The Power of Procrastination

Disclaimer: Neither am I a professional at any of this nor a hard procrastinator compared to what I’ve heard from others. Still, I want to share my thoughts and experiences on this topic. Partly (or mainly) because I am an attention hoe and partly because it might help some people to live a happier life, I hope.

I assume you read ›this‹ and ›this‹ post on ›Wait But Why‹ which is the best website in the entire universe. So now you know the metaphoric mechanics behind procrastination and how to beat it. Metaphorology (especially metaphoric mechanics) by the way is a way too underestimated science in this scientific world. Anyways, if you know what the enemy looks like and you know how to beat her, why read even more about her? Because you are right now procrastinating, so screw it and just read on.

There is a very interesting aspect to this whole issue that Tim kept silent about, maybe deliberately: Procratination can be utilized as a power! Say whaat? Right! But this is dangerous knowledge since it might help to not beat procrastination and beating procrastination is a good thing. You have been warned.

But how can we utilize procrastination? Tim already almost mentioned it, he just didn’t point it out and he put it into dark light:

Watching a video on Richard Feynman talking about String Theory*, mopping the kitchen floor and ultimately reading Wait But Why are actually super useful things! Most of us don’t have a Richard-Feynman-String-Merry-Go-Round or Mopping-The-Kitchen-Floor-Bumper-Karts or a Wait-But-Why-Bouncy-Castle in our Happy Playground. Instead, there is a huge TV showing brain-softening and even addictive crap.

TV

Feynman and the kitchen floor are usually Dark Woods themselves but when they are part of the Dark Playground of some scary other task like burocracy, they feel leasurish.

“A lot of you are probably reading this article while in the Dark Playground.” Damn right, Tim, and that’s probably one of the best things the Dark Playground has to offer.

Let me give some more examples. Watching ›TED talks‹, playing with ›Legos‹, tinkering with ›electronics‹, watching TV-series in ›foreign languages‹, ›meeting people‹, ›jogging‹... those are all things that may even be more valuable in the long run than the thing that they help you procrastinating away from. And they are very likely the kind of fun that you can’t motivate yourself for when you are on the Happy Playground.

Even more impressive: Many great inventions were invented during procrastination!
Ok, I just made that up, but I bet it’s true.

But how does procrastination help us making things more fun? What’s the metaphoric mechanics behind that? The key is relativity. Compared to leasuring around, watching Feynman looks like work. The Monkey doesn’t want Feynman when Feynman sits next to Homer Simpson. And on the Happy Playground you’re friends with the Monkey and agree with him. On the Dark Playground, the monkey would do anything to keep you off the Dark Woods, even if that means mopping the kitchen floor. But be careful! Watching TV is still more fun than mopping, the Dark Playground does not change that. What changes is that the Monkey can easily team up with you on something it would never team up on on the Happy Playground, so why not use that to your advantage when you can’t find the entrance to the Dark Woods? Be warned again: This distracts you even more from finding the entrance that you have to find eventually. But at least it doesn’t become a new Dark Woods on its own some day later.

“Hmmm...” you are thinking. “Can’t we take it a little further?” I know what you are trying to do. You want to turn your Dark Woods at hand into a leasure joyride in the Dark Playground of an even more horrible task. Then, when it’s done, you want to abolish the big task again. You sneaky bastard! Unfortunatelly, that does not work. The Instant Gratification Monkey lives in your mind and it can read it, it won’t fall for fake Dark Woodses. All you can do is use real ones to convert as many small ones into fun as possible.

“Ok.” you think. “But if the Dark Playground is filled with useful things being fun and the Happy Playground is filled with time wastement...” This had to come. But it’s not that simple. There are also bad things in the Dark Playground and good things in the Happy one. Let me introduce you to another character we completely left out so far: The Moral Fairy.

Moral Fairy

The Moral Fairy helps you distinguishing between stuff that is good for you and stuff that is not by cursing you with bad conscience if you do stuff that is not. And it indirectly rewards you when you do stuff that is good for you because things that are good for you are in itself reward. But doesn’t another character adding her two cents make stuff even more complicated? No. The three of you can do majority decisions and if one does not agree, the other two force him. Watching TV in the Dark Playground is something only the Monkey wants to do. The Fairy and the Rational Decision Maker can team up against him and drag you out of this. Mopping the kitchen is something both the Fairy and the Monkey want, so they can overpower the Rational Decision Maker and at least you do stuff that is good for you. But wait... How does one find the entrance to the Dark Woods then? Well, turns out the Fairy is also scared of the Panic Monster but unlike the Monkey, the Fairy has balls and helps you navigate into the entrance. Getting through the Dark Forest is something both the Fairy and the Rational Decision Maker want, except if it’s actually a bad thing like robbing a bank, but then it’s good to procrastinate away from it. In the Happy Playground however, the Fairy can suck. She still gives you a bad conscience if you do not-good-for-you things like dumbening yourself with TV but here you can ignore her from time to time, since Monkey and RDM win. Aaaaalways avoiding things that the Moral Fairy objects is also try-hard. Just screw her and have fun now and then. The best case is if you find something that makes all three of you happy. That means you are on the Happy Playground for the Rational Decision Maker, do something that is fun for the Monkey and good for the Fairy, like something from the examples above.

