Tuesday, January 15, 2013


Well, so much for my New Year’s resolution to be more productive. Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I’m traveling in a country with spectacular natural scenery and lots of interesting things to do?
Scientists often do sabbaticals and fieldwork in locations far from home where many more (and new) distractions exist than at home. How do you manage the work you are supposed to be doing and the opportunity to experience a new and interesting place?
Such a situation is problematic for the procrastinator and even for people like me who rarely put off important tasks:  “I’ll just take a quick hike to this overlook–shouldn’t take more than an hour round-trip–then I’ll feel invigorated enough to finish formatting that paper.” Hours later, after reaching the summit, which was considerably more challenging than it looked on the map, I’ve had to stop and rest and have something to eat before starting back down. By the time I get back, it’s time to start dinner. By 9 pm, I’ve finished cleaning up the kitchen but can’t keep my eyes open. Well, tomorrow is soon enough to tackle that formatting….”
At home, the above scenario would never happen to me. I’m good at ignoring distractions and prioritizing tasks. However, when I am traveling and encountering unique and never-before-seen places, sights that I may never see again in my lifetime, the decision to postpone working on a paper that only a handful of people will likely read becomes more reasonable. If you have only one or two days in a particular location before moving on and there are interesting things to see and do there, then you have to make a choice.
In the long-run, it makes more sense to take the time for new experiences….as long as you don’t avoid work altogether or miss important deadlines. 
Actually, I’ve been quite good at combining travel with work. Check and answer email and write or analyze data for a few hours in the morning. In the afternoon, go for a drive to check out an interesting local attraction. Come back and do some more work and answer any new emails.
Although my current procrastination is situation-specific, many people have a more generalized procrastination problem. That is, they routinely put off important tasks and never meet deadlines because they find a multitude of other, minor tasks (without deadlines) to do instead.
Some people are what are known as “productive procrastinators”, a term coined by Piers Steel, a professor who has published a book called, “The Procrastination Equation”. Some of the techniques he says he uses to productively procrastinate sound very familiar. For example, when I have multiple projects, I can procrastinate on one by working on another. Or when writing, I might put off penning the introduction by writing the methods or formatting the literature cited. When I’m working on a paper and find myself pondering whether it’s time to clean my desk, I will switch to another part of the paper, e.g., prepare a figure or table, and then go back later to the narrative after the impulse to procrastinate passes. Psychologically, this works because we naturally will work on something boring and repetitive if it allows us to avoid something even more distasteful or daunting.
Much earlier, Robert Benchley revealed his secret to accomplishing a lot of work through productive procrastination: “anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.” I’ve used this principle for years. I might spend a few hours during the workday cleaning up my desktop, perusing a scientific catalogue, or just thinking about new project, but in the evening or on the weekend will write or analyze data or proofread a manuscript. In other words, I’m not doing what I’m supposed to be doing during normal work hours but doing them instead when I’m off the clock. This strategy is a psychological “trick” that allows you to work on whatever you feel like tackling at a particular time but which leads to an overall net production.
Let me hasten to add that the total time I spend actually working on stuff I’m supposed to be working on (research, data analysis, writing) has traditionally exceeded 40 hours per week. And over my career, I’ve been reasonably productive, publishing more than 100 peer-reviewed papers and book chapters. If you are goofing off most of the time, surfing the internet, reading blogs like this one, and only spending a fraction of the day actually producing something substantive, then you are going to have a problem. 
If you want to find out where you rank relative to others, you can take the procrastination test