Rational procrastination

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This article by Dr Piotr Wozniak is part of SuperMemo Guru series on memory, learning, creativity, and problem solving.

Procrastination is a state of mind

Procrastination is just a state of mind. It undermines productivity. With a bit of strong decision-making, procrastination can easily be resolved. It is enough to notice that many things we do make little sense. We do it for others, out of routine, out of tradition, for false beliefs, etc. For example, students are forced to wrongly believe that studying in pain can bring some good results (see: Fundamental law of learning). They are made to believe they need to master dozens of books. They must do it all for a deadline. Piling up irrational jobs is a prescription for procrastination.

For those who are lucky enough to toss away ineffective activities, there is one last thing to do. It is helpful to realize that we can usually execute only a fraction of plans, dreams, ideas, to do lists, etc. If we keep only the top of the list, and then forget the rest, we instantly stop being nagged by dozens of little annoyances that serve no other purpose than messing up with the peace of mind. All those little jobs cannot possibly be executed. If so, why worry?

Most of people are trapped in a lifestyle that makes procrastination natural. It is the simplest defense against the madness of the rat race. It is hard to develop all the right habits that prevent procrastination. Kids are trained to obey orders and satisfy others as early as in daycare. Parents are told that this is for their own good (see: Do children need boundaries?). At school, kids learn to arrive in time even if they are sleepy, learn even if they hate it, stay at school even if they feel sick. They cannot even play their favorite videogame because of homework. Through learned helplessness, students are gradually coached into a life of a zombie pushed by external forces and largely deprived of free time and free will. Each time they get a bit of freedom, they procrastinate. This makes it easy to believe that freedom should be denied.

It is very easy to avoid procrastination. One only needs to love his life, his work, his family, etc. We are all born with natural love for learning that we usually lose at school. We are all social and love other people until that love is undermined by the pressures and fights of modern lifestyle. Most of people are denied basic pleasures of life by being coached for a life of service. In reality, the best service is provided by those who find their true passion. By definition, passion is free from procrastination.

Passions kill procrastination and breed productivity. We should strive at helping everyone pursue passions

Procrastination myth

There is a big stinky myth of popular psychology that claims we are all natural procrastinators. It says that we like to postpone things. That we are lazy. That we cannot predict consequences. That we always prefer games or Facebook over "real work". If you internalize that myth, you may be inclined to battle procrastination with self-discipline. This will result in inner conflict that will, at the neural level blunt your defenses. Like a perpetual dieter, you will yo-yo between procrastination and self-flagellation of "hard work". People of success will often make you falsely believe that all their success is a result of "hard work". Very often they are blind to the fact that most of that "hard work" is actually driven by passions (see: The grind is the glory). We all have natural neural mechanisms for producing estimates of what activities pay (see: Problem valuation network). If we follow natural valuation instinct, there is never a problem of "consequences". The best way to avoid the pain of school is to run ahead and leave everyone behind. This is only possible if learning is driven by passions (see: Knowledge valuation network).

My formula against procrastination is easy if you are set in easy circumstances. If you are in a job you hate, perhaps it makes more sense to look for a better place? Instead of to-do lists, duties, and self-discipline, you might perhaps find a place were you truly believe your service makes sense?

Procrastination can be healthy

Rational procrastination is my own term that is supposed to take away some of the stigma from the concept of procrastination.

I see a great deal of people suffering the pain of "fake laziness". Here are key remediable factors that produce that pain:

  • tackling jobs that are unpleasant (i.e. get bad valuations from the problem valuation network)
  • planning jobs that are too numerous (total time of dutiful execution exceeds the time available)
  • overpromising
  • imposing irrational deadlines

The above factors produce a vicious circle. First we promise too much (incl. promises to ourselves), then we get entangled in a chaos of unpleasant jobs (e.g. unpleasant learning). This produces an increase in dissatisfaction that is a perfect fuel for an escape from problems. The escape may have a form of videogames, Netflix, overeating, socializing, alcohol, Facebook, etc. An escape from problems cuts down on available time, increases unhappiness, and closes the vicious circle.

