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Structured Procrastination: Do Less and Deceive Yourself (archive.org)
388 points by Tomte on Feb 10, 2017 | hide | past | favorite | 78 comments

This is a longer and more lucid version of a quip I have about my procrastination:

"I can do anything in the world... as long as there's something more important I'm supposed to be doing instead!"

Imagine if that were a universal truth. Maybe we would find out Elon Musk started a rocket company, a car company, a tunneling company, and a battery company all because he doesn't want to clean out his garage.

A friend of mine always says something similar.

"There's no limit to what you can do, as long as it isn't what you're supposed to be doing."

Is your friend the same Robert Benchley, from Chips off the Old Benchley, that was quoted at the top of the article?

Missed that quote. Good to see the source.

I think this is kind of a thumbtack solution to a more systemic issue. Self-deception, in my opinion, never works: you have to force yourself to be slightly dumber than you are.

The other reason why it doesn't work in the long-term is that you will always be working on things that are adjacent to what's truly important.

Clairvoyance is a better solution. Ever get stuck in a circular argument? After a while, you realize its going nowhere and you walk away. Procrastination, at least in my mind, is almost the same thing. If I let myself observe the mundane things I do, I'll eventually get sick of myself and stop doing it.

Success in dealing with procrastination really a question how viscerally you feel a dead-end coming, and also making the necessary adjustments to remove triggers if its difficult to stop yourself in the act.

Another alternative (still requires willpower, but significantly less) is to ask yourself "What is the smallest step I can take in the direction of finishing the task" repeatedly.

It looks simple, but the answer to that question isn't always easy. Sometimes the "smallest step" really isn't; then you have to drill down to get to a smaller one. Sometimes its not clear which step should be first; a list of potential steps is beneficial in those cases.

I think most procrastination stems from a combination of unclear goals and getting stuck; for me the above method gets rid of the second aspect and lets me move without having a clear idea which direction I'm going.

That's also a way to analysis paralysis though; sometimes you think about it, make a list of steps, put the first on your to do list, and so on.

Later you find that the first five steps could in fact have been done in ten minutes total without deep thoughts required.

The important part is that it lets you move, even if at much slower speeds. The small nature and unambiguity of the first step allows the possibility for it to beat procrastination impulses with lower willpower.

Slow movement is better than no movement. Also it often makes it easier to pick up speed afterwards.

I don't think it is fully self deception. The author still needs to order the books for the next semester. So, there is really a work that needs to be done, and it really has a deadline. It is not like the author came up with a totally bogus task to do.

At any point in time, you have so many things you are supposed to be doing. By telling yourself that you have to do something and letting it get away with doing something else, you are basically letting yourself chose something more enjoyable to do. It is not self deception. It is giving yourself some amount of freedom.

> I'll eventually get sick of myself and stop doing it.

Everyone is different. Everyone has different tastes. Real change is hard. Real change also takes time to implement. A hack is much easier and it works right now, and it also buys you time to make real change without the wait. For example I used to be late a lot for everything, socially and professionally. As a trick, I'd just adjust the time on my watch about 37 minutes later than the actual time. Yeah in my mind I knew it that my watch was set 35 minutes ahead, but I didn't know that immediately when I woke up and it would give me the push to stop messing around and get ready to go for the times when I was awake since it was a odd number ahead and I used an analog watch.

The brain will eventually adapt and find a way to continue procrastinate. Self-deception might work for a while, just don't expect it to last forever.

But if I put big seemingly important but not really important things at the top and then work on the bottom ones, I will know that I am doing this, and resent myself. That's the biggest issue with my procrastination: my self loathing.

(Ironically, here I am, reading this article about how to do the things I am suppose to be doing with at least 5 things that need to be done before this week is over)

I agree that the article's problem is that it depends on deceiving yourself, which, as you said, your ego always ends up paying the price for.

For me, the most helpful thing has been to become more aware of the fluctuation of my own energy/motivation levels, and managing them instead of thinking I should be super-motivated all the time. My subconscious knows which tasks will be a pain to get through and I know I'll tend to procrastinate on those things. So I have to make sure I seize those hours when I have high energy and get the tougher things done. Then when I have less energy later I won't feel bad spending that time doing smaller things or even chilling. Hopefully this creates a virtuous cycle of confidence, which results in progressively more energy and motivation in the future.

One of the big premises of GTD is to organize tasks by contexts. A key feature of that is to keep a list of important but easy / low energy tasks in advance so when you're in this state you know exactly what you can do to be productive without having to think about it.

