Why Is It Hard to Do Real Work

When I first read good and bad procrastination by Paul Graham, I was amazed how much my perspective changed about working.

There are three variants of procrastination, depending on what you do instead of working on something: you could work on (a) nothing, (b) something less important, or (c) something more important. That last type, I’d argue, is good procrastination.

The most dangerous form of procrastination is unacknowledged type-B procrastination, because it doesn’t feel like procrastination. You’re “getting things done.” Just the wrong things. Any advice about procrastination that concentrates on crossing things off your to-do list is not only incomplete, but positively misleading, if it doesn’t consider the possibility that the to-do list is itself a form of type-B procrastination. In fact, possibility is too weak a word. Nearly everyone’s is. Unless you’re working on the biggest things you could be working on, you’re type-B procrastinating, no matter how much you’re getting done.

I learned that the most dangerous way to procrastinate is to do some work but not the important work. The kind of work that results to something great. You can be working your ass off and be busy all the time. But why don’t you have a result from all that work? Because those hours spent working were not going to produce anything at all.

I was thinking what are the ways to do more real work and less procrastination.

I write up a list of things I find interesting and important. It’s a weekly list which I carry over to next week. Whenever I’m doing something I can check if that work was something I found important before or not.

This helps me with finding:

  • work that I do which I did not put under the list
  • work that I put under the list but I don’t spend time on. Answering both of them is helpful to spend time wisely.

One of the ways to avoid doing work is being busy deciding non important stuff. There are many decisions to make daily optimizing all is not possible. In these situations I try to get it done, and move on. Imagine if it’s deciding between something that does not matter much, I’d roll a die. Rolling a dice for stuff that are not the main goal is good because it helps to make a decision and have more time. When I free up enough time with useless stuff, I get bored then I do something else. I can repeat this process over and over to get to important work finally.

But there’s also another kind of errand that does not finish. Things like cleaning the house, calling others, checking inboxes. I can be doing these stuff day after day. In case of social media every hour(or minute!) so the dice based decision making does not work. In this case, the best way is to resist the temptation. For necessary ones(housekeeping, chatting with friends), schedule a specific amount of time to only do them within the allotted time.

When I decide to do real work, other urgent works appear. Yet, these tasks are often made up excuses. I realize this could be a coping mechanism to avoid the important work I intended to do. When this happens I pay more attention to the work and try to fix the underlying reason that I don’t want to do the work. It might be that it’s too big of a work and sounds impossible. When something doesn’t sound doable it reduces the motivation to do it. Breaking to smaller achievable tasks help.

Sometimes the distractions are so reachable that avoiding it requires effort. In this case making it harder to reach would be better. If I sit down to write(like right now) I turn off wifi to write the first draft. If I cannot remember something or want to check it I put a note. After finishing, I can use the internet to address those notes. This gets harder with things like programming where I need to look up libraries or install them, but doable. Prepare a list of tasks, download the resources offline, get it done.

Sometimes the reason to procrastinate about something comes from how it’s done. I was watching an old talk from DHH about his experience building 37signals. In the talk he mentions how he limited the amount of hours he could be putting into building their products. How could limiting the hours produce better results? One reason is that you have no room for procrastination. If I do something for only 1 hour a day, that hour is either spent on the work or gone. And when it’s gone I can feel it because I did not get anything done. But if I don’t limit the time, I can be spending the whole day on that task. And the truth is, having a lot of time for doing something makes room for delays. If something comes up you can say “Oh I have the whole day for work so let’s get this done before that.” But this is not possible with one hour time limit. If you decide to do the errand in that hour you don’t get anything done. Which alerts the brain more. It’s better to waste time in obvious ways than with fake work. Because fake work requires more effort to notice.

The worst kind of effort is the one that produces nothing and fighting that is the first step to get to boredom. After staring at the blank page for a while, writing will follow.