What I Talk About When I Talk About Procrastination
Collecting underpants and eating frogs
Imagine time as black and white, where black is work time, and white is playtime. If our days were a chessboard of activity, we’d starkly transform from work to play and play to work and have clear compartmentalization.
The reality is that we mix colors: We muddle our time and spend many hours dwelling in a shade of gray.
Tim Urban (you can’t write an article about procrastination without mentioning Tim) calls this the “dark playground.” Instead of doing our work, we scroll social media, dive into YouTube rabbit holes, and generally have a terrible time having “fun” because our subconscious knows it’s tainted.
If you look objectively at your day, you might find that work requires fewer hours than you think—you might only have 5 hours of tasks. But when you muddle those 5 hours with unplanned distractions, they can expand and dilute the sanctity of your day.
Work, then play. The stark contrast will help you be more effective during worktime and enjoy more playtime.
On an infamous episode of South Park, the boys do a school presentation about “underpants gnomes”— little elves that sneak into a house and steal underpants each night.
The underpants gnomes have a sophisticated plan for their operation:
It’s easy to mimic these underpants gnomes. For instance, every version of this newsletter is a fresh 3-pack of underpants. All these ideas are good (I hope), but they’re worthless without action. Collecting underpants can feel good—it feels like you’re doing something productive—but without a plan to turn these underpants into something (profit, happiness, a quilt of used panties), collecting them is a waste of time.
The same goes for obsessive planning. Don’t get me wrong: Some plans are helpful and vital, but plans without action can be a form of underpants collection.
How can you quickly turn an idea into action?
Eating the Frog
My cousins and I used to visit a place in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula called “Black Rocks”—cliffs beside the icy waters of Lake Superior. The thirty-foot drop was scary, so my cousins and I teetered at the edge for many minutes, summoning the courage to jump. But the longer we took, the harder it became to leap.
Even in the days before distracting and omnipotent devices, Mark Twain procrastinated writing in the morning. He’d play on the dark playground, neither working nor playing but wasting time in a terrible gray funk. The trick, which he eventually coined as a gross metaphor, was to “eat the frog.”
Imagine a little frog that appears beside your alarm clock each morning. Your most important task of the day is to eat the frog, but you press snooze and try to ignore it. However, the longer you wait, the bigger and wartier the frog becomes and the harder it gets to swallow. When you reach the end of the day, you’re stressed and overwhelmed by the towering monster ribbiting before you.
If only you’d eaten the frog in the morning when it was no bigger than a pill.
When you schedule a time to do something, don’t dawdle. Just eat the frog.
Three other interesting things: