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slingshot akrasia

Everything on this site was written in the glow and shadow of other things I should have been doing.

This is a further great benefit of work, formal study, and love alike: they pressurise my life. They give me a structure to defy and be inspired by, a gravity assist. I am happiest when laden with obligations, when the set of tasks that is my life flies just out of control, when deadlines tighten. I haven't crunched the data yet (that is, modelled my output vs my obligations) but I am 80% confident that taking on more improves mood and productivity, up to some threshold I haven't found yet.

(To give this vague grandiosity some substance: I'm currently working full-time in a technical field that is new to me, finishing a part-time maths degree, in an intense long-distance relationship, working on four or five software side projects, completing two longish MOOC specialisations, and reading three books.)


I often wonder what kind of person I would be if I had been protected from the cold wind of fate by the screen of wealth... to reach the tawdry heights of being a good assistant book-keeper in a job that is about as demanding as an afternoon nap and offers a salary that gives me just enough to live on.

I know that, had that past existed, I would not now be capable of writing these pages, which, though few, I would undoubtedly have only day-dreamed, given more comfortable circumstances. For banality is a form of intelligence, and reality, especially if it is brutish and rough, forms a natural complement to the soul. Much of what I feel and think I owe to my work as a book-keeper since the former exists as a negation of and flight from the latter.
– Fernando Pessoa

It is just his pipe dream, a vulgar folly he retains simply to prove to himself that men are still men and not the keys of a piano; it is a folly threatened so completely by these laws of nature, that soon one will be able to desire nothing but by the calendar. And that is not all: even if man really were nothing but a piano-key, even if this were proved to him by natural science and mathematics, even then one would not become reasonable, but would purposely do something perverse out of simple ingratitude, simply to gain one's point...

I believe in it, I answer for it, for the whole work of man really seems to consist in nothing but proving to himself every minute that he is a man and not a piano-key!
– Dostoevsky

But the struggle against Plato -- the struggle against the ecclesiastical oppression of millenniums of Christianity... produced in Europe a magnificent tension of soul, such as had not existed anywhere previously; with such a tensely strained bow one can now aim at the furthest goals... we, who are neither Jesuits, nor democrats, nor even sufficiently Germans, we good Europeans, and free, very free spirits -- we have it still, all the distress of spirit and all the tension of its bow! And perhaps also the arrow, the duty, and, who knows? The goal to aim at...
– Nietzsche

I have papers to grade, a grant proposal to review, drafts of dissertations to read. I am working on this essay as a way of not doing all of those things. This is the essence of what I call structured procrastination...

All procrastinators put off things they have to do. Structured procrastination is the art of making this bad trait work for you. The key idea is that procrastinating does not mean doing absolutely nothing. Procrastinators seldom do absolutely nothing; they do marginally useful things, such as gardening or sharpening pencils or making a diagram of how they will reorganize their files when they find the time. Why does the procrastinator do these things? Because accomplishing these tasks is a way of not doing something more important.

If all the procrastinator had left to do was to sharpen some pencils, no force on earth could get him to do it. However, the procrastinator can be motivated to do difficult, timely, and important tasks, as long as these tasks are a way of not doing something more important...

Doing those tasks becomes a way of not doing the things higher on the list. With this sort of appropriate task structure, you can become a useful citizen. Indeed, the procrastinator can even acquire, as I have, a reputation for getting a lot done.

Procrastinators often follow exactly the wrong tack. They try to minimize their commitments, assuming that if they have only a few things to do, they will quit procrastinating and get them done. But this approach ignores the basic nature of the procrastinator and destroys his most important source of motivation. The few tasks on his list will be, by definition, the most important. And the only way to avoid doing them will be to do nothing. This is the way to become a couch potato, not an effective human being...

The second step in the art of structured procrastination is to pick the right sorts of projects for the top of the list. The ideal projects have two characteristics -- they seem to have clear deadlines (but really don't), and they seem awfully important (but really aren't). Luckily, life abounds with such tasks. At universities, the vast majority of tasks fall into those two categories, and I'm sure the same is true for most other institutions...

At this point, the observant reader may feel that structured procrastination requires a certain amount of self-deception, since one is, in effect, constantly perpetrating a pyramid scheme on oneself. Exactly... what could be more noble than using one character flaw to offset the effects of another?
– John Perry

The best circumstance for writing, I realized... were those in which the world was constantly knocking at your door; in such circumstances, the work you were engaged in generated a kind of pressure, a force to keep the world at bay. Whereas here, on Alonissos, there was nothing to keep at bay, there was no incentive to generate any pressure within the work, and so the surrounding emptiness invaded and dissipated, overwhelmed you with inertia. All you could do was look at the sea and the sky and after a couple of days you could scarcely be bothered to do that.
– Geoff Dyer

[After months of doing only my main goal] I took on a job doing closed captioning because I found it [made for] an easier time writing. Just something about talking to people and watching weird media made the writing a lot easier. My new theory of self was that you can't write well unless you have a little strife in your life. I worked at the closed captioning job for 4-6 months and by then I was making enough money on the site to responsibly quit my job.

The problem was I didn't want to quit my job and have readership fall off because I couldn't write, so my crazy idea was to go back to school. I thought, it'd to be this weird environment, with younger people, and that would be good. At some point I switched over to physics because I thought it was really neat, and the comics improved and got more geeky and were a higher quality.
– Zach Weiner

it is not unless I have a formal obligation to defy that I create anything. Worked out a mechanism for why; call it the pinctadan itch:

1. I am fundamentally childish and require a steady stream of variety. 2. Having a job regularises my week: without extra effort, all days resemble each other. 3. Intolerable resentment ensues. I am forced to produce sparks to satisfy my basic drives.

What can you do? You can vary your surroundings or you can vary the furnishings of your mind. In fact three of the most common broad ways of living divide right down this line - bohemianism (artists, students, hipsters), 'grown-up' professionalism, and nerd culture (which straddles the line).

Work precludes variety in your external surroundings from day to day; so you have to
internalise variety. Bohemian life precludes all sorts of things, but it does let you sample any part of reality which does not require any money or power (insofar as your Couchsurfing and Workaway rep is good)...
– me a while back

I don't know if this is ridiculous or platitudinous: I really think this "slingshot akrasia" (structured procrastination) is a central fact of my psychology. (It is somehow related to how great I feel when I don't have to go to a party, to my sadly efficient approach to my grades, to how giving work to a busy person is a good way of getting it done quicker, i.e. an implausible linear increase of output with increasing things to do.)

It is possible that the grand narration above is delusional, and that the only actual content here is "A lot of people work better under pressure".