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Procrastination and Subconscious Conflict Awareness

I met with some fellow business owners recently, and the topic of procrastination came up. It was a quick conversation, so we didn’t get a chance to discuss it fully. My only contribution was to say “I don’t believe in procrastination”.

I misspoke. In fact, I do believe in procrastination.

Procrastination is simply when we intend to work on a project, and find that we can’t get ourselves to work on it.

That phenomenon clearly exists, and I’ve experienced it first hand many times.

What I don’t believe in is laziness. Or, more accurately, I don’t believe laziness is the primary cause of procrastination.

OK, so if laziness isn’t the primary cause of procrastination, what is?

My current thinking is that procrastination most often arises from one of two sources: 1) a legitimate need to take a break from the project, or 2) confusion.

Let me dispense with the first reason quickly for now. Whenever you catch yourself procrastinating ask yourself if you need a break. Sometimes you do. And when you ask the question, you’ll probably know if this is one of those times. If so, take a break.

With that said, I don’t think most procrastination arises from a need for a break. I think most of the time, when we find ourselves procrastinating, it’s because we’re confused — and we probably don’t even know it.

More than that, I think procrastination might actually be an adaptive response in the brain, forcing us to slow down and sort things out. Unfortunately, the “sort things out” part doesn’t always automatically follow, and we can sometimes just get paralyzed instead.

In this article I want to discuss how confusion can lead to procrastination, and how you can use this insight to overcome procrastination in the future.

The Fractal Nature of Your Projects

Brian Arthur has written a masterful book, “The Nature of Technology”. In it he discusses how technology has a fractal structure, and I think that’s something of a key to understanding procrastination.

Now, if you’re building a spaceship, or writing a computer program it might be easy for you to think of your project as one of developing a new technology.

But even if you’re writing an essay or a blog post, the way you go about completing your project shares some very important features with the way engineers go about creating more stereotypical technologies.

So, humor me for now, and tell yourself that all your creative projects involve creating a new technology.

Say it with me:

“I am creating a new technology”.

Good.

Now, in his book Arthur makes many observations about the nature of technology (a good thing given the title of his book).

Here is an important insight about technologies:

Insight #1. technologies are built from sub-technologies.

When we create a new technology, we have in mind to build something that will perform a function. Then we build something that will perform the desired function by putting a bunch of parts together. These parts are themselves technologies, or, in this context “sub-technologies”.

And each of those sub-technologies is built out of other parts — sub-sub-technologies.

And so on, often many levels deep.

If you’re writing a blog post, you want the overall post to perform a function.

If you’re like me, in order to create the blog post, you plan it out in big chunks first: (First I’ll discuss A, then I’ll discuss B, and that will allow me to discuss the relationship between A and B. And so on.)

Even if you write more free-form, you are probably being guided by a rough structure of parts relating to parts in your head.

Now, combine that insight with the next insight, and the picture starts to take shape:

Insight #2. it takes effort to combine sub-technologies into a technology.

You know how it goes. You sit down to plan out a new project, and your initial plan sounds quite easy and smooth. But then, when you start implementing it, you realize it doesn’t actually go as easily as you thought it would.

Imagine you’re a caveman, and you get the idea of combining a stick and a strip of bark with a stone to create a bludgeoning instrument. That’s only three basic pieces, and it might easily take a whole day of fiddling to get it to work the first time.

The projects we tend to work on these days have many many more parts and levels. And that can make it even more difficult to make all the parts fit together well.

For instance, imagine you’re writing an essay defending a certain tax policy, and the argument seems like a slam dunk. You think, “my policy of combining A, B, and C is superior because of X, Y, and Z.” But as you start to write about A and B, you see that parts of A are actually in practical conflict with parts of B. And, the thing is, you would never have seen this conflict without actually sitting down and describing A and B in detail.

Developing a website works like this, too. “We’ll just merge Affiliate Software W with Shopping Cart X with Payment Gateway Y with Content Management Software Z, and throw in some custom features in PHP. And it will all fit together like perfect little modules that play nice together.” Yeah, right!

The problem is that your sub-technologies interact with each other in ways you don’t foresee. And sometimes a sub-sub-sub-technology is interacting with a sub-sub-sub-sub-technology in a way you didn’t foresee, and that’s what prevents the whole thing from working well.

