Here’s an essay by Paul Graham, popular today on HN, in which he talks about “good” and “bad” types of procrastination.
In short, “bad” procrastination is when you work on things that are unimportant in order to avoid working on things that are important. “Running errands”, he calls it, in order to avoid, say, writing your novel.
One of the major reasons people do this is that working on important things is scary, especially if they are also difficult things, which is often the case. So it takes a real effort to focus on them.
But what kind of effort are we talking about? Sure, there’s an intellectual component, but that only happens once you are engaged in the task.
I think that the upfront labor – which we don’t talk about – is emotional. It’s getting control over the impulse to work on unimportant things, things that may even give you immediate satisfaction, in order to focus on what’s truly important.
This happens to me all the time. I put off a very important, but difficult, task, in order to do something that is fairly easy to do and gives me an immediate feeling of satisfaction. I certainly don’t consider myself a lazy person; after all, I get a lot done! But in fact working that way is probably a form of laziness, because I’m not willing to delay the gratification of completing that task.
Another variant, which I think is the most important one within an organization, is unwillingness to say “no”. It’s very satisfying to say “yes” to all requests that come your way. At least, I certainly find satisfaction in what I view as helping others, especially if I can do it really quickly. But becoming interrupt-driven makes it very hard to do some types of good work, because you can’t sit down and focus on a problem. There’s a certain amount of urgent work that has to get done, but by doing it all the time, you create the appearance of helping others, without, perhaps, actually doing that.
A third variant, which I am not totally sure about, is working constantly. Yes, of course it’s important to be engaged and responsive to your customers or your coworkers. But if you never step away from a problem, is it actually possible to come up with good solutions to it? What if you never let others (your reports, for example, or your colleagues) step away from the problem? “Just walking away” seems to be very important for good problem solving. But I certainly find it extremely difficult to do. Maybe you do, too.
A related problem, by the way, is caring too much about what people think. Everybody wants the good feelings of being socially accepted. We’re programmed for that, after all. But often doing something interesting or valuable requires an initial period of not being accepted or understood. It’s important to be OK with that.
The unifying theme of all of these, and what makes it emotional labor, is that you have to be willing to be uncomfortable in order to solve these problems. Just as a good workout might make you sore, or a hard problem can be intellectually frustrating to work on, working on the right things might make you feel things you don’t want to feel. It’s important to develop the ability to be uncomfortable, and maybe to make others uncomfortable, when it’s appropriate.