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How I Learned to Stop Procrastinating, and Love Letting Go (zenhabits.net)
339 points by isadeal on Feb 6, 2014 | hide | past | web | favorite | 76 comments

You may want to not waste time reading this but instead use that time to read pg's essay on similar ideas, "How to Do What You Love" (http://paulgraham.com/love.html), which, if I had the power, I would have millions of copies printed and have every kid in the world read it. It explains (at least) two simple ideas very effectively:

1. The work versus fun dichotomy is taught very early:

"The very idea is foreign to what most of us learn as kids. When I was a kid, it seemed as if work and fun were opposites by definition. Life had two states: some of the time adults were making you do things, and that was called work; the rest of the time you could do what you wanted, and that was called playing. Occasionally the things adults made you do were fun, just as, occasionally, playing wasn't—for example, if you fell and hurt yourself. But except for these few anomalous cases, work was pretty much defined as not-fun."

2. To compare two activities, you have to compare the area under their utility/fun vs. time curves.

"But the fact is, almost anyone would rather, at any given moment, float about in the Carribbean, or have sex, or eat some delicious food, than work on hard problems. The rule about doing what you love assumes a certain length of time. It doesn't mean, do what will make you happiest this second, but what will make you happiest over some longer period, like a week or a month.

Unproductive pleasures pall eventually. After a while you get tired of lying on the beach. If you want to stay happy, you have to do something."

> Unproductive pleasures pall eventually. After a while you get tired of lying on the beach. If you want to stay happy, you have to do something."

Nonsense. This in itself is a result of falling prey to what Leo Baubata (the author of the linked article) writes about: Inability to "let go".

There may certainly be things you'd find more fulfilling. But if you need to do stuff to be happy, you are letting yourself suffer from attachments to things that more the most part are relatively inconsequential.

PG's essay suffers from this assumption that happiness is tied to achievements.

I used to think that too. The problem with that line of thinking is that it often leads to putting the shutters on and focusing on getting stuff done to get your happiness from it eventually, while ignoring all the sources of happiness around you. Further, that makes procrastination worse, in my experience: It creates guilt that you're picking the short term pleasures instead of doing the stuff you're sure will make you fabulously happy later, once you've just achieved something.

These days, I still get stuff done - more than ever, in fact -, but I might suddenly stop during my commute and look up at the clouds and enjoy the sight, or just close my eyes for 10 seconds and enjoy the calm, and I'm happy whether or not I'm doing anything. The two are not related. If you can't be happy even while doing the dishes, or fighting your way onto a commuter train, or carrying out some mind-numbingly boring menial work, you're missing out.

Happiness is a natural measurement of how well you (believe you) are achieving your goals. If you are unhappy, it's a signal that you should change something about your life, not a signal that you should short-circuit the measurement system.

Changing something about your life is a valid response. So is short-circuiting the measurement system. Keep in mind that the measurement system includes external cultural/societal pressures, out-of-date instinctual responses, and your emotions as interpreted through the lens of your own emotions. A disadvantage of changing what you do, instead of how to feel about what you do, is that you will probably arrive at a place of dissatisfaction over and over again.

This. I have a friend who changes jobs about every 6-12 months chasing happiness. And every 6-12 months, I can count on him starting to bitch and moan about everything at the job. He refuses to listen to the idea that maybe happiness should be externally obtained and instead should start from within somehow. In a lot of ways, this seems to be an Eastern-Western dichotomy.

We can decide to wake up and be happy or we can decide to wake up and let something dictate our happiness. Whether we do it consciously or not, it's still a choice.

That is nothing at all like happiness. Are you one of those people without emotions? It's OK, I was too for a long time. It happens a lot to people in tech, or people who end up in tech.

Anyways, happiness is an innate emotion. It's much more central than anything about "achieving" your goals. If you don't feel stressed about the future, don't wish you were somewhere else/someone else/doing something else constantly, if you are having your psychological needs met, you are happy. Goal-based happiness is almost as bad as money-based happiness. You have to be more well-rounded than just focusing on your goals.

"Are you one of those people without emotions? It's OK, I was too for a long time."

Haha. Healthy people have emotions for reasons. If you don't introspect about why you are happy, sad, content, enraged, or depressed, you will have less information about how well you are living your life according to your own standards.