The big-chunk solutions always sound easy. Guess what. It NEVER works that smoothly in practice. At least practically never. You know there will be conflicts, but you don’t know what they will be. We can call this the “Law of Unforeseen Complications.”

It doesn’t matter whether you’re writing an essay, developing software, building a spaceship, or moving across town. Unforeseen complications (almost) ALWAYS crop up.

And the time needed to resolve these conflicts will range all over the map. Sometimes a resolution will actually turn out to be impossible, and you will need to re-think the whole project. Other times it will just take a quick little work-around. And most resolutions will be somewhere in-between.

And, . . . get this,. . . in order to make two sub-technologies work well together, we sometimes have to create another new technology to make it happen.

Perhaps all this complication would be less surprising if we changed our metaphor from one of “building blocks” to one of “building trees”. Creating a new technology out of building blocks sounds simple. The blocks are misleadingly easy to fit together in our minds. If we more accurately thought of ourselves building a new technology out of wildly branching tree-like sub-structures, we might appreciate more what we’re actually trying to do.

SIDEBAR: in software development and other fields the problems inherent in merging two many-tentacled sub-technologies together are well known. And measures are taken to make the sub-technologies work together more easily. The major tool for doing this involves making the sub-technologies as “modular” as possible. Increased modularity works spectacularly well when well-designed. And designing for modularity is one reason we are even remotely able to have a society as complex as we have today. However, designing for modularity comes with its own costs. For this reason and others, not every sub-technology is modular with respect to every other sub-technology you might want to combine it with. And even things that are designed to be modular don’t turn out to be as completely modular as intended, and unforeseen complications still crop up.

Now, as if that weren’t bad enough, consider this:

Insight #3. most technologies ARE themselves sub-technologies.

A new website is a technology. But so is your business. If you’re building a website, not only do you have to think about how its parts fit together to form the website, you also have to consider how the website itself fits together with the other technologies inside your business.

Because your website is itself a sub-technology many questions can arise as you’re working on it: Does this new website play nice with the other technologies you’re using in your business? Does the function of the new website align with the overall function of your business? Should you work on the website now, or should you work on something else first? And so on.

So, any project you work on has a tree-like structure, and is itself part of a larger tree. So you’re always working at some node in the middle of a tree. And any other node, anywhere else in the tree, can potentially interact negatively with the part of the project you’re working on now.

This is the main reason large projects can be a big headache, and it’s also why good project managers are easily worth every penny they earn.

Now, back to procrastination . . .

Here’s how a typical case of procrastination used to happen for me.

I’d be working on a project. It was planned in enough detail to start working on it (or so I thought). I’d work on it for a bit, and then I’d suddenly lose all motivation for working on the project. At that point I would suddenly find myself cleaning my office, checking email, or playing a game (or three) of minesweeper.

Now why did this happen? It doesn’t seem to make sense. I wanted to finish the project. Completing the project would typically have potentially huge ramifications for my future well-being. It was way more important to me than trying to win a game of minesweeper.

So why did I do it? Why did I procrastinate?

It seems so counterproductive.

And given that, on the face of it, procrastination seems like the kind of trait that might be selected against in terms of evolutionary fitness, another question comes to mind:

Does procrastination actually provide some hidden unexpected value to us?

Well, consider this. What if we are cruising along developing a project that’s actually going in a completely wrong direction relative to the rest of our business. It would be nice to have part of our brain detect this and slow us down, right?

Or what if our current plans have a fatal flaw that means any further work is likely to be wasted effort, because the thing isn’t going to function properly when we’re done. It would be nice to have part of our brain detect this and slow us down, right?

Could it be that this is what procrastination is mostly all about?

I’ve come to think so, and I have learned to trust my brain whenever I find myself procrastinating.

Let me explain.

“They” say something like 98% of our mental processing is subconscious. I don’t know how “they” would measure this, but I find the main idea quite plausible, and perhaps even grossly understated. Our conscious reasoning is just the tip of the computational iceberg. Given this, it seems likely our brains are frequently working on our projects in ways we are not conscious of — working through the tree-like structure that forms the technology we call “our life”.

