Procrastination and the Long Queue

I taught my first class last week at the Center for Digital Imaging Arts in Waltham. I’ll write up my thoughts on the experience some other time, but what’s on my mind right now is how the pressure of producing something everyday created a different working mentality.

This week, as I start catching up on a half-dozen projects with looming deadlines, I’m again struck by the difference between last week and this week. Last week, I only had time to focus on what was going to happen either right now (in the classroom) or the next immediate day. The combination of external constraints (the regular daily schedule + long commute) and immediate feedback (seeing if the curriculum materials I prepared worked out) created a very productive system. I didn’t have much time to reflect before the task; I just had to get it done.

This week, faced with a list of dozens of things to get out of the way, each with a somewhat flexible deadline, I am back to my old ways, figuring out:

  • what to do first
  • what’s more important
  • what’s the best way to approach the project

Prior to my recent teaching experience, I would have said there’s nothing wrong with that list. But now, I can see that there is a hidden drawback to being so forward-looking. Yoda may have said it best, telling Luke Skywalker why he was not well-suited to becoming a Jedi in The Empire Strikes Back (emphasis mine):

Ready are you? What know you of ready? For eight hundred years have I trained Jedi. My own counsel will I keep on who is to be trained. A Jedi must have the deepest commitment, the most serious mind. This one a long time have I watched. All his life has he looked away… to the future, to the horizon. Never his mind on where he was. Hmm? What he was doing. Hmph. Adventure. Heh. Excitement. Heh. A Jedi craves not these things. You are reckless.

I used to think that Yoda was just saying Luke was a daydreamer, lazy and driven by childish notions of adventure. However, I now think there’s a second message: the idea that being present in the moment is of utmost importance.

Fear and Anticipation

I have been trained and conditioned in college to be forward-looking, anticipatory, and pre-emptive in my analysis. I know what can go wrong. My active imagination, combined with both broad and deep knowledge of what I know and what I do not know, allows me to see a dozen possible futures with great clarity. In certain circumstances, this ability is very useful. In others, it can be paralyzing. This paralysis, I theorize, contributes to my tendency to procrastinate. Because I live in the future, and not the now, nothing gets done. I look into the future not for guidance, but to see what I should be afraid of. That is not good.

I’ve written about this before, drawing the parallel between the evils of premature optimization and procrastination-perfectionism. What I didn’t acknowledge was the fear aspect that drains away energy and prevents me from acting. I didn’t even realize that this was a factor. I only recognized it after having had a week where I did not have the choice of contemplating the future; I was getting 3 hours of sleep a night, and there was just no time for navel gazing.

Now that I’ve finally gotten a full night’s rest in my own bed, and have the luxury of a little more time, I’m finding that I’m focusing on the long queue of jobs I have to get done this week. I look at the queue, and my stomach clenches a little. I don’t know how long it will take to get things done, but I can imagine how long it will take. I can also see all the unknown variables and possible snafus just waiting to happen. The feeling reminds me a little of the movie The Sixth Sense, where the little boy can see dead people and no one else can. He’s terrified by it. In terms of procrastination, I’m terrified by ghosts of the future. If I close my eyes really tight, and if the lights are on, and I have the radio turned up loud in every room, then maybe I catch a little peace. But in moment when I don’t have those little props of security available, I revert to a state of mild terror.

Recognizing the fear, happily, is part of the solution. The Long Queue is scary only because I haven’t really faced it, as Luke Skywalker did not until he got his hand cut off by Dad Vader and woke up. I thought I wanted the long queue to go away and leave me unshackled by responsibility and uncertainty. I created a bunch of forms to help me manage and visualize the long queue, which helps. However…the long queue never goes away. There’s always more to do. There’s always the unexpected deadline, mixup, or surprise that mucks up the order of the universe. People who get it done intuitively understand this, and don’t worry about the future as much. They may not even be capable of seeing the future in high resolution as a A+ procrastinator could, and this helps them focus. Or they’ve learned, perhaps the hard way, that the future doesn’t matter as much as the present and what you do with it.

Reduction to Practice

Ok, so the future isn’t so scary if you take the time to walk right up to it and acknowledge what it is (again, some parallels here to The Sixth Sense).

I’ve made a quick mental checklist for prioritizing what I’m going to do, without so much pre-thinking and analysis:

  1. Is it on your mind? Will it take less than two minutes to finish it? Do it!
  2. Is it the next thing that’s due? Do that until it’s done. If there’s no delivery date, then don’t worry about it. If there should be a delivery date, then find out when it should be and promise it to someone.
  3. Is it Worth Doing as part of your overall goals? Do that until it’s done.
  4. Above all, don’t worry about the Long Queue…if you’re doing the above three things, you’ll probably be OK.

One major assumption is that you ARE keeping track of everything that’s due, and therefore know what’s due first. Systems like GTD and the various task management systems out there, not to mention the Printable CEO forms, can help you with that. And remember: what you do in the Now is what is really important. Learning to trust that takes experience and some awareness.

13 Comments

  1. Joan 9 years ago

    And then there is the element of fate, as in “if there is a parking space in front of the store, I’ll go in today, instead of tomorrow”. There was, and I did. (Maybe that comes under the two minute rule).

