(Un)ProductivityGuest Post

Luck Favours the Procrastinator

As I happen to find myself on a (more or less) unvoluntary trip to the internet-free countryside (more on that soon…), I haven´t been able to get new posts written for you guys. So today´s guest post by Rubén Berenguel comes at a great time, and I am especially happy to publish it on The Friendly Anarchist. Rubén writes on Mostly Maths about programming, Linux and time management. A PhD student and aspiring procrastinator, he shares some of his insights on the usefulness of professional procrastination! I am sure you will enjoy it!

The PostScript Postcard Rubén designed for Christmas. The image is created randomly by the program he wrote, so each copy is unique.

One PostScript Postcard created by the program written by Rubén. The image is created randomly by the program, so each postcard is unique.

I can guess what you are thinking. Louis Pasteur would be quite upset by my change of his quote, from “Luck favours the prepared” to “Luck favours the procrastinator”. But once I play my lines you will see why he should not.

There is a stigma for the word “procrastinate”. It feels like you are slouching in your couch, mindlessly watching TV while eating French fries with mayonnaise. Or that you are lolling in your work chair, randomly clicking the Stumble button while your boss dozes in his office. But this must not apply to everybody.

Fabian already pointed out that getting good at procrastinating can be useful. His idea is that as you get better, you need less of it to keep you sane. Here I advocate for another good side effect that procrastinating can give you: what other people call luck.

The current trend in productivity books, personal coaches and bloggers (a few notable exceptions like this blog are refreshing… my blog is also guilty of this sin!) is to stuff more and more things into each idle hour, until you are working all waking day. But you don’t need to move really far to find some other kind of advice: In a book published in 1910, How to Live on 24 Hours a Day, Arnold Bennett already suggested that you need to claim several hours a week for improving yourself. Not for working, not for preparing to do lists, neither for doing a weekly review of your system. But for reading books, learning a new hobby, grasping a new language. In these days of over-stressed and over-worked managers, this advise gets lost.

But what should you do to improve yourself in these hours you claim? I say Enjoy yourself! Almost all free time activities you can look at may appear to be completely unrelated to self-improvement. But this is only on first sight. On the long run, a lot of activities can get some return. For example, you may enjoy knitting. You may knit for a few hours each week, improving your technique. After a few years of enjoying yourself knitting, maybe someone offers you a deal to knit hand-made scarves as a company gift.

Another example, which made me realise this: Each year I design a Christmas postcard based on some mathematical concept or programming idea. A few years ago I decided to learn some PostScript programming, and create a randomized PostScript Christmas card, with some Christmas-style stars and fractals. In case you don’t know, PostScript was (in some sense) the predecessor of PDF, and is a full featured programming language, used to describe what a page looks like.

This was just something I was supposed to do in my free time, but as Christmas was getting closer, it started to eat some of my working time. I was procrastinating on my work for a basically useless task: PostScript programming is almost obsolete nowadays. All files are generated through more advanced means! At the moment I had it finally completed (and the wooos and greats of my friends after seeing my postcard faded), I felt like I had just wasted my time by learning PostScript. I didn’t use it for more than a year, but luckily, I wrote a blog post with a simple tutorial, just in case I needed it.

But, almost two years later I needed a program to generate an image with very thin lines – and I knew PostScript was the best for doing that! I already had learned it, so I could concentrate on the harder parts, knowing my previous procrastination was paying its dividends. The result was my Lavaurs arcs generators, for an image I needed for a paper.

Moreover, as I documented the process “for newbies” in my blog, it came to be an interesting post, gathering more than 3000 visits since I wrote it. It also generated a vivid discussion in Reddit with one developer of NeWS, the PostScript window system, back in the 1980s. Computer programming history!

Not a bad result for just a few days of pure procrastination. This is my personal example, it has served me well. Now each time I don’t know what to do, I try to learn something new. Be it playing a board game, learning a new language or programming language, reading a book. I can’t know where just playing a board game online can lead me.

Don’t be afraid to procrastinate, just keep yourself out of mindless activities and engage in creative ones. In the end, this will pay, I assure you!

Enjoyed this article?

Share it with friends on Twitter or subscribe to my newsletter to stay up-to-date!

{ 6 comments… read them below or add one }

Nate August 9, 2010 at 2:21 pm

Good advice Reuben. I think what you’re talking about here really is doing though as opposed to true procrastination that is not doing something based on anxieties or fears associated with a certain task. Your examples of doing above are brilliant! I think it really gets to re-connecting with yourself, whatever that may involve. I think this is probably getting into semantics, but I think it’s about disconnecting….about getting away from the computer, twitter, facebook or whatever, to just be with yourself.

And you’re right, it certainly doesn’t mean mindlessly being with yourself. Instead it’s focusing on activities w/o the expectation that something needs to happen or come out of it. So instead of ‘oh, I have to complete this task so that x will happen,’ it’s more like ‘i’m going to do this just to do it, with no expectations about the result.’

I think that’s the problem that many people face. They get so stressed out about doing and thinking it needs to produce some result…or doing to get to the next step. More and more there’s less just doing for the sake of doing…out of enjoyment, even non-doing as a form of doing (e.g. meditation). This is what I think we need more of.

Reply

Ruben Berenguel August 9, 2010 at 2:53 pm

@Nate: Exactly! You got perfectly what I meant. Doing for the sake of doing, without expecting any outcome. I think there is some Buddhist saying along these lines, but doing for the sake of doing should be the point of leisure. And we need more leisure of this type in our lives.

Ruben

Reply

Fabian August 11, 2010 at 1:05 pm

Could it be possible to overcome the kind of anxious procrastination you mention, Nate, by allowing ourselves to do more “for the sake of doing”? On the one hand, we might still be procrastinating on our “real” task no. 1, but at the same time we might solve task no. 2 or give our brain some time to figure out no. 1, although apparently we aren`t doing anything related. Or is this just a cheap excuse? I am not sure, but I don`t really think so… as you both know, of course! ;)

Reply

Ruben Berenguel August 11, 2010 at 4:44 pm

A long, long time ago I read a blog post (I think back then it wasn’t even a blog post) about “useful procrastination”. A faculty professor got a lot done, just by procrastinating on a book he had to write. He was seen by everyone as real productive (helping students, drafting courses… lots of things) just by avoiding the big task. He suggested back then picking a big task you can procrastinate on to be able to work on “real” work. This was long ago, and I have lost the bookmark (I don’t even remember the title…) but maybe you have read it?

Ruben

Oh! I see you have activated follow up comments via e-mail (thumb up!)

Reply

Ruben Berenguel August 12, 2010 at 12:39 am

Amazing. I posted this post in Reddit… And just today (the day after my comment!) A reddit commenter pointed to the post I was talking about: http://www.structuredprocrastination.com/

:)

Reply

Fabian August 13, 2010 at 7:14 am

Yes, I read this once, too. I think it can work great, although he eventually brings it to a point that wouldn’t work for me anymore, if I remember correctly: I think he kind of “makes up” bigger tasks, to work on the lesser ones. But I just cannot trick myself like that… it’s like the “Give yourself a treat for working well” recommendation. That definitely won’t work for me, because I can give myself the treat whenever I like! ;)

Reply

Leave a Comment