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Good and Bad Procrastination (2005) (paulgraham.com)
189 points by jeremylevy on June 8, 2014 | hide | past | favorite | 54 comments

I am constantly struggling with procrastination even though I love my job and what I do. It seems like sometimes I'd rather do anything other than what I'm actually suppose to do and what pays the bills, almost like a mental disorder.

I've tried setting goals, blocking websites, uninstalling games, creating logs and even creating rewards for doing X amount of work, none of those seem to really help so far.

The procrastination article is from 9 years ago and has been posted numerous times before on HN, yet it's at the top of HN. I suspect that procrastination is a horrible problem for programmers due to the vast amount of distraction available via the internet.

Also, http://paulgraham.com/distraction.html

I'm installing Watch Dogs for the 4th time right now rather than doing my real work (which is very fun, time critical, and offers REAL rewards), wtf is wrong with me.

Try doing nothing.

You wouldn't be able to even if you tried. Your mind would start wandering to topics you haven't let it.

Set as a goal that you'll accomplish less every day, and with zero expectation about what to do with the free hours that open up. Just as you pressure yourself to do more, pressure yourself to do less.

Try doing nothing and suddenly your subconscious takes over. You discover thoughts you didn't even know were brewing. The fundamental principle underneath is one of balance, and you can trigger it with constraint. Constrain yourself to do nothing and your subconscious will find a way to pull you to something you like. Limit yourself to less, and you start overflowing to a new direction.

Like other people said, you look like you are trying to suppress the fact that you don't like what you are doing. The power of a drifting mind can be used positively just as much as it can be used negatively.

  A writer told me "I didn't get anything done today".
  Answer: try to do nothing. The best way to have only good
  days is to not aim at getting anything done.

  Actually almost everything I've written that has survived
  was written when I didn't try to get anything done.

  - Nassim Taleb

Make sure you give it enough time. You need at least 1.5-2hr blocks of time where you can shut off the world and play uninterrupted, and you also need to schedule such unstructured play lots of times. Don't worry about feeling unproductive in the meantime. Worry more about noticing the pattern to your thoughts, and do that at the end of each block of time so you don't feel pressured to be noticing.

I'd love to hear what you discover.

I like this idea. I notice that I tend to get more ideas when I'm stuck waiting for something or doing chores, than when sitting at the computer and reading things is an option.

I will try your suggestion this week. Thanks!

I like the idea of scheduling play time rather than assuming play comes after work.

From the comments of self-confessed procrastinators, it seems that they're all working more or less alone. We're a social species, our brain is shaped by a million years of tribal lifestyle. Inability to do the work may be a symptom of the loneliness in our modern society.

I'm in a same boat as you. Between work, family, and house projects, I barely have any time to do anything I want to. So when I do get such time, I blow it on gaming as a form of relaxation.

One thing that really helped me was during work hours, if I have downtime, I'll spend it on either searching for new projects to do or learn new things. Once I'm home, my emails stop syncing and I concentrate more on home and family related activities.

>It seems like sometimes I'd rather do anything other than what I'm actually suppose to do and what pays the bills, almost like a mental disorder.

History is full of geniuses who weren't interested in paying the bills, to the chagrin of their creditors, but ultimately to the benefit of civilization as a whole.

When you know exactly what you should be doing, and you know exactly how to do it, then your problem is not going to be solved by more goal setting, "rewards", or blocking websites. It's going to be solved by deciding that you really want to do the thing, and by spending the time to think about why you want to do it, and why it is important.

If you don't have a good enough reason to do something, then why would you do it anyways?

REAL rewards DO exist for many "boring" tasks, but you have to spend time to actually think about those real rewards. You have to convince yourself, and it won't work if your methods of motivation are "tricks." The real rewards are waiting for you, you've just got to spend the time to identify them before you start the work.

I recommend you learn from the masters, hear "The Now habit" audiobook, very good for geeks because it teaches you how and why of procastination, not only what to do.

blocking websites or installing games do not work if you don't know what procrastination is. In an empty room with nothing to do you could spend time looking at the wall.

