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October 4, 2010 8:43 AM   Subscribe

"Each morning for over eight months [George Akerlof] woke up and decided that the next morning would be the day to send the Stiglitz box." James Surowiecki reviews The Thief of Time, a collection of essays about procrastination. His house is now as tidy as it ever has been.

Procrastination most often arises from a sense that there is too much to do, and hence no single aspect of the to-do worth doing. . . . Underneath this rather antic form of action-as-inaction is the much more unsettling question whether anything is worth doing at all.

Previously. Previously (Video). Previously. Previously. You may have answered an AskMe question or two on the topic.
posted by WalterMitty (33 comments total) 36 users marked this as a favorite

 
On an iPhone, this goes into a redirect tailspin. Guess I'll read it later.
posted by nevercalm at 8:47 AM on October 4, 2010


It isn't just the iPhone. Firefox wouldn't load it because of a redirect problem, too.
posted by starvingartist at 8:54 AM on October 4, 2010


I added this to my Instapaper account, so I can read it later.
posted by Happy Dave at 8:57 AM on October 4, 2010 [8 favorites]


Alternate link.

Original link works okay on my iPhone and Firefox, not sure what's wrong.
posted by WalterMitty at 9:01 AM on October 4, 2010


from Zadie Smith’s review of a Kafka biography:

[The biography's author Louis] Begley is particularly astute on the bizarre organization of Kafka’s writing day. At the Assicurazioni Generali, Kafka despaired of his twelve-hour shifts that left no time for writing; two years later, promoted to the position of chief clerk at the Workers’ Accident Insurance Institute, he was now on the one-shift system, 8:30 AM until 2:30 PM. And then what? Lunch until 3:30, then sleep until 7:30, then exercises, then a family dinner. After which he started work around 11 PM (as Begley points out, the letter- and diary-writing took up at least an hour a day, and more usually two), and then “depending on my strength, inclination, and luck, until one, two, or three o’clock, once even till six in the morning.” Then “every imaginable effort to go to sleep,” as he fitfully rested before leaving to go to the office once more. This routine left him permanently on the verge of collapse. Yet
when Felice wrote to him…arguing that a more rational organization of his day might be possible, he bristled…. “The present way is the only possible one; if I can’t bear it, so much the worse; but I will bear it somehow.”

Kafka’s failure to make even an attempt to break out of the twin prisons of the Institute and his room at the family apartment may have been nothing less than the choice of the way of life that paradoxically best suited him.

It is rare that writers of fiction sit behind their desks, actually writing, for more than a few hours a day. Had Kafka been able to use his time efficiently, the work schedule at the Institute would have left him with enough free time for writing. As he recognized, the truth was that he wasted time.
The truth was that he wasted time! The writer’s equivalent of the dater’s revelation: He’s just not that into you. “Having the Institute and the conditions at his parents’ apartment to blame for the long fallow periods when he couldn’t write gave Kafka cover: it enabled him to preserve some of his self-esteem.”
posted by Ian A.T. at 9:02 AM on October 4, 2010 [5 favorites]


Something interesting is the idea that we can bargain amongst our various selves. The paper-doing self can bargain with the TV-watching self.

I know that, for myself (or rather my various selves, herp de derp), I often wind up in a state of paralysis between what has to be done and what I'd like to do, leading to a state of idiotic half-work. If I'm going to waste three hours doing nothing useful, then why *don't* I just watch TV or take a nap or ride my bike around the park, or even just simply do my work? But, no - instead I read something supposedly academic, or I organize something that I don't need to organize *right now*. I do something that seems like "serious fun," at the expense of actual fun or actual work.
posted by Sticherbeast at 9:11 AM on October 4, 2010 [5 favorites]


My temptation is to wait until this thread is about to close and then jump in and say something, explaining that I've been meaning to make this comment for some time, but there is no way I am going to remember to do that.
posted by Astro Zombie at 9:19 AM on October 4, 2010


It's definitely about perfectionism for me. If there are too many choices, I become paralyzed because I don't know which one is the absolute best choice. So I don't do anything, which almost invariably makes the situation worse.
posted by desjardins at 9:27 AM on October 4, 2010 [6 favorites]


I'm not convinced that my parents were incorrect in their assessment: he's just lazy.
posted by maxwelton at 9:32 AM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Something interesting is the idea that we can bargain amongst our various selves. The paper-doing self can bargain with the TV-watching self.

