lifehacking: parkinsons law, deadlines, procrastination, and baiting the panic monster
Do you find yourself working much better, faster and, I dunno, stronger(!?) when a deadline is looming?
I do too! What’s that all about eh?!
Do you also find that however long you estimate a task to take it always seems to take that long, and in fact you spend the last few hours before the deadline pumping out lots of high productivity hours of work to get it done in time?
Again me too!
We really need to get to the bottom of all this.
Turns out that at least one of these things has already been named and shamed a long time ago by a dude called Cyril Northcote Parkinson. Quite egotistically he called it Parkinson’s law and it states the following:
work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion
The first thing I noted above kinda flows out of this “law” as well because people like you and me will often dawdle around a task if we know there is time in hand to complete it and then at the last minute when there is just enough time left to complete the task we will rush through it at breakneck speed and complete it at a level that is probably good enough but not really quite as good as we could have done if we’d worked at that rate the whole time.
A good personal example of this was in fact only a week or so ago when I set myself the task of building a new shelf unit (see picture above, paint job to come!) in our hallway in one of my 2 weeks off work. Knowing I had time in hand things got off to a predictably pedestrian start, and on top of that, the scope of the project also expanded to include basically redecorating the whole of the hallway, plus building a new shoe rack as well. Oops! I didn’t get the whole thing done within the two weeks but I needed to get all of the cutting done because it’s a pain in the bum getting everything outside to cut wood then getting it back in again when you’re finished, plus it’s noisy, so I didn’t want to leave any small cuts to be finished off in the evenings or weekends. So what happened, on the final day something came over me and I morphed from plain ole TFS into mega-manic-wood-cutting-incredible-hulk man and quite literally cut more wood in about 3 hours than I had the rest of the 2 weeks. Some people might call this state “flow” and I definitely felt like I was in some sort of higher state although probably a bit too hectic to be the proper flow people talk about. Either way it was pretty cool to knock out such a large amount of work in such a short amount of time.
If only there was a way we could tap into this state and call upon it at will!?
Chance would be a fine thing, because unfortunately I have some bad news for us…
Welcome to the club 🙂
If you didn’t catch the link I chucked in at the bottom of one of my posts the other week then you really should read at this point the genius article from Wait But Why (WBW) on Procrastinators. A very quick summary if you can’t be bothered to read it 1 follows.
You have three imaginary creatures in your brain all vying for control of the mother ship – your brain/body – and what it does:
- The Rational Decision Maker (RDM): This is the person we all *think* we are most of the time. He does things that makes sense and even if there is short term pain but he knows there will be a longer term gain, he’s on it like a car bonnet. He likes to make plans and tries his very best to stick to them
- The Self-Gratification Monkey: This guy is a bit of a dick and spends most of his time trying to sabotage RDM’s plans by taking control of the mother ship and diverting it’s attention to stuff that is in the short term fun (or at least “not painful/boring”) but will have no long term gains for your lifetime happiness. He is the guy that feels most satisfied when you go into that Youtube video or Wikipedia article death spiral and all of a sudden it’s 3 hours later and you were supposed to be doing some real work.
- The Panic Monster: He only rears his ugly head when that deadline is looming near and shit is really about to hit the fan if you don’t get your arse into gear! He scares the Monkey away and the RDM is left to work his magic on the real task at hand.
OK so it’s a little bit of a weird analogy but one that I found strikingly accurate to how my brain tends to work and I am guessing by the amount of hits that page has got on Wait But Why there will be a LOT of you readers out there that are also nodding your head along to all of this right now.
So what can we do about all of this?
baiting the monster
The best life hack style (and perhaps rather obvious solution) I can think of 2 is to bait the panic monster.
We can do this by setting up interim deadlines, breaking bigger tasks down into smaller ones, and so on.
For example let’s say your big goal is to write a book but you haven’t even got out of the starting blocks yet. I would genuinely consider starting a blog for your book and writing it up one chapter at a time online. Say on the blog you will publish one chapter every month. Public eyes on your work and accountability to external sources will get the panic coming out to play at regular intervals and kicking the monkey’s arse back up his tree. You could of course just say to yourself, I will try to write one chapter every month but for me this is not enough to get the panic monsters attention.
It all depends on how prone to procrastination you are; I would say I am a middle of the road procrastinator, used to be much worse than I am now 3 but if you only suffer from mild procrastination maybe simply setting yourself internal interim goals will do the trick here. On the other hand if you are a really chronic procrastinator then even public accountability may not be enough.
I’m trying to think of other ways of baiting the panic monster but they are kind of just down to whatever the specific goal in mind is, so here is a non exhaustive list of some things I’ve had on my todo list for quite a long time and how I might get things going on them:
- At least 5 blog posts I’ve promised to write up for various readers that have requested them (Sorry!) – Baiting the monster: Going through the ideas for these posts and putting them somewhere far more prominent than they currently are which is hiding within emails that have long dropped off the first page of my inbox. Like tattooed on the insides of my eye lids or something?!
