Procrastination is everything

Everything is procrastination…

Procrastination will probably never become a popular competitive sport, but if it ever did I would put most of my money on the PhD students of the world. While it is really difficult to measure procrastination the joy of working on a long-term, individually driven project creates both an extreme familiarity with the concept and the personal hell it entails.
Most people have a vague understanding of their, and others, procrastination abilities. But in a recent conversation in the coffee room I discovered a shocking lack of deeper understanding of the term. Further study is definitely required.

From my own sporadic research I have come to recognize four forms of procrastination: passive, active, positive and entropic. But first lets get some of the theory and definition straight. This is of course easily done by ripping it off Wikipedia:

…procrastination refers to the act of replacing high-priority actions with tasks of lower priority, or doing something from which one derives enjoyment, and thus putting off important tasks to a later time. In accordance with Freud, the Pleasure principle (psychology) may be responsible for procrastination; humans do not prefer negative emotions and handing off a stressful task until a further date is enjoyable. The concept that humans work best under pressure provides additional enjoyment and motivation to postponing a task.

As any good procrastinator will know there is nothing more useful than a minor diagram, preferably using a simple grid which has limited explanatory value but is a major procrastinatory tool in of itself.

Figure 1. Forms of procrastination organized by benefit and control

Figure 1 attempts to map out the four major forms of procrastination according to the benefits they bring and the amount of control the individual has over the need to conduct the activity.


Positive procrastination is doing tasks which will actually be beneficial to the main project but doing them in the wrong order. Emptying a mailbox in order to gain time and peace of mind is an excellent example. The individual has a great deal of autonomy in deciding this task and it will, in the long run, be beneficial. However, this benefit will not appear unless the actual task is completed. Therefore the actual benefit of the task is only a potential benefit and conditional to actually not procrastinating.

Active procrastination entails finding something else to do instead of doing the task in hand. This can be everything from laundry, exercising, to re-arranging books. The individual has a great deal of choice in carrying out the task – even if it is commonly defined as necessary in order to do prior to carry out real work. This has actually no benefit at all to the task at hand.

Passive procrastination is doing stuff that the individual has previously agreed to. This is when you look at your calender and realize that the day is full. Therefore the individual maintains the illusion that actual work could be done were it not for the necessity of the meetings previously booked in the calender. Examples of passive procrastination are teaching, administrative meetings or conferences. In passive procrastination the illusion of real progress is masked and, in many cases, the procrastinator is given the opportunity of not defining the tasks as procrastination. These tasks are usually important and beneficial but the level of control is low as we are forced to participate in teaching and administration with a low connection to the job we are procrastinating from.

Entropic procrastination is probably the most harmful form. The body experiences a physical barrier to commencing work and becomes an inert mass. Examples of this? Surfing pointless websites & watching most forms of daytime television.

The problem with the study of procrastination is that the different forms are very difficult to identify objectively and are defined by the lies we tell ourselves.

a NO handicap

Are you an over or under committer? I really did not need to read Matt Swanson’s Engineering – Over/Under: I’m a Serial Over Committer to know that I am an over committer.

My co-workers have recognized – but not taken advantage of – the fact that I have a NO handicap. Put basically this is an inability to say NO when people start talking about their projects, ideas or desire to hear me lecture. So I have always been like this and no matter how much extra work it places on me – I keep agreeing to more stuff.

In part this is out of flattery: You really want ME to talk, be a part of a project, write an article… But it’s also out of pure enthusiasm. When someone talks about an idea they have I immediately get into gear and starting thinking and sharing my thoughts. I quite regularly talk myself into volunteering work without even realizing it myself. I am that stupid. The problem is that the are too many projects. Some of them end up as dead ends – or even worse – as corpses along the road of my ever present guilty conscience.

There was more than a pang of recognition & amusement in the line Matt wrote:

“But you never finish anything!” is a meme that co-workers jokingly needle me with.

But fundamentally I disagree with it. The problem is not that things don’t get finished – its more that the ratio of finished/unfinished is extremely unbalanced. Of course there are 100s of projects I have never finished. If you ask my guilty conscience there are millions – I am basically an unfinished project that will never be completed.

The trick is, for me, to look at the problem in a different light. It’s not about what I do not finish but about looking about the number, impact and success of the projects I do finish. When I look at these I can smile and think: Not too shabby. At least until the phone rings and someone asks if I could…

Trapped in a tamagotchi

Spent the morning doing hamster work. This is the work that takes a long time but at the end of the day you realize that you have not really produced anything. Its all important work but its not creative or productive.

  • Check & empty spam filters for mail and blogs
  • Reply to “boring” emails that have been ignored in inbox
  • Clean inbox by deleting or storing dealt with emails
  • Update blog plugins
  • Browse through the overfilled rss reader

Not really sure what this kind of work can be compared to in the analog realm – its a bit like preparing a garden after winter, pruning for growth. Well that’s a positive spin on it. Otherwise I sometimes get the impression that I am a slave to my tools. My devices and software seem to need a constant stream of update and electricity to be content enough to work.

In 1996 the Akihiro Yokoi of WiZ Co. Ltd., and Aki Maita of Bandai Co. Ltd released the Tamagotchi on the world. It was (for those who chose not to remember) a very simple digital toy that needed constant attention in order to “live”. Parents had to take their children’s devices to work with them so that the precious pieces of plastic did not die while the children where at school.

Those who were not in the craze laughed.

