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    What is procrastination, exactly? ask programming

Sometimes I procrastinate. I know something about when, I know something about how to avoid it, I know something about how to abort it. None of these tell me what procrastination really is. In a sense, procrastination is (almost) a black box to me, that I can observe from outside but whose implementation is hidden from view.

Sometimes it feels as if procrastination is the brain’s response when I should enter the zone, and… and something. I can’t tell what the other condition is. Or what the other conditions are, perhaps.

I know some things that correlate with it (e.g. reentering the zone after a couple of interruptions is harder than the first time in the morning), but that’s just correlation. I’m wondering what the brain is doing, not just rules of thumb about what makes its job easier or harder.

I adore being in the zone, but entering the zone can be strangely difficult and procrastination seems to be connected to that transition and its difficulties… Why? Does this sound familiar to you? Do any of you have insight into this?

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    From my personnal routine notes I have this paragraph:

    • [PROCRASTINATION] is due to the inability to manage negative moods “around” a task : it is a emotion regulation problem not a management time issue => primacy of short term mood repair against long term pursuit of intended action
      • [JUST DO IT]: every books start with a phrase, you can always edit/change later
      • [FORGIVE UNDERSTAND] : psychologist say forgive yourself while procrastinating - don’t be shameful
      • [ANALYSIS => WRITE IT ON PAPER] when wanting to procrastinate: analyse self = what instant emotions? sometimes just doing the first step as if I was starting to do the procrastinating action is sufficent => want to go back to long term goal a few seconds after
      • [NEXT ACTION]: think/consider what is/could be the next action (similar to write down, break into pieces)

    I leave the “How to deal with” points in case that rings a bell for you.

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      Excellent notes!

      I feel like these tips hint at an underlying problem. For me, most of the time I procrastinate it’s because I can’t contain the scope of what needs to be done in my head. I can’t decide where to start, so I don’t. I think it’s a special case of decision anxiety / decision fatigue.

      It could be one project with many steps. Or lots of small unrelated tasks. When I’m tired or stressed, it takes fewer possibilities before I give up and procrastinate. Even if there are clear starting points, I find the mere overabundance of steps too overwhelming and I procrastinate instead. So “next action” works for me. I write down everything I can think of, then pluck 1-4 immediately actionable tasks into an entirely separate list, so I don’t even see the backlog. Far fewer decisions.

      Even with such a list, I still procrastinate on small tasks—especially tedious ones. So I practice a special case of “next action” that I like to think of as setting myself up for success: find any quick and easy way to make incremental progress. Don’t plan, don’t prioritize, don’t even think, just do something. For example, I always procrastinate on filling out forms. I hate it. But there’s no possible way to justify procrastinating on downloading the form PDFs for later. Next time I think about the forms, it’s similarly easy to open the PDF I already have and spend 30 seconds filling out the first page. Each step is virtually effortless, but before long the task is done.

      I love setting myself up for success in all sorts of ways. Need something for an errand later? I put it in my bag right away. Need to feed my dog before I leave? I physically obstruct the front door with her food container. It relieves so much stress to know I’m never forgetting anything, because I consistently place everything I need directly in my path.

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        Need to feed my dog before I leave? I physically obstruct the front door with her food container.

        You can think of this as a sort of autostigmergy. :-)

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          Some nice tips! I will improve my first point adding your “JUST DO DON’T THINK”. That is nice to attain the point of “Flow”, where the mind is totally focussed.

          About your “small steps” solution, I have this quotation that I love (it was possibly the starting point for my personal routine notes):

          • (1.00) ^365 = 1.00
          • (1.01) ^365 = 37.7
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          I think this is the right answer. For me it’s fear of failure, I think, though I rarely feel much in the way of conscious fear. And the results of failure due to procrastination are typically worse than any failure at the task might be.

          It’s very strange to have been the most sane and rational person I know for so long, and now having to evaluate my own irrational behavior based on subconscious emotions. This is uncomfortable.

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            For me it’s fear of failure, I think, though I rarely feel much in the way of conscious fear.

            This is 100% what it is for me. I have identified it as an issue for several years now, both personally and professionally, and have made very little progress in confronting it. It’s tough.

