Article sketch: When procrastination isn’t akrasia

I have a lot to say on this topic, but I haven’t writ­ten an ar­ti­cle about it, for two rea­sons… come to think of it, more like for one rea­son, twice. The first rea­son is that, while I’ve learned quite a bit about pro­cras­ti­na­tion in the past few months, I haven’t learned much about it, and as a re­sult, the es­say I could write now wouldn’t be as good as the ar­ti­cle I could write a cou­ple of months from now, af­ter I’ve learned even more. The sec­ond rea­son is that, while I’ve learned quite a bit about pro­cras­ti­na­tion in the past few months, I still do pro­cras­ti­nate, and be­sides that, I have a back­log of stuff I con­sider more im­por­tant than writ­ing this es­say, and as a re­sult, I’ve de­cided to post­pone it un­til I’ve got­ten all that other stuff done.

I figure a sketch is bet­ter than noth­ing, so I’m just giv­ing you this stream-of-con­scious­ness busi­ness you’re read­ing now.

Pro­cras­ti­na­tion, as far as I can tell, has two ma­jor causes. The first of these causes is akra­sia: you know you should be do­ing some­thing else, and you know what you should be do­ing, but you aren’t do­ing it. This es­say is about the sec­ond cause: di­s­or­ga­ni­za­tion.

Now, it’s likely that you can think of at least one thing right now—a ma­jor home­work pro­ject, or clean­ing the en­tire house, or some­thing—that makes you think, Dang it. I haven’t done that yet, and I wish I had. I’ve been pro­cras­ti­nat­ing. Ask your­self this ques­tion: when should you have done it?

Per­haps the an­swer is along the lines of “Well, I should have done that Tues­day morn­ing, when I looked on my to-do list and saw that it was the top item on there, but in­stead of do­ing it, I played Minecraft for three hours.” In other words, per­haps you can think of a spe­cific time you should have done it, and you re­mem­bered that you could have done it, but in­stead, you did some­thing that was less im­por­tant. If all three of those things are true, then your prob­lem is akra­sia.

If any of those parts is miss­ing, then your prob­lem is not akra­sia; your prob­lem is di­s­or­ga­ni­za­tion. Let me ex­plain.

Sup­pose that in­stead of think­ing of a spe­cific time you should have done the task, you sim­ply thought, “I should have done that at some point”. Even if you have perfect willpower, know­ing that you should be do­ing some­thing “at some point” isn’t enough, be­cause at any given time, there are lots of things that you should do “at some point”. If there are fifty such things, then it is im­pos­si­ble not to post­pone at least forty-nine of them, so you can’t blame your­self for not do­ing those forty-nine.

Sup­pose that you think of a spe­cific time you should have done it, but you didn’t re­mem­ber that you could have done it. Even if you have perfect willpower, you can’t do the things you’ve com­pletely for­got­ten to do.

And sup­pose that you think of a spe­cific time, and you re­mem­bered that you could have done it, but in­stead you did some­thing that was more im­por­tant. Ob­vi­ously, that’s not akra­sia; you sim­ply had bet­ter things to do.

How can you fix these prob­lems? The ba­sic solu­tion is sim­ple: write down the things you have to do. All of them. Also write down the time frame in which you’d like to get them done, so that you can work on them in an or­der that makes sense, in­stead of just when­ever they ran­domly pop into your mind.

About work­ing on things in an or­der that makes sense. What or­der should that be, ex­actly? Well, I think there are two things that are worth tak­ing into con­sid­er­a­tion here: im­por­tance and ease. Work­ing on more im­por­tant tasks first can be a good idea for ob­vi­ous rea­sons. Work­ing on easy tasks first can be a good idea for less ob­vi­ous rea­sons: that makes it easy to get started (and get­ting started tends to be the hard­est part), it gives you a feel­ing of suc­cess right away, and it makes the work seem more man­age­able. (If you have 60 things to do, and the first 50 are easy, that seems man­age­able. If you have 10 things to do, and they’re all hard, that also seems man­age­able. If you have 60 things to do, and the first 10 are hard, that seems far less man­age­able!)

As­sum­ing you have all your tasks writ­ten down and or­dered sen­si­bly, you’re ready to be­gin ex­e­cut­ing your “work al­gorithm”. What should that be? Sim­ple enough. First, look at the first item on the list. If it’s easy, do it. If it’s hard, then break it into pieces, at least one of which is easy, and sort the pieces into a rea­son­able or­der. Re­peat.

Break­ing a hard task into easy ones is out­side the scope of this es­say (or, at least, this sketch of it).

Most what I think I know about or­ga­ni­za­tion is thanks to David Allen’s “Get­ting Things Done”. I highly recom­mend read­ing the first chap­ter, which will both give you some con­text, and con­vince you to read the sec­ond chap­ter. The sec­ond chap­ter will teach you or­ga­ni­za­tion in a nut­shell.

This page on my wiki may be use­ful or in­ter­est­ing to read: http://​​wiki.zbasu.net/​​pro­cras­ti­na­tion This page may be in­ter­est­ing, but prob­a­bly not par­tic­u­larly use­ful: http://​​wiki.zbasu.net/​​weekly-progress