And it makes sense to think that it will often detect points of conflict among parts of our new plan, or between a part of our plan and other features of our business or life — conflicts that we didn’t anticipate consciously the last time we did our planning.

And sometimes it uncovers points of “possible” conflict as well — blind spots in our plan where danger may or may not lurk.

In short, it could be that our subconscious processing is actually very good at detecting conflict hidden in our plans.

Unfortunately, it also seems that our subconscious isn’t very good at communicating. It serves up no detailed analysis clearly locating the conflict. It doesn’t even offer a vague suggestion that we should slow down because a possible conflict lurks.

No, instead we just get that uneasy feeling that makes us not want to work on the project.

So How Do We Overcome Procrastination?

My subconscious may not be very good at initiating communication, But I’ve learned that I can get stuff out of it by asking questions.

Whenever I find myself procrastinating, I’ve learned to ask two questions. These two questions start from the part of the project I’m working on now, and focus my mind up the tree and down the tree. Here are the questions:

1. Do I need to plan the parts of this project out in more detail?

2. What compelling bigger outcome is this project serving?

The first question tells me to search for conflicts among the sub-technologies — below the level my current planning has taken me to.

And the second tells me to search for conflicts between my project and the super-technologies my project is a part of.

And, you know what? Whenever I ask these questions, and work out my answers, it almost always turns out that there was a problem lurking somewhere in my plans.

And once I get clarity in both ways, about whether my project is serving higher purposes, and about whether and how the project can be completed, I discover something else.

I find my procrastination almost always goes away — maybe after a short break :-)

Try it for yourself.

Anytime you find yourself procrastinating, try asking yourself those two questions, and work to get clarity on them.

Then see what happens.

P.S. Please let me know what you think of this post. Questions, comments? I’m very interested in this topic and will gladly engage on it.

Jim

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35 Comments

  1. Posted August 28, 2010 at 3:40 pm | Permalink

    I really liked this. Thank you. The idea that procrastination is actually just a signal from our brain is great. I used to have a lot of trouble with Frustration until I went through some similar realizations regarding that emotion. With Frustration the thing is it is your brain telling you that what you are doing is not working and is not going to work. So STOPPING and thinking about it is a great cure. I just never put that logic to Procrastination. Thanks.

  2. Posted August 28, 2010 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    Spot on Jim!

    I haven’t ever seen it written out like this – and I’ll test out those 2 questions for myself, but it fit very neatly with my assessment of what people call “self-sabotage”.

    If you assume there is a valuable purpose in otherwise maligned or undesired behavior, you can usually get a lot further. The psychiatric label of “Depression” is another good example.

    Thanks for chunking this down into a nice subtechnology for procrastination.

    Anyone know how to get this post onto Lifehacker or Tim Ferris’s blog?

    • Jim
      Posted August 28, 2010 at 5:43 pm | Permalink

      Thanks, Martin. That would be neat to get wider readership for this post if it proves helpful. Thanks for bringing that up.

  3. Posted August 28, 2010 at 4:17 pm | Permalink

    Jim,

    Your article is very interesting. When I got your email I thought ‘here’s another boring article to read’. Well, I was pleasantly surprised to find a very well and interesting article.

    It usually takes me a couple of times through an article like yours to really absorb everything. I will read through it again and see what I may have missed.

    Very interesting article,

    Ernie Hodge

    P.S. I like Spider Solitaire (2nd level)

  4. Posted August 28, 2010 at 4:21 pm | Permalink

    I do believe that what you are saying is true. Once clarity comes, then comes the motivation again.

    Which is why cleaning the office or creating order in the inbox or desktop is a very good diversion while the brain works on the problem — an outward manifestation of what is happening somewhere on the inside.

    But I think it is more than this.

    I think that there are many parts of the project that are not motivating to us personally. The activity is not fun and rewarding, or if it is, it costs too much at the time.

    We “awfulize” the complexity, the boredome, the cost, the overwhelm, whatever it is.

    It’s usually not as bad once we get into it, and sometimes it’s even fun.

    But I think procrastination can result from simply not wanting to do some part of the task so badly that it’s hard to make ourselves do it in order to get to the reward — precisely because it does take so long and involve so much drudgery.

    At this point, one would rightly suggest outsourcing.

    But even that is overwhelming. It often takes months to find someone who can do the tasks needed.