The above scenario is pretty sad because in many cases, esp. in students, the vicious circle can easily be broken.

All we need is a bit of discipline and the right tools. It does not really take much training to see significant improvement.

The tools of rational procrastination

The tools of rational procrastination generate new energy that helps keeping them in place:

  • try never to promise anything to anybody. All you need is the explanation of your priority system and the reassurance that a problem receives a high priority. The magic word is I will try …. If people know you are honest with those words, you should receive little flak. Reserve assertive "No!" only for ideas that make no sense whatsoever. It is a pity that a school system rarely takes feasibility into consideration. Students have no option to say I will try to get prepared for the exam … after all, it is my brain and my future …
  • having a million ideas is a great thing. This is a hallmark of creativity. To tackle a flood of ideas, you can use a tasklist or any similar tool. A tasklist makes sure you get maximum benefit from your work. You will always rationally procrastinate on the bottom of the list. SuperMemo's own implementation tasklist keeps harboring ideas that might have been born 2-3 decades ago. They never die, but they never bother anyone. They just wait for their turn or for re-valuation
  • a good schedule that lives in harmony with the circadian cycle makes it easy to tackle multiple activities. See: How to plan a perfect day without stress? Whatever does not get done can be safely marked as undoable in a given time. The mathematical realization of infeasibility is highly liberating. There is no point in worrying about something that is certain not to ever happen
  • incremental reading can be seen as a creative tasklist. Tasks get their priority, their valuations, but they can be elaborated on creatively. Each elaboration may lead to re-evaluation
  • avoid distraction. Phones, twitter, TV, or e-mail can easily interrupt your work. If you let them interfere with your effort, they will interfere with the pleasure of productivity. If you love your work less, you will procrastinate more. A good idea is to always protect a large block of time from all interruption. See: How to solve any problem?

Summary: Rational procrastination

The above can be summarized as follows:

  • reduce pressure by avoiding promises and deadlines
  • pick the most profitable job and do it well
  • forget about the rest of the tasklist (without promises and deadlines, jobs can wait their turn)
If you pick the most profitable job, which usually also brings best contentment, you can do it well, maximize productivity, and generate new energy for more success

Problems that self-resolve

An interesting phenomenon seems to show each time I return to life from creative vacation. A creative vacation is a period when I try to cut myself off from the noise of the world to tackle a single problem. Upon return, I usually have a pretty large backlog of mail to handle. Very often people report worries, problems, anxieties, and/or angry reasons to rant. When I get back to them in 1-3 months, the problems seem to have disappeared or got mitigated. Frequently, the resolution is spontaneous. Sometimes it takes a minor effort to take a new creative take on a problem to solve. We may procrastinate a purchase of a device due to uncertainty about its options. While we procrastinate, a new model comes out and makes the problem moot. This phenomenon may be easy to miss in the noise of day-to-day communication. Once I take a step back, its proportions are nearly epidemic. Incidentally, if your e-mail Inbox keeps exploding, you can also handle mail overload with tasklists or incremental reading.

Are people really lazy?

The above reasoning explains why I hardly ever see people as lazy. If they are healthy, chances are they are rather injured (e.g. by schooling), or trapped (in a hard to escape context in life). If they call themselves perpetual procrastinators, I suggest to have a look at the concept of rational procrastination. Most of all, I need to stress that students are not procrastinators. They nearly always receive this label and carry it later in life. The school system is guilty for imposing irrational deadlines, overloading the curricula, and most of all, violating the fundamental law of learning.

Students are not procrastinators! Irrational school system is guilty! School is a thief that runs away with a loot and sends an innocent student to jail for the crime. See: Pleasure of learning

Rational procrastination is natural, it is logical, it is healthy, and it resolves a great deal of inner conflict.

For more texts on memory, learning, sleep, creativity, and problem solving, see Super Memory Guru