Sunday, 1 February 2015

Procrastination as a way of life

Because I am an uncommonly lazy and disorganised person, I have made productive procrastination one of the rules of my life. Some members of the human race, I know it, are able to get things done simply by planning and discipline. I respect those people. I admire them from afar. I bless their creator for making them so well. Not that I blame God for making me into such a slovenly specimen of humanity. His ways are not our ways, and that is all right with me. But there came a point in my life when I saw that there were only two roads before me. Either I could achieve nothing for the rest of my days, or I could become a better procrastinator. A dismal crossroad, reader, but there you have it.

So I chose productive procrastination as my path in life. Don’t call it a bad habit; I prefer to think of it as a vocation. If you get really good at it, there is even a kind of poetry in it. That is what I’m striving for: procrastination as a work of art.

The core principle of productive procrastination is simple: have many tasks before you, never just one, and always choose an easier task when you feel like procrastinating. When I am meant to be writing a book, I squander my time writing a learned journal article. When I am meant to be writing journal articles, I write blog posts. When I feel that I should write another blog post, I work on my novel. When I am meant to be preparing lectures, I read ancient literature. When I should be grading papers I work on improving my lectures. By the end of each year I am surprised to see how many things I have been able to achieve, even though everything I did all year felt like a diversion. That is one of the benefits of productive procrastination: you can work every day of your life without ever feeling as though you’re working. Even as infernal a thing as writing a journal article can feel like fun when you’re meant to be writing a book.

Here is the procrastination formula, in case you don’t already know it. For every necessary task (T) there is an easier alternative (P). The completion of T requires a certain quantity of psychological energy (e). Whenever you choose P instead of T, there is a remainder of psychological energy (r), since the energy required for P is always less than the energy required for T. The remainder of psychological energy can be calculated as r = eT–eP.

Unproductive procrastination occurs whenever P involves Facebook, video games, watching funny videos on YouTube, or, in its deepest and most devastating form, downloading entire seasons of Game of Thrones. Productive procrastination occurs whenever P involves writing, reading, creating art, renovating the home, or some other method of enlarging the sum of human good.

The disadvantage of productive procrastination (I admit it) is that T is incomplete. The advantage is that something else, P, has been achieved, and that this has happened without using up the quantity of energy that was brought to the task (since it was the energy required for T, not the energy required for P, that was used to complete P). Ideally, this means that r can be used to make some progress on T, even though r will never be enough to complete T, or to complete it in the way that had been envisaged.

I don’t claim that this is a perfect system. I don’t claim that it’s as good as the system of those non-procrastinators who simply plan what they are going to do and then do it in an orderly fashion. But let us forget about those people: none of them are reading this blog anyway, unless they have scheduled the time for it. Right at this moment the non-procrastinators of the world are doing something that the rest of us know so little about: they are working – actually working! – on T.

I have written these things while I was supposed to be repairing the guinea pig hutch. But look! I still have some energy left (r). I will take that energy and do a quick job on the hutch. It won’t be perfect but it will be good enough – if the guinea pigs are still there, if they have not run off by now, if they have not gone away or been found by foxes or eaten by birds.


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