But today my whole digital life seems to consist of me being trapped in a tamagotchi. My devices demand attention and can be quite adamant about getting it: I once had to throw away a digital thermometer that would not stop beeping out an ice warning every 5 minutes when the temperature dropped below 3 degrees. On my phone a blue or red occasionally blinks. Its communicating with me – but nowhere in the manual does it say what the lights mean. I usually restart the phone just to stop the blinking lights. The same phone, when fully charged flashes brightly, and can wake me up in the middle of the night.

And don’t get me started on updates!! Here is the wisdom of Izzard on the topic – all to cheer us up in the midst of digital work.

Passion and perseverance, not poetry, make a PhD

Sad, but unfortunately not uncommon, news today… yet another bright young colleague has dropped out from his PhD. The easy reaction was to throw out the obvious question: Why? But in reality it does not really matter. The reasons for people dropping doctoral studies are as varied, as there are people and even if you asked could you ever get the true reason for people’s actions?

But I still want to comment on the doctoral process. In 2006 I wrote a post called Advice to a shiny new PhD student which still contains some good advice.

What I want to add is that the work of the PhD is not a sprint it’s more like a marathon on a bad day. Its seems endless and thankless when you are doing it – sure some people wave to cheer you up on the way but in reality nobody cares about your work – but it’s the end that makes it worth it.

In a marathon you don’t want to be a specialist… You want to be the beige super generalist.

The PhD student will be surrounded by people who are brighter, more poetic, more prolific, more intelligent, better read, more beautiful, etc. In fact no matter what trait you can imagine there will be someone who is better than you. And this is not a depressing thought!?

To survive a PhD is not about being the best in those ways. It’s about become the best at a certain subject. To become the best in academia you really need two things more than anything else. First, a passion for the subject. The reason why your topic is interesting is because it is unexplored. The reason it is unexplored is usually because it is obscure. You will not be loved for you subject, you will be alone with your subject. To survive with little outside stimuli you need passion.

The second thing you will need is perseverance – because it will be boring. No matter how interesting it sounds any topic becomes boring. This does not mean it will never be exciting again – but recognize that you passion for your chosen topic will ebb and flow.

So ignore the poetry and get on with it!

Work and art

Finally finished the mind-numbingly boring work of reading proofs for a manual on the GPL license. It’s so boring that I have broken records in procrastination but today surrounded by loud music I stayed at home and finished. In front of me is my latest acquisitio, a color lithograph graphic by Claude Weisbuch which I brought home today.


While on the subject of art I cannot help but spreading this anecdote about Dali which I just read on _Paddy K_

Apparently Dali liked to eat out, with large groups of friends in tow, but was not so fond of paying the bill. So he made a point of paying using a check from his checkbook and, just before handing the check over, scribbled a little drawing on the back and signed it.

And now the owner, suddenly in possession of a signed Dali, would usually just frame it and hang it on the wall and show it to his friends instead of cashing it at the bank.

Sitting with licenses is sooo boring.

Have you prepared your summer reading list yet?

To the academic summers are a mix of joy and dispair. Everyone is envious of our summer holidays while most that I know are all busy clearing time for some larger project. Not many other career choices lead you to voluntarily take a laptop with you on a beach holiday. Each summer the over-optimistic academic plans to make another gargantuan effort to complete their sadly ignored pet-project, spend quality time with family, read proofs, relax, review impossible stack of papers, get a tan and find time to read a pile of books.

I am happy to announce that this year will be no different. Not having learnt anything from previous years the piles of work to be attempted are silly but I am looking forward to the reading list.

At the top of the pile lies Matthew Rimmers work Intellectual Property and Biotechnology, and working down the disorganised list: Mart Laar War in the Woods: Estonia’s struggle for survival 1944-1956, Ulrich Beck Risk Society, Mark Rose Authors and Owners: The Invention of Copyright, James Boyle The Public Domain: Enclosing the Commons of the Mind & Martha Woodmansee (ed) The Construction of Authorship: Textual Appropriation in Law and Literature

And this is the list in april… Well actually I am looking forward to summer.

On philosophical advice

Not all intelligent sounding advice is actually good advice and most philosophical advice is on the level of a bad sound-bite. Most of it just sounds cool but is totally useless real life applications. The latest strip from Jorge Cham of PhD comics has come online:

What this means in real life thesis writing (if I now may offer some advice…) is not to dig to deeply into “how-to-write-a-phd-or-masters” books since they are filled with obvious advice and keep you busy reading the wrong things. I think that Nike had the right approach with their slogan “Just do it”.

Getting off the floor

If you are sitting down and reading this then be happy! This Christmas I received an unusual and unwanted present in the form of a herniated disk – put basically the softer gooey stuff between the bones of your spine peeks out and gets squished and presses on a nerve. This causes a painful condition that sends pain down my right leg and the sole my right foot feels like it is asleep.

The worst thing is the inability to sit and work, thankfully going to yoga has helped but most of the time the only way I could work was by lying on the floor with my laptop in front of me. After half an hour in this position (which is not great for writing) my neck is killing me. Anyway, I have ended up being massively delayed (even by my standards) which in turn has knocked me metaphorically to the floor.

So when I today thankfully got sent away the second of my two major texts I was working with and feel like I can get of the floor for a while. My back is still not good but sitting is possible and only a bit painful and I am now looking ahead at the projects I had planned to start in 2009.

Also I am returning (slowly) to the running which I have not done since Christmas. In 101 days I will be running the local half marathod – let the countdown begin