Nude Victor Hugo knew something a lot of fully dressed authors never work out; when you strip everything away, like literally everything, underpants included, there’s not much left to distract you from your deadline. Hugo, who could have procrastinated for France at the Olympics if the Olympics had been rebooted when he was alive and writing Les Misérables and The Hunchback of Notre Dame, knew himself and his weaknesses well enough that before a writing session he would get naked and instruct his valet to hide all his clothes so that he couldn’t leave his word-nerd cave.
Of course, unlike you, Nude Victor Hugo didn’t have the internet at his fingertips, tempting him away from decorum and productivity with a quick Google search for, say, “Nude Victor Hugo.”
(Seriously, don’t even. The New Yorker’s ferociously exacting fact checkers have already verified this one).
I’ve never had to get naked to meet a deadline. And it would seem a bit pointless since my natural state of being is pantsless anyway.
But like big, swingin’ Vic, I have at times stripped out the possibility of all distraction in the hope of the finally, finally… finally… being able to get something done. I’ve turned off my phone and tossed it into the car just before my wife drove to her office for the day. I’ve used website-blockers to stop me visiting my favourite timewasters. I’ve deleted all the games from all of my machines. In the olden days when things like games used to come on things like computer discs, I even gathered up all my disks and took them across town to a friend who I begged to hide them from me until I had submitted the book I was supposed to be writing. (Weapons of Choice, for what it’s worth).
I have felt the creeping, murmuring, sick self-loathing that comes from knowing I absolutely, positively have to get a piece of work finished (or even started) as I sit for hours, paralysed by hopeless ennui. I have, like many of you I suspect, channelled all my creative energies into days, or sometimes weeks of transference, cleaning my office, walking the dog, or walking random dogs stolen from neighbourhood yards.
I (mostly) don’t do that anymore.
I have (mostly) figured out ways to avoid getting lost in what Tim Urban, waitbutwhy.com’s resident procrastinator calls ‘The Dark Playground’.
But even now, coming up on forty years’ worth of filing copy on deadline, there are days I struggle to get the words written. Not because I’m blocked, but because even after four decades of paying the bills by writing one word after another, I still sometimes forget the bill is due and must be paid. I get distracted. I lose focus. I wander into the Dark Playground.
I used to think of that place I’d go when I should have been working as a dark forest, a dense forbidding wilderness with criss-cross trails leading ever further into hopelessness and, let’s say it, despair.
Despair is, I think, the signature mood of the procrastinator.
But reading Urban’s long, thoughtful essay about five or six years ago (yes, I was procrastinating by diving deep into the research on procrastination, hoping desperately for release), I realised his identification of the dark place as a playground rather than a forest was much better.
The Dark Playground is a place every procrastinator knows well. It’s a place where leisure activities happen at times when leisure activities are not supposed to be happening. The fun you have in the Dark Playground isn’t actually fun because it’s completely unearned and the air is filled with guilt, anxiety, self-hatred, and dread.
Oh yeah, that place. Recognise it?
Urban’s piece is well worth a read, but not during work hours. Set aside an hour or so tonight or on the weekend. It’ll still be there. He wrote that sucker back in 2013.
This idea, or fear, that somehow you’ll miss out if you don’t instantly gratify a raging desire to dust those bookshelves, steal that dog, or read that twenty-thousand word essay should be familiar to any veteran procrastinator. I feel it, I really do. There is nothing so compelling as absofuckinglutely anything other than what you should be doing when you wander into the Dark Playground, or Forest, or whatever the hell you want to call it.
But it’s a lie, no matter strongly felt.
Just how big a lie, you realise at day’s end or when you finally drag your arse through whatever project you were avoiding and you ponder wasting a little bit of your time, not the project’s, on the utter nonsense on which you pissed away all your productive hours earlier.
Suddenly doesn’t seem all that compelling, does it?
Drilling down into the CIA’s use of spy-cats during the Cold War?
