Throw Away the Carrot, Burn the Stick: Rethinking Procrastination, Part Three

“Deserve’s got nothing to do with it” Clint Eastwood, Unforgiven

I’m not an expert in beating procrastination, just an expert in suffering from it. So here’s the part where my insight becomes even less applicable to all of you. And remember that what we’re dealing with here, as discussed in parts one and two, is breaking down an entire culturally-coded mindset towards work and creativity. So it’s not going to be easy. It takes a lifetime to rewire your brain. But what I’m doing is starting to make a difference, for me.

The answer, unfortunately, is time management and scheduling. Unfortunately, there’s no way around that. But the trick is doing it well. One of the reasons we hate schedules is because almost always, the things we schedule are the boring things. If your schedule has nothing on it but TIME FOR ICECREAM, you might learn to like scheduling. That reminds me: in 18 minutes, I have to eat ice-cream.

There’s an old stunt they like to do in time-management classes. They take a jar, and fill it with golfballs until they can’t get any more in. And the jar is full! But then they add ballbearings and they go into all the space between the golfballs, until you can’t get any more ball bearings in. Jar is full! Then you add sand, and once again, you can add a lot to the jar, even though it was already full. And for the final demonstration, they show that if you put the sand in first, there’s barely room for any ballbearings, and no golfballs after that. The metaphor is banally obvious: look after the pounds and the pennies will look after themselves, as it were. It is not unuseful advice: you can, in fact, take your eyes off the little things if you keep the big things in line. The gigantic problem with this visualisation is they forget the important part, which is figuring out which things in your life are golf balls, and which are sand.

And most people get it backwards. Because we’re taught to.

Think about it: if you put “play Civ 5” down as a golfball, you sound shallow. Silly. Childish. No, those golfballs have to be big and important. Jobs. Security. A future. Or “fulfilling”: love, family, spiritual meaning, connections, saving the rainforest. And for some people, that might work. You might put those things in as your golf balls and somehow, you just naturally fill in everything else without thinking. But a lot of us aren’t like that at all.

Like I said last time: as human beings, we need and deserve leisure time and rest. We depend on it. Without it, we wither and die and can’t do anything else. Therefore, it makes a lot of sense to make it the biggest golf-ball of all.

So you schedule it. You put it in first. Also important: a good night’s sleep. That goes in there. And also, you can even schedule procrastinating activities, those non-engaged activities that are just fun to do while your brain is asleep. Stuffing around on the internet. Checking email. Watching TV. Lying in bed thinking about Spiderman. Eating ice-cream. Licking ice-cream off interesting body parts. These are the things that go on your daily schedule. And probably nothing else, at least to start with. Because everything else is the sand. It’ll get done. It’ll happen. But only if you have the strength to tackle it.

And what you find is two-fold: one, you really work harder at the sand when you know you have to stop and think about Spiderman in ten minutes. The motivation is built in, and the excitement drives you on. You forget about achievement and output because you don’t have time to think about them. You have ice-cream coming up. You have to move or you’ll miss it. Second, if you schedule your ice-cream, boy, do you enjoy it more. Because it’s guilt free. Right there, on your timetable: half an hour to eat ice-cream. You don’t have to worry about what you should be doing, because you’re DOING what you should be doing. In fact, you may engage so much with the activity, you may even want to do it less.

Think about it: most of the time you stop playing a game because you’re no longer engaged, or because it’s time to do something else. What if you couldn’t stop, because you’d scheduled 2 hours to play and you had to fill those hours? You might actually get bored. You might distract yourself. Do a bit of sand-stuff, so you can fill out those two hours. You might even be less keen to rush back to the game for the next two hours because you remember the drudgery at the end. You might stall a bit in your writing, go over time, just so you don’t have to do quite so much Civilization. Like sand, the writing slips between the cracks, filling in those precious little seconds. And it gets done. Because you’re not fighting against what you do and don’t deserve any more.

I have two minutes left, so I’ll finish there. Like I said, it might not work for you. But it’s really not as crazy as it sounds. Figure out what is important to you to DO, not to have accomplished, without judging or shame, and give leisure its deserved role. Then schedule that and only that. Then let the sand be sand. And see what happens.

Good luck.

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5 thoughts on “Throw Away the Carrot, Burn the Stick: Rethinking Procrastination, Part Three

  1. To follow your metaphor, I’ve had to learn that I can’t actually do a golfball-task without breaking it down into sand-activities. That breaking down is partly hard planning work and partly hard asking questions of yourself – both of which require lots of practice to excel at.

  2. The size of the balls refers to the item’s importance to your life, not to the difficulty or size of the task, though. But your metaphor may still apply. For me, the biggest golfball is “stuff around on the internet”. Which is hard to plan and involves few hard questions.

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