Procrastination of the good to achieve the best

To overcome procrastination I’m going to “eat the frog” as my first task in my day. When I get into the lab at 4 in the morning, I usually start with some reading. First, I read the blogs (bad habit). Then I read a journal article (much better). During the election I was hopeless. I barely read science. I’m on a bit of a blog detox these days and my reading habits are much improved.

This week I’ve been getting in first thing and trying to troubleshoot an experiment. I’m frustrated with it, and a little obsessed. In one way, that makes me productive. We’re making progress. In another way, it’s procrastination because I’m putting off editing and grading (which I hate).

Virtuous procrastination is when you are doing something really Quadrant 2 in order to procrastinate something that is Quadrant 1 or 3.

Still, my commitments are going to overwhelm me if I don’t get on it. I think I need to get in and devote time (two pomodoro, perhaps) to the things I least want to do. I need to eat the frog. It will likely make my day less stressful overall.


How I organize my life

Here’s the short, short version of three books on productivity: Getting Things Done, Scrum and the 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.

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When I try to hold a long list of obligations in my head, I feel very stressed. Each time something comes up that needs my attention, I log it in a central, trusted location called a “bucket.” For my bucket, I use “remember the milk” which as an app and a website. They sync  up so I always have access to the same list through my phone or my PC. I have built a very reliable habit of always putting every “to do” item in RTM. For the most part, that means I don’t have that “wasn’t I supposed to reply to someone about something?” feeling. That’s very important to my sanity.

At least once a week, I purge the to-do list in RTM. I take the tasks in my list and sort them by 2 distinctions: Urgent/Not Urgent and Important/Not Important. Urgency is obvious. If a to-do item has a deadline or feels pressing, it’s urgent. Importance is relative to my goals. I ask “is this necessary to move me closer to my goals?” and if it is, it’s important. Things that are not important get deleted. This is critical and it’s the hardest for me. I want to do it all, but I can’t, so I have to choose.


If items are urgent and important (“Quadrant I”) I do them immediately or (if they will take too long) I break them down into sub-tasks. Anything that has a deadline goes into Google Calendar. Anything that just requires an email (or the equivalent), I do immediately. If items are not urgent, but are important (“Quadrant II”) they are ones that require special focus. These are the things that will never happen unless I make them happen. These go on the Scrum Board.


The Scrum Board has 3 categories: Backlog, Doing and Done. It’s a simplified system relative to real scrum methodology. It’s just for me and not for my whole team. I use different colors of sticky notes to represent different “sprints.” So, I’ll be working on orange sticky notes (current sprint) while accumulating green sticky notes (next sprint) in the backlog. I work on one color until they are done.  Then I discard everything in the “Done” column. That helps me balance my priorities and projects.


I also have a daily routine that doesn’t go on the board or the bucket. Those are things like meditation, working out, and blogging. If I do it every day, I don’t keep it in the queue. It’s distracting.

Writing breakdown: brainstorm, sleep, write, edit, repeat


Based on some of the writing tips on, I separated my writing routine into three steps: brainstorm, write, edit. It was amazing how easy it was to write in the morning when I had the topic all picked out from the day before. There are some great writer communities on

The workflow looks like this: at the end of the day I write down a specific writing topic that I want to cover the next day. That might be something political, a tip for students, or something I’ve built in the lab. It might be a summary of an article I’ve read. When I get into work the next morning, it’s easy to write about a topic if I already have it picked out (if I try to brainstorm and then write, I get caught in endless brainstorming). Once I’m done with a short piece like this, I edit. Editing is easier with a text-to-speech engine. I have a hard time reading my own work critically. Listening to my own work critically is relatively easy. I find that I can hear when a paragraph works. Over the course of the day I look for something I would like to write about tomorrow.

So there you go: if you want to write regularly, try separating your brainstorming and your writing.

Meditation and pleasure reading help me stop procrastination

I try to take 15 minutes to meditate every morning. The old proverb goes: “If you have enough time, you should meditate 15 minutes each day. If you don’t have enough time, then meditate for 30 minutes.” I laughed the first time I heard that, but I think it’s 100% true. The days I don’t meditate or the days I’m most distracted and most prone to procrastinate. The days I’m most stressed and anxious, the days I feel like I have the least time are also the days when I am most prone to procrastinate. Coincidence? I think not. Meditation helps. The more overwhelmed I feel, the more important it is to take the 15 minutes. Or even 10 (like this youtube video). I used the Headspace program for a year and I do recommend it, but once I had it down it was not much harder to do with a free app like the Insight Timer.

The second method is pleasure reading. I’m a lifelong reader of science fiction. I love it. But aside from pleasure, this gives me a real method for reducing my stress and anxiety. Some activities just postpone my anxiety for a short time. So, reading a political or economic article is interesting. It’s a diversion from an important but anxiety-provoking activity. But when the article is done I don’t feel any less anxiety; if anything I feel more. The deadline is a little closer. Kira Newman over at expresses her anxiety as a graph, and I think that’s useful.

Procrastinators (like me) don’t want to work until there is a crisis. Strangely, once the crisis hits, I start to work hard and the anxiety goes down. That’s the central paradox of procrastination: crisis = less anxiety. 2016-11-08-05_58_36-krita

This is why a longer timeline for a project may not produce better results or less stress. The longer timeline means that there is room for denial and inertia. The worst thing is an infinite or undefined deadline because anxiety can increase without bounds. 2016-11-08-05_58_47-graph-paper-sketch-graph-paper-sketch-kra-modified-krita

This is also why diversions or “breaks” are dangerous: they put off the crisis that will help get things started and get the anxiety under control. Tim Urban calls this urge to divert the “instant gratification monkey.” 2016-11-08-05_58_48-graph-paper-sketch-graph-paper-sketch-kra-modified-krita

Isn’t pleasure reading another break? I think “procrastination breaks” are attempts to reduce the anxiety the same way that eating snack food is an attempt to reduce hunger. The bad habit would be to wallow in anxiety, divert, wallow, divert, endlessly. Like someone who feels hungry, eats candy, and then immediately feels hungry again. It’s a bad cycle. The answer is not to stop eating, but to eat the right thing: an actual, satisfying meal. Reading is the right thing for me. It’s still not easy to get started without a crisis, but it’s easier without the ever present desire to divert.


Fun reading list this year: Dawn by Octavia E. Butler, Ash by Melinda Lo, A Crucible of Souls by Mitchell Hogan, Beauty by Robin McKinley, Memory by Linda Nagata, The Long Utopia by Terry Pratchett, Outlander by Diana Gabaldon and even a non-sci-fi book called That’s Not How You Wash A Squirrel By David Thorne