  2. Dave 9 years ago

    The paralysis of analysis…

    Don’t think about it, just do it.

    Works with chicks too.  Don’t know what to
    say?  Doesn’t matter.  Just say anything.
    Be present in the moment, not worrying
    about some future snub.

    Software?  Can’t figure out best way to
    implement?  Do it both ways, figure out
    which way is better when you’re done.
    It’s faster than “thinking” about which
    way is better.

    Don’t know what to write?  Write anything.
    Lots of it.  Then throw it away.  There’s
    more where that came from.  So you lose
    a few good ideas, so what?  Personally,
    I generate more good ideas per day than
    any fleet of people could hope to implement
    in a lifetime.  And if you can’t remember it,
    maybe it’s not that good an idea anyway.

    Too many balls in the air?  Drop some.
    The only ones that really matter are
    revenue and relationships.  Everything,
    else, luxury.  Drop em.

    Do I sound glib?  Good.  I’ve been where
    you are, and I don’t want to go back.
    It took a lot of hard work to sound glib.

    Good luck.

  3. Lawrence Salberg 9 years ago

    Thanks for writing about this, Dave. I recently went through the loss of my newborn son and all my normal productive skills have left me in the lurch. I’m usually extremely organized and efficient, and just, well, not so much these days. I literally have thought I was A.D.D. or something at times. But, I think you’re simple advice here is very helpful and I will be trying it to the utmost starting tomorrow – if I can just get some sleep now.

  4. Dave Seah 9 years ago

    Joan: Yah, I think you can say that it’s part of the “if it’s easy to do, then do it.” Same vibe, anyway. Maybe “easy to do” is the overall rule, and “2 minutes” is really just one way of measuring it. I might call your “fate” thing “opportunity”, as it sounds less like it’s something you HAVE to do.

    Dave: Thanks for the glib comment! I like how you identify the reasons why “just do it” works. I’ve heard this said so often in the past by people who just did but didn’t know; the crispy edge of experience that tinges your comment makes for tasty reading! Thank you!

    Lawrence: I’m so sorry to hear about your loss…grief on that magnitude is something that’s incredibly difficult to bear. This might be one case where looking to the future, rather than the emptiness of the present or sadness of the past, is actually a good place to be looking. I think it’s asking a lot to NOT think about recent events, so if I were in your shoes I might actually plan for a reduced level of productivity in the near term. When faced with loss of a loved one in the past, I’ve also focused on the living memory and the people who share that memory with me: being the embodiment of the best qualities of my Mom, for example, in memory of her. Recognizing that I can’t go back to fix things, but I can live moving forward and continue to generate the positive energy that I can now recognize in my Mom. Terrible things happen to us in the course of a lifetime, but it’s reassuring to know that the people you hold near and dear are right there with you, experiencing the same things and providing mutual support…it’s part of the deal of feeling/being alive, I guess. I also find that providing support myself is a good way to ease the pain. This has just been my experience…I wish you (and your spouse) the best moving forward.

  5. Jeff L 9 years ago

    Dave, congrats on getting some more Lifehacker love for this post.

  6. Mitza 9 years ago

    I wanted to read more on your blog, but I must stay live in present, and I have some work to do, and I’ll come back later. :) Keep posting enghlitening stuff.

  7. Andrew Dahley 9 years ago

    Being present in the moment. This is classic buddist Mindfulness. a good thing practice for anyone.

  8. search 9 years ago

    word… came across this by accident, and couldn’t read the whole thing….

    The important thing isn’t prioritizing between the now and the later, it’s realizing that they are both happening and both important.

    I’ve been a teacher for about three years now, and I completely agree with your summation of the initial situation.  I would like to add that i also becomes eaier with time and experience.  Keep in mind that the only thing that made teaching a challenge is that 1) other people were involved 2) it was new to you and 3) it was important to do it well.

    These are the things that Yoda is teaching Luke:  1) The future is distant and you can’t get there without focusing on the path at hand. 2)The future is important, were it not, Yoda would not have bothered pulling Luke to Degobah, nor would you have stressed about your class.  3)Organization and dedication to THE PATH are the keys to success.

    The issue isn’t about being young and volitile, it’a bout being able to prioritize and focus.  Furthermore, it’s about being able to meditate on the circumstances of the present and the future, thus drawing valid conclusions about the necessary course of action and then following it with accuracy and determination.

    I applaud your blo,a nd your depth of self-examination.  Thanks for sharing and spreading this to to those who are of equally curious and disciplined minds.

    s.e.t.h.
    chicago/

  9. slothbear 9 years ago

    glib Dave:  Wow.  I really like the part about the Good Idea Stream.  I have mountains of index cards and journals cataloging ideas—but they just feel like an overwhelming Long Queue.  But you’re right.  Tomorrow I’ll have plenty more ideas.  Wow.  Somebody get me a match.

