productive procrastination

Procrastination is a topic I’ve written about before and think about a fair bit, though often when I should perhaps be doing something else. I think the title is an oxymoron, but I hope by the end of the next few hundred words, I’ll have persuaded you that it’s not as much of an oxymoron as it might seem now. And if you’re interested, some earlier reflections on aspects of procrastination can be found here and here, and here and here, and here and here.

I am a list maker. I make lists of the things that need to be done, and rarely a list of lists, and from time to time I review and refine my lists, and then have a clean new list containing the contents of previous lists. But I’ve come to realize that while having lists is fine, lists are a remarkably fertile environment in which procrastination can grow. A long list, with many things to do, allows for the possibility of necessary reprioritizing.

But reprioritizing allows for the possibility that some things will keep slipping down the list. I’ve recently gone through one of those exercises of reviewing and refining my lists, and I was struck by how many things are still on my list. They have, in a strange sense, become familiar friends. Part of the issue, entertainingly explored in a TED talk by Tim Urban, is that some of these tasks don’t have explicit deadlines. To paraphrase Mr Urban, the Panic Monster never has its excuse to get out of bed.

In the spirit of perspicacity, I have to admit that I am inconsistent in how rigorously I’m able to apply internal deadlines. And the more times I push something into the welcoming arms of tomorrow, the more ethereal weight that task acquires. Push forward enough times, and the weight of the task can start to become problematic; the task becomes harder to pick up, because of the weight and also sometimes perhaps because the task is itself unwieldy.

What’s interesting is that these ideas all have a familiar feel to them. Many are old friends, but this realization of grappling with this issue of prioritization is the newly made friend at the table. In retrospect, this is an obvious realization, perhaps one that I should have had some long time ago, but I cannot change my past. I can acknowledge it, I can learn from it, and that learning will now be at the top of the list.

But where does productive come from. Part of this issue of reprioritizing is that I can move things to the top of the list, and get them done, with the concomitant feeling of accomplishment, even with the heavy and awkward tasks remaining on the list, wanting attention. The challenge is to keep in mind the medium to long term, and to complete those tasks without explicit deadlines in good time, and not allowing the shiny of the easily doable tasks to overly distract.

~ by Jim Anderson on 14 May 2021.

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