Self-similar procrastination

Sierpinski triangle
Your to do list should look like this. Or something. I’m still working out the finer details.

[image source]

I had a gigantic insight on my walk home tonight, which is clearly going to make me millions, but before I start on my self-help book empire I needed to write this rushed crappy blog post explaining it. And before that, I needed to do the dishes. Because my grand theory requires self-similar competence at all scales.

OK, so really this thing is not very profound or original at all. It’s pretty much the same as John Perry’s structured procrastination, but with a slightly different emphasis. (And probably this emphasis appears elsewhere too.)

If you somehow haven’t come across the structured procrastination essay before, it’s wonderful and you should read it. The key part:

Procrastinators often follow exactly the wrong tack. They try to minimize their commitments, assuming that if they have only a few things to do, they will quit procrastinating and get them done. But this approach ignores the basic nature of the procrastinator and destroys his most important source of motivation. The few tasks on his list will be, by definition, the most important. And the only way to avoid doing them will be to do nothing. This is the way to become a couch potato, not an effective human being.

I’m highly susceptible to this particular bad idea and end up doing nothing too often. Partly this is because I tend to have overambitious crackpot plans, so there’s always a good supply of ‘most important’ tasks to put at the top of the list. And partly it’s because I don’t seem to get bored as easily as most people and am unusually good at sitting around doing nothing very much, so it’s easy to slump into the couch potato ground state.

I do think sitting around doing nothing very much is highly underrated by a lot of people, but that would be a different post. In my case, I definitely need nudging towards actually getting shit done, instead of thinking idly about things I could do.

John Perry advocates avoiding this low-energy stuck state by filling up your to do list with ‘a hierarchy of the tasks you have to do, in order of importance from the most urgent to the least important’. The main mechanism he advances for why this works is that fear of the big intimidating tasks at the top drives you down the list, pushing you into actually completing many of the lower-ranked items.

I think this effect is somewhat important, but my thesis is that the most important mechanism is actually going the other way, from the bottom of the list up. Deadline fear is definitely useful, but I think that the energy and confidence created by completing the small tasks is the most important bit.


My intuition is that energy tends to be created at the microscale and bubbles up from there. I definitely use this principle to try and build momentum at work when I have a seriously boring task to do. I don’t want to do the actual task, but maybe I can be bothered to open up the password manager and get out the password I need for the server, and then maybe I can be bothered to open up a terminal and log on. Then maybe I’ll type in some trivial command to get myself used to the fact that I’m going to be typing in some commands. I don’t actually care what files are in that particular directory, but listing them has enough of the flavour of ‘doing work’ that it’s often enough to push me over the threshold into doing real work.

I think this is all pretty uncontroversial at the microscale. Any grumpy old fart who writes a weekly column for the Telegraph on how The Kids These Days Have No Discipline could tell you that sitting up straight and making your bed in the morning (or whatever) will propagate through to getting more done in general.

Where it gets interesting is at the mid-scale – projects you’re spending weeks to months on, but that aren’t all that important, at least in comparison with Big Intimidating Project at the top of the list. These are the ones I find myself wanting to cross off the list, because they’re ‘wasting time’.

But I’m coming to realise that they play an extremely important role in the task ecosystem. In some sense these are the largest-scale projects that you know you can actually pull off. Really big intimidating projects tend to have some sort of ‘research’ type element, where you don’t know what would even constitute a solution when starting out. Mid-sized projects, on the other hand, take a considerable amount of effort but are much more well defined. You more-or-less know how you’re going to tackle them, and what a successful outcome will look like. Successful mid-sized projects give you the confidence and energy to keep going, gradually allowing you to push further and further up the scale.

(I think it’s also important that at least some of these are self-contained projects in their own right, rather than subtasks of Big Intimidating Project. Lopping chunks off of Big Intimidating Project and tackling them separately is an excellent strategy, but my intuition is that this can’t be the only thing. Probably this is something to do with needing a supply of new ideas to keep bubbling up at all scales, but I haven’t thought about it very carefully.)


Here’s an example of an idea bubbling up. Last August I declared a Shitty Projects Month, as I could tell I needed some sort of break from more focussed work. It’s the kind of idea you can’t really fail at, and I did indeed do some shitty work on a couple of shitty projects, but I didn’t feel too pleased with how it went at the time. I suppose I was hoping that the results would be, well, less shitty.

Somehow, though, I found myself coming back to one of the projects a couple of months ago. I’d had an idea for a toy project I could try and do using the d3.js visualisation library – nothing useful, but it would look pretty if I got it right. I spent most of my time fighting my poor understanding of the library, and indeed of Javascript in general, and didn’t get very far.

Eventually it came back into my head, though, and this time I had the bright idea of prototyping in Inkscape. Once I could see something visually I was a lot more excited about the project and made rapid progress. I haven’t finished yet because there’s other stuff I have to do this month, but it looks likely that it’s going to be a major component in the visual design of the proper website I’m finally going to make, which will be my next mid-range non-physics project. If I don’t run into any more weird distractions.

And of course, the best example of a mid-range project bubbling up from triviality is this blog itself. I got the shittiest possible blog, a basic tumblr with the default design, and started writing with no particular plan. It turned out that what I wanted to write about was mathematical intuition (and chalk!? no idea about that one) so I went with that. And then got it off tumblr and turned it into something approximating a proper blog.

I haven’t run out of ideas yet, so hopefully this one can keep bubbling up. That’s my excuse for writing essentially the same post over and over again. Self-similar blogging at all scales!

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