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Soon: an Overdue Review

I picked up Soon: An Overdue History of Procrastination, from Leonardo and Darwin to You and Me by Andrew Santella based on a podcast (but I don't recall which one).  It's hard not to make a lot of procrastination jokes - the author sounds like he had plenty of them while writing the book.

This isn't a book about how to "fix" procrastination. Rather it is a review of the ways people have thought about it over time, as well as Santella’s own challenges with procrastination. There are many takes on the topic that made for a good read - examples from the author himself as well as from famous characters through history. Now I just wish I could get off my duff and do something about it.

What is procrastination? I assume everyone knows - putting of to tomorrow what should be done today - in particular when you would expect to be worse off for the delay. But there are many varieties of how people do this: from sitting around doing "nothing" to doing everything but the thing that should be done. There is a lot of "should" in the discussion of procrastination. Many of the examples were of the amazing things people have done while not doing the thing that was important. Darwin, for example, did tons of work on other topics while The Origin of Species sat waiting for 20 years. He spent several years doing definitive research on barnacles (!). 

Who would write who had anything better to do?
— Lord Byron, in his journal

Santella provides plenty of examples of his own procrastination, and then this great quote from Lord Byron on his own procrastination tendencies. This seems to be a familiar thread for writers. Excuses run the gamut from "someone else had the pencil" (Dorothy Parker) to fear of failure / perfection to the random walks being part of the creative process. 

Procrastination is often tied up with the concept of laziness (or sloth, if you are of a particularly religious bent). There is even a St. Expedite to whom one can pray to help get things done. And laziness is seen as "bad" in many, many cultures. Just look at the story of the "lazy" grasshopper compared to the industrious ants. The grasshopper was busy making music instead of putting food up for the winter. Was that laziness? It certainly didn't do him any good as the fallow season arrived. But at the time, I'm sure it felt right (or at least enabled him to bury the thought of what he was supposed to be doing). 

Something curious strikes me as I think about how we paint procrastination as an evil that must be overcome. And we talk about the industrious ants as something to emulate. We reward them for finishing for finishing on time. What happens if they finish early? Do we care?  This is relevant in the project management world, as we are so heavily focused on delivering each-and-every activity on time, assuming that this will guarantee that the project finishes on time. The funny thing is that it often doesn't work, but because we are so tied into the everything-on-time mentality that it is difficult to picture a different way of operating. Wouldn't it encourage the sloth that we are trying to prevent?  

In projects, and knowledge work in general, the way around this challenge is twofold: give people fewer things to do and less time to do it in. Having fewer things reduces the incentive to jump from task to task to task - it reduces the incentive the look "busy" while getting nothing actually done. And providing less time to do it in prevents the double edge sword of Parkinson's Law (work expands to fill the time allotted) and Student Syndrom (wait to the last moment). On top of these, clearly defining what is required to successfully complete the work - and NOT starting unless those prerequisites are ready - is a another strategy to get more stuff done quickly.

This book isn't going to stop my procrastination. But it was a fun way to spend a couple hours thinking about my own situation in the light of history of procrastinators through time.

Speaking of Procrastination, I have always enjoyed this Tales of Mere Existence story by Lev Yimlaz. Turns out he has a series of these videos on procrastination.

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