Procrastination and the Long Queue

From the 2006 Archives Productivity 13 Comments

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.