February 27, 2007

I Am Procrastinating And I Have a Good Reason

I am procrastinating and not blogging any original material right now. But I have a good reason for doing so, and will point you to this fascinating article by Paul Graham on the subject that I found via Armed Liberal at Winds of Change.

The most impressive people I know are all terrible procrastinators. So could it be that procrastination isn't always bad?

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 © 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.


I've wondered a lot about why startups are most productive at the very beginning, when they're just a couple guys in an apartment. The main reason may be that there's no one to interrupt them yet. In theory it's good when the founders finally get enough money to hire people to do some of the work for them. But it may be better to be overworked than interrupted. Once you dilute a startup with ordinary office workers—with type-B procrastinators—the whole company starts to resonate at their frequency. They're interrupt-driven, and soon you are too.


In his famous essay You and Your Research (which I recommend to anyone ambitious, no matter what they're working on), Richard Hamming suggests that you ask yourself three questions:

1. What are the most important problems in your field?
2. Are you working on one of them?
3. Why not?

Hamming was at Bell Labs when he started asking such questions. In principle anyone there ought to have been able to work on the most important problems in their field. Perhaps not everyone can make an equally dramatic mark on the world; I don't know; but whatever your capacities, there are projects that stretch them. So Hamming's exercise can be generalized to:

What's the best thing you could be working on, and why aren't you?
Sometimes this blog is not the best thing I can be working on. Right now I’m immersing myself in something else – I’m intensely studying video and documentary work. I can’t be bothered to write anything original on this blog at this particular moment. But it will pay off later because I’m doing this now. I’m not just going to go to Iraq and turn a video camera on and hope what I capture is interesting. There’s a lot more to it than that, and I have no intention of screwing this up.

I’ve been intending for some time to add video to this blog. Now that I’m genuinely inspired to do so and have the right head space to move forward, I am absolutely fascinated with the possibility of what I can do.

Thanks for understanding. And thanks so much to those of you who are donating money to help me buy a nice video camera. I hope I don’t disappoint you. I'm studying hard so I won't.

(Email address for Pay Pal is michaeltotten001 at gmail dot com)

If you would like to donate money for travel and equipment expenses and you don't want to use Pay Pal, please consider sending a check or money order to:

Michael Totten
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Many thanks in advance.

Posted by Michael J. Totten at February 27, 2007 11:36 PM

I have always wanted to start the "procrastinors club of America", but never got around to it.

Posted by: RebLeb at February 28, 2007 04:23 AM

I too have studied the (in)efficiencies of a company as it goes through its growth stages, and I've come up with this conclusion:

Yes, type-B procrastinators are a bane as the company grows, since ultimately average people hire average people and the whole company goes down to the average level.
However, another very important factor is that as the company grows from 2 to 10 people, communication speed decreases exponentially, thus slowing work down dramatically. When there are 2 people in a garage, each one will probably work on his own areas (tasks), and out-of-area communication is relatively simple. In-area communication is optimal, since it all happens within one brain. But as soon as you have to split a task and put a piece outside of your brain, everything slows down to a crawl.

That to me is the biggest problem when going from 2 to 10 people. After 10 people, the main problem is keeping the hiring quality extremely high.

Posted by: Wonka at February 28, 2007 07:55 AM

Excellent essay—thanks for sharing! My question is what do you do when it's the mid-level managers who are type-B procrastinators and make it hard for type-C levels to do their actual work?
Good luck on your studies and upcoming travels, Michael. Looking forward to your blogs.

Posted by: sallyo at February 28, 2007 08:57 AM

Just remember to write excellent text (something you've done well up to this point) to go along with the excellent video!

Posted by: MichaelV at February 28, 2007 09:38 AM

My mother said I'd never amount to anything due to my procrastination.

I said, "just you wait and see".

(Yes, she's still waiitng.)

Posted by: greenmamba at February 28, 2007 10:21 AM

No, you misunderstand: You're supposed to procrastinate BY blogging, not procrastinate the blogging itself, something evident in the web address of my blog.

But of course you're right; I've got 75K of partially formed thoughts that never made it to my blog. I keep it on my PDA along with, coincidentally enough, a copy of "You and Your Research." Hamming's a giant in my field and that's a wonderful essay for reminding you not to let your career grow stale.

By the way, if you don't want to disappoint people by not blogging, there's always the rerun/greatest-hits/clip-show approach. Look at the days' events and think of something relevant to link to from your archives. It's a lot quicker and less draining than coming up with something new. (And, unlike academics like Hamming, you don't get charged with self-plagiarism for repeating the same idea twice.)

Posted by: calbaer (procrastipundit.com) at February 28, 2007 11:18 AM

How do you define what's important? Isn't satisfy my body important ?

Posted by: Michael Byrne at February 28, 2007 06:12 PM

You state specifically that you are in no position to offer us any more original material, yet we are still shamelessly asked for more money, presumably for the privilege of not receiving any more of your writing. WTF, Mikey, is this an attempt at collective bargaining or just an ironic take on the writing business?

Posted by: Caveman at March 1, 2007 07:24 AM

If your audience gets bored and wanders off because you don't post, your traffic will die, and no one will watch your videos.

Type C procrastination sounds great, but I still doubt the theory. Changing your plans and executing work on something else isn't procrastination at all.

Posted by: glasnost at March 1, 2007 07:42 AM

Caveman: WTF, Mikey, is this an attempt at collective bargaining or just an ironic take on the writing business?

Ha ha, I suppose I may look a little ridiculous.

I'm just taking a few days off right now to study video blogging because I'm leaving for Iraq soon and will blog some video. There is a learning curve, and it's best that I know what I'm doing in advance. I haven't quit writing, and I'm certainly not on strike.

Posted by: Michael J. Totten at March 1, 2007 10:02 AM

Have a safe trip. We look forward to the results! :)

Posted by: Caveman at March 1, 2007 08:35 PM
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