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)

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Michael Totten
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Many thanks in advance.

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