    Then those people need to be managed.

    This brings us back to the observation regarding project managers being worth everything they are paid.

    So, unless you have quite a lot of money, you are stuck finding and managing the people you need to accomplish your rather complex business project, or doing the tasks yourself.

    Either way, it feels like it’s just too much.

    But then we feel guilty, and have to “stay busy”, or need to “work ourselves up” to being able to do the task.

    Which is another reason why cleaning the office or ordering the desktop works wonders for procrastination sometimes.

    It gives us a sense of accomplishment and control, and a corresponding burst of emotional energy to help us do some part of the project that drains us so.

    The solution might be this: know that this is what is happening, and give yourself permission to take longer on the project, and get just one or two mission critical things done that day.

    Don’t spend your day in busyness avoiding the problem and not understanding what’s happening.

    Clean if that helps. Play a game if that helps. Rest and walk and be present to some people if that helps.

    And try getting some important, unpleasant task done first thing in the morning, before you open email. And give yourself permission to stop there with unpleasant tasks.

    Tim Ferriss seems to indicate that we will get lots more done, but spend much less time doing it, if we understand what’s going on and take care of ourselves.

    What do you think?

    • Jim
      Posted August 28, 2010 at 5:45 pm | Permalink

      Tim Ferriss seems to indicate that we will get lots more done, but spend much less time doing it, if we understand what’s going on and take care of ourselves.

      Good to hear from you Sarah. Yes. I’m not a big believer in beating ourselves into doing a whole bunch of scattered tasks :-) Clarity and focus have a way of drastically reducing our workload while producing better results.

  5. Posted August 28, 2010 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    Hey Jim, Great post, and totally right on! Any time I find myself “stalled” a quick reassessment of what I’m doing and why… always helps. Asking the 2 questions you mentioned and getting it all really clear (I use a pencil and yellow legal pad :) almost always gets me back on track asap! Thanks for the insight!

  6. Posted August 28, 2010 at 4:42 pm | Permalink

    I am a perfectionist, and never satisfied with the work that I do.
    And always must make it better, and of course it takes me for ever to finish.

    And deep down inside I know I am just, what’s that word?, oh yes a procrastinator.

    Thanks Jim,

    Talk to you soon,
    Hector M.

  7. Posted August 28, 2010 at 5:26 pm | Permalink

    This is a GREAT post. Never heard this perspective before but it rings true.

  8. Posted August 28, 2010 at 5:35 pm | Permalink

    Good piece. It has caused me to reflect on your two questions.

    When I was writing “Living with a Functioning Alcoholic,” I would find myself procrastinating in my writing, sometimes for months at a time. It would usually turn out that there was something I hadn’t considered, a missing piece so to speak; or something about what I was writing wasn’t fitting congruently with my larger mission and business.

    I have come at the same issue from the angle of overwhelm, because we don’t get much done when we feel overwhelmed. I wrote an article, “Overwhelmed? How to Conquer It.” http://www.neillneill.com/163/overwhelmed-how-to-conquer-it/ I would be interested in your take on that.
    Neill

    • Jim
      Posted August 28, 2010 at 5:49 pm | Permalink

      Neill, yes, it seems like we’re definitely on the same page here. Open loops always make us wonder about priority. It’s difficult to work wholeheartedly on a project when our brains are constantly trying to figure out what we should be working on at the moment.

      Open loops should either be finished or deleted, as you say.

  9. Posted August 28, 2010 at 5:51 pm | Permalink

    hey jim,
    been a while since i’ve seen an email
    from you!

    i’ll get around to reading this post
    sooner or later…

    warmest regards,
    stuart halpryn

  10. Posted August 28, 2010 at 6:05 pm | Permalink

    Right on Jim!

    This makes so much sense and reading this was very timely for me as I’ve been finally getting clearing from too much fog that hung over my way too many projects I try to manage…

    Keep up the good work. Looking forward to hearing about your new service.

    Joshua

  11. Posted August 28, 2010 at 7:45 pm | Permalink

    Interesting article. I’ve especially found that your first question about planning in more detail is one I have to keep coming back to, since I often bite off more than I can chew with projects.

