Good and bad procrastination

Original author: Paul Graham
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All the most impressive people I know are terrible procrastinators. So maybe procrastination is not always bad?

Typically, those who write about procrastination write about how to get rid of it - which, strictly speaking, is impossible. There are an infinite number of things to do, while whatever you work on, you are not working on everything else. So the question is not how to eliminate procrastination, but how to procrastinate correctly.

There are three types of procrastination, depending on what you do instead of working: you can (A) do nothing, (B) do something less important, and (C) do something more important. The last type, I am convinced, is good, proper procrastination.

It’s like a “distracted professor” who forgets to shave, or eat, or look under his feet when he reflects on something interesting. His brain is detached from everyday life, because he is busy with other things.

It is in this sense that I called the procrastinators of all the impressive people I know. They are type B procrastinators: they avoid working on trifles for the sake of working on something big.

What are the "little things"? Roughly speaking, a job that has zero chances of being mentioned in an obituary. Of course, now it’s hard to say what exactly is lucky to be your best work (whether it will be a magnum opus on the architecture of Sumerian temples or a detective thriller published under a pseudonym), but there is a whole class of tasks that we can safely delete from this list: shaving, washing , cleaning, writing thank you notes - all that can be called a duty.

Good procrastination is an evasion of duties for the sake of doing real work.

Good sense, at least. Those who want you to fulfill your duties are unlikely to find her good. But you will probably have to upset them in order to really do something. Even the mildest-looking people become surprisingly ruthless towards everything when it comes to duties, when they want to accomplish something great.

Some duties, such as responding to letters, are eliminated by themselves if you do not pay attention to them (though sometimes with friends). Others, such as mowing the lawn or paying bills, only get worse if you run them. It seems that duties of the second type should not be put off into the far box. Anyway, sooner or later they will have to do it. Why not do it now?

The reason why even these responsibilities should still be postponed is that really important tasks require two things that the duties do not need: large, continuous time periods and the right mood. If you are inspired by a project, the best solution may be to push all the rest of the business for a few days to work on it properly. Yes, perhaps duties will take longer when their hands finally reach them. But having done a lot of things these days, in the end you will be much more productive.

In fact, it is likely that the difference lies not in the volume of the task, but in its type. Perhaps some types of work can be performed solely in a fit of inspiration and during long, continuous time periods, and not in obediently planned small approaches. Empirically, it seems so. When I think of people who have done something great, they do not seem to me to be those who dutifully delete one item after another from the to-do list. They seem to me to be those who shirk their responsibilities in order to work on some new idea.

The converse is also true - the more someone is forced to engage in duties, the more this reduces their productivity. This is a very expensive approach, not only because of the time that responsibilities take away on their own, but also because they destroy the work on the real problem. It is enough for you to distract someone a couple of times a day, so that this person, in principle, could not work on big tasks.

I have been trying for a long time to understand why startups are most productive at the very beginning, when it’s just a few guys gathering at home at one of them. I think the main reason is that nobody distracts them at this stage. In theory, when the founders finally get enough money to hire someone, that's good. But it’s possible that actually recycling is better than distraction. As soon as you dilute startupers with typical office workers - type B procrastinators - the whole company starts working at their frequency. They are masters of being distracted by duties, and soon you become the same.

Duties so effectively cope with the killing of large projects that many use them precisely for this purpose. For example, a person who decides to write a novel suddenly discovers that he needs to arrange a general cleaning. People who fail to write a novel do not fail with their venture, sitting in front of a blank sheet of paper for several days in a row. They crash while feeding the cat, going to buy something for the house, meeting with friends over a cup of coffee and checking mail. “I don’t have time to work,” they say. And there really is no time; they took care of it.

(Another common variation is “I have nowhere to work.” Try to visit the places where great people worked and see for yourself how unsuitable they are.)

I myself used both of these tricks over and over again. Over the past 20 years I have learned a bunch of tricks to get myself to work, but even now I don’t always win. On some days, I really do a lot of real work, while others eat up on responsibilities. And I know that usually it’s my fault: I let the duties gobble up my day in order to avoid facing difficult tasks.

