Saturday, January 07, 2006

In Defense of Procrastination

This week's running theme seems to be challenging traditional notions of personal virtue (first: naps = bad, now: procrastination = bad). As one of the most committed procrastinators I know, I was very pleased to read Paul Graham's defense of "good" procrastination:

Most people who write about procrastination write about how to cure it. But this is, strictly speaking, impossible. There are an infinite number of things you could be doing. No matter what you work on, you're not working on everything else. So the question is not how to avoid procrastination, but how to procrastinate well.

There are three variants of procrastination, depending on what you do instead of working on something: you could work on (a) nothing, (b) something less important, or (c) something more important. That last type, I'd argue, is good procrastination.

That's the "absent-minded professor," who forgets to shave, or eat, or even perhaps look where he's going while he's thinking about some interesting question. His mind is absent from the everyday world because it's hard at work in another.

That's the sense in which the most impressive people I know are all procrastinators. They're type-C procrastinators: they put off working on small stuff to work on big stuff.

What's "small stuff?" Roughly, work that has zero chance of being mentioned in your obituary. It's hard to say at the time what will turn out to be your best work (will it be your magnum opus on Sumerian temple architecture, or the detective thriller you wrote under a pseudonym?), but there's a whole class of tasks you can safely rule out: shaving, doing your laundry, cleaning the house, writing thank-you notes-- anything that might be called an errand.

Good procrastination is avoiding errands to do real work.

Read the whole thing. Virginia Postrel has some thoughtful comments on the subject, including making the point that someone has to take care of at least some of the errands sometime, which means you have to either do them yourself, hire someone else, or (the historically preferred option) get married. An agument for time-saving devices around the house! She also asks, and in doing so, answers, the question Sir Francis Bacon asked 400 years ago: why have so many of the most important contributors to human progress (technologically, at least) been childless?

Sometime, I'll get around to thinking about how that thought might affect my life. But I'll do it later.


At 6:06 AM, Blogger Garry said...

Procrastination is an interesting topic of debate, as it provides people with better things to do a chance to kill some time. I disagree with Graham on this one: there is no such thing as "good procrastination," since, by definition, procrastination always takes you from something more important to something less important. Forgetting to shave isn't procrastination, it's quirkiness; not doing housework because you're writing a novel isn't procrastination, it's being a successful novellist. Graham seems to assume that at any given time housework is more important than writing novels or actually earning a living. I suppose, if he feels that strongly about housework, it is procrastination in avoiding it. I agree that "People who fail to write novels don't do it by sitting in front of a blank page for days without writing anything." That's because procrastination takes one away from his or her intended goal; not doing housework or other errands because one is accomplishing his or her goal is not procrastination: it's a consequence of that goal. Now, back to work: the house needs a vaccuum.

At 5:34 PM, Blogger Scott McC said...

I don't at all think Graham believes that housework is more important than writing a novel. And I don't know that by definition procrastination leads to doing something less important ("less important" to WHOM?) What is interesting (as Virgina Postrel points out) is that we all will place importance on different things - some on solving complex equations and writing novels, but could care less about living in a clean house, while others find living in a mess to be intensely unfulfilling and worth taking time that could be spent on something else to keep their floors clean.

At 9:31 AM, Blogger Speedy said...

I love naps. Mostly I need them though considering the sleep I actually get at night. My nephew doesn't sleep. It's not fun.

So Scott - have you been following the Canadian election campaigns? If so, I would be very very interested in your take and opinion on things.

At 12:45 PM, Blogger Christeen said...

Hey McC -- I suppose you haven't posted anything lately because you haven't gotten around to it yet! Hi-O!


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