I do this with "temporal selves". Not so much bargaining, but whenever I'm in a period of high motivation I try to arrange things so that my future self will have an easier time trying to do what I want, now. Or, of course, to *not* do what I don't want to do, if I'm trying to stop doing something. Basically I try to anticipate the roadblocks my future self will run into and do everything I can to remove them. And if I have to do something like make it painful to fail, then I'll set that up if I can.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 9:36 AM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


Max beat me to it! I have long since given up looking for psychological conditions and external factors to account for my lack of achievement; I'm just lazy.
posted by londonmark at 9:39 AM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


On Kafka, good thing old Max B. was a procrastinator, too.
posted by joe lisboa at 9:41 AM on October 4, 2010


With respect to burning things, that is.
posted by joe lisboa at 9:42 AM on October 4, 2010


Jokes and self-diagnoses aside, the most salient section for me was the one about "hyperbolic discounting," which describes a broadly observed and near-univeral psychological tic and basically means that no matter how rational and clearheaded we think we are, we fundamentally view the long term differently from the short term. It is not that we're ignorant about the future repercussions of our actions nor indifferent to their impact; it's that we are lousy as a species at acting right now in ways that ensure the outcomes we want in the future.

This is one of many revolutionary insights now uniting under the banner of "behavioural economics," and I can't recommend more highly checking out a primer or two on the subject - Predictably Irrational by Dan Ariely (one of whose experiments is cited in the linked New Yorker piece) is one of the best introductions to the field.

This stuff has repercussions far beyond those transcriptions of interviews I did in May that I should be finishing off right now; I'd argue, for example, that it's one of the key reasons why we've been so collectively awful at responding to the climate crisis. It's not (just) that we don't give a shit, or that we've been deluded by falsehoods and propaganda into inaction; it's just as much that we're flat-out catastrophically terrible at doing things right now - in the concrete present, with immediate costs and challenges and sacrifices - that will bring us benefit of some unknown dimension at some unknowable time and place in the fairly distant future.

Almost everything climate activists have done for a generation now has been aimed at making a convincing rational argument for adopting certain types of behaviour, but almost none of it has taken into account how human beings actually make choices and change their behaviour. Hence the current clusterfuck on this and many other critical issues. If you're interested in social change on any front, you'd do yourself a huge favour to get to know behavioural economics a whole lot better.
posted by gompa at 9:47 AM on October 4, 2010 [18 favorites]




Clean ALL the things. (Hyperbole and a Half is pretty cool).
posted by WalterMitty at 10:03 AM on October 4, 2010


I read this article instead of doing work... and in a way my universe folded in upon itself.
posted by indiebass at 10:55 AM on October 4, 2010


I'll bookmark this so I can come back later, read the comments and verify that all the proper "I will read this later"-remarks has been done.
posted by mnsc at 10:58 AM on October 4, 2010


I would say that I will read this later, but I know that I will not. I have work to do, and I have already wasted too much time on internet info-edu-entertainment today.

Well, maybe later I will read this. But thanks MetaFilter, for getting me off my butt today.
posted by Xoebe at 11:11 AM on October 4, 2010


desjardins: "It's definitely about perfectionism for me. If there are too many choices, I become paralyzed because I don't know which one is the absolute best choice. So I don't do anything, which almost invariably makes the situation worse."

I know this feeling. I hate this feeling. For me, it's terrible and crippling and based on irrational fear of failure, even when I'm just making a simple choice and failure is not even part of the picture. It's viscous and it's usually too late before you realize that you could have avoided the entire situation be being a little less fearful of making a simple decision.
posted by HumanComplex at 11:21 AM on October 4, 2010 [1 favorite]


*by being*
posted by HumanComplex at 11:21 AM on October 4, 2010


Great article, thanks. I've been thinking a lot about the "divided" self or theory of many selves lately, because it certainly rings true.

Combine it with the "hyperbolic discounting" and you've got an awfully effective mechanism for not getting anything done at all.

Regarding strategies for beating procrastination, breaking down unpleasant or procrastination-susceptible tasks into smaller tasks has been (somewhat) effective for me (though I am still here commenting instead of doing "real work.")

At work, I took a GTD-style seminar class called Accomplishing More with Less, and they called it microplanning. They were also big on timers.
posted by mrgrimm at 1:34 PM on October 4, 2010


That's exactly right Gompa. And I think explains the disjunction between those of us who have read the IPCC, Hansen et al and understand the horrific implications, and those who don't, or who regard our fear, rage, depression as somehow destructive, or unhelpful, or silly. I now truly understand how my father felt, growing up with the real and omnipresent threat of a nuclear holocaust - except we are dropping the bombs now, and pretending it's all gonna be okay once they land.

In addition to Kafka, I think Philip K Dick captures a lot about procrastination and its deeper existentialist implications. Imho, all his work revolves around the question, "What is a sane response, to an insane world?"

Perhaps procrastination is the paralysing terror of this question, flitting across our minds before we fill it with work, music, the need for milk and bread to buy.
posted by smoke at 4:54 PM on October 4, 2010


Yeah...this.

But I'm only procrastinating on metafilter because I am so freakin' hung over it's not even cool at all. I'll be alright just as soon as I get enough of coffee in me. I did manage to change my clothes today.
posted by saysthis at 7:52 PM on October 4, 2010


It's definitely about perfectionism for me. If there are too many choices, I become paralyzed because I don't know which one is the absolute best choice. So I don't do anything, which almost invariably makes the situation worse.

this defines my most essential failing, large scale and small. i'm 43 and still can't decide on a career.
posted by fallacy of the beard at 9:42 PM on October 4, 2010


Mild aside: in case you didn't know, George Akerlof wrote one of the most famous economics research articles about market failure, The Market for Lemons: Quality Uncertainty and the Market Mechanism [pdf]. The title looks somewhat dry, but the article itself is very accessible and well worthwhile reading.