"It's much more central than anything about "achieving" your goals."

It's not clear to me how something could be more central than goals, so I don't think we're using the term "goal" in the same way.

"You have to be more well-rounded than just focusing on your goals."

Why would you want to be well-rounded?

That answer you just thought of? It's a goal.

You are confusing a sense of accomplishment for happiness. That suggests that you may not have felt happiness enough (or recently enough) to recognize it.

Not really. He's just using a more broad (scientific?) definition of the word "goal".

Eating food every day is a goal. Getting enough sleep is a goal. Peter Gibbons in The Office has a goal to do absolutely nothing.

I meant Office Space. How embarrassing.

Actually, no. That is not what happiness is. We don't know exactly what happiness is. But ironically, those who are happiest are often those who we would say are least productive and haven't achieved anything.

Case in point, one of the happiest families measured is an old family that lives in the Louisiana bayou. They're poor. They don't work much. They hunt and fish for a lot of their food and they all still live pretty close. They spend their days wandering the bayou and hanging out.

And they're happy.

> Happiness is a natural measurement of how well you (believe you) are achieving your goals.

And what are your goals? If they're just things you set out to achieve, then that's false. We set out to achieve things that bring us no real pleasure in the achievement of - qualifications, promotions etc.

My experiences don't bear that out. A few years ago I quit my job and spent six months traveling across the USA, camping at national parks. It was a dream I'd had for a while, and I loved it. At the same time, I was very glad when my trip had finished, and I could get back to working.

What I noticed was that my subconscious had a need to make plans, to have a goal to work towards. I was living my dream; there was nothing I wanted to achieve, because I had achieved it. As a result, I started daydreaming, with my daydreams steadily becoming more fantastical and involved. By the end, I was ready to find a new goal to work towards; that ended up being professional/career development and continuing education.

I agree absolutely that it's important to be able to be happy while doing the dishes, but that's a different sensation. There's the pleasure of being in the moment, of acknowledging the sensations that surround you, of being alive. Then there's the satisfaction of achievement. Both are important, but they are distinct.

"Unproductive pleasures pall eventually". Would you be happy staring at the clouds consistently for two months?

There are lots of unproductive pleasures to explore, when one is no longer interesting you can move to another.

Incidentally, one of the unproductive pleasure is starting side projects. The pleasure is immense when you spend few hours setting up yet another Clojure/Haskell/whatever project. This time it definitely is the one you are going to see through to finish!

My wife tells me this all the time - because I am on the spectrum I see things in black or white; work vs fun, productive vs unproductive. Only black or white. I think I'm starting to understand...

The key is moderation. Don't dedicate 100% to productive-only tasks or you'll burn out. Don't dedicate 100% to veging on the couch watching TV or you'll bore out.

Can't everyone just stop analyzing every minute detail of life and just chill by living in the moment?

You'd also have to define unproductive.

Spending a few decades thinking about the meaning of life might be considered unproductive - or it could be considered "being a philosopher". (Most) art is arguably fundamentally "unproductive". I suppose one might say that if you, over time, don't impart some impact on the people around you (share a work of art, pass on wisdom, [ed:raise] (and/or) feed a child...) then you've been "unproductive".

But are you a philosopher by virtue of achieving enlightenment or by virtue of helping others achieve enlightenment? If you died before you came to a crucial insight -- was your time spent thinking up to that point "unproductive"?

In my eyes there are two problems at work:

1. The people who become teachers really think this is how life is. How can they teach someone something about life that doesn't exist? It's like giving a painting class to a blind person.

2. Part of this misunderstanding between work and fun is really inherently in the children. I have a little half brother, about 5 years old. He always complains about cleaning up the Legos after we are finished building something as if it would be my way of doing something bad to him, not the normal end result of throwing Legos through the whole room. Children can not think logically to a certain degree. They can only follow the feeling of "exciting, happy, new" as good and "boring, repepetive" as bad. And bad, even between grown ups, is understood as something that comes from outside, not from ones self, at least in the first moment of experiencing bad feelings.

Actually, reading any article about conquering procrastination is better than doing actual work :)

(but this article is good and short and it reminded me that your focus should be not on the immediate but on the long term)

I've already read all of Paul's essays, most of them more than once. I come to HN to read new things. I liked this article, I think it was worth it just to be reminded of this:

>I could be in discomfort and nothing bad would happen.