Sand papering the rough, yellow edges off that pirated hard copy of Interview with a Vampire you picked up in Hanoi a couple of years ago?
Google-sleuthing the case of D.B. Cooper the mystery hijacker who jumped out of that commuter plane in November 1971 with a parachute and briefcase full of cash?
Yeah, nah, I’ll get back to you next time, D.B.
That weird, free floating sense of urgency can attach itself with the fierce grip of an Alien face-hugger to almost anything other than what you should be doing — only to drop, dead, to the deck plating, a lifeless husk, a couple of hours later?
Where does it come from?
Unsurprisingly there are many, many hours of reading you could put into that answer. Tim Urban’s Dark Playground thesis is internet famous among professional and semi-pro time wasters, but it’s not the most up to date. Pointy-headed legions of economists, psychologists and philosophers and have all lately weighed in on the problem of why we do this to ourselves.
Some blame anxiety. Others the distractions of modern technology, especially the dopaminergic slot machine of social media.
I sometimes toy with the idea that it’s simply thanatos, the Freudian death instinct, manifesting itself as a massive Netflix binge a week before your term paper is due. If all living things are moving inexorably towards death and negation, there must be some underlying motive force carrying us there. That’s why I’ll take a three-hour nap even though I know a razor-tentacled magazine editor from the seventh level of Deadline Hell has despatched demonic wet work squads to lay their vengeance on me.
The reasons you procrastinate probably shake out into a couple of overlapping motives.
Anxiety, first up, because it’s the all-purpose killer. You might be worried about whether you can deliver, and if you do, whether that deliverance is good enough. For some of us, this is reason enough to never even start.
Others have almost no anxiety, but even less organisational skill. They’re almost gagging to get rolling, but five hours later they’ve spent half the day drawing up workflow sheets, reorganising their pen drawer, driving across town to buy a white board, popping out a second time to get dry erase pens, and a third time because the dry erase pens they bought earlier didn’t have exact the right colour selection. They think they’re organised because they are a fucking beast for wielding the tools and weapons of the organised. But they have no ability—or have simply never learned—to prioritise within their organisational maelstrom.
Getting shit done often means triage, in the really brutal sense of that term.
No, this task is not getting my attention. I am going to let it die screaming because this Other Task is more important.
Or perhaps it’s not you? Perhaps the project is the problem. It’s genuinely too huge and too complex to know where to begin. Painting your house, writing a twelve-novel fantasy epic, or doing three years’ worth of unfiled taxes?
Just kill me now.
Drilling down into the secret history of spy-cats is always going to look sexier.
But sometimes the house needs painting, the tax man is at the door and hydra-headed vengeance demons are galloping on zombie war horses to collect your draft manuscript, or your severed head.
I could dwell for hours about the reasons we procrastinate but let’s accept that we do and get to the sunlit uplands where we don’t. Or at least not so very often.
Over the years I’ve built a lot of productivity scaffolding around my bad habits and ruinous personal failings. They don’t always work, but they work well enough that I’m happy to share them with you.
Some are simple, like the idea of the Golden Hour, or Permission to Fail.
It might seem, as you open Amazon’s homepage to search for an even bigger white board and a thousand-colour dry erase pen set, that you are genuinely making headway on your project. After all, just imagine how much better off you’ll be when you’ve mind-mapped every step in your plan to turn your unrivalled collection of thirsty Vulcan slashfic into the Bridgerton of the 23rd Century.
So, sure. Hit up the Beast of Bezos and place that tennis court-sized whiteboard within your possession, my friend!
But do it at 5pm. Or six. Or whenever you set aside a Golden Hour in which you can indulge yourself in any whim or flight of fancy that takes you.
Want to read every citation in Wikipedia’s D.B Cooper page? You can totally do that, but during the Golden Hour; if it still feels like a life-or-death matter at that point, natch. Time shifting your desire to waste time can be a remarkably effective way of not wasting that time after all.