I will also recommend "the power of full engagement", and also a basic understanding of habits: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BYFooE6J1iU

Over time(years) you will master this.

Thanks for those videos!

I've read/watched similar things before about habits but something just clicked for me that I'd like to try. I'm going to set my main goal as to simply creating the habits, rather than doing X amount work.

My goal for the next month is to create habits! This might change everything...


Would you say this describes you?

I have always found self-diagnosing as idiotic, but honestly, this is 100% me. Can't concentrate on anything, hesitate and procrastinate a lot, also am forgetful. Never had major problems though, always have had good grades for whatever reason. Should I seek help or try to keep it under control myself? I am almost out of school and I feel relieved; so much pressure when you try to concentrate on the topic, but just physically can't. I feel much more comfortable learning the topics I personally like.

There are plenty people with ADHD-PI and good grades. Many goes undiagnosed into adult life as well.

Seek help. Be prepared to have to explain it a few times. Some doctors are amazingly reluctant to accept that ADHD doesn't mean stupid, lazy or crazy. (Yes, there is a book by about that name. Can't vouch for it yet.)

Also, medicine or not, be aware that you might have a few advantages: When everyone else freeze (exam, first to an accident etc) if you are prepared you can think clearly when few others can. You most likely can study very well on your own (but going to class is still recommended just to have an idea of what the school/teacher/professor thinks is important.)

Try to use your special abilities like: thinking outside the box (automate things), eye for details (something is fishy), people skills etc. I'd also like to think that a job were you are clearly ON or OFF would be an advantage.

You might find a 40 hr/week job easier or harder than college in terms of concentration. In any case, there is a clinical procedure for diagnosing types of ADHD if you want to know for sure.

Hi. Can I be frank? I find it a bit hard to believe that your "real work" is "fun, time critical, and offers REAL rewards". Are you maybe trying to convince yourself here?

It happened to me to believe wrongly that I had fun and rewarding tasks at hand. But when I really have such tasks, procrastination is completely out of the way, and I am certainly not on HN to discuss about it.

When I have a task that is really interesting to me, I think about it when I shower, before falling asleep, while riding my bike, and when I quickly parse HN (because I have this habit), one of the first five titles will be remotely related and pull some strings, and I'll quickly go back to my code.

However, most of the time, I still say (and believe) that my work is "very interesting", "very rewarding", but I procrastinate on HN like everyone else (and right now).

"But when I really have such tasks, procrastination is completely out of the way"

I know for me it doesn't work that way. I assume "REAL rewards" means long lasting meaningful rewards rather than a quick dopamine hit. But hyperbolic discounting [1] is a bitch, so even if I know that once I start some real work it will be engaging and interesting, and tomorrow or next week my happiness will be partly determined by how much of it I got done ... maybe I'll do just one more HN story / Watch Dogs online hacking mission / etc.

It's a pattern I recognize and no longer really adversely affects my life like it did when I was younger but I definitely still feel that pull that makes starting things more difficult than it would otherwise be.

[1] http://www.damninteresting.com/hyperbolic-discounting/

Do you know exactly what changed for you so that hyperbolic discounting doesn't effect you anymore? Family, discipline, maturity, other specific lifestyle changes?

Definitely conscious lifestyle changes.

A while ago I decided that a few ingrained bad habits I had needed to go. I changed my lifestyle quite a bit in slow careful steps. The focus was on mindfulness and tracking the progress diligently. I also got really interested in research about habit building and modern scientific views of consciousness.

At this point I am still as affected by hyperbolic discounting as ever but I have more of an ability to recognize it for what it is and steer myself towards/trick myself into what my rational self wants to do.

I frequently feel like I'm trying to train part of my self (the unified self is an illusion) like I would train a dog.

