being able to get things done under pressure at the last minute is a good skill to have. Putting yourself in the position of HAVING to do that every single day isn’t so good, but that’s the zone I’ve lived in for most of my life. Over time I learned that procrastination isn’t just a “different way of doing things”, but rather a true weakness. It’s succumbing to the immediate desire for comfort rather than investing effort for the future. In my life now, it’s inexcusable.

The upside of battling procrastinating for so long is that I’ve developed a pretty good understanding of why it happens and how to combat it. In this post I’ll share a few of the most effective lessons I’ve learned.

I think that there are two main flavors of procrastination: “how” procrastination and “why” procrastination. 

Right now I work on SETT seven days a week. Some days I churn through fourteen hours without even looking at the clock. Other days it seems like I write one line of code and then I find my mouse pointer drifting towards the new tab button on Chrome, probably hoping that it will make its way to Facebook.

The difference between these days is the clarity I have on what to do next. I’ve noticed that fourteen hour straight days tend to be when I’m building or overhauling a big system. With that sort of work, there’s never uncertainty on what needs to be coded next. The days when I’m spinning my wheels are the days when I have no defined goal other than “work on SETT”.

This is “how” procrastination, because I don’t know how to do the work. The solution for this variety of procrastination in to stop working for a few minutes and plan out what needs to be done next. I try to make the first step as tiny and easy as possible, so that my brain can’t possibly argue that it can’t handle it. I talked about this sort of planning before in this post.

A good example of the other type of procrastination might be getting your car registered and inspected. I used to put that off not by a day or week or month, but by years. Multiple years. I bought a car in California that I never actually registered or inspected, even though I had it for three years.

This type of procrastination is called “why” procrastination, because your brain doesn’t understand why it has to get done NOW. If you haven’t registered your car for a year, there’s really no downside to waiting “just one more day” to register it. To combat this type of procrastination, I think of all the possible benefits of completing the task, and purposefully avoid thinking about how annoying it will be waiting in the DMV line. I remind myself that it WILL get done eventually, and I will be the one doing it, so I may as well do it now so that I don’t have to worry about it. For small things, the “I won’t have to worry about it” benefit is the biggest component of the “why” that actually gets me moving.

Recognizing the type of procrastination you’re dealing with makes it a lot easier to overcome it properly. After a short amount of time using these techniques, your subconscious learns how to handle it on its own and you just stop procrastinating altogether. Now my worst bouts of procrastination are putting things off by minutes or hours, not months or years.

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Photo might be a new low in terms of relevance to the post.

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