It’s like the way I avoid inhaling my own bodyweight in pastries every day. (Pastry is my health-n-fitness kryptonite. My sweet, delicious kryptonite). When the urge, the very powerful urge to throw myself on a gigantic blueberry Danish strikes me, I just remind myself that Friday is pastry day, and I can have whatever I want then.
Normally that’s enough, just that small break in the chain of desire and wish-fulfilment.
So too with Permission to Fail.
Starting a long day’s work on a long, demanding project isn’t easy, especially when you understand that, like me, you are a feckless nincompoop who is likely to fail - not in the long term, but almost certainly in the next hour. Every day I sit down to write something as long as a novel I do so knowing that it will be finished - one day. But not today. And in that gap between what is and what will be, I am risk of a severe faceplant.
So, every day, before I start, I give myself permission to fail.
Perhaps this is the day, and there are plenty in any project, where I just don’t bring my A-game. Perhaps when I look back on this day, all I’ll see is the YouTube rabbit hole down into which I disappeared. Acrobats combat-twerking in 14th century knights armour?
Fine. Tomorrow is another day.
But let’s just give the deadline half an hour, and if I’m not lovin’ it, there’s a whole internet full of shiny metal acrobats and Picard Borg Sex FanFic out there, a-waitin’.
Usually after half an hour of commitment-free focus, I’ve re-committed to the project.
That half hour is important. It’s as close to a traditional ‘pomo’ session in the Pomodoro Technique as makes no difference.
Some of you will be familiar with this surprisingly effective time management hack, and my long-term love of it. But some won’t.
For them, I’ll explain.
The Pomodoro Technique was the creation of Francesco Cirillo, once upon a time an Italian grad student who was This Close to bombing out of uni because he simply couldn’t bring himself to study. Finally, in desperation, sitting at his mum’s kitchen table as any good Italian boy would, he picked up her kitchen timer. One of those funny little plastic tomato-shaped gadgets.
Franco knew for a righteous certainty that he was not capable of studying for one whole hour, so he cranked it halfway around. Almost.
He promised himself that if he couldn’t study for that long, he would simply give up. (Nice call back for Permission to Fail, there). With the timer set, he ground it out. The toughest twenty-five minutes of his life. But, a success! And the creation of one of the greatest weapons ever deployed in the fight against procrastination.
If the idea of muscling through for a whole day, or a week, or worse, on any project is what’s stopping you from even starting, give yourself permission to fail… but… give yourself a chance to succeed as well.
Set a timer. Just twenty-five minutes. Put arse to chair, pen to paper, Neuralink interface to advanced Synthetic Intelligence or whatever, and see if it all still feels utterly hopeless and wretched when the bell goes off less than half an hour later.
Chances are you’ll be on your way.
Then you stack those tasty red little motherfuckers, one after another, until you’re done.
Done for the day. Done with the project.
Another little tweak?
Record your Pomodoro. I have a notebook for each year in which I track the time I spend working each day. It doesn’t have to be super-complicated, but when you’re deep in the middle of any big object, something as simple as seeing the number of hours you put in today can be a much better and more immediate reward than any imagined future.
The length of your Pomodoro will vary.
I work in blocks of 50-55 minutes, separated by a ten-minute break.
And I rarely do more than five of those in a day.
It might not sound like much, but five hours of concentrated focus—no email, no phone calls, no Twitter, nothing—is a helluva lot more than most people can manage. After decades of marinating the super-hot dopamine stew of a hyper-accelerated digital culture, they are simply not capable of focus. It’s not surprising that procrastination is modernity’s smallpox.
One last little factoid?
A study by Professor Gloria Mark from the University of California, found that average American office worker was able to stay on task for an average only three minutes.
For students it was even worse. Sixty-five seconds.
This wasn’t their fault. It’s simply how we live now.
You are not at fault for procrastinating. You are not weak or somehow to blame for that ‘creeping, murmuring, sick self-loathing’ that comes on around mid-morning when you understand that despite your best intentions…
But you’re not powerless either. The modern world has taken something from you. It is within your power to take it back.
Now get it done.