The procrastination equation has four parts:
expectancy, which is how much you genuinely believe you’re likely to complete a task,
value, which is how important a task is to you– being able to see how something fits into a larger picture that you care about,
delay, which is how much time there is between the present moment and the payoff of completing a task (and/or the consequence of not completing it),
impulsiveness, which is I think a mix of individual distractability and the presence of distractions in the environment.
I think when I look at my past writing and thinking, a lot of it is focused on value– in the vomit about struggling with school, I talked about how it’s easier to make sense of how important it is to do a job that pays the bill that keeps the roof over your head, as opposed to trying to make sense of doing work to prepare for a test which contributes to an exam grade which contributes to a piece of paper called a degree which then makes it likelier that you’ll get a job (where you contribute in some small, micro way to some sort of value-creation engine), which will pay you money that you can then use to pay the bills that keep the roof over your head.
It does start to seem crazy when we begin optimizing intensively for such a specific way to solve the problem of the messy business of subsistence. It still seems crazy to me. Just because a lot of people do it doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right thing to do, or necessarily a good thing for any particular person to do. But okay– staying away from questions of right and wrong, good and bad, there’s simply the fact that the real value is much more removed in the second scenario. And the further I am from the value of something, the harder it is for me to compel myself to do it. It almost feels like something outside of my conscious control. I have to try and force myself, and my willpower muscle is weak.
So value is what I’ve been talking about when I’m trying to talk about the importance of coming up with narratives that make sense to you. If you know that your life’s goal is to be a doctor, and you have no choice but to get great grades, and for that you have no choice but to study, and for that you have to prepare for your tests, then test preparation is in a sense meaningful, or valuable, or interesting– a lot more, at least, than for a person who has no idea what they want to do, and is deeply skeptical of whatever is projected as the Supposedly Good Thing. Especially when there are all these op-eds written by people who regret the premature optimization they did with their lives.
So it’s important to “follow the money” and figure out what the value is for you. In everything that you’re about to do, if there’s a good reason to do it, you should surface that reason– at least, I know that I should– because it makes it much likelier that I’ll do it. Creating value is like getting Karma or Likes or earning internet points. It’s nice to help people.
So that’s that about value. It’s actually pretty straightforward. Figure out why you’re doing what you’re doing, and write it down so that you can’t ignore it, and you’re likelier to do it.
Expectancy is all about breaking down tasks into smaller tasks that are simpler and more manageable, more measurable. Rather than committing to some absurd outcome, commit to the processes that will get you closer to the outcome. Figure out what the factors are. So instead of saying “I must get straight A’s”, you might break it down into– to get an A for Chemistry, I need to practice these weak topics. Currently I’m at a C on average, because these are the parts that I get wrong.”
Expectancy, then, is a function of deliberate practice, pushing yourself slightly out of your comfort zone a little bit each time, breaking down big scary things into small manageable chunks. Something that I tend to neglect because I have this odd bias for trying to do the big dramatic gesture, which I know now, after having been burnt several times. Every time I look at something that has gone undone for an extended period of time, I tend to start planning some sort of grand response in which everything gets done wonderfully all at once in this big heroic gesture. I need to really relearn that.
For example, I have been wanting to restring my acoustic guitar for quite some time. I have a post-it on the wall that says “restring acoustic guitar”, and I have the guitar strings which I bought at some point– when I was buying new electric guitar. But now the prospect of restringing the acoustic guitar feels like it needs to be an event, like it’ll take over an hour, from getting the pliers to pull out the pegs to cutting the old strings and cleaning the fretboard and putting on the new strings… when I state all of these sub-tasks, it becomes clearer that it’s actually quite a quick-and-easy job and it’s something that I can get out of the way and feel better about, but somehow when I haven’t listed out the subtasks, it just becomes vague and it doesn’t get done. I have this problem with vagueness– I try to solve problems in my head instead of breaking them down step by step, visually in front of me.
Really, I wanted to use this post to talk about impulsiveness, but I’ve spent so much time talking about expectancy and value that I might as well save it for the next vomit. In the meantime– delay is another big problem for me because if something isn’t immediately in front of me, it becomes something that’s so far away that it doesn’t exist. This short sightedness causes a lot of anxiety, and I need to think about how to fix that. The stock answer is– take everything that’s far away and break it down into little things that are due in arbitrary sooner-dates, and then tie some $$ or some costs to those dates so that they feel like real deadlines too, and you do something about them.
I’ve always put this stuff off. It’s like my last line of defence, the “Ah, yes, that makes sense. *sage nod*”, but no action.
We’ll get around to it. It’s 230am now, so I should go to bed. 10 vomits today. I could try and do the last 5 tomorrow morning, but realistically that’s not going to happen and I shouldn’t make such empty promises. I should be satisfied with being at 295. We’ll re-evaluate tomorrow.