- Tax return for 2015/16 – not long left to get that one sorted!!! – Baiting the monster: Shit, just looking at the deadline looming has got him coming from the hills already so I don’t think I will need much further help with this one!
- Start training for the marathon – Baiting the monster: OK so I only found out I got in a few weeks ago but I still need to get moving on it. I want to have done 2 x 10 mile runs and 2 x half marathons before the new year. There I said it here and will post my times on the December update post. Panic monster well and truly baited!
- Organise photos of baby T and print out some of the best ones to put in her baby book/give to relatives – Baiting the monster: Easy one here, we need to give some framed photos to relatives for Christmas so this needs to happen sometime in the next 2 weeks so we can order them in time!!!
isn’t there something you’d rather be doing?
There is one other really interesting thing about procrastination as a very high level concept which I think is intrinsically linked to the whole world of working and therefore us FIRE lot trying to escape that grimy world.
That is when something is enforced upon us it becomes way less fun.
I know this from 35 years of personal experience, such as:
- When I was in Six Form, I spent every waking hour reading about how to make, and writing electronic music. I was obsessed by it. I then went to University where it became something compulsory and horrendously less fun at the same time. I then decided I started to like Gambling and dreamed of becoming a professional gambler, and even then got a job at a…
- Gambling company – Obviously as soon as started there gambling lost it’s appeal pretty quickly (although I still do it a little and of course Matched Betting!) so I then decided I like golf more instead and dreamed of becoming a PGA professional…
- But of course I know by now that if by some random happening I ever got anywhere near the point that golf would become work it would also be a fun suck and therefore this is in all likelihood not worth pursuing – forgetting the fact that I’m crap at it for the purposes of this argument 🙂
- Even remembering times as a child when you would have a game going that you’d made up and then some adult would come along and impose their own rules and regulations on it, things would get real boring real quickly.
So basically what I am trying to get at is that FIRE could be a very good way to remove some of the barriers that procrastination can set up to doing what you really want to deep down, because now everything is a game, nothing has to be enforced or done for money and so we can just do what we feel like on any given day.
It certainly isn’t the silver bullet, but it may help some people.
don’t beat yourself up about it
I would like to say one final thing and that is, please don’t beat yourself too much about procrastination. Reading comments on the WBW post(s) it is clear that some people are suffering a lot of anxiety and guilt about not getting their shit together, fully realising their potential and following their dreams of becoming a literary hero/rockstar drummer/the next Einstein.
I know this is easier said than done and I’ve spent many a moment cursing myself for wasting the last X many hours on doing something that I shouldn’t be doing but if you zoom out and look at it from a whole life perspective there really are no wasted moments when the monkey is about. I find that people who procrastinate will not often literally just waste their time by say watching TV (although I reckon Facebook sessions could be a big time waster!) but by doing something still kind of productive such as cleaning the house, reading something online (not necessarily wasted time as you are probably learning something new), organising their photos on their PC or in real life, and so on. Some of these things would otherwise be on your list of things to do anyway, it’s just not what you planned or were supposed to be doing right now.
Of course if you waste your whole day watching Jezza Kyle re-runs and stalking your exes on Facebook, maybe there is no hope for you…
Do you suffer from procrastination?
How do you deal with it?
Can you think of any more ideas to bait the panic monster and keep the self gratification monkey at bay?
Update 14/12/2016 – Just came across an old comment I left on a post from TMM (The Mini Millionaire) called “There’s simply not enough hours in the day” which I would link to but can’t seem to find it on her blog anymore. Anyway I think you get the gist of the post from the post title?! I’ll post my comment below as it is very relevant to what we were discussing above (I’d saved my comment into Evernote in case you were wondering how I got it without having access to the blog post) (Extra emphasis added on the bit that I think is a good idea!):
I am with you on the whole working better under pressure thing. If I have a long time frame to work on something I will just fritter away time as my mind is unfocused. I have learnt to give myself shorter time goals when working on a big project, i.e. splitting it into shorter chunks with separate deadlines. Alternatively just give yourself a totally unrealistic deadline and then end up going over by 2 weeks. It’s weird as it will feel like you failed missing the deadline but it is a good way of getting maximum productivity before the “real” deadline approaches.
- in which case you are probably not a procrastinator anyway as you obviously want to get back to what you should be doing as quickly as possible anyway 😉 ↩
- Although to be fair Tim from WBW does mention it in his article on how to beat procrastination here as well ↩
- Hello University Days I’m talking to you… who wasn’t when they were a student though I suppose!? ↩