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              I’m sorry but I’m volunteering you for Compulsory Internet Group Therapy (but I won’t be mad if you ignore this):

              I just told someone that, while I did want to help with their project, I couldn’t because they had inadvertently triggered my irrational fear of failure. I really did want to help, but I could sense somehow that I would never actually do it. I’d procrastinate, or get too busy, or blocked, or whatever. This was a hugely unpleasant thing for me to say. I pretty much just blurted it out awkwardly. :)

              How was I able to sense my unconscious fear?
              What were those triggers?

              I do not know the answers to these questions. I think I’m going to start a journal, noting each time it happens, going forward. Maybe a pattern will emerge.

              I was able to overcome a block on a technical task last week that had been dragging on for a very long time. That was fantastic, but it is a big project with lots more work to do, and I sense the fear may be coming back. Why would this task even scare me? That seems ridiculous. It’s tough.

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              You should always evaluate your behavior, irrational or not. I think honest self-reflection is one of the easiest ways to grow as a person.

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              Neat notes. I’m procrastinating right now, so they hit a nerve.

              Definitely going back to the task now. Probably. Maybe.

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              To me it’s the burden of recovering the context.

              Find it really hard to restart doing something when that was enough complicated so that I don’t have mental picture of it anymore. Building that card house from scratch, oh no.

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                Oh man, this happened to me today. I was an hour into reading some very indirect Scala when my boss came over and asked if I had dealt with an email our colleague had sent five minutes earlier. I could physically feel the zone and context draining out.

                The email involved grabbing a file on one of our hosts and emailing it back. I didn’t do a thing for the next hour, hour and a half though.

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                  This gets to the heart of my question, and I feel your pain. I do hope your colleague was very productive during the hour.

                  There’s some difference in the brain during that hour, and at trying to get back into the zone triggers procrastination. I think procrastination must be tied to that peculiar state. The drained state.

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                  This. Filling your brain with the state required to work on hard problems is expensive. You’re actually storing quite a bit of information and then using that information for intricate problem solving. This is why switching from one deep work task to another is so difficult. If you’ve ever finished one project or task then tried to start another but ended up browsing the internet instead then you’ve run into this. I have a half-baked theory that repeatedly overcoming this context load requirement barrier without adequate breaks causes burn out but that could just be me being lazy.

                  He only asked why but not how to overcome it but in the case of programming I just close all my tabs and environments, open the one that I need along with the design doc then literally sit on my hands and stare and wait until the information is loaded. It’s the only way I’ve found that doesn’t require much willpower because I don’t need to actually focus and resist temptation as much; the words are right there staring back at me.

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                  Procrastination is, from what I can tell, is your mind telling you that you have unresolved issues that need to be dealt with. For me, it’s usually an indication that I either don’t understand what I need to do well enough, or I have an unrelated issue that needs to be dealt with. Either an unmet social/personal need, or some pre-cursor task that needs to be done. I used to feel really guilty about it, but these days I treat it more like a check engine light.

                  I’ve resolved those things a number of ways, and how to do it will be personal, but it ranges anywhere from building software tools to help make it easier to approach a problem, to journaling about a personal issue, to calling it a night, and taking rest.

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                    Excellent advice. I left a comment about ADHD below, and your comment is the real solution. I’ve been reading a book that describes ADHD in depth, and your comment is pretty much a summary of it.

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                      The phrase “a ‘check engine’ light for the mind” might honestly be the thing that does for me what a hundred task/time/focus managers couldn’t — taking procrastination as an actionable signal rather than as a moral/personal failing to be corrected.

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                      Don’t bad mouth procrastination! It’s a good sign. Like, how we should be thankful we’re coughing or feel some pain … our body works well enough to tell us something’s up! :) How bad would it be if we were sick but our body didn’t react? :) Then we would be done.

                      What is procrastination exactly? This is my honest but perhaps obscure & unhelpful one sentence summary: Procrastination is papanca: conceptual proliferation caused by identification with and desire for a certain type of experience / phenomena.