Cool right? So what’s the problem? Why do people still watch TV at all then? Two problems. First, the Moral Fairy is a very introverted personality. You have to turn to her explicitly and ask her for advice. Also, for punishment she inflicts bad conscience on you by just giving you the look.

The Look

Many people have learned to ignore the look. Listen to your Moral Fairy. Ask her for help, she provides valuable guidance. The other problem is, that the Moral Fairy has an evil twin: The Rationalization Fairy.

Rationalization Fairy

The Rationalization Fairy is one of the most evil bitches ever. She looks just like the Moral Fairy, also her voice sounds the same. But instead of telling you what is good and bad, she actually secretly teamed up with the Monkey and acts as if the Monkey things were good. Not just that, she invents rational sounding reasons for her opinion. “Watching TV makes you smarter, you learn a lot from TV.”, “Eating animals is ok, it’s always been like that.”, “Smoking is not that bad, someone knows someone who always smoked and died with 103 years.”, “Killing is ok, I just carry out orders.”, “I won’t donate money to poor countries, they would probably just buy weapons from that.”, the list goes on for lightyears.

But then how does one distinguish between the two? Well, I wish there was a simple answer. This issue is not just related to procrastination, but to doing the right thing in general. Kant tried to find a ›rule‹. It’s unusably complicated to apply even to things that are a little more unclear than stealing or killing. I recommend feeling and hard training instead. Training? Yes. Tempt yourself and resist. Put an open bar of chocolate on the table and don’t eat it (Don’t do that if you are obese already and you know you will under no circumstances be able to resist, find something equivalent like getting out of bed without the snooze button). Soon she will start. “C’mon, just one piece, it will be fine. Chocolate is partly healthy. You’ve earned it.” Cunt! Punish her and eat an apple instead! Resist her! ›Force yourself!‹ But does the Rationalization Fairy not have a purpose in some way and can be a valuable advisor sometimes? No. She just sucks and deserves no mercy. She is probably the reason for many big problems of humanity. Here is some help for recognizing her:
  • Her advice - although sounding kind of reasonable - is suspiciously similar to what the Monkey would do.
  • In contrast to the Moral Fairy, whom you have to ask for advice specifically, the Rationalization Fairy just butts in with her opinion.
  • The Moral Fairy will never say “C’mon, it will be fine.” That is the favorite answer of the Rationalization Fairy. The Moral Fairy would say “That is a good thing to do.”
With some practice you will learn the subtle difference between the two. Also, as Dan Ariely’s team found out, moral reminders encourage people to ›not cheat‹. Maybe it works with oneself as well. Also, I don’t say you should never do what the Rationalization Fairy says, just try to keep her out of the discussion as hard as you can. Maybe the other trio comes to the same decision.

Another thing that might work for you: Hang out with people that manage to be the way you want to be. Let them inspire you. I recommend to reward them as fuck for that. You could try to help them working on their problems. It is often easier to force others or at least remind them to be the way they actually want to be. A force-each-other agreement can be more successful than trying to force oneself.

Let’s sum up so far:

Aw let’s not. I’m too lazy and I want to go on. All we discussed so far was just the second side of the medal, let’s get to the third.

As it turns out, in contrast to the Rationalization Fairy, the Instant Gratification Monkey also has an upside. There is a dangerous drug that most procrastinators are immune against, but its effects can be as devastating as the hardest procrastination: Workahol.

Workahol

Many people stay way too long at work because they get lost in the flow, because they want to get something finished, because someone has to do it, because they get some more money, because because because. I learned that noone takes care that there is enough time for the private life if one doesn’t do so oneself (up to a limit but still). People neglect family, health and fun for work. Before I can go on, I have to exclude some people:
  • People that are really forced to work too much all the time because they would lose their job otherwise or because the lives of others depend on it. I feel really sorry for you. All I can say is, think about that before you choose your job or the direction in which you want to steer your carreer. I know it’s not that simple.
  • People that really love their job like a hobby. Never met one of those though. Don’t neglect your relationship or family or whatevs.
  • Procrastinators that procrastinated their time away and now the Panic Monster comes or they finally found some flow and want to use it. I think it is ok to work over hours from time to time due to this reason.
But many people just stay at work due to unhealthy priorities, unnecessary commitment or a misconception of loyalty or honor or stuff like that. Those are Workaholics, they are easy to exploit and to take advantage of. Workaholics are often not happy with their achievements, the focus is already laid on the next task on their list. More, faster, better, carreer! This is where the Monkey helps. The Monkey hates Workahol. Often, stuff doesn’t need to get done today although it would feel a little good. And very often stuff takes longer than expected. Listen to the Monkey sometimes and let work be work.

Another aspect where the Monkey may be helpful: Enlightened people encourage to live for the moment, here and now. I guess I don’t have the slightest understanding of what that actually means, but I suspect the Monkey can help here.

Take home messages:
  • Life is short and we procrastinate a huge part of it. You will probably not completely get around that, so make the most of it!
  • Don’t rationalize things that are just wrong. Be integer. Do things that remind you of how you wanted to do cool stuff. And do cool stuff.
  • Don’t be a workaholic. Don’t become one either.
* Turned out there are no videos by Richard Feynman on String Theory; apparently Feynman didn’t like String Theory... But you get the point.