Ned Batchelder just blogged about a John Perry essay on “Structured Procrastination”. The theory is that you can get yourself to do anything, as long as it’s something you’re doing to avoid doing something more important.
Frankly, the idea disgusts me. While the idea of leveraging one’s character traits as a clever hack is not an issue per se, the idea of what that specific approach would do to quality-of-life in the meantime is unacceptable to me. But then, maybe I’m not really a “procrastinator” in Perry’s terms. I absolutely can’t stand missing deadlines, and almost never miss them, whereas he describes missing them by weeks or months. Heck, the idea of missing a deadline by hours is appalling to me. So, I only procrastinate up until the “last minute”, at which point I spring into furious action, and stop putting things off.
My theory, which is mine, is this: the brain has two speeds: think, and do. In “think mode”, we contemplate, analyze, dream, plan, question, and so forth. In “do mode”, we act, and thinking is used only to serve our actions. Procrastination and other dysfunctional “doing” behaviors stem from trying to do, while your brain is still in “think” mode.
It’s easy – at least for introverts like me – to easily shift from “do mode” to “think mode”, potentially at any moment, and definitely when the “doing” is “done”. It’s not nearly as easy to shift the other way, though. This is because the “doing mode” is able to be satisfied. At some point, you are finished doing what you set out to do, and so you’re done. Not so with the “thinking mode”!
Thinking is never, ever done. No matter how much you think about a thing, you can always think about it some more. Have you really considered all the angles? What if X happens? Are there any better ways to do this? On and on the questions go, and there is never, ever, ever an end to them. So when do I stop thinking about something, and start doing it? When I have to, that’s when. When there’s no more time, no more choice, and I am forced to act decisively, without hesitation.
While I don’t yet fully understand the process, it seems to me that I can bootstrap my way into the “doing” mode, by choosing to act without hesitation. If you don’t hesitate, you can’t question. If you don’t question, you move forward.
I have so far only applied this technique to projects measured in hours, not days or weeks. I still get confused by the issue of how to balance the priorities of multiple projects, though I suspect that this is just another form of think-mode tail-chasing, questioning itself recursively. Similarly, I ask myself, “how do I know when to stop thinking and commit to action?” I don’t know, and I don’t know that I can know, as long as I’m in the thinking mode. The action mode knows when to think: when action isn’t working. But thinking doesn’t know when to act, because thinking never really works.
That’s a really weird thought for me, given my lifelong “mind over matter” inclinations. But if I think about nearly every dramatic work I’ve seen (movies, TV, books), even if the “smart guy” saves the day, it’s because a person of action (maybe the same person, but often not) actually goes out and does the smart thing… Swiftly. Decisively. Without hesitation.