I don't know why people feel like it needs to be an all or nothing proposition.

I realized this applies to me on day to day things that cause me to procrastinate a lot. For instance, today I had a doctor's appointment that I wanted to reschedule because it was snowing and I got in late last night. I realized that I just needed to push through it and get it done, because it would cause me more pain in the long term if I didn't. Plus, it honestly wasn't that big of a deal -- I woke up a bit earlier and took a cab. Now I don't have to think about it anymore.

It'd be nice if I could do this on a regular basis. I chatted up a good looking girl while I was waiting on the appointment too, rather than sitting there uncomfortable and wishing I had the courage to say something. I just pushed through it, and it was fine.

Just casual every-day things, that's all. That's what I'm going to aim for.

I find there is a common theme in the ZenHabit's post we are all commenting on, PG's post that you have shared, and many other things I have read about procrastination. All these readings take me back to the fun and simplified explanation of procrastination posted here on quora - http://qr.ae/h6VWJ

PG's essay and this one are complementary. PG adds a valuable piece which is to question the idea that work is generally or largely unpleasant by nature. Both authors agree we must get over our momentary discomforts and press ahead to lead a fulfilling life. PG doesn't really say how, only how to recognize intellectually that it's necessary. Extrapolating what he says into procrastination advice, you might end up with "remember your goals" and "be able to delay gratification."

"Letting go" is a particular in-the-moment experience that is very valuable to understand. It sort of looks like "sucking it up" but it's a release rather than a bottling up, so it's right at the heart of the issue of managing your energy and willpower well rather than flailing around and beating yourself up in response to the pressures and goals you are laboring under.

Well, if at all someone doesn't want to waste time ever, he/she won't be either on HN, or reading pg's endless writeups, or on that guy Babauta's pointless articles (I subscribed to his blog for some time). He is one the guys writing blog posts on minimalism made up of thousands of words and tens of glossy high resolution images.

Just finished reading the essay, and one of his points about professors struck a chord with my personal experience back in college. It always felt like the classes that seem to offer the least "financial return" in the real world (i.e. theology, philosophy, or some obscure liberal arts subject) usually end up to be the ones with better qualified and more enthusiastic professors.

If you're interested in something more scholarly, read John Stuart Mill's Utilitarianism.

I feel like procrastinating is such a common human condition that it's really not about you but about the work you're putting off.

When I was in college, I would put off doing lab reports until 6am in the morning. Watch youtube, surf the web for 30 minutes and actually work for 5 minutes.

But there was a reason. It was boring drudgery. Now that I get to work on my own project, I code almost all day. When I eat, I think about my code. When I brush my teeth I think about my code. Before I fall asleep, I think about code. My code is the first thing I think about when I wake up in the morning. I usually can't wait to finish breakfast and start working. So much for that ADHD diagnosis.

My son's got an ADHD diagnosis and he seems like you. Whatever is slightly uninteresting is terribly difficult for him to focus on but if there's something interesting, he can maintain perfect focus for hours.

I imagine it might be days if he wasn't interrupted.

Indeed, I'm like this in that I am nearly non-functional for things that I'm not interested in, but highly functional in things that do interest me. I highly recommend speaking to a doctor about this, as I was able to find medication that's helped me tremendously (I still procrastinate, but I can also actually focus without crazy anxiety-ridden pressure).

* Whatever is slightly uninteresting is terribly difficult for him to focus on but if there's something interesting, he can maintain perfect focus for hours.

Aren't we all like that?

I don't think so. I think most people can do "slightly uninteresting" things, especially when they can see the benefit, and I think that many people have trouble focusing on things that they are interested in after a few hours.

To some extent, it's about the severity of these reactions, I suppose.

Definitely not.

I handle rote, monotonous work really well, as long as it lets my brain check out and think about other things. Alphabetizing by hand and transcription work drive some people mad, but I excelled at it.

ADHD is mostly understood to be a failure of executive function, which include brain processes that are involved with allocating cognitive resources to tasks. As such you get periods of poor focus from under-allocation of resources. At other times you get periods of hyper-focus from over-allocation of resources. This is also why certain stimulants work for those with ADHD, it stimulates the part of the brain that deals with executive function.

