Procrastination Illustrated

I’ve been reading a lot about attention, compulsion, digital distraction, and procrastination lately. Certainly more to come of that here on the blog in the coming weeks/months (this multi-year journey through Deep Work has been really something) but I spent some time this morning writing out my thoughts on procrastination and illustrating it. Some of this comes from Thoreau’s, Walden’s take on time as a currency or metric of life, but let me start with the illustration and go from there. I don’t have/use any fancy touch-screen drawing tools or anything, so we’ll have to settle for a scanned, hand-drawn image today 😉.

Blue = “Time spent freely, with accomplishment and success”
Purple = “Time spent anxious, with tugging commitment and avoidance”

A few important implications here:

  • The amount of time in a day is finite and we can plot that on a line. The left side is constantly moving toward the right.
  • For any given task (represented as a chunk of time [rectangle] on the line), it must get done at some point. We can move it around, but at the end of the day, it must be completed.
  • Time can be shifted around the task, either before or after, depending on when we choose to execute the task.

These presuppositions might all seem obvious (and that’s fine!) but I think the deeper conclusion that this drawing helped me tease out is that the quality of ‘blue time’ is differs significantly from the quality of ‘purple time’. Shifting time around a given task isn’t a zero-sum operation. There’s a cost! When choosing to move ‘blue time’ to ‘purple time’ (by choosing to delay the execution of a task), we significantly degrade the quality of that time.

Following the definitions given above, ‘blue time’ is the best type of time! It’s the “everything’s done, I did a good work, I’m proud of my actions” sort of time. Imbued both with freedom and the self-confidence yielded from true effort. This type of time is the “stuff of life”, to quote an old college inscription.. blue time is the goal. Conversely, purple time is generally not a fun type of time. It might be spent doing menial things, reading news / articles we don’t care about, scrolling on platforms we loathe, or otherwise. It’s the time we spend when we know we should be doing something else.

The weight of that overhead — the knowledge of what we ought to be doing — inherently makes purple time less pleasant.. less fulfilling. In the case of the procrastinator, it’s a continual borrowing of blue time to create purple time — a continual degradation of the little time we have, ultimately yielding a less (or un-) fulfilling day with less to show for it. In the case of the schedule-shifter (those who move things around to put fun things before effortful things), it’s wrong to expect the fun things to fulfill us to the same capacity as they would’ve had they been enjoyed after our responsibilities.

Time spent with unpleasantry looming ahead will never compete with time in clear skies.

So, simply put, strive for line #1 above, not #2. And hopefully never #3. Focus on blue time.

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