I manage my procrastination by taking on more tasks than I can handle, and then letting the seemingly really important ones wait while I finish less important stuff. As an example, my apartment was never so clean as when I was working from home on a side job, because I would wake up in the morning and immediately clean it as a way of avoiding the side job.

> by taking on more tasks than I can handle

In contrast to your experience, I've found this to be an exceptionally poor strategy during uni. It led me to stay up late and wake up early trying to get things done, then to fall asleep in lectures (I once had a professor throw chalk at me). It led me to ruin relationships as I imposed stress on others by failing to deliver on things. Doing this to people is a really shitty feeling.

The combination of sleep-deprivation and self-loathing made it very easy to fall into the escapism and thus more procrastination.

sleep-deprivation is the method I used when I was a bit younger. It shuts down cravings, because the only craving I'd have now is to sleep, made me dumb, but this allowed me to go through some really mundane but unavoidable and long-overdue task. Then 12-hour sleep and I'm back again to collecting new task debt.

> It shuts down cravings

People are wildly different. It always exacerbated my cravings for news, sugar, etc.

The trick is to eventually start the more important stuff. If you never get anything done then it all falls apart.

I get that part. What I don't get is how you deal with the fact that you know you are just scheming yourself?

If the placebo effect can work, even when the recipient knows it's a placebo, then maybe our capacity for self-deception is more powerful than you think.

For me, the guilt comes from knowing I -could- do more, but never doing as much as I could theoretically do if I did not procrastinate, rather than the self-deception itself.

And I don't think the self-deception for me is on purpose. It just happens to my natural, procrastinating self.

Procrastination involves constantly telling yourself that you'll start the important thing, right after this one short little other thing.

So the thing we're fighting is also self-deceivement, and that doesn't make it easy to beat.

You were already scheming, slacking off and feeling bad about it. Now you get some useful work done on the side.

I think the self that you are scheming will see what you are doing, admire you for it, and agree to play along. You're both participating in the con because you both get what you want.

Granted, this feels insane as I type it, but it also sounds like it might work quite well :)

>That's the biggest issue with my procrastination: my self loathing.

And to self medicate, you'll do immediate gratification stuff - more procrastinating. It's a vicious loop and goes hand in hand with many negative habits.

My tip? Make your to-do list your twitter. I.e., when you get that ping of dopamine depletion that makes you want to pop open a social network or similar, open your to-do list instead. Start out by just scrolling through it, then maybe go do whatever you were going to do. Ideally you'll have some small, easily completable tasks on the list along with the larger more annoying ones. If so, maybe sometime you’ll spot one you can get done really fast. Make sure you check off the item when you’re done. Do it enough & the goal is to rewire your reward drive towards productivity, eventually building up a chemical response to checking off items that’s greater than dipping into the infostream.

Great idea. I will start by developing my to-do app...

Legitimately gone down this path and hack on it to procrastinate. It's now redis-backed, supports dependent todos, and has a decent command-line interface.

No idea how I am still employed.

A far more effective method in my experience has been to focus not on the end product, about which one has a feeling of dread, but on the process. Frame the task as "spend N minutes doing X."

Of course, there is the possibility that you start doing X and just find you don't know what to do with yourself in those minutes. That's useful information! You've just discovered that you don't know enough about the task to get started. Now your task is to write a coherent request for help/clarification.

I've noticed this principle come up in the pomodoro technique and the "Learning How to Learn" course on Coursera.

Not sure how applicable it is outside of just-do-it work (paperwork, emails, etc) though. I've used it in my design work, for example, but I'm concerned I'll spend too many cycles on spinning my wheels on rather than thinking deeply about the problem and solving it simply.

I recently watched the lectures from that class. I wish I'd taken it 8 years ago because it was a clear and concise summary of a bunch of lessons I'd learned through much harder ways.

As far as thinking deeply about the problem, I've found that is helped by first getting your brain into the task by doing a pomodoro and, if you still feel the desire to procrastinate, either talking it through with someone else, going for a walk, or both.

Hard to tell (on my mobile screen anyway), but this was written by John Perry, philosophy professor at Stanford [1]. I've been a huge fan of his ideas on this for ~20 years. He has a number of other light essays. His website appears down at the moment though.

[1] https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/John_Perry_(philosopher)

To avoid MeTooism, I'll agree and note that my own favourite among JP's varied, tongue-in-cheek, yet thoughtful essays has always been The Case Against Golf [0].

[Posting webarchive.org link as the HN attention seems to have dropped the site]

[0] http://web.archive.org/web/20160211223333/http://www.structu...