    I’ve also found that when I’m procrastinating and it’s not because I need a break, I have to check if my fore-brain has gone offline. If it has, I have trouble thinking clearly and taking any kind of reason-based action.

    You’ve probably heard of the concept that our brains are actually two (some say three) brains in one–a survival brain sometimes called the “reptile” brain, which is the oldest part of the brain, and a logical brain–the part that gives you the high forehead and does the analytical thinking. If you’re triggered into your survival brain by anxiety, fear, stress, anger or frustration, or even some kind of food or chemical reaction (which can mess up your nervous system and brain signals), your rational forebrain shuts down.

    This would definitely cause procrastination but, since it’s not a conscious process, would also make you wonder, “Why can’t I just get on with it? What’s the problem?”

    The fastest technologies I know of for bringing the rational brain back online are:
    1) Holding the neuro-vascular points on the forehead (about an inch above the center of the eyebrows, right where the outward bump of the skull begins) for at least one minute. This restores circulation to the forebrain and allows you to think clearly again.
    2) Using acupressure tapping or EFT. Too long to describe here, but it works.
    3) Doing cross-crawl and related brain balancing technologies that come from the world of Applied Kinesiology.

    A slower but highly effective method for balancing the brain is meditation. Really helps with concentration too.

    I know the above may sound a bit unusual to some, but I have found these methods tremendously helpful in overcoming my own procrastination and allowing me to get on with taking the actions I need to take.

    • Jim
      Posted August 29, 2010 at 12:03 am | Permalink

      Hi Karen. Yes, I’m familiar with Dr. Paul MacLean’s triune brain theory. I don’t think he’s got the three systems quite right. I think a more up-to-date evolutionary version of Freud’s id, superego and ego is probably a better way to break the systems down. The id corresponds to the reptile brain. The superego is the “pack animal” brain — always concerned about how the “pack” will respond to one’s actions. And the ego is the module that tries to resolve conflict between and within the other systems (and the conflict between our goals and the physical world as well).

      And you’re right. We shouldn’t oversimplify. Surely some procrastination can happen for reasons other than what I outlined in the post. Part of our brain can be freaking out over immediate threats (real or imagined) and that can definitely distract us from our projects. Sarah above also mentioned “boredom” with some parts of our projects being a problem. And surely that can sap motivation sometimes, too. Though sometimes boredom can be eased by framing our outcomes in a more compelling manner.

  12. Posted August 28, 2010 at 9:37 pm | Permalink

    Jim,
    Great post…very interesting perspective.

    I’ve written the two questions down on a 3×5 and will keep them handy while working on projects.

    Many elements of your ideas are very similar to David Allen’s in many ways.

    Have you had a chance to read Getting Things Done or Making It All Work…if not, I’ll bet you would really enjoy them.

    In Michael Michalko’s book, “Thinkertoys”, he has an excellent section on accessing creativity from the subconscious mind…and he the title is called “Just Ask”. Very similar theory. He simply says to A) Relax and calm your mind…and B)”Ask” your subconscious for the answer to the problem…

    I’m almost wondering if your minesweeper game (i.e. procrastination on a “simpler” action) is fulfilling step A, and your 2 questions are completing step B. :)

    All the best,
    Jack Duncan

    • Jim
      Posted August 29, 2010 at 12:13 am | Permalink

      Hi Jack.

      I’ve read Allen’s stuff. Not Michalko’s, though. I’ll have to check that one out. Thanks for the reference. I think at the highest level, I’m basically recommending the same thing as Michalko, at least the gloss you’ve given here — maybe with a little different advice about which specific questions to ask of your subconscious. I haven’t read Michalko, though, so maybe his questions turn out to overlap almost entirely. It actually wouldn’t be all that surprising if they did.

      And as long as we’re swapping references, I really do highly recommend Brian Arthur’s book “The Nature of Technology” to anyone who thinks they might be interested.

  13. Posted August 29, 2010 at 12:05 am | Permalink

    Thanks Jim
    I don’t often comment on blogs but this deserves a “well done comment”
    So
    Well done

  14. Phil Davis
    Posted August 29, 2010 at 1:40 am | Permalink

    That is a great post Jim.

    I struggle a lot with what a lot of people would call procrastination. I’ve never really thought that it was an exact explanation of my particular problem, I like your “alternate universe” explanation.

