Tag Archives: Procrastination

An Accidental Nuclear War

Do you know who Stanislav Petrov is? 

You should. Back in the 80s, when the U.S. and Russia were being all ridiculous and arms-race-y, Col. Petrov managed to save the world while hunkered down in a bunker near Moscow. Check out this article I wrote about Petrov and why the future of the world rested on his shoulders on one September day in 1983.

Time to get back to writing my final paper as a Stanford student…

-Joel

So true.

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Why TV Shows Aren’t A Complete Waste of Your Time

I used to think that watching TV shows was a complete waste of time. But I just changed my mind.

Exhibit 1: Hilarious TV show.

What changed?

I realized that watching a good TV show clears my mind.

These days, I always have at least 10 things circling like vultures around my mind at once: research ideas, problem sets, upcoming meetings, graduation, grad school, summer jobs, summer housing… It’s way too easy to get distracted by an “urgent” email while I’m working on a research problem—Mac Mail’s red email indicator kills productivity without fail—and the closer I get to graduation, the more thoughts of post-Stanford life start to pop up at inopportune times (i.e., all the time). It gets harder and harder to clear my mind and focus.

Enter the TV show.

When I’m watching a good show online—i.e., on my own schedule, with no commercials—I get lost in the characters’ world, a sense of flow not unlike what I feel when I’m reading a good book. The characters are crucial: I empathize with some, laugh at others, and the effortless endeavor to psychoanalyze—to make sense of the ridiculous antics, jokes, and drama—washes away all the other thoughts floating around in my head. And once the episode ends, I can jump right back into my work, thinking of nothing but the show. Turns out it’s a lot easier to forget a silly TV show than 10 stressful thoughts about my future, and when that’s gone, my mind is clear.

There are many other ways of achieving the same effect of flow, of total engagement, mind and body. Read a book. Meditate. Play a sport. I’ve tried them all, and they all seem to work. But few diversions have been as widely maligned as watching TV, and it’s comforting to me and surely some others to know that TV shows, correctly wielded, have a place in even the busiest of lives. Watching a good show with friends is like meditating, but more social and more hilarious.

The show that made me rethink TV was Community, a parody of student life at a community college. It fits the “good TV show” mold beautifully—clever, light-hearted, attractive—and it’s got me hooked. In a good way. I think.

-Joel

P.S. For those friends who don’t check Facebook, I’ll be starting a PhD in EE at MIT this fall! Just got my new email address (jjean@mit.edu), and the parka is on its way…

MIT in micro-bubbles (Courtesy of Manu Prakash)

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Are You A Procrastinator?

Stanford philosophy professor (and 1980s Soto RF) John Perry has discovered “an amazing strategy… that converts procrastinators into effective human beings, respected and admired for all that they can accomplish and the good use they make of time.”

He calls his theory “Structured Procrastination.

How does it work?

Picture the To Do list you keep on your Windows 7/Mac OS X desktop, on your iCal/iGoogle, on an explosion of Post-Its all over your workspace, wherever. Now imagine doing everything EXCEPT the 2 or 3 most important tasks on that list. How much have you actually accomplished?

Not much, you might say, considering that you didn’t do what you most needed to get done. But if your To Do list was organized correctly––i.e.,  in line with the tenets of Structured Procrastination––you’ve probably never had a more productive day.

The key to Perry’s theory lies in the structure of the To Do list. Most people organize their list in order of importance, with the most important tasks (“Sign up for classes”) on top, moderately important tasks (“Brush my teeth”) in the middle, and trivial tasks (“Brush my dog’s teeth”) on the bottom. Note that a To Do item doesn’t have to be on top of the list to be well worth doing; working on these “less important” tasks becomes a way to put off working on the first few items on the list. And by putting tasks that only SEEM important and urgent (e.g., “Write a blog entry”, “Check my PO Box”) on top of the list, you can make progress on the tasks that really matter.

I don’t know if this game plan works for everyone, but I know I’ve been using a similar strategy for a long time. I’ll work on my research to avoid writing a paper, or make a flyer for ASES to skirt a trip to the post office, or plan out my classes for next quarter to escape packing. Try it out. Sometimes self-deception can be a very powerful tool.

-Joel

P.S. A word of warning from Perry…

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 goes contrary to 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 a way to become a couch potato, not an effective human being.

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