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!

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