I was talking to my father about this topic last week. We talked about the best strategies for combating procrastination. He used to be in the British Army and suggested that a militaristic approach has always worked for him. He talked about the button polishing, the bed sheet folding and the shirt starching. These were tasks that were set by the commanding officers and needed to be performed flawlessly. They weren't pleasurable, they were boring and often felt unnecessary. Failing these tasks meant severe punishment and potentially being kicked out of the army.

This gave him a framework for success. The knowledge that however boring something is, it needs to be done. A combination of a carrot and a stick can help this process.

Another approach, from a member of a mastermind group that I attend, has a 'dull day'. On Monday of every week he does all the administrative work that he hates. This includes dealing with expenses, filing, bug fixing, documenting etc. He has been doing it for months and loves the fact that he can start the day on Tuesday with a clear head and clear conscience.

So, breaking this down (from my admittedly small sample set):

- Be Strict -

Be strict with yourself and use incentives or disincentives. There are plenty of ways to provide a disincentive for failure. This startup has just launched and asks you to pay if you fail to hit your goals: https://gofuckingdoit.com/ [0]

- Have a Routine -

Habits are formed using triggers, routines and rewards. Try to set a good habit by working on your project using a trigger, a routine and a reward. You could try the Tiny Habits Method: http://tinyhabits.com/ [1]

- Make Time -

Make time for your project (rather than finding the time)Be honest with yourself and know that procrastination will happen. But, you can make time to get stuff done: http://www.startupclarity.com/blog/make-time-side-project/ [2]

[0] https://gofuckingdoit.com/

[1] http://tinyhabits.com/

[2] http://www.startupclarity.com/blog/make-time-side-project/

A professional procrastinator like myself knows that button polishing can become a very interesting task if it means you can postpone what you really should be doing. See http://www.structuredprocrastination.com/

With 'dull Monday' approach my biggest worry would be if I'm having a weak day, I might not have the will power to overcome the "I hate the work I have to do today". I'd argue it requires a lot more will power to convince yourself to start work on something you detest & which you know will last the whole day.

No conversation about procrastination is complete without mentioning John Perry's (Stanford Prof) essay on "structured procrastination": http://www.structuredprocrastination.com/

Basically... "the procrastinator can be motivated to do difficult, timely and important tasks, as long as these tasks are a way of not doing something more important." Like John, I've accomplished a quite a bit by procrastinating like crazy.

Perry actually won the Ignobel price for this essay: http://www.improbable.com/ig/winners/#ig2011

(you may have to scroll down a bit to see it)

Thanks for sharing, that was a wonderful essay, highly recommended!

Possibly off-topic, but I wonder when PG will be writing more essays. I remember that one of the things he was looking forward to when sama took over YC was the extra time to work on projects and write more.

This essay is mostly spot on, but there is some "more important work" that is harder to define: emotional/social work, raising a family etc. These things are mentioned in your eulogy, but not your obituary.

I'm pretty sure this essay was written before pg had kids. I wonder how/if his perspective has changed.

"The starting point for understanding why you procrastinate is to treat yourself with enough respect to assume that behind your inactivity lies an excellent, if not immediately apparent reason. And this reason is to be found in an altogether different attitude or trait inside yourself that precipitated your procrastinating reaction...

What is [it] a reaction to? What is the unknown factor that provokes such a highly visible and aggravating response? The nature of the invisible stimulus can be partly deduced from the extremely emotional and hostile nature of the reaction. For however much you may want to see it as a kind of passive paralysis, procrastination ... is a very aggressive act: it is a pushing away, a rejection.

Tragically, this stubborn rebellion by the unconscious usually triggers even more severe and desperate measures from you, its hapless guardian, to impose a strict regimen of work: total isolation, twelve-hour days, endless changes of locale and paraphanelia. But it is all for nothing. Attempts to be ruthless with yourself in order to 'overcome procrastination' must always lead directly back to the hated condition itself, thereby engendering stalemate. Under these highly sensitized conditions even a reasonable order, as long as it is an order, will be rejected. The sense of failure and frustration increases exponentially as the vicious circle clicks back into gear.

