Procrastination101 - The art of procrastination


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Never leave that till tomorrow which you can do today- Benjamin Franklin

Benjamin Franklin said it is better to be proactive than to procrastinate. Sufi Saint Kabir put it more poetically in one of his couplets, which loosely translated says -

"If you have something to do tomorrow, do it today. If you have something to do today, do it right now. Tragedy can strike at anytime, upsetting your plans."

It is universally accepted that procrastination is a bad thing. There is book, after book, after book, and article, after article after article written on how to quit procrastinating. If you have come here looking for something similar, then if you've come to the wrong place.

Being lazy can be a good thing. Paul Graham says there is such a thing as good procrastination -

There are three variants of procrastination, depending on what you do instead of working on something: you could work on (a) nothing, (b) something less important, or (c) something more important. That last type, I'd argue, is good procrastination.

In column 2, section 5 of his book Programming Pearls, Jon Bentley wrote -

A Problem Solver's Perspective. Good programmers are a little bit lazy: they sit back and wait for an insight rather than rushing forward with their first idea. That must, of course, be balanced with the initiative to code at the proper time.

So basically - procrastinate, but know when to work.

There are several other articles, blog posts, and books that say the same thing. If you came looking for a how-to on procrastinating productively, then you came to the wrong place.

Procrastination can be an art form, and this is where I write about the art of procrastination - how to do it and do it well. How to feel you've been productive even though you've been slacking off.

Most people think that to procrastinate is to slack off, be lazy. That's not true! Okay, it is true, but that is not the complete story. If you are a classy procrastinator, then even your procrastination requires work - a lot of effort can go into classy, artful procrastination. A good procrastinator always finds some value in whatever way s/he is slacking off. If you're sleeping - you're recharging your battries. Sat somewhere and gazed into nothing ness - you either cleared your head, or you did some thinking. Went through every article on the Hacker News front page instead of working - you read a bunch of stuff that a lot of other people think is good/important. To an artful procrastinator, there is no such thing as doing nothing. You are always doing something or the other all the time. Often juggling multiple things. When you can do that, you create the illusion of being productive, maybe not to others, but definitely to the most important person - you.

Real procrastination entails setting up everything you need to work, and then slacking off thinking that you did some work. And that setting up part is usually done very promptly and efficiently. - Me

Now, to procrastinate artfully, you need to do a couple of things. First and foremost is planning.

Planning

Plan for the future. Anything and everything that has to do with the task you want to procrastinate from has to be planned. I make exquisite plans, I almost never follow them, but I make exquisite plans. Of course making plans as exquisite as I make 'em takes a lot of effort, and that effort needs to be rewarded, so I can slack off for a bit - don't worry, the plans are easy to refactor, and allow for small breaks. Of course I stretch the break way longer than I should've, and now I have to refactor my exquisite plan. And since the refactored plan, like the original plan, needs to be exquisite, it takes some effort, a lot of effort actually, to make it. And that effort needs to be rewarded. I think you can guess what happens next.

Most people would call this a waste of time and effort. They'll say I could've spent that time and energy on actually doing the task. But those people are short sighted, narrow minded. They can't see the invaluable skills I learned and practiced. I learned how to make awesome plans, and then change those plans to adapt to the changing situation, and keep adapting multiple times. That, is an invaluable skill in any industry. Those of you who work as programmers would know that, there are books written, and courses taught - dedicated to planning the planning of software. Also, books written teaching the invaluable art of refactoring code. You can skip all of that, and just learn these important skill by procrastinating. How great is that? Damn, I should be monitizing this. Right now, if I started a firm that made and refactored plan, I'd be raking in millions. I have thought about it, just need to iron out a few details.

That brings us to the next thing a classy procrastinator must do well - aim for perfection.

Perfection

You should strive for perfection. Now, I'm not saying go achieve perfection, or come close to perfection, just strive for it, in planning. You do not start working till every tiny little detail is ironed out, and planned to perfection. Maybe not even then.

As Jon Bentley, in the quote from Programming Pearls mentioned earlier, says, you need to think before you start working. Obsess over every detail as you mentally map out the implementation/execution. Cross bridges before you get to them, bridges you might not even come across when you finally get to work. Go off the beaten track - try out new ways to solve the problem, imaginative ways, impractical ways. Don't be satisfied with easy solutions. If there isn't an easy solution available in the first place, then build one! Take this site for instance - plain html, or using any free blogging platform out there would be been more than good enough. But it's running on a Python Web framework, on a PaaS.

Everytime you feel like you should start working - go back to obsessing over every detail again - you find some fault, some way to improve. This will lead to incremental inprovements that wouldn't have been possible had you been working.

Often, as time goes by - a lot of time, some details might fade from your mind, and you'll forget some of the cool things you came up with. Don't worry about that, when you start over again, the good ideas will come back to you, and the ones that don't - you'll come up with something better. And you can use the time you are not thinking about this problem, by thinking about other problems. Which brings me to the next skill a procrastinator should excell at - Jugging multiple things at the same time.

Multitasking

Doing one thing for too long is boring. And doing boring is a waste of time, and energy, and brain cycles. The best way to tackle big tasks, specially tasks that are not especially interesting - is to work on them in small interval, switching to different tasks(or relaxing) every so often. That is how a computer works - and so should you.

But if you have to work on one thing, if you must, even then you can multitask! Take studying for example. I always had two books, my notes, notes photocopied from a studious kid, wikipedia article of the topic, a few other tabs of webpages related to the topic - all of them open, all at the same time. If one source was too confusing, or too boring, I'd just switch to another source.

Another example is reading a book, fiction of course. I love reading. But even that can't stop my attention from wavering. Plus my highly active imagination makes it hard to just read. So while I'm reading, I'm also visualizing the world of the book in my head, like a movie - which is probably something most(everyone?) people do. But I also inject myself into the story. That requires constant rewiring of the story, to deal with new plot points, and how they relate to the old plot points and the changes I made in them. Now I handle the injection two ways - either I replace a character, that is put myself into a characters place, or I create a new character, with my own back story and kinda become the protagonist. Earlier I used to do both thing at the same time, but I prefer to just do the latter - gives me more lattitude. Not only will this increase your enjoyment of the book while you're reading it, you can keep on revisiting the story, in your head, after you've done reading and keep improving it.

Speaking of reading, it would be good to cultivate a reading habbit.

Reading

Become a voracious reader. It is a great habit to cultivate, and will give you something constructive to do when you feel like slacking off. I've spent entire finals lost in a book, or books, instead of studying. Books are great - not only do they give you something to do while you're reading them, they also give you fodder for your imagination to work on when you're not reading, like I noted earlier. Books also give you perspective, and you can learn a lot of stuff from them, even from fiction. There are obvious examples, like say The DaVinci Code, or anything Dan Brown has written(though stay away from Digital Fortress, it's crap!). But you can learn stuff from books like say, The Bourne Identity. I've read that book, and now I know that if I ever get caught in a firefight, or a shoot out, I should differenciate between the different guns being fired by sound, and count the number of rounds fired and try to figure out when someone needs to reload, and then make my move. It's a long shot I'd ever be in this situation, but if I ever am, boy will I be glad I read The Bourne Identity. Guess you could say the same about television and movies - guess where I heard the word Procrastination for the first time? It was an episode of Sabrina the Teenage Witch(Yeah, there was a dearth of good shows on TV at that time). But I prefer books.

Though reading isn't all about fiction, or even books. You have the internet at your disposal, and it is littered with amazing content, and cat pictures. Go to hacker news, or reddit, or any of the million other aggregration sites out there. Or find sites that match your taste and spend time there. Websites and blogs are especially useful when you know you will be interrupted during your work, and lose your flow. Who needs that. It's better to kill some time, and read a little than to get into the flow, only to have it disrupted - that would suck! You need to create an ideal work environment, that would minimize all distractions, which is another quality of classy procrastinators.

Build the perfect work environment

Doing productive work is hard. It is hard to get into the mindset of putting your ideas, your plans to work. Getting into flow takes effort. It would be a tragedy if that flow is interrupted. Of course there are some factors we can't control - like other humans(annoying bastards!), or the weather, power or internet that has to go down when you are doing, or about to being your best work, or hardware failure, gah! But there are certain things that are under your control - like making sure you have everything you need, everything you might possibly need to get stuff done, within reach, ready, set up. This would obviously require you to flex those planning muscles you've been building. Do not start work till everything is in place, and that includes a bottle of water, and a hot cup of coffee within arms length.

Sadly there will always be factors you can't control, but you can dream...

Strive to change the world for the better

The world is all screwed. It is geared against us thinkers, and geared towards doers. Yes, doing is a pretty important thing, but so is thinking, and the world doesn't appreciate thinking enough. The world would rather we turned into mindless 9 to 5 zombies content with the daily grind.

