You Don’t Have Free Will, But Still You Procrastinate
How this is possible and 3 remedies
Just now I stopped to twirl the hair on the back of my head. I’m procrastinating. My fingers ought to have been on the keyboard, tippety tapping away.
Thought: I twisted strands of hair between my fingers for a few seconds before consciously noticing. My next thought: I didn’t decide to play with my hair.
Pay attention to your own movements today. These moments of bodily procrastination occur hundreds and even thousands of times every day— they are a bug and a feature of what it is to be human.
Procrastination. It’s not your fault, but you still need to get over it.
Relax: you didn’t decide to procrastinate
So don’t get upset with yourself.
The moment after the noticing of procrastination matters more. Are you able to refocus on the work to be done?
Sometimes we fail. You don’t notice the procrastination at all and your next actions spill forth like a river or a run-on sentence, out of control.
But you don’t really have control
Free will is incoherent. To have free will, we need to have a Self.
You can experience the non-existence of the Self through meditation, or by imagining what it is like to look at the person you believe to be you in a mirror. Where is this You? You are not your foot, surely, but you are not your brain either. Many scientists subscribe to the information processing theory of of the mind. If there is no Self, then who exactly is authoring your actions?
So the argument goes. But we won’t spend further time here (check further reading at the end of the article if you’d like to).
To procrastinate in a world without free will is to do something other than that action which you previously decided was important.
How to focus (even if you don’t have free will)
P.S. You don’t have free will.
But you will still be able to focus. And I believe it is your responsibility to do so.
Focus requires conditioning. Training your mind and body to do what you believe you ought to be doing takes work.
Here are just 3 ideas to get you started. They have worked for me.
Design your workspace
Remove distractions; free your mind.
Use environmental cues.
I have a passionfruit plant. It doesn’t have any blossoms this year. It did last year. It’s a reminder to stay the course, to stick to the process.
Books on my bookshelf wave to me. The ideas they hold within inspire. The authors who wrote them, I respect. What would Hitchens do in this situation? What would Miéville do?
Drop bad habits; Build good habits
It’s easy to build new habits, but harder to ditch bad ones.
Once a month, I make a short list of bad habits. Then, I pick the highest offender and proactively ditch it. One way is to bite your thumb when you have the idea. This produces a negative reward for the thought, and also makes you focus on the pain of biting your thumb instead of the payoff of indulging in the bad habit.
Once I’ve eliminated a bad habit, only then do I gain space to add good habits.
Find your focus superpower
Focus is like the wind; fluttering and fleeting.
I’ve slowly — very slowly — realized writing is hard work. I wanted it to be easy. More and more, I try to take responsibility for my writing. You’ve given me your attention, so I will give you value.
For me, the following lines from Verlyn Klinkenborg’s Several short sentences about writing help me harness a superpower:
The idea of writer’s block, in its ordinary sense,
Exists largely because of the notion that writing should flow.
But if you accept that writing is hard work,
And that’s what it feels like while you’re writing,
Then everything is as it should be.
Your labor isn’t a sign of defeat.
It’s a sign of engagement.
The difference is all in your mind, but what a difference.
The difficulty of writing isn’t a sign of failure.
It’s simply the nature of the work itself.
You must find the equivalent of the above for your field, industry, and personality.
I’ve found way to summarize the above, courtesy of Christopher Hitchens and Émile Zola:
Get on with the work.
Further Reading and Tools
Reading/Listening (on free will, consciousness, and procrastination):
Behave: The Biology of Humans at Our Best and Worst — Robert Sapolsky
Several short sentences about writing — Verlyn Klinkenborg
Tools (for writers):
ilys.com — distraction-free writing (try ninja mode)
If you want to learn how to read artfully AKA slowly (like me) but still read at least one book a week, check out my reading checklist.