People who accuse themselves of procrastination are not procrastinators. They are accusers. Far from being lazy, they are driven by such extremes of self-distrust and compulsive overcontrol that they throttle the spontaneous contact with self that all creative activity requires." -- Victoria Nelson, "Writer's Block"

You should add a (2005) to the end of the title.

Yeah, I got all excited thinking it would be a new essay from PG.

For long time I was trying to beat procrastination. Guess what, I'm still procrastinating more than 50% of time and for last 2-3 years it's no longer a problem.

The breaking point for me was another essay by PG called "The Top Idea in Your Mind" (http://www.paulgraham.com/top.html)

The concept is that if you get stuck on some problem, even if you procrastinate, you are still unconsciously thinking about the problem and will come up with solutions while doing something completely unrelated (paying games, watching videos etc.) - so this would be another example of good procrastination that you don't have to feel guilty about. For me, procrastination is now part of the process.

I was reading before about a solution to procrastination that said you should have 2-3 different tasks. And when you aren't in the mood to do one, do the other. Could work for some, but maybe not everyone. Procrastination is usually not "not doing anything", but doing something else instead of what you should be doing. So try to make that "something else" a task that you need finished anyway.

I lived this for a few years starting my business actually. I put off basically other priority to get things off the ground.

It worked! I accomplished more in two years than I ever thought possible. I now have a large measure of freedom in my work and life.

But, now I do more errands. I found a lot of non-work priorities really fell by the wayside when I took the monomaniacal approach.

I'm still not sure which is better. I have more of a social life now. I'm in better shape. I have a few hobbies. I'm reading more. I feel like I'm enjoying life.

Yet I also feel I'm at an inflection point workwise, where if I just returned to the old levels of productivity for six months, I'd pass into a level where I'm suddenly earning far more than I need, and can pull back even more than I have.

I'm 28 now. Turning 29 in a few months. I've come to terms with the finite amount of time available to me, and that certain activities are easier and harder at given ages.

It feels like I can trade off six months of the last year of my 20s to gain much freedom in the first years of my 30s. I don't think I'm going to do it, because I'm making pretty good progress as is, and I think there's still room to do more work by cutting out distractions (like HN) while continuing to focus on leisure I truly enjoy.

The short version is that I was a type C procrastinator for a bit. I think it was worth it, but I'm not sure if it's worth continuing at the same level.

Nice essay. The "small stuff" that you mention has a function - to enable a society. If you don't shave and shower, you will look terrible, and for biological reasons people will think that you're nuts, that's you're an outliar, and expect strange things from you. It is not necessarily too bad, per se.

However, I argue that balance (some small stuff, but not too much, so you have time for important stuff) is better than being a great, smelly procrastinator.

Society can be pretty tolerant of eccentricity and a lack of personal hygiene when it's accompanied by genius. Look at Albert Einstein and even Richard Stallman.

I think the pg's message is good on a higher level, though think about what would happen in an average software development team if everyone followed the rule.

Everyone would be working on fancy, interesting, big problems, while there would be no one to fix the leaking ceiling until after the sudden storm has started.

Oops, it seems it's actually the case in majority of the projects. Most people prefer doing new development than fixing bugs and writing docs, because it's way easier to crush hundreds of new lines of code than to write a good documentation, and it's more enjoyable than trying to reproduce a weird edge case. Also, usually new development is adding more business value than fixing bugs (provided that the whole product is not a one big bug).

Here's a good, quick post by Cal Newport titled, "Don't fight distraction, make it irrelevant" that his some of the same points that PG makes:


"Distraction, from this perspective, is not the cause of problems in your work life, it’s a side effect. The real issue comes down to a question more important than whether or not you use Facebook too much: Are you striving to do something useful and do it so well that you cannot be ignored?"

So could reading this article qualify as a form of "type B" procrastination?

