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Without Hesitation

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.

Join the discussion
  • I can only say that its clear that you are not a procrastinator!

    As someone who most definately is I don’t think your theory is correct. For me it mostly comes from abject laziness. Now don’t get me wrong I DO an awful lot of things I am working on two separate projects either of which would be full time in my life If they both didn’t need doing right now and I am also a highly involved father of two young boys.

    The laziness manifests itself as procrastination. It feels like an immense inertia. Once I’ve got past it then as long as I keep working on something I am fine. I recognize your think/do phases and they happen as per normal. Once I’ve got going.

    I’m afraid I haven’t got a competing theory though.

    I would like to finish with one of my favourite quotes from a procastinator that would put most procastinators to shame – the late great Douglas Adams: “I love deadlines. I love the whooshing sound they make as they fly by.”

  • If you don’t suffer procrastination it’s a hard to understand the phenomenon. Most procrastinators are basicaly doers by nature, and it can get frustating to the point of depression to be hindered by one’s own shortcomings in this. It may all have to do with some system of reward for a certain behavior, and you’re unable to break out of the recursive cycle for long.

    That said, your toughts about two-mode thinking of course hold some truth, in that planning is often the recuired precursor to successfull action.

    However, I hold with it that acting without Hesitation is only required once one has set his mind to a goal.
    There’s another form of action as well, which has much more to do how children play, and in that you never exit thinking mode. It’s not well suited to reach specific goals, but it can yield incredible results in it’s own right.

  • This sounds very familiar — the biggest obstacle to forming a new habit (for me) is to stop the internal debate about doing the item and to just do it. E.g., flossing one’s teeth every night. You can waste a lot of time convincing yourself that you don’t have to floss, just this one night, or you can tell yourself “this does not bear thinking about” and move right on to the doing.

    You seem to already have this all figured out, though. 🙂

    I hadn’t ever thought of thinking mode being unsatisfiable, though… which explains why I can lose so many hours thinking about things that I can’t do anything about right now (wrong context, waiting for something). Something to keep in mind.

  • I consider myself a severe procrastinator, and I strongly agree with your theory. I think you hit on the important point for all procrastinators.

    How do we go from think-mode to do-mode???

    Theres something inherently pleasant about the think mode. For me, I think it is somehow because I know I can’t fail thinking, but I can fail doing, and I really really fear failure (so much that It took me a while to even realize that failure is what I fear the most – its like not seeing your glasses ’cause their on your nose)

    But thinking about moving from think to do is still just thinking, and my very clever mind will find some very clever distractions for me to think about before I even get around to moving to do mode.

    The only solution I have ever found for getting out of think mode to do mode (and its definitely an unelegant hack) is this: I try to remember to put myself in situations where external influences will require me to get off my ass and swing into action. This is somewhat bad for self esteem though, as it reinforces the Idea that one is incapable of being decisive and effective on ones own. But perhaps self-sufficiency is a myth anyway.

  • junklight and Florian: For a LONG time I used to peg myself as lazy or a procrastinator, now I'm convinced those are just ways to beat yourself up and feel guilty, without actually improving your situation. When you label yourself as fundamentally lazy or a procrastinator, it puts all solutions out of your control.

    I honestly believe these days that nobody is lazy – we are depressed, distracted, demotivated, stuck in bad habits or we're trying to do things for reasons we don't believe in or in ways we haven't yet realised don't work. And most of us were told as kids that we were lazy, when maybe we just had a way of doing or understanding things that didn't fit in with our parents' or teachers' way of seeing and doing things.



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