I had the interesting honor of contacting Edward Snowden so Perry and Ken Taylor could get a radio interview with him once for their philosophy radio show. He does cool stuff

If I'm not mistaken, a portion of the interview you mention can be found here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=57sPn6pQzUM

I'm not sure if the full interview is available elsewhere without a paywall.

Better advice is to allow yourself to do other things sometimes. We all have this idea of what we should be doing, usually work related and when we are not doing it we feel guilty. It took me a long time to accept that it was OK to sometimes go off on a tangent to satisfy my own curiosity and that not only did I not need to feel guilty about it but that it was actually good for me mentally and for my career because I learned new and valuable skills and avoided burnout.

I suspect that, over time, the brain learns to use nagging curiosities as a signal that something important to one's current work can be found by pursuing the tangent.

> Procrastinators often follow exactly the wrong tack. They try to minimize their commitments, assuming that if they have only a few things to do, they will quit procrastinating and get them done. But this goes contrary to the basic nature of the procrastinator and destroys his most important source of motivation. The few tasks on his list will be by definition the most important, and the only way to avoid doing them will be to do nothing. This is a way to become a couch potato, not an effective human being.

Avoiding commitment out of fear of over-commitment is a problem, but there there is also a danger in taking on more than we think we can handle, because that can lead to feeling overwhelmed and becoming paralyzed and unable to do anything. Probably this affects some personality types more than others. To me it's better to gradually build up confidence in how much we can handle--especially since the inability to say 'no' is such a prevalent disease in some circles.

> "The key idea is that procrastinating does not mean doing absolutely nothing."

I felt that way since I know the word "procrastination". When I talk about "procrastiantion" with other people I propose exactly this definition: Procrastination is a way to get stuff done, only that it's not the stuff with the closest deadline.

> Indeed, the procrastinator can even acquire, as I have, a reputation for getting a lot done.

This is why I felt the idea of the "instant gratification monkey"[0] doesn't fit my definition of procrastination so well. It's not just a pet in my head, but also friends, flatmates and co-workers whom I doing favors while I'm procrastinating.

Anecdotal example: When somethings broken in our flat, my flatmates asking me when I have much work to do, because then will be the time when I will fix the broken stuff instead of doing the actual (paid) work. There's also the joke about me that when I stop doing (paid) work the whole house will go down because I will have less motivations to fix things.

But there's also a dark side of this kind of behaviour: When I call it a day and review the things I have achieved that day, all the things I got done can easily drown in the sea of things which I have not but were on the top of the ToDo list. Sometimes this is the moment where "panic monster"[0] is seeing its chance.

And yes, even reading article about procrastination is still procrastination in the sense of my proposed definition.

[0] http://waitbutwhy.com/2013/10/why-procrastinators-procrastin...

Second time this has been posted. It's a cute idea but doesn't solve the underlying problem that most people need to simplify and give themselves time/permission to not be "succeeding" at all moments.

I agree that we do need to give ourselves permission to turn off sometimes; and culturally we need to stop being so damn masochistic about work and such. It would be good if we all put more of a priority on LIVING. Work, no matter how inspiring, is still work.

That said, I think a lot of procrastinators could use this intentional strategy to get more done when we are working. For instance, I can see how this might help me out. And hey, I'm a big believer in doing whatever works, even if it seems silly on the surface.

I use a to-do ordered by perceived energy and alternate between low and high energy tasks over the course of the day. On most days this means that I do a lot of low energy things and few or no high energy things, but as with the structured procrastination approach, I am getting a lot done, the only difference being that I'm not couching it in terms of ineptitude and avoidance.

Edit: And I also had a huge issue before with concerning myself about the "right time" to do a thing. The right time is now when I have the energy and there are appropriate external conditions(time of day, weather).

The only thing that helps me to be more productive is allowing myself to procrastinate as long as I want and do whatever I want. Because any other scenarios make me caught in an endless "try to force myself - get nervous and lose self respect because it didn't work - hate all work on earth forever" cycle. If I allow myself to do whatever I want and procrastinate as long as I want, I simply get bored soon and return to work. Or find better ideas what to do next.

Slightly different approach -- I put my big projects on top of my list, and smaller bites of those projects below. The smaller bites are more approachable, and I tend to want to tackle them quicker. And sometimes I surprise myself, realizing a project IS done, as I tick off the last little bite and realize there isn't another one to start.

Although I can see the reasoning, this absolutely does not work for me. The times procrastination bothers me is exactly in those cases: when there is something important but not exactly specified at the top of the list. I'll feel guilty about not working on it and then end up in a sort of limbo between the task I could be doing and the 'important' one.