    I’ve printed this post and the comments so I can read it again away from my primary distraction, this computer.

    It, the computer, is my best and most necessary tool and my biggest distraction all at the same time… I wish I could do without it some days.

    I think your introspection will help me with mine.

    Thanks,

    Phil

  15. Posted August 29, 2010 at 3:16 am | Permalink

    Jim Hi,
    As a former design engineer I have worked with a few procrastinators in my time. Some of the aspects which you describe and to which some of your replies relate too I would not say stem from procrastination.

    Sometimes the subconscious mind is telling you that something is not right and taking a break (sleeping on it) is a way of giving the brain time to sort things out. This is not procrastination.

    Procrastinators tend in my experience to have a particular type of personality or personality traits which make them more likely to be procrastinators. Perfectionists are often more likely to also be procrastinators.

    True procrastination is often associated with some sort of deep seated fear. The fear of failure, the fear of ridicule by ones peers, the fear that something has been overlooked or mis-calculated or that not all possibilities have been considered.

    This has nothing to do with the content or nature of the project being worked on. A true procrastinator will want to reconsider and delay no matter what the issues are. They will look for ways and reasons not to move forward for reaons I have mentioned.

    Of course fear is not the only reason but it is in many cases a significant factor for many procrastinators.

    • Jim
      Posted August 29, 2010 at 10:03 am | Permalink

      Hi Tony. I appreciate your distinction. And we definitely have fears that can keep us from wanting to work on a project. Sometimes we fear that others won’t respond to our finished product the way we hope they will. Sometimes we also fear that if we get clarity we’ll realize the project is going to take three times as long as originally planned. Sometimes we worry about what particular other people will think of what we’re doing. Maybe we over-promised our collaboration on something, and we find ourselves unintentionally breaking one tacit agreement to fulfill another. If we’re collaborating with others, we have many social emotions kicking in, responding to how others may or may not be judging our way of prioritizing our work and so forth. These can all be motivational drags.

      I’m tempted to shove these into my “confusion” model, but maybe that’s a little artificial. For myself I find that, if I can identify the source of my reticence, I can re-work my plan, or my expectations, or the framing of my outcome, so it reduces the degree of emotional resistance. So, in one sense, it is an exercise in gaining more clarity about the system (of which I, and my whole life, and my collaborators, are a part).

      The solution is still a matter of clearing confusion and gaining clarity, but it does seem to go beyond the two questions I mentioned in the article.

  16. Posted August 29, 2010 at 8:35 am | Permalink

    I think you were right on when you identified confusion as a major source of procrastination. I find that a “Low Gradient Checklist” really helps me in these situations.

    A High Gradient Checklist is something like:
    1) Start a webiste
    2) Get a mail list
    3) Send marketing material regularly.

    These almost never get done.

    A Low Gradient Checklist is:

    1) Select autoresponder service
    2) Use instructions to create sign up letter and double opt-in acknowledgement.
    3) Create “Thank-You Page” on website.
    4) Create “Unsubscribed Page” on website.
    5) Create 7 messages -> See next Low Gradient Checklist.

    So when you confront a large project, your stops will come when your checklist has too high a gradient. If you can look over the project from a few different perspectives, then you can create many LGChecklists and piece by piece the project will be completed. Additionally, by creating LGChecklists, you may be able to delegate a great deal of the work to less skilled people at a lower hourly rate than you make.

    • Jim
      Posted August 29, 2010 at 10:15 am | Permalink

      Hi Guy. Yes. There’s an art to getting to the right level of “chunking” before you begin working on tasks. Usually we err on the side of stopping too soon, and leaving too big of chunks. It’s amazing how much less draining it is to work on a project when you’ve broken it down properly. If I just say, “Do video” I have to keep way too many things in mind as I’m going back and forth performing tasks to get that done. If I break it down into steps like the ones you call “low gradient” items I don’t tax my memory as much and I find I can sustain my energy much longer into the work day.

      FWIW, I’ve been breaking things down even further than you mention here, and it saves energy. Here’s how I think that works. If I’m “doing a video”, I’ll start creating a slideshow, and then realize that I need to modify a webpage that I’m going to show in the video. So I go start working on that, and have to keep my place mentally in the slideshow. And then, when I’m revising the webpage, I realize I’m going to actually have to Create a New Aweber list for this page. So I go do that, saving a place in my head for where I am on the webpage, and in the slideshow. Eventually all those open loops start to fry my circuits.

