On Procrastination Avoidance Strategies in a Laissez-faire Work Environment

That is, trying not to procrastinate while working on my PhD.

As the invisible clock has been ticking slowly toward the time by which I must submit my dissertation, I have slowly been trying to prioritise some of the flows of information I choose to view. By flow of information, I mean any person or group of people who offer some sort of value: Facebook friends, Twitter feeds, mailing lists for keeping up to date with certain corners of the Internet community, etc, etc.

Part of my general philosophy with any of these sources I might want to subscribe to or otherwise follow, is that that source must be interesting or relevant to me in some way in the first place. When I consider many of the things on the net I pay attention to, there’s a strong overlap between work and my interests, and so I forego any pretence of attempting to directly budget any new source of information into a 7.5 hour working day. But I must still take care with when I choose to look at these information sources: for me to be constructive after procrastination of any sort requires a context switch which can sometimes take upwards of half an hour. Thus, avoiding procrastination in the first place is wise.

So my attempts over the years to cut out the noise I receive in terms of mailing lists I subscribe to, people I follow, etc, means I have a reasonably good signal-to-noise ratio across these sources. Paradoxically, this makes my procrastination dangerous: it’s not procrastination like playing games, watching TV, but instead it’s procrastination which borders so closely on work that I do not feel like I’m procrastinating. My signal-to-noise ratio makes procrastination dangerous because it presents to me a lot of interesting things often not unrelated to work, and it doesn’t take much before I’m off reading about something new. I relate this to the nerd’s relevancy engine.

To that end, much like my TV has been disconnected for the last couple of months, I seem now to rarely be connected to any instant messaging service. I filter my email heavily, up to the point that I filter any email from social networking sites lest they completely derail my train of thought. I did also attempt to block Facebook via an extension for Chrome on my office machine, but this just meant I ran Firefox more often: clearly prohibition is not the answer for me. Recognising that some things are too interesting is the only tool I have which can successfully minimise procrastination time.

Put another way: I must continue to remind myself to not look at such distractions. So, very often my email client is closed, so I don’t see mailing list messages arriving through the day. I consciously stop myself from glancing at Twitter when waiting a few seconds for code to compile. (Indeed, these micro-moments are the hardest to avoid. They’re long enough that it’s easy to scan the headlines on a news website to check for something, well, new.)

Twitter does carry with it, however, one interesting anti-procrastination side-effect: link shortening services commonly used on Twitter because of the 140-character limit mean I do not know what a link is without clicking. I rely on whoever wrote the tweet to provide me enough incentive to click, as otherwise I cannot know how relevant, useful, or interesting the content might be. And unless specifically annotated by the author of the tweet, I do not know how authoritative the target may be. If I can’t determine the relevancy of the link without clicking said link, then I’m highly unlikely to click that link. Simple. And so, the 140 character limit lends itself to an unusual, and subconscious, coping mechanism.

Of course, you could argue that writing this is another form of procrastination. But procrastination and time-saving has been mentioned to me a few times recently. This is actually an instance of me writing down some thoughts to clear space in my mind for something more useful, and clearly not procrastination at all.


Posted by Stephen Strowes on Sunday, October 31st, 2010. You can follow me on twitter.

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