                      You exerting will (with the tinge of ‘control’) to enter the zone is the cause of it. “Concentration” in our culture has really bad associations. Actually, it’s more like letting go & relaxing, the mind that is relaxed, safe, released is the “concentrated” mind, but really there’s so many bad associations with that word we should scrap it “just CONCENTRATE JIMMY!” etc, what we want is relaxation, ease and immersion…. like how easy it was to stare at the stars when you were a child, and wonder.

                      that’s the mind that is open and receptive and learning.

                      The “I must do this” or “have to do this” or “concentrate now” is associated with a subtle sort of forcefulness or expectation, that is the cause of procrastination.

                      one solution is… in the most caring way possible…. and calmly … to not give a sincere fuck.

                      Intention is also important… why are you doing this? If it’s to gain something or get something away, that’s also a cause of procrastination. But true interest / absorbtion / curiosity / immersion doesn’t have expectations or trying to make the contents of attention any way. It’s just admiring / grateful / entranced / caring .

                      Instead of ‘forcing’ we must let our mind unravel and incline towards things, and this only works with right intention e.g. to understand something, let it be, do its thing, care for it, care for ourselves etc. The Big Brain Hack is everything, even the most horrible aspects of human nature are some distortion of the want to be happy & free, so doing the reverse engineering and introspection required and understanding ones own intentions goes a long way to helping procrastination.

                      OF COURSE I AM GOING TO PROCRASTINATE ABOUT THAT SHITTY FUCK BUG IN THE JAVA FILE FOR THE RANDO BITCOIN EXCHANGE / POKER MACHINE. In which case we can be grateful to the procrastination that we have a sign!

                      Suppose you’re at work, maybe your intentions are mixed up, but reflecting, you realize you just want to be happy and help your family and love ones be happy, so this shitty / labourious task is connected to that. Forcing it won’t work, but letting the mind incline to it will.

                      It’s like that sort of absorbtion where the task itself seems to be producing the agency required for the task… it’s “not you”.

                      This is flow. But trying to ‘get’ ‘flow’ we are - seemingly paradoxically - driven away from it - because we’re actually trying to make reality conform to what we want rather than what is there.

                      True flow is from an acknowledgement of what is there, and working with it, in the sense “well, I’m not going to dance to this music, but the music can dance me” etc.

                      Sorry, that’s my best. Hope I didn’t sound too hippy :) For context: I have been diagnosed with ADHD and given a lot of thought and time to trying to crack this nut. This is my best (for now) :)

                      Paradoxically: trying to “manage” or “correct” procrastination may be its cause :) Instead, acknowlege, accept, incline, forgive yourself, understand your intentions, and create the environment where the environment does the work.

                      And have total faith in letting go and the natural way the brain forgets :) It’s there for an evolutionary reason.

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                        It’s the byzantine generals problem.

                        You get stuck in infinite recursion and if you want to break the recursion then you have to believe that some course of action is the right one, however you can never have assurance that it actually is.

                        What has helped me overcome procrastination is slowly build trust in a few principles (beliefs) that I can apply when I start speculating fruitlessly.

                        Those principles are:

                        • Patience
                        • Balance
                        • Curiosity

                        I have convoluted ways of fitting them to different contexts, but maybe you can find similarly meaningful words for you and the corresponding convoluted methods to apply them. I know for example that for many people “Play” is a very important word and I have been thinking about how it differs from Curiosity and whether I should modify my approach etc. This process is how I build trust in my principles, every iteration I eliminate a little more indecision.

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                          I often use this resource when I’m procrastinating, I’ve found it quite helpful.


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                            One effect of procrastination I realised, which be a step towards a good definition, is that it seems my motivation to do something is inversely proportional to it’s need. So I know I have to study for a test, but I keep on thinking about some project I’m working on, but when I finish the test, I loose my motivation to work on the project too! Instead I end up lying in bed, watching anything that pops up on YouTube.

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                              I’m curious if anyone else experiences what I call “postcrastination” — sometimes I will start a task, which I can obviously do and am in fact already doing, and I suddenly feel a desire to stop and do something else. Weirdly, it seems like it’s strongest when it’s a thing I actually want to do and think I’ll be good at, but only a creative task, not like doing bills or something.

