A productivity pickle

The things I do (or plan to do) on any given day fall roughly into three categories:

  1. Tasks that must or should be done, usually under deadline, but that I find somewhat boring or distasteful. Examples: grading, planning committee meetings.
  2. Tasks that I generally enjoy doing, and are productive in a broad sense, but nobody will keep after me if I postpone or abandon them. Examples: writing software, reading research papers deeply, learning new programming languages or libraries.
  3. Tasks that are often considered time-wasters, but do yield some benefits over time, in greater connectedness and awareness of new technologies, issues, attitudes, etc. Examples: reading my dozens of RSS feeds, Twitter and the like.
Okay, that's not a complete taxonomy, but it will do for my purposes here.

The problem is not so much that I procrastinate – I take that as given – the problem lately is how I procrastinate.  Usually I jump straight to category 3!  That stuff has its place, but if the history of my intellectual life has taught anything, it's that the real action is in category 2. But I let angst over the unfinished commitments in #1 ruin my enthusiasm for working on the real stuff.

Sometimes I hear (even from adults!) advice like "finish your work before you play." These adults must have very different notions of work than I do. First, for practical purposes, all three categories are infinite streams. You literally can't get to the bottom of one and then move on to the next. Second, from my point of view, nothing is ever finished – at best, it's good enough, and eventually, you just stop working on it.

Maybe that last point deserves further reflection and another post. Possibly it's an unhealthy approach to work, but I'm sure it has been with me since grade school. It explains the need for deadlines to get things done, and the tendency to leave things for the last minute. If you start too far in advance of a deadline, the job expands to fill the available time! Better to postpone judiciously and work on some interesting stuff in the interim. I'm sure I taught myself computer programming while procrastinating on social studies assignments in junior high.

I suppose I should acknowledge my good luck to have the freedom for category 2 at all. The best way to honor that freedom is to exercise it. Ha – my new summer manifesto.

©20022015 Christopher League