Procrastinating to Get Things Done

Ironically, I’m writing a blog post about getting things done, yet my blog has languished in purgatory since early summer. If it wasn’t for the three dozen or more daily spam comments crashing my database and clogging my inbox, I’d probably still be thinking, “man, I really should start blogging again…”. I do have a new design working in my head, so perhaps writing new content is a subliminal way of moving the design from within my head onto the screen.

So not only in my personal web space is getting things done a struggle, like a lot of web workers, I endeavor to be better organized and consistently productive. Lately, I’ve been working on a concept that I’ve been calling (in my head) procrastinating to get things done. Today, Merlin Mann posted a video touching on attention and creativity, which helped me solidify some of the core tenets of my theory.

When I first started working from home, I started collecting RSS feeds for my reader. Aside from ones that were obviously informational in nature, like the National Hurricane Center, most everything else I thought was vital to being a modern web worker. 43 folders was one, along with several dozen other “Getting Things Done™”/productivity sites. I hung on every list. Likewise, I subscribed to every buzz word worthy site that was announcing the next great startup. Now, there’s nothing wrong with these sites taken at face value, but my problem was that I hung on their every post, telling myself that I needed to read these sites, as soon as they published. That somehow by being up on who had posted the latest Moleskine hack, or which Google Map mashup was freshly released (along with signing up for the ubiquitous beta account!) , I was going to be a realweb worker. That these things some how validated me, made me cool. Truth was, I had no idea what the hell I was doing jumping into this profession, other than I was completely burned out by cooking, and needed a new home.

It has taken me a long time to shed all of these sites (some more than others), and accept who I am and where I fit into the web’s ecosystem. It has also taken a fair dose of following Merlin around the web hammering the mantra, “make shit.” OR maybe I paraphrased that, but isn’t that the essence of the message? Or is it “make great shit”? Anyway, I no longer try to validate myself by knowing who’s who and doing what. I’ve moved beyond the guy lying on the couch watching the golf tournament, and am out there hitting balls, playing rounds of golf. I’ve relegated to the fact I’m not going to be Tiger Woods, but I’m damn sure going to be club champ, or get on the Nationwide Tour, or, yeah, enough metaphors.

Too belabor the metaphor, sure, I’m not lying on the couch anymore, but when I go to the range, I’m don’t always wind up hitting all the balls in the bucket, or it might take all day, I still allow myself to find timesinks. Twitter is one that comes to mind. Just as I had begun to cure myself of the feed reader ailment, Twitter came along, and I suffered a similar ailment. I’ve since pruned my follow list, however it’s still easy to get caught in just monitoring Nambu,waiting for the next 140 character nugget of wisdom.

Which brings me to the point of this post, and my latest theory. Allow myself to procrastinate for a period of time. (For the two people who’ve read this far, you’re starting to wonder how you’ve made it, huh?) My thinking is that if I just let go and allow myself to go read TechCrunch, or spend a half hour reading tweets and following links, then I’ll run out of potential distractions and be able to really focus for a block of time. As simple and obvious as it may sound, for me, excepting this has really worked. I’m no longer trying to steal time to check anything when it’s time to get down to what ever it is I need to do that day. I also don’t try to schedule my procrastination time. I’ve read of people who try to do “rewards”, or work 45 minutes, do what ever for 15. That concept doesn’t work for me. When I want to just read and click sites and links, I don’t want to be under a timer. I also do always have the right mindset to do it. For me, I allow it to happen fairly naturally. If I wake up and sit down at the desk, but don’t feel like starting to code out that design, as long as it’s not due that afternoon, and maybe even if so, I’ll allow myself to read through all my feeds, and open any of the really interesting ones into tabs on the browser. By the time I’m done skimming through, I often find myself excited about something I’ve seen, and will actually want to get down to marking up a design. The next lull, rather than force may way through , I might then read the really interesting posts from the morning skim that are now in tabs, which again, chances are I’m inspired to take things to the next level.

What all of this means to me at the end of the day when I get up from my desk is that I’ve made some shit without feeling like I’ve had to chain myself to the desk. Much as I used to love working in the kitchen, and it was nothing to work 16 hours a day without it feeling like work.

My procrastination isn’t simply relegated to things I can do at my desk either. Depending on the week, I may tell myself that I can go fishing one morning, or leave early during the afternoon to go, without guilt. I’ve also recently forayed back into keep a fresh water fish aquarium. I may take a long lunch and drive to the local fish store to grab a piece of equipment and just browse the fish and plants. When I come back, since I had given myself permission to go, I’m not wrought with guilt, which just induces stress, which in turn leads to lack of productivity. Rather, I’m fresh and chomping at the bit to tackle the next task.10gal 10-17-09

As I’ve gotten further along in my experiment, I’m finding that I can actually stay focused for longer periods of time to deal with tasks that used to prompt spontaneous anxiety attacks which used to result in complete meltdowns.

Merlin’s video touches on these down times, and explains them as necessary distractions for the creative worker. They allow to be mentally occupied just enough, but not so much as to prevent some higher thinking to go on, which can very well be a bigger part of the process of thinking about the stuff you are going to make.

And indeed, if I were to classify writing a post that probably no one is going to read, but is something I wanted to do, it could be seen a positive form of procrastination as it free me up to start updating the code on the site, and wireframing the new design stuck in my head.