This is the most dangerous form of procrastination — unconscious type B procrastination — because it does not look like procrastination. You "did a lot of work." Just not those.

And any advice on combating procrastination that concentrates on deleting tasks from the list is not just incomplete, but fundamentally wrong if it does not even consider the possibility that the to-do list itself is type B. Procrastination, although perhaps the “opportunity” is too soft word in this context. Almost always, he is. If you are not working on the biggest tasks you can do, you are a type B procrastinator and it does not matter how much you manage to do.

In his famous essay “You and Your Study [ Original , Habra Translation ]” (which I recommend to every ambitious person, regardless of what he is working on), Richard Hamming suggests asking himself three questions:

  • What problems are most significant in your area of ​​activity?
  • Are you working on one of them?
  • Why not?

Hamming worked at Bell Labs when he started asking these questions to colleagues. By and large, every Bell Labs employee should work on critical issues in their field. It is believed that not everyone can make an equally dramatic contribution to the development of the world; I do not know; but whatever your possibilities, there are definitely projects that can do the trick. So the litany of Hamming can be formulated in a more general way:

  • Which thing is the most important of all that you could work on, and why don't you work on it?

Most people shy away from an answer. I myself dodge; I see the question on the page and try to move on to the next sentence as soon as possible. Hamming, at one time really asking his colleagues, was eventually avoided. However, every ambitious person must face this issue.

The trouble is that you can catch too big fish on this bait. To do something grand, it’s not enough just to find a good project. After the project is found, you also need to force yourself to work on it, and this can be difficult. And the bigger the problem, the harder it is to get yourself to work on it.

Of course, the main reason why people find it difficult to work on a particular task is the fact that they do not enjoy it. We often find, especially when young, that we are working on things that we don’t like too much - simply because it looks impressive, for example, or because someone else instructed us to do this. Most graduate students pull the strap while working on large props that they are not really interested in, which turns the magistracy into a synonym for procrastination.

However, even if you like what you do, it’s much easier to get yourself to work on small tasks rather than large ones. Why so? Why is it so difficult to work on large projects? The first reason is that you will not be able to profit from this in the foreseeable future. When you work on something that can be completed in a day or two, you expect a reward in the form of a pleasant feeling of completeness in the near future. When a reward is infinitely far away, receiving it seems less realistic.

It's funny, but another reason people choose not to work on large projects is the fear of wasting time. What if you do not achieve anything? Then all the time spent will be lost. (In fact, this is extremely unlikely, because work on large projects is almost always somewhere, but leads.)

However, the problem with big tasks cannot only be that you won’t get instant rewards, or that you can lose a lot of time. Were this a complete list, work on them would be no worse than a trip to mother-in-law. No, there certainly is something else. Big projects are terrifying. Encountering them face to face causes almost physical pain. They look like a vacuum cleaner connected to your imagination - the initial ideas are instantly sucked up, there are no new ones, but he sucks and sucks everything.

You can't look a big problem right in your eyes. You have to do it obliquely. But what you can do is gradually straighten the corner: you need to look at the task directly enough to grasp the inspiration coming from it, but not enough to paralyze you on a scale. And then you will be able to look more and more boldly each time, by analogy with the way the ship rearranges the sails closer and closer to the wind in the direction of travel.

To work on large projects, it seems that you need a number of tricks to deceive yourself. You have to work on small things that grow into large ones, or work on gradually increasing tasks, or share the moral burden with colleagues. Going to such tricks is not a sign of weakness. The greatest accomplishments paved these paths.

When I talk with people who have forced themselves to work on something more, I notice that they all pushed responsibilities aside and they all feel guilty about this. I don’t think they should blame themselves. No one is able to remake all the things in the world, so everyone who does something really important will inevitably have to leave many small things unfulfilled. It seems to me wrong to experience because of this remorse.

In my opinion, the way to “solve” the problem of procrastination is to allow pleasure to carry you along, and not to make the to-do list push forward. Work on ambitious projects that you really like, tweak the sails in the wind - and just what you have to do will be left undone.

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