What helps for me is exactly the opposite: deciding this important task does not have a clear path forward and therefore go write down each and every question I have about it and need answered before moving forward or explicitly decide I don't have the proper energy/focus for it at that time and move on to something easier.

I find it even more effective to pretend I have already completed the task and then bask in the gratification of being done.

a tweak to this is to throw a few things in the list that you've already done, then at least you get to cross off something at the end of the day..

I used to try stacking the deck in the way this article mentions, until I tried Adderall and realized that it made this kind of task juggling totally unnecessary.

It was really bizarre to experience. However, to be honest, I don't need laser focus most the time, and like the sort ambling approach he discusses. My strategy for the next few months is going to be using it one day a week, for sweeping up the boring things (that otherwise haunt my waking life).


Yikes! I use 15mg and will go months without using it. To me, studying is fine, it's just periodically doing menial tasks that require moderate amounts of attention.

Sorry to hear about the rough experience, I could definitely see myself tumbling down that path if I had started using it in college.

This seems a lot like the idea a lot of people I know do. They set their alarm clock 10 minutes fast, so in theory they will assume they are running late and get moving in the morning.

I honestly don't know how people think this will work. You know you changed the time, so people quickly just adapt to the new 'running late time'

Interestingly, the real awareness starts when, after some weeks, one changes such a clock back to the actual time:

Then you suddenly have to remember that this clock does show the correct time, which increases the stress level even more than the previous "10 minutes fast" phase.

Not sure if this is a good or bad thing, but an intesting experience nevertheless.

I do this, though only on the clocks we use in the morning while getting ready with the kids - not the phones, not on other clocks. I'm about a decade into it, and like to think I'm otherwise reasonable.

I hypothesize that it's effective not because I'm fooled, but because there's both an instinctive/intuitive process and a cognitive process that occurs when glancing at the clock. The former yields a sense of urgency while the latter is busy doing clock arithmetic.

My most innovate times are during procrastination. My brain subconsciously looks for something else to do, and my very best ideas come at this time.

When I'm razor focused on the task at hand (i.e. NOT procrastination), there's no "creative" freedom to capture a tiger by his tail and follow him wherever that may lead.

When I tried this technique, all of the self-deception stressed me out to the point where I got nothing done.

I feel like it probably works better for people only balancing a few tasks that aren't interrelated.

Except for the super annoying blue bar popping in and out of this horrible website I'll never visit again, great article!

I have found myself inadvertently taking advantage of my procrastination in this way before, and it's useful to codify it in the language this article uses.

EDIT: The horrible website is one I have respect for, archive.org, which didn't use to have this eye-gouging UX. I'll send them a friendly feedback email about it.

I think the blue bar is from http://www.structuredprocrastination.com/, archive has it's own bar with capture date selection, that can be closed.

Make sure to add a donation to that email if you haven't already. They do an amazing job! :)

This fits in with games like setting your clock forward 5 mins to trick yourself into being on time. It's a slippery slope.

Oddly, my mobile provider Three (UK) blocks this, claiming it's 'adult' content.

Imagine you are doing procrastination in a structured way. Everything you do will go on to this algorithm before you even do it. So the combined effect of all these might take you to a new direction in life which you intent not to be in.

"Good and Bad Procrastination" (Dec 2005) http://www.paulgraham.com/procrastination.html

Apparently nothing was ever more important than renewing the domain…

The only thing i feel about procrastination -- problem exist only when it receives your attention. Have no hunger? Keep it simple: don't eat.

talk smack, noone complain? just keep going! (honestly, what are you trying to say?)

What i want to say is that given explanation is more complicated than necessary. If we have no flaws (?) with simple: "no wish -> don't do" why there is a need to construct such complex things with self-tricking?

It seems the book the art of procrastination by Perry is about this kind of thing. Has someone read that book?

The article is by John Perry author of the book: The art of procrastination, more meat.

John Perry is an emeritus professor of philosophy at Stanford University and currently teaches at UC Riverside. He is the co-host of the nationally syndicated public radio program Philosophy Talk, and winner, in 2011, of an Ig Nobel Prize in Literature for the essay “Structured Procrastination.”

I keep putting it off.

Spot on. How else are we all supposed to rack up HN Karma points?

Holy shit! This is me. Now everything makes sense.

Procrastination is often caused by wanting to do something but not knowing exactly what to do. The solution is to cut it up into bite-sized pieces and start doing them one at a time.

This looks like it might be inline with a philosophy that I've been developing independently. I should totally read this article at some point.

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