  10. Lynn E. O'Connor 9 years ago

    That was great Dave. I know when I have a class right in front of me (like in two hours, or even three etc.) I sure can’t procratinate, and there is nothing like immediate feed back (reminding me I have a comment from a student to send you—she used the bubbles and got to work!). but when there is no immediate external pressure, I lay back and browse the internet, and I am so behind on writing up data we have collected it is pathetic. But I think there is more to this than fear, and my husband just said I should write an ebook in 24 hours and maybe that is sort of what it should be   about.
      Look, if we just buckled down to do—say the thing we know are really most important to us—we would whip right through them and on to the next. You know, and i know , there is nothing in our personal work itineraries that we really can’t handle. But something stops us, this big weight upon us. I think its still, at least for me, my old friend survivor guilt. I am too isolated from highly ambitious, productive people. My dearest old friend have givnn up years ago and sound to me oh so bitter. My so-called colleagues—well they dont seem to have any real interest in psychology if you can believe that, let alone ambition, they can’t wait to get up and play with their dogs. It is very hard to go—here I go, getting it going, one two three—when I am the only one around doing it. Myabe that is what is eating at you really, not just some imaginary fear about the future, but a real fear about the present, that you will be even more “isolated” if you work as well and hard as you want to. When my students tell me how they just can’ twork on a paper until the deadline, and then when the deadline is righ tup on them, they go like crazy and get the work done, and furthermore they love doing it and dont understand why they didn’t do it earlier.’ To this I say “well that tells you something very important. You loved doing the work, but wouldnt let yourself do it until there was an EXTRENAL EXCUSE (liek a deadline). That tells me you feel very guilty about doing the work and hold back until you have “no choice” but to do it. So the real   problem is that subtle, under the surface kind of guilt we are mostly not aware of. Like for example, feeling if you zoom ahead you’ll leave a parent or a sibling behind, or you’ll surpass your friends, or whomever, but I’d lay my money on survivor guilt in the background.”
      So this is what I tell my students, an this is what I tell myself, and I;; try to write more about it. Its so much a part of our daily lives, and our daily life problems, that it is liek the air we breathe, we don’t even notice it. Thanks for the great post on procrastination, and reminding me of this routine experience i have with my graduate students. It so obviouos with them, they are so much on a rolll when they finally start writing, but htey cant do it until that have an external excuse, and htat is jsut because they feel so guilty about getting to do what they want to do anyway, and calling it “work.”

    Lynn

  11. Jeff Benson 9 years ago

    I highly recommend Eckhart Tolle’s “The Power of Now” as it explores the traps of future and past thinking and has some valuable perspectives about living in the present moment . . .  thanks for the great blog entry!

  12. ouzo 8 years ago

    procrastination? – I’m a master.
    Don’t try to understand it as the analysis is really a paralysis. Although my feedback may lack that convincing sharpness (and inspiration) what I have to contribute is 2fold :
    Fisrtly, for all tose impossible instances when the water seemed too deep I urge you to “just jump” Stop fretting and jump-, as long as your action and position are not irresponsible, then trust your ability and instinct to congure up your second wind when the clock strikes “action” and run that race when the time comes…stop judging your against your fears and let the future take care of today’s impossible. What works for me when that feeling reignites from time to time is a personal flashback to a point in time when I was standing on a high pier wanting to jump in the deepwater like everyone else, but here I was making up excuses why I should not jump- I was equally good at making tham up as I was at actually beleived all the non-sense my mind would race thru. After several failed attempts and despite my overwhelming mind games, I just jumped (jumped into fear? called it’s bluff ?), and when I came up for air I said to myself “what was I waiting for all this time ?”. Now I laugh off that incident as I have a better jump style. Be Bullish Responsibly. Remember back to the old school yard when people’s talents were identified from “truth or dare” and they probably also need someone else to alert them to that fact or even give them permission to “do it again”. My point that I urge is “get out there and identify your class,talents,strengths and weaknesses”. Prove to yourself that yes-you can fail on the first attempt- but who cares. Despite all the permutations of methods of failure and making a clown of myself-sometimes the future works in wonderful ways, better than planned.
    Secondly, I read this on the day calendar- “The beauty of happiness and success is that does not have to feel good.” So stop being so hard on yourself. I’m sorry but I’m human and can squeeze in only what will fit in the course of the day even with an extraordinay effort-but I WILL be back tomorrow to carry on after I “drop tools”. Sometimes I compare others’ opinions of my actions to a horse race commentator- the more you resist-the more you realise they aren’t listening aka-being present to the moment principle. It’s just a jailer’s intimidation-you know what to do here. They’re just going thru the motions as is the long queue that grows on you-acknowledge it and start with a coffee.
    I like the comments about breaking down everything into it’s smaller bits-just like a recipe.
    Have a great life, plan your future, accept life’s occasional inevitable failures like you deserve it and good luck for all that I missed out on.

  13. David 6 years ago

    FYI, I’ve posted a quote from this article on my “Quotes” blog, at http://exold.com/quote/1308-my-active-imagination.

A message from Dave:

I really believe we all benefit when we share our own perspectives on common experiences. It would be great if you added your own anecdotes and comments, even if you don't necessarily agree with the premise of the post; that's just good conversation in my book. The house rules are "treat each other with kindness and respect" and "enjoy the flow of ideas!"

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