While Akerlof eventually went on to win the Nobel Prize for this work, the original paper was rejected by three other top journals (including one which said "we do not publish such trivial stuff").
posted by Sutekh at 5:41 AM on October 5, 2010 [1 favorite]


So, um... any good ways to stop procrastinating?
posted by miyabo at 9:49 AM on October 5, 2010


So, um... any good ways to stop procrastinating?

Not really. I'm still here, after all ...

As I mentioned above, "microplanning" with short lists is something effective, but I really only that with my professional job.

It doesn't work as well with completely annoying tasks like "write thank-you cards" ... though I guess it can't hurt to try. Make a list:

* buy cards - 30 minutes
* buy stamps - 5 minutes
* find pen - 1 minute
* address envelopes - 20 minutes
* write notes - 1 hour
* stuff envelopes - 5 minutes
* mail notes - 30 minutes

Sure, it's silly in that case, but for work stuff, I find it useful, especially with tasks that can seem overwhelming, like "Write the specs for new feature X and plan the timeline for launching it" ...

* email X, Y, and Z for initial feedback - 15 minutes
* set up meeting with W - 10 minutes
* meet with W - 1 hour
* create wiki page - 20 minutes
* write use cases - 2 hours
* send use cases for feedback to X, Y, and Z for feedback - 10 minutes
* update use cases post-feedback - 30 minutes
* set up meeting with V - 10 minutes
* meet with V - 30 minutes
* write final specs for feature on wiki page - 1 hour
* break down use cases and specs into specific tasks - 2 hours
* schedule persons for tasks - 20 minutes
* email scheduled persons for task estimates - 15 minutes
* create timeline for development - 30 minutes
* create launch plan - 30 minutes

Generic and half-assed, but you get the idea. Add up all the minutes, and it's usually not much more than a day or two of work, even though it's not a simple process.

Little plans like that only take 5-10 minutes to make, but in some cases, they can be totally worth it, especially with bigger tasks where you're not sure how or where to start.
posted by mrgrimm at 11:00 AM on October 5, 2010 [3 favorites]


I can't stop thinking about this article, btw. The hyperbolic discounting of my many selves fascinates me.

The personality that wants me to stop doing X is not the same personality that is actually doing X.

That is making things very tricky.
posted by mrgrimm at 11:02 AM on October 5, 2010


Little plans like that only take 5-10 minutes to make, but in some cases, they can be totally worth it, especially with bigger tasks where you're not sure how or where to start.

Last comment, but also, more importantly, they get you some concrete steps that you can accomplish incrementally, day by day.

For example, I might have 4 hours of meetings today and a dentist appointment, but I can still schedule some time to: a) send a few emails; b) read any responses; c) schedule a meeting; d) create a wiki page.

The microplan makes it easier to figure out exactly what you can get done that day, and then feel good about accomplishing it, as opposed to slipping behind and then procrastinating more.

Procrastination is a self-sustaining feedback loop. It feels so good not to do something that you don't want to do. Fooling yourself (or one of your many selves) into thinking that "Yes, yes I do actually want to do that!" is hard, but possible. IMO.
posted by mrgrimm at 11:07 AM on October 5, 2010


I'm trying out your timed-list making idea right now mrgrimm and I love it. You're absolutely right about big, unstartable tasks and concrete steps.

Also how is it that looking at this list is the exact same thing as recounting the list in my mind, task-wise, but it -feels- so much better. Procrastination is a mixed up thing indeed.
posted by everyday_naturalist at 7:18 PM on October 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


Also how is it that looking at this list is the exact same thing as recounting the list in my mind, task-wise, but it -feels- so much better.

Exactly my sentiments. I'm in the midst of moving houses, and while that's a job doesn't allow for any major procrastination (gotta be out by a specific date in the near future), it is definitely prone to minor distractions ("ooh, hey, chocolate almonds!" ... "I wonder if the new Increasingly Poor Decisions of Todd Benjamin is on Hulu ...").

My wife is a HUGE lister. I'm generally less organized, but when I gotta get stuff done, baby steps (1. unhook stereo system; 2. pack components; 3. organize and pack wires and cords; 4. call PG&E, 5. return library books/CDs, etc.) can keep me on track.
posted by mrgrimm at 11:01 AM on October 7, 2010


Well, on a related note: my university library has a copy of The Thief of Time, the book reviewed in the main article here. I thought it'd be a nice read, so I placed a reservation for it.

The book was returned by the previous borrower 2 weeks late.

Then I delayed my retrieval of the book by a week, only to realise that my reservation had expired by the time I remembered to get it.

It's all very appropriate.
posted by WalterMitty at 11:33 PM on November 2, 2010


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