I think sometimes the mind just needs to think about other things. I mean, I love what I am doing now too, and I have moments where I'll want to just spend all day and night on it, but there are also times where I would rather do something else like watch funny videos on youtube or enjoy a karaoke session with my 2 year old daughter. It just makes me a happier person to be doing other things as well. I think diversity is important for the mind, that's why we procrastinate.

Good? Bad? There is only the value that you place on your own time. It may be that shaving/maintaining friendships/health do not offer rewards that you value. That's your decision. In the end, if your occupation doesn't reward you in a way you value, you will find an alternative way to spend your time.

edit: If you are concerned about how you spend your time, I would suggest that you should spend some time reflecting on why you are making those choices.

As the essay mentions Hamming's talk, here's a recording: http://youtu.be/a1zDuOPkMSw

I like this definition of unimportant stuff, "What's "small stuff?" Roughly, work that has zero chance of being mentioned in your obituary."

If you you have children, hopefully they will write your obituary, so putting of cleaning the house to go camping with the kids might result in a, "loving dad" on your obituary.

This is in addition to all the obvious big career stuff I thought of initially after reading that definition.

My wife is an absent minded professor. This part "The mildest seeming people, if they want to do real work, all have a certain degree of ruthlessness when it comes to avoiding errands" describes her perfectly.

God forbid if you disturb her while she is working, you will get an earful. She is very determined to get her work done, regardless (at times) of what her husband and kids want out of her.

This is why I think it's so silly for people to be such strong detractors of meal replacement products (like mealsquares, ambronite, and soylent), not wanting to eliminate EVERY meal from your life is quite understandable, but wasting hours of your day when you're deep in flow state on food is a terrible tradeoff in much the same way laundry is.

Graham hits the nail on the head again. I don't beat myself up about procrastinating too much -- as long as the procrastinating includes reading Hacker News, iOS Dev News, Good Stack Overflow comments and conversations, basically anything that will make me broadly a better and happier programmer.

I've slowly found that by focusing on interesting things (and sometimes productive) instead of dedicating time to school projects that are merely time wasters, I can complete projects I want whilst doing satisfactory in school with minimal effort.

I agree with the article's opinion about errands, and believe it's true these small boring tasks end up killing inspiration for the more interesting stuff we'd rather be working on.

HOWEVER, am I the only one who thinks Paul's redefinition of procrastination is nonstandard? When people advise you not to procrastinate, they are usually telling you to do your damn job (or to study for an exam, you get the idea) instead of doing something else that could clearly wait. Most people understand that procrastination means doing anything -- no matter what -- instead of a mandatory task that is boring or too hard. Nobody will ever tell you to do your taxes instead of working on that rocket science project, which is what Paul seems to be implying...

> What's the best thing you could be working on, and why aren't you?

Because that probably will probably not make me enough money to pay the rent.

If I were rich and didn't need to work. I would.

Then just work enough to pay rent and eat. I bet you earn more than you strictly need.

Very unrelated but biting me hard due to procrastination: Does anyone know any tax preparer in the US with reasonable rate?

I'm a non-US citizen/resident. I incorporated a C-corp in Delaware exactly last year through an agent (remotely). The company has been dormant since its inception.

Its fiscal year is March 31, which means the deadline should be June 15 this year. I need someone who can do e-filing for me. One guy I found online quoted me $500 which I think ridiculously expensive :(

You are indeed bitten due to procrastination, but it might not be for the reason you think you are. If the company has been dormant since its inception, why are you worried about paying taxes? The IRS doesn't come after dormant companies that don't have revenue. There's nothing to come after.

Are you using paying taxes as a way of procrastinating from real work? A much harder problem is making something people want. Worry more about that.

I have a personal connection to him, but Mark Baral did a great job helping out the FIRST robot club while I was a mentor. http://baraltaxaccounting.com/

It's probably a busy week for tax preparers so my first step might be to file an extension to give a little breathing room.

Ironic that i'm reading this at work.

I'll have to remember to read this later.

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