      In order to avoid this problem I have a fairly detailed written plan in front of me, and when unexpected things come up I take a minute and write down the new steps in the plan (an excel spreadsheet works well for this, as you can “insert” new items where they fit. But I often do the microplanning with a notepad and pen, too.), the plan is keeping my place for me. I don’t have to spend all that mental energy keeping track of all the open loops.

      It works wonders.

  17. Posted August 29, 2010 at 8:53 am | Permalink

    Excellent article Jim. Well written and explained.

    As a long time software developer I certainly relate to your analogy of modular systems and their unforseen interactions.

    I especially like your analysis on the shortcomings of “building blocks”, how the notion of blocks is somewhat simplistic and misleading, with their tidy interfaces and their hidden, but too often, not so well isolated complexities. “Building trees” is an interesting metaphor, and definitely leads one to appreciate the complexity of creating new “technologies”.

    Why we do the things we do (or don’t, in the case of procrastination) is a complex mystery.

    It’s good to have a number of ways to tackle the problem. Your premise that procrastination is the result of our subconsious warning us of problems in our plans is a useful view.

    You’ve given us a way to see procrastination as a beneficial behavior. Furthermore, you provided us with a way to use procrastionation and overcome it.

    Great insights.

  18. Posted August 29, 2010 at 9:36 am | Permalink

    Hi Jim

    Thank you for inviting me to this conversation.

    For me procrastination is something I can definitely relate to.

    First I have been married to a procrastinator for 30 years, and since a person can not change that behavior in another person I joined the rank of a serious procrastinator.Can’t beat-em join them, Right/Wrong.

    I think this could be hereditary too, My husbands mother is a procrastinator too.

    So I bet your wondering how 3 procrastinators get anything done. Guilt like you said Jim.

    Any time I get overwhelmed, I walk away, my frontal lobe gets really annoyed too :)

    Did you know that a persons frontal lobe is not fully grown until your 25.

    Another reason I think a person procrastinates, is because they are over worked. By the time you get home from work we aren’t in the mindset to do anything but sit down,get comfortable, and drink a beer.

    I’ve learned too, that if you break up the project into manageable pieces it takes away the procrastination and replaces it with Lookie what I did!

    A confidence booster helps some times.

    I agree about the two questions to ask. It will help to slow one down, evaluate your situation and refocus on the task at hand.

    Another reason I procrastinate, I worry I am doing the task wrong. Online it is a bit harder to find the information,
    Like I bought a product with out any instructions, Live and learn and procrastinate, there’s a good reason for it.
    Great topic
    I don’t feel as guilty mow
    Bioniclily

  19. Posted August 29, 2010 at 10:34 am | Permalink

    Jim, good points about the microplanning.

    I usually plan my week in advance. If I schedule what needs to be done and a time to do it then I’m likely to get it done.
    The times I don’t schedule my week with detailed tasks to complete and instead have a goal like “do the video” then I usually don’t succeed. So chunking to an actionable level of detail is critical.

  20. Posted August 30, 2010 at 8:06 am | Permalink

    Hi Jim,

    I haven’t finished your whole post — but I scanned it. You had me at “break” or “confusion.”

    Perhaps my favorite principle is “Clarity leads to power” so I’ve studied the nature of confusion (and clarity) for years and trained my nervous system to be pretty good about recognizing my own confusion and doing something about it.

    All of that is to say — I think I agree with your premise and look forward to finishing your post and reading the book.

    I encourage you and others to look into the philosophies, tools, and processes of “agile” planning and project management — especially how requirements are turned into development plans. The process is called “iterative and incremental” in that big chunks of requirements and work are broken done into small chunks on an as needed basis. I bring this up because the approach recognizes and addresses confusion (i.e., uncertainty) through iteration.

    This is a big idea from complexity theory and the nature of adaptive systems. The most mature approach to dealing with change, complexity, and uncertainty is through an iterative design and development process. That means that planning is really learning and discovering rather than predicting — a theme from your post and the technology book I believe. And that planning (learning) happens continuously as you build.

