On harnessing procrastination

I am a procrastinator and a dabbler. I get very passionate about something, until it becomes too much of a duty. Then my passion tends to fade and move to something else. If you happen to be similar to me, in this article you might find a way to accept and harness this aspect of your personality.

I’m not going to question the need to practice all the good habits of self-discipline that allow you to actually do what you decided to do. I myself regularly exercise and learn more about willpower, good planning, mindfulness, accountability systems and so on. Yet I’m aware that this is an uphill and long-term process.

It’s good practice to invest more in enhancing your strengths than fixing your weaknesses, this is the approach I want to take here. In this article I’m arguing that you can harness your seemingly “dysfunctional” tendencies in a way that might actually reduce your need for self-discipline and planning.

In other words: what could allow you to spend at least part of your days doing precisely what you are interested in in that moment, and not regret it?

A helpful model could be this distinction between a manager and an entrepreneur: A manager has a goal, and uses the available resources efficiently to achieve that goal. An entrepreneur looks at the resources he has, shoots around for opportunities and follows them. The first approach works more in a predictable environment and as such tends to be efficient but also fragile, the second works more in a chaotic environment, and as such is less efficient but more “antifragile” (more on this in Nassim Taleb’s book “Antifragile: things that gain from disorder”).

You can see your tendency to procrastinate as a chaotic, unpredictable feature of your personality. Which means you need to set yourself up to be antifragile to that feature. To do this you can use the following two principles.

First principle: Keep your options open. Don’t let all of your success depend on one thing needing to get done at a certain time. Imagine you’re building a mosaic: as long as you keep placing pebbles in their right spot, it doesn’t matter in which order you do that.

How you go about this in practice depends very much on the context. For example, in the content-producing context, if what you are interested in varies a lot, don’t keep just one monolithic blog where you post everything. Instead, create and use many different channels that you can use whenever appropriate.

Second principle: Harness what you produced. So you just “procrastinated” a couple of hours. You just learned about something, thought about something, had an experience, formed an opinion. Congratulations! You just found a small pebble of the mosaic of your life. Maybe it’s not the pebble you wanted to look for, but here it is, in your hand. What are you going to do now, feel guilty about it and throw it away? If you have optionality, you can spend a couple more hours to polish the pebble and place it into an appropriate spot of your mosaic.

For example, yesterday, instead of doing what I should have done, I was philosophizing about the meaning of life and the psychology of suffering. I wrote some notes to help me think, and out came some arguments and thoughts. At this point, after gaining some clarity, I could just have just moved on. Instead, I embraced the little piece of knowledge I had produced and tried to make the most out of it. I decided that I wanted to have a conversation about this subject and get feedback from people who know more about this subject, as to revise my opinion. So I

  • Refined the text into an article
  • Published it on the medium publishing platform
  • Wrote a related question on quora linking to the article, asked people that are interested in that specific topic from their bio to answer it
  • Wrote a message to a couple of local meetup groups on meditation and philosophy
  • Posted it on facebook and tagged friends of mine interested in that topic

Note that this is not about spamming everyone about everything you have been occupying your time with. On the contrary, it’s about selecting very specific channels and groups of people that are interested in exactly that kind of thing and might have something to say about it. It’s about increasing the value of your time and effort.

To wrap up, here’s the message: if you are prone to procrastination, set yourself up so that you can harness your experience during that time and channel it precisely where it will be the most valuable, to you and to others.