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                                it’s because you want to & desire to do it, you’ve subtly set up an expectation or trying to get reality to conform to your desire in some way.

                                “it’s not untill we look at ants closely through a magnifying glass that we notice they have a tendency to burst into fire”

                                You are part of the system.

                                Let the work do the work :)

                                Other attitudes are like “wouldn’t it be funny if” or “I wonder if this is possible” or “I’m not sure I can even do this”

                                How do you find the “I’m not sure I can even do this” -vs- the “I’m sure I can do this and I want to do this” :) ???

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                                  This is almost certainly ADHD, see my comment

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                                    Saying “almost certainly ADHD” seems very definitive for a response to such a short comment on the internet.

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                                  As someone who struggles with procrastination, I cannot recommend this book highly enough:


                                  It will help you understand the underlying problems that are actually causing procrastination and tools for addressing.

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                                    I often think of procrastination as arising from activation energy. You might be able to knock over some part of the task that’s daunting you, but because you cannot (a) enter neatly into beginning to tackle it and/or (b) cannot visualize at least a partial success you end up very demoralized. You “bounce off” and find other tasks.

                                    And then, subsequently, a vicious cycle occurs where every “bouncing off” makes (a) and (b) seem even further away.

                                    I say this because I find a good way to tackle procrastination is to identify short, accomplishable goals with minimal need for activation energy. A solid initial goal for when you don’t have any of these queued up is to… devise just one. A series of small, accomplishable steps leads to success over time.

                                    You might still face times where you don’t have the energy or the proper mental state to tackle even an easy next step, but if you have these steps available to you then the moment you have that energy/time/state you can push one or more things forward.

                                    Visualizing the process of completing a goal is important. Even when we’re wrong, it clears away ambiguity and gives us opportunity to problem solve on how to create some positive motion.

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                                      It’s possible it’s ADHD. If so, life might look something like this:

                                      • Can’t get into “the zone” on things that aren’t interesting
                                      • When in the zone, it’s difficult to impossible to break the attention
                                      • It’s hard to keep track of what you’re doing and what to do next. Thoughts are jumbled.
                                      • Bad at estimating time
                                      • Difficulty with people, when people push for deadlines it can feel like a personal attack
                                      • Rabbit holes / yak shaving — you’ve trained yourself to do things immediately before you forget
                                      • Interrupting people — again, you’ve trained yourself to voice your thoughts before you forget
                                      • Coffee calms you down & helps focus. This is one of the more accurate indicators of ADHD.

                                      If any of that sounds familiar, I found this book to be very helpful, Scattered: How Attention Deficit Disorder Originates and What You Can Do About It.

                                      A lot of the tips people give on this page are good tips for also dealing with ADHD.

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                                        NYTimes article that made the rounds a coupla months ago on the topic (archive link):


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                                          I recommend “Procrastination” by Burka & Yuen. You might benefit from even just their clinical definition of maladaptive perfectionism and how procrastination offers relief from it.

                                          The first section of the book provides a framework for understanding what is happening when you procrastinate, then orients your investigation into the underlying causes specific to you. The second section offers self-directed behavioral therapies based on your learnings from the first section.

                                          The book is based on decades of the authors’ clinical experience, and includes highlights of academic research from as far afield as behavioral economics (future discounting).

                                          I reread it every few years in full, and personally relevant sections more frequently.

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                                            IMO most of the time procrastination is one of these two:

                                            • avoiding unpleasant (that’s also why tendency to procrastinate a specific thing increases the more you already procrastinated, because it gets increasingly harder due to time constraints or anxiety)

                                            • really wanting to do something else

                                            The latter can be solved by changing a field of work/study. The first one’s a little more tricky, because you basically train you brain to be anxious every time you think about doing something, imagine doing it (“oh, and there’s that thing I need to figure out”) and then not do it. Then you avoid thinking about it altogether.

                                            If that’s the case, the same general mechanism for treating any anxiety whatsoever applies: facing it. Once your brain realize there’s nothing to be afraid of, you’re fine. It’s worth noting you don’t really beat procrastination under a stressful deadline, because there’s a lot to be afraid of.

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                                              If you drink coffee, replace it with tea. Stick with it for 6 months.