    This comment could rapidly loop off into a big tangent, so I’ll summarize by saying that the agile approaches to project management help eliminate confusion because of their iterative nature — and that beats procrastination.

    And breaks are good too — iterative processes build breaks into the rhythm.

    • Jim
      Posted August 30, 2010 at 9:21 am | Permalink

      Christopher. It’s funny. I’m definitely coming at this from the direction of complexity theory and the nature of adaptive systems (Brian Arthur is a Santa Fe Institute guy, and I’m also a big fan of Scott Page. He wrote “complex adaptive systems” and “the difference”, the latter of which underpins much of the new free service I’ll be launching shortly), yet I’ve not looked into “agile” planning — which sounds like exactly the type of planning I’ve been backing into.

      And I LOVE the idea of replacing the “planning as prediction” metaphor with the “planning as discovery” metaphor.

      I’ll start researching the agile planning methodologies directly. I have a feeling it will feel very familiar :-) Thanks for the heads up.

  21. rob
    Posted August 31, 2010 at 3:06 am | Permalink

    Good post Jim.

    Though I would disagree on some points :-)

    I find procrastination is simply not wanting to do somehting that may take quite an effort – maybe doing something complex requiring a lot of focus etc.

    Inevitably, it leads to taking the path of least resistance and doing an “easier” task (like cleaning your office!). That’s the way a lot of us are programmed.

    I get procrastination when working on client tasks (there is no “bigger picture” with these – they must be done so I get paid!)

    I get procrastination when it comes to exercise and getting my bike out to go on a 10 mile ride. There’s no reason the subconscious should decide thats not a good idea.

    So I’d counter that sometimes it’s the subconscious coming through with new info; but for most, it’s just putting off something that will take a lot of effort/brainpower etc, when we are in an under motivated mood!

    • Jim
      Posted August 31, 2010 at 9:24 am | Permalink

      Hi Rob.

      You wrote:

      I find procrastination is simply not wanting to do somehting that may take quite an effort – maybe doing something complex requiring a lot of focus etc.

      It seems it would help to break the task down into bite-sized chunks, no? Or to give the task a more compelling context?

      I freely admit that I haven’t covered all the bases. I’m thinking of following up this article with one that covers all the common sources of motivational friction we face.

      With that said, I think that in the context of a business owner, who is more or less in control of his or her own schedule, confusion (up and down the “tree”) is still a very big part of the procrastination puzzle.

      Which means, I think we’re basically on the same page, with maybe a difference in how much of the problem comes down to confusion, and how much comes down to other motivators.

  22. Posted August 31, 2010 at 8:04 am | Permalink

    I find taking a real, honest break helps. Walk away from the workspace, and come back half an hour later. By then, I’m ready to go!

    • Jim
      Posted August 31, 2010 at 9:29 am | Permalink

      Hi Andy.

      Yes. Breaks are under-appreciated for the most part. There’s some wisdom in learning to “manage your energy, not your time”, as Loehr and Schwartz aim to impress upon us. I find that working breaks into the rhythm of the workday makes me more productive AND I enjoy the day more as well.

  23. Posted September 8, 2010 at 5:22 am | Permalink

    Hello Jim

    A mentee referred me to this post – to which I can only respond with “Yes!” (taking account of your provisos in the comments.)

    I’ll be referring others to it for sure.

    And I’ll definitely read “The Nature Of Technology” – maybe next week…

    Alex

  24. Posted September 10, 2010 at 5:00 am | Permalink

    I gotta hand it to ya – this is great!

    To step back and look at the bigger picture as well as the smaller pictures if necessary is a great recipe for motivation.

    If every working American procrastinates just one hour less every working day on average, thats over 1 Billion additional productive man-hours every year.

    For a country where the national debt is equivalent to a brand new BMW X1 owed by every man, woman and child … that has to be good news.

  25. Posted February 12, 2014 at 12:19 pm | Permalink

    This is a fantastic way of looking into procrastination. Never had I read an explanation of this kind.

    With that said, the core of the article lies in those 2 questions, perhaps extending a bit up the lines.

    I thought of “why so much of those ‘insights’ instead of coming straight to the point???”.

    But when i re-read it, it all just makes perfect sense :)

    Great work!

    Thanks

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