Alternatively, people who have trouble being motivated by something boring are diagnosed with ADHD. But no, let's instead use the explanation which is very complicated and sounds big but is hard to falsify.

Would it be safe to guess that this project is not something you are doing for pay at work?

It's a personal project, an attempt at passive income.

It can't be help that there's a lot of boring work in the world and somebody has to do them.

Personally,I think those kind of work rarely pays adequate dividend in the end. But hey, we all have to eat.

The word "work" is too often confused with "paid work to do boring things, because nobody would do them for fun" these days. And then people wonder why everyone is procrastinating at work.

I do empathize with the original article a lot. I used to have/still have a strong fear of failing, especially in intellectual tasks. According to my own introspection this is primary angst that caused/causes me to procrastinate. There are two major references I often go back when I find myself paralyzed.

One being an advise I got from one of my PhD advisors: All creative tasks might appear that it requires enormous amount of courage and effort. But usually it is more like a kitchen sink heaped with a lot of unwashed dishes. Chances are that once you wash one dish, you will end up cleaning the full lot; and you often get a strange form of pleasure while you are performing the task.

The other one is this essay http://www-rohan.sdsu.edu/~psargent/Mills_Intell_Craft.pdf on intellectual craftsmanship by Wright Mills. I do now a days actively collect memories of pure immersion and pleasure I experienced while my craft got exposed and exploited to its potential. The thought of me improving as a craftsman, coupled with these memories is a powerful self motivator to me. The shit feeling I gets when I waste my time is another reference. One of the potent lessons was also that craft can be improved only by dedicating time ( which is pleasurable); and by disassociating the end result and fears. The toughest part is to replay this logic while I find myself slipping into vortex of non productivity, but that is something I can work on and probably in my control.

I just have to say, I love washing dishes. I was convinced by Leo (the author) to start trying to enjoy myself while washing dishes, and now I love it. I don't even use the dishwasher anymore.

The Now Habit is also good reading on the subject of procrastination http://lifehacker.com/5658620/the-now-habit-overcoming-procr...

I found the Procrastination Equation to be a better read. The Now Habit can be summed up as "don't be a perfectionist", whereas the Procrastination Equation says there are three types of procrastinators, and perfectionism isn't actually what causes most procrastination. The latter book is much better sourced and more thorough: there are loads of footnotes where you can look up the studies and the articles he's citing.

Was I the only one expecting it to be a fun play on words and be about embracing golang?

Yeah, perfect title, just add a couple more words...

"How I Learned to Stop Procrastinating, and Love Letting Go Garbage Collect"

That sounds like a randomly generated title from the HN Headline Generator :)

https://github.com/sursh/markov-hacker-news or www.blarworld.net/hackernewsgen.html

Mark Twain nailed it: "Never put off until tomorrow what you can put off until the day AFTER tomorrow."

Left recursion

-- noam chomsky

On a side note, I just listened to this audiobook "The Art of Procrastination: A Guide to Effective Dawdling, Lollygagging and Postponing"


A humorous take on working with procrastination, not against it. Short, but highly recommended.

In the same vein: structured procrastination.


Yes, more precisely, it's the (audio)book's author's webpage ;-) The book presents an attainable ideal to strive towards as a procrastinator, instead of a lofty hyper-productive pipe dream. In any case, it's a fun read and an interesting take on living with akrasia.

For me, the single most efficient anti-procrastination technique has been Don't Break The Chain. I have a few tasks that I need to complete _every day_ and the point is that the longer the streak is the bigger the incentive will be to continue. It also creates a clear routine which helps a lot on the psychological level (anyone who is into physical training of some sort knows how important this is).

I usually break it up in "do X for Y minutes" and timebox it to 1 hour. Right now it's "read a book for 15 minutes, clean the house for 15 minutes and code on a side-project for 25 minutes". I also have a shorter version for busy days which is basically "read two pages, do one chore and complete a trivial task on the side-project" but as long as I do something it's fine.

"Don't Break The Chain" can be dangerous on its own.

Whenever I do break the chain, I feel unmotivated to start the chain again (especially if I've done a good job, because it seems overwhelming to pick it up again from the start of the chain).

