Saturday, 5 April 2008

Good and Bad Procrastination

Everyone seems to be banging on about Lions at the moment...well, okay, Alex is, and ED stole his okay, actually it was Paul who mentioned the lions. -- Do you have a headache yet? I'm feeling a little dizzy.

Alright, lets break it down: Alex said that Paul Graham wrote a great piece about startup programmers and big company programmers in which he compares them to lions in the wild versus lions in the zoo. The lions in the zoo seem "both more worried and happier."

Alex then affirmed that his Canadian [ - read about the bru-ha-ha over Bill C-10] producer and writer friends are worried all the time. They don't know where their next paycheck is coming from. They don't know if the industry will collapse due to moralistic Conservative government intervention. They have no idea what they'd do for a living if people stopped hiring them, or paying them.

But their frustrations are the frustrations of lions in the wild. They are always stalking the next antelope, or trying to keep the hyenas off of one they've already caught.

They all seem so alive.

English Dave then provided the colourful language that actually got me to click on the link in the post that he had stolen from Alex...

Kinda says it all. A writer can never be a zoo lion, unless it is for research and even then they'll probably fuck a zebra and eat a keeper.

Thanks for that image ED.

Anyhow, to cut a long story even longer and perhaps finally get to the point: Paul Graham has a great essay up about his theories on procrastination.

The most impressive people I know are all terrible procrastinators. So could it be that procrastination isn't always bad?

Most people who write about procrastination write about how to cure it. But this is, strictly speaking, impossible. There are an infinite number of things you could be doing. No matter what you work on, you're not working on everything else. So the question is not how to avoid procrastination, but how to procrastinate well.

But the trouble with big problems - like say, writing a screenplay* - can't be just that they promise no immediate reward and might cause you to waste a lot of time. If that were all, they'd be no worse than going to visit your in-laws. There's more to it than that. Big problems are terrifying. There's an almost physical pain in facing them. It's like having a vacuum cleaner hooked up to your imagination. All your initial ideas get sucked out immediately, and you don't have any more, and yet the vacuum cleaner is still sucking.

You can't look a big problem too directly in the eye. You have to approach it somewhat obliquely. But you have to adjust the angle just right: you have to be facing the big problem directly enough that you catch some of the excitement radiating from it, but not so much that it paralyzes you. You can tighten the angle once you get going, just as a sailboat can sail closer to the wind once it gets underway.

If you want to work on big things, you seem to have to trick yourself into doing it. You have to work on small things that could grow into big things, or work on successively larger things, or split the moral load with collaborators. It's not a sign of weakness to depend on such tricks. The very best work has been done this way.

*my emphasis

Well, it's good to get external confirmation that there is good procrastination. Now all I have to do is eliminate the bad procrastination and I'm on to a winner. :)

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