It wasn't always like that though. In the past, thinkers had patrons, who'd pay them to just sit and think. Oh how I long to be transported to those days, minus the scientific, technological and in some cases cultural backwardness. Of course there is hope for the future. One day, no one will have to work. Everyone will be entitled to shelter, food, clothing, access to networks and technology, and money. A magical, beautiful post scarcity future. Alas, don't think I'll live to see such a future. It's probably a couple of hundred years away.

I envy the Primes - a fictional alien species from the Commonwealth Universe created by author Peter F. Hamilton. A Prime is made up of two different kinds of units - the immotile, the brain, and the motile, the worker. Basically the immotile does all the thinking, and lets the motile know what to do, and the motile takes care of the rest. The immotile can create as many motile units, immotile units - for more brain power, restricted only by the resources available. Though it is a pretty nasty being with complete and utter disregard, nay, revulsion for anything else other than itself. And it's not overly fond of it's immotiles either. But still, having the ability to think and have someone/thing do it for you is pretty cool. It's like playing a strategy game on a computer. Can't wait for the singularity to get here. But sadly I'll not live to see the singularity either. :<

Got a little carried away over there, and took a detour away from the topic at hand. That is what having an overactive imagination can do, which is the next virtue of a procrastinator.

Imagination

Imagination is important. Very important. Without imagination you can't build awesome plans, you cannot refactor your plans, you cannot fully exploit books, you cannot plan for perfection, you cannot build a better world, nor set up the perfect work environment. Basically without imagination, you cannot procrastinate the right way. Without imagination, you're screwed. You'd be better off as a mindless zombie.

Imagination will also keep boredom at bay - a classy procrastinator should never be bored. Boredom is the enemy of artful procrastination. With a good imagination, instead of getting bored, say while queuing, you can do this -

Kill queue boredom with imagination

Or you can make a boring class more interesting -

Make classes fun

See how awesome having a good imagination can be? You can even turn your imagination into a money making machine, like the artist of this webcomic, xkcd did.(On a side note, your procrastination will be more awesome if you procrastinate by reading this webcomic. You should strive to have the episodes comitted to memory, and you'll start noticing several situations from your life mirroring an episode from this comic)

So, having a good imagination is not only a pre-requisite of artful procrastination, but can also make you money. You need to have a good imagination to build future projects in your head.

Projects

You should have a bunch of projects, or future plans, in your head. These serve a dual purpose. One is for when you start to get a little scared about your future, start panicing, having projects planned out will help you calm down, reassure you that the future is bright - only a while before you finally perfect one project and it starts paying off. The other is that planning them can fill up time, and exercise your imagination and planning muscles. Have a bunch of different project ideas going at the same time - short term, long term, small, big - all kinds. Put some on the backburner and then revisit them later, with fresh, better ideas.

Having projects, and project ideas is fun. Sadly, though, not everything in life is fun, specially work and chores. But it doesn't have to be that way.

Make work Fun

It ain't work if it's fun!

Procrastinators need to get work done too, even a level 101 procrastinator like myself. A classy procrastinator will turn work into fun, or relaxation so that it doesn't feel like work. It helps if there are chores that you find relaxing, or interesting. I like washing the dishes - if they aren't too dirty. If it's a simple rinse - soap - rinse - dry deal, then washing dishes is relaxing for me. It is a simple, repetitive, mechanical task that doesn't require any thinking. And it is something that needs to be done - kill two birds with one stone! Another chore I enjoy is food - right from prepping(baring a few things), to cooking, to eating. If you can make things that need to be done, into something that is fun, or relaxing, then you are a Jenja - Jedi + Ninja, of procrastination. You are the mythical 102 level procrastinator. Everything you do is procrastination!

There you have it - all you need to know about the art of procrastination.

Disclaimer - I was only half serious, half the time writing this guide, and some parts shouldn't be taken too seriously, as it could lead to bad things for some people. As to which parts shouldn't be taken too seriously, I ask you to exercise common sense, good judgement, and then do whatever the hell you want!
On another note, artful procrastination isn't for everyone. Some people just aren't cut out for it. If you are one of those people, you'll know it - procrastination just won't feel right, or it would be doing nothing. If you are that kind, then don't try to artfully procrastinate - it'll ruin your life. Specially if you are the former kind. I take no responsibility if you destroy your life trying to become a classy procrastinator. On the other hand, if you have the chops to become a high level procrastinator, then it is likely you'll be successful, and that this guide helped you in your success. If that is the case, then I take some responsibility of your success, and it'd be cool if you sent me some money.