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Reblogged:Structuring Procrastination

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For the second time in a couple of years -- I know it's the second time thanks to the magic of bookmarking. -- I have encountered a partly tongue-in-cheek essay titled, "Structured Procrastination."

Among the chuckles, and after the observation that "Procrastinators seldom do absolutely nothing; they do marginally useful things," it contains the following germ of a productivity hack:

The author speaks of playing ping-pong. Perhaps he should have had some recreation time on his list. Perhaps he did. (Image by Ilya Pavlov, via Unsplash, license.)
Structured procrastination means shaping the structure of the tasks one has to do in a way that exploits this fact. The list of tasks one has in mind will be ordered by importance. Tasks that seem most urgent and important are on top. But there are also worthwhile tasks to perform lower down on the list. Doing these tasks becomes a way of not doing the things higher up on the list. With this sort of appropriate task structure, the procrastinator becomes a useful citizen. Indeed, the procrastinator can even acquire, as I have, a reputation for getting a lot done.
Let's momentarily set aside immediately obvious questions like, How do the most important things ever get done? and disturbing ones that come later, like Why not address the issue of self-deception?

And let's further consider the fact the author notes that many procrastinators end up doing essentially nothing: "This is a way to become a couch potato, not an effective human being."

What I like about the essay is its suggestion of the use of lists as a means of mitigating a bout of procrastination. This can be a good strategy for the following two reasons:
  1. The thing one ends up doing gives a much better answer to compared to what? than something like watching television; and
  2. One can do things to make checking the lists into an easier default than, say, opening a web browser, so that it becomes one of the easiest alternatives to whatever it is one is supposed to be doing.
Indeed, as I looked up the Matt Might article (second link in list) upon remembering what he said about lowering transaction costs, I discovered that his advice -- scroll upwards from that -- is quite similar. He calls it procrastinating productively.

As for self-deception? I take this to be loose speaking in the same vein as advice like "Fake it 'til you make it." Yes, the author discusses things one could describe as "playing chicken with deadlines," but he's an academic, and there are lots of things like that in academia, where there often seems to be an unwritten rule about deadlines not being real. Also common in academia, are folks who aren't good at planning and tasks that can't be/aren't easy to time-block.

In such cases, this seems like a roundabout way to deal with such a problem. I think of this all as a way to work around a mental block one doesn't immediately understand or know how to resolve than actual (and immoral) self-deception. (Obviously, one should be alert to the same kind of problem cropping up repeatedly: That's a cue that it's time for an effort to understand and a more direct solution.)

In sum, I'm going to add look at my to-do lists to the things I do when I am stuck as an explicit strategy. The times I have done this more or less by accident have been helpful: Why not use it deliberately?

-- CAV

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