I've had to move on from Don't Break The Chain to being positive about making consistent progress.

I would say Don't Break The Chain is great for a fixed-length, short-to-medium-term task, rather than instilling permanent habits.

You can make your chain more coarse than daily. For example, for me it's a lot easier to commit to doing something 5 days a week rather every single day so my chain links are measured in units of weeks rather than days. You don't need to beat yourself up about missing a day or two here and there.

Agreed. The solution I like is http://beeminder.com/.

I use a variation of this technique. I spend X minutes doing Y. Where X is 5 minutes. The 25 minutes of the Pomodoro is too long to focus on one thing. I have a very very short attention span and I found 5 minutes to be the optimal timebox for me. Anything longer and I get bored. Now I have clock which doesn't increment in minutes but 5minute units. It's the only way I can make sense of the passage of time.

At the end of the timebox I do a 30sec review where I assess how I executed the task. Did I spend most of the time searching for information and organising material or did I spend it purely executing. I find with highly skilled people they spend most of they're time executing. If I spent most of it searching for stuff, I'd mark it as a delay due to organisation, if I was searching on how to do the task I would mark it is 'upskill', then I'd move onto the next thing. After a few hours patterns start to emerge around similar tasks. If a lot of related items were marked 'org' I'd then exploit them for automation or create them as templates for resuse. All the 'upskill' marked tasks would be condensed into a learning task at a more convenient task. The idea around all of this was to progressively become more organised and more skilled so that when performing a task, I would purely be executing and not faffing about.

It's a bit convoluted but it is a system that has worked terribly well since late last year and it's made me twice as productive at work, and smarter at what I do. There are times though where I wish I could be like people around me who are able to focus on thing for half an hour or more but we all have to play the hand we've been dealt and mine is a chronic lack of focus.

Welp, those were a good 2 minutes of procrastination

There's no relation between 'procrastination' and 'letting go'. Procrastination is pretty much normal, everyone procrastinated once entire days on HN/Netflix/...

There are easy cures and proven techniques against procrastination and not a single one is mentioned in this write-up.

Procrastination is often caused by the urge to find a small comfort to escape discomfort. Checking your email account in the middle of a difficult task, checking the news, etc. Letting go of this urges helps you stop procrastinating. There are no practical methods explained in this article but the main idea is a solid one that may help people overcome this problem.

Any article on procrastination that contains a to-do list is a procrastination-feeding item itself.

The author had me until he talked about giving up beer. :-)

Seriously, though, I think getting rid of the distractions on the fringe of our lives is important. For me it was getting rid of the TV. That doesn't always link to killing procrastination (I'm on here, aren't I?) but it does create a lot more time for being in the flow.

I wouldn't have read this article if I were not procrastinating...

You stole the words from my thought .. damn you !!

I will read it later

I couldn't help but think I'm procrastinating while reading it (+ reading the comments) ... Ahhhh !!! I better get back to work !

uu, a lifehacker article! :)

If you like the concept of letting go. Jamie Smart goes deeper about explaining the concept in his book, Clarity.

Pomodoro really works.

Herman Hesse's pop Buddhism is strong in this one.

Its all about Time Value of Happiness

Procrastination comes from lack of motivation. Address that first.

Whoa, sorry, read up about procrastination, it has nothing to do with lack of motivation and often has much more to do with anxiety and failure to account for long term negative consequences versus short term positive gains.

Hrm I thought this was true at first. Spending lots of time consuming materials on how to increase my motivation, etc. Nothing worked! But then, why would it? I'm obviously motivated to do what I want to do or else I wouldn't be trying so many different ways to stop putting off!

The best results I've had have been from a) just doing and b) reducing anxieties. Nothing I have tried has been sustainable but I still keep trying.

If I wasn't motivated, why would I keep trying?

It is always possible that one wants to have done something, but does not wish to actually be doing it. So one has difficulty starting, and if one starts one has difficulty following through, but one still keeps trying to start. Or, better yet, starts doing other things which don't really cause forward progress but which seem like they might eventually - like reading motivation books

I'm sorry, but you just have no idea what you are talking about.

Procrastination comes from many reasons. Motivation can be one of them but often it is not the reason

No, that's false.

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