Archive for April 2016

The magic of open loops

April 20, 2016

Last week I compared the university student who hands their essay in much earlier than necessary (the precrastinator) with the student who only starts work at the last minute (the procrastinator). The academic Adam Grant wrote in January about a third option, which he misleadingly describes as procrastination: starting early but deliberately delaying the moment where you finish .

Grant thinks it makes for better writing, and I think I agree. Why? It’s a bit counterintuitive: if you do most of the work on day 1, take days 2 and 3 off and then finish on day 4, why does that make your work better compared to someone who put off starting until the end of day 3? Maybe this is a shocking claim coming from me, someone who’s repeatedly pointed out the dangers of claiming work done at certain times is intrinsically better than work done at other times.  (I guess I need to say again that there is no moral dimension to our choice of waking and working hours. )

But I’m not talking about the times as such. I’m talking about the process. When you start the task on day 1, you’re opening a loop in your head. Open loops claim our attention, even when we’re not actively working on closing them. In the context of the meeting your boss keeps postponing or the letter you keep forgetting to post, that’s pretty annoying. In the context of a piece of creative-ish brainwork, an open loop allows a bit of your brain to keep running on it in the background, maybe coming up with new ideas and insights. (Even if you get none of that from your enforced time out, you will at least get a fresh perspective that lets you read through your work a bit more dispassionately and maybe even spot your own typos.) Your essay will be better because it’s had more of your attention.

I think this is one of the reasons why we put off starting big but non-urgent things. Once you get going on something, even if it’s just engaging with the planning stage, you have an open loop and the concomitant pull of attention towards it. And maybe we worry that the really big things, the things we really care about, will demand more attention and time and brainpower than we have to offer. What if that open loop swallows our lives? Shouldn’t we just keep putting it off until that mythical time in the future when we have no commitments and infinite energy? Because nobody can judge you for not starting, but what if they judge you for starting and failing? I understand this mindset only too well, but I like the quote misattributed to Goethe:

What you can do, or dream you can do, begin it;
Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.

More on open loops

April 13, 2016

I’ve been thinking some more about “precrastination” along with the concept of “open loops” and the human desire to close them. We’ve established that closing an open loop frees up brainpower/attention/energy for other things and gives us a psychological boost. We’ve also established that sometimes we’ll close a loop just to get that psychological boost, even if there are benefits to leaving the loop unclosed a little longer. And that sometimes we will pick a loop-closing action over an action that might be more important, but doesn’t close a loop. (Paying your credit card bill instead of writing the Great American Novel?)

Since last week’s post, I’ve been trying to work out: what’s the rule here? When is loop-closing good and when is it bad? If paying your credit card bill in two weeks’ time would take just as long as it will take today, how the hell is paying it now going to set you back in writing the Great American Novel? In fact, doesn’t paying it off now free up some brainpower and focus for your Very Important Writing?

Then I started thinking about the less helpful type of loop-closing. I thought about the very few times I’ve handed in a written assignment earlier than I absolutely had to, at school or university. It was almost always because I realised before handing it in that I’d missed something. Maybe I’d missed an insight that would have made for a much better piece of work; maybe I’d actually misunderstood the instructions and done a different task from the one assigned. Maybe some people in this situation would thank the universe that they’d realised their mistake in time to redo the task, then set to work again. I am not one of those people. My response to this kind of realisation was always to think: “Damn! But I’m not doing it twice,” and hand it in immediately, because I was afraid that if I didn’t submit it immediately I might change my mind.

In other words, I closed a loop by shifting the work of dealing with my mistake towards the teacher or professor who would be marking the work. In many ways, it was a rational strategy, because the work never counted towards any kind of final grade. Nevertheless, I was closing a loop by submitting sub-standard work. I think most unhelpful loop-closing is done in this spirit: it means choosing not to engage as fully as you could, and/or pushing work onto someone else.

The professor Adam Grant wrote a recent-ish  article in the New York Times on “Why I Taught Myself to Procrastinate“. He’s a classic precrastinator. He feels a strong compulsion to submit work early, to the point of submitting his graduate school dissertation two years in advance. (How is that even possible?!) Then he discovered that forcing himself to put off finishing things resulted in better work:

My natural need to finish early was a way of shutting down complicating thoughts that sent me whirling in new directions. I was avoiding the pain of divergent thinking — but I was also missing out on its rewards.

In other words, it was a milder version of my own behaviour when I realised I’d mixed up Celsius and Fahrenheit in my science homework, or had an insight right at the end of writing my essay that would have allowed me to write a much better one. Get it done, get it out of here, try not to think too much, get it handed in. He wasn’t making mistakes as such, but he wasn’t giving himself the luxury of a less streamlined path to “done”. I guess he started experimenting with leaving loops open a little longer because he realised that “complicating thoughts” and “the pain of divergent thinking” can’t be avoided if you’re aiming for an academic career. His conclusion:

[W]hile procrastination is a vice for productivity, I’ve learned — against my natural inclinations — that it’s a virtue for creativity.

I like this way of framing it, but I think it’s unhelpful to call what he’s doing “procrastination”. Creating a schedule which includes built-in time to take a break from your project, then sticking to that schedule and handing in the work before the deadline – in what universe does that count as “procrastination”?

Sadly, some people are brainwashed by the cult of early. With those people, you can explain in advance that you’re getting a task done at a specific time and date, and then do it at that exact time and date, and they’ll still fret about why you didn’t do it sooner. Through that lens, maybe submitting your best possible work before the deadline, in accordance with the schedule you created, somehow counts as “procrastination”. I don’t know, but anyway, fuck those people.

So. What he’s doing is definitely not procrastination. I should know, because I’m a champion procrastinator myself. I think my fellow procrastinators (and there are a lot of us) would agree: the reason we hand things in at the last minute has nothing to do with carefully scheduled time-outs to “explore divergent thinking” and everything to do with messing around until the deadline gets too close for comfort.

Both procrastinator and precrastinator are choosing to spend less time and energy on the task than the absolute maximum, which seems pretty rational. But the precrastinator has realistic expectations, sets their boundaries in advance and closes the loop sooner, while the procrastinator probably has vague good intentions that don’t translate into anything in reality until the Panic Monster shows up.

Either way, the work eventually gets done and the loop gets closed for both of them. And either way, maybe the work could have been better if the person had spent more time on it. Yes, open loops take energy and focus – but what if the student decides that it’s worth spending more energy and focus to write a better essay?

So I have an unhelpful answer to the question about how you tell the difference between “good” loop-closing and “bad” loop-closing: it’s up to you. It’s about where you choose to spend your time and energy. Maybe you don’t want or need to write the best possible essay every time; maybe your choice is to only do that for the topics you really care about, or maybe your choice is to do the bare minimum for each essay and focus on exam revision instead, or maybe your choice is to get everything in early so you can focus on your paid job or your caring responsibilities. And that is fine, because it’s up to you.

Even the kind of loop-closing that just involves bouncing the work to someone else can be fine in certain contexts. The “quick question trick” is a loop-closing technique  where you bounce a vague request back to the asker and force them to do the work of framing it. It’s a way of closing a loop by pushing the work to somebody else – and it’s 100% justified, because that person has no claim to your time. Just don’t kid yourself that you’re doing real work when you’re really just kicking the can down the road. Be clear in your own mind that your choices about what loops to close are really choices about where to allocate your brainpower. I have more to write about this  but damn, it’s been over 1200 words already. See you next week.


April 6, 2016

Precrastination” is a concept I first heard about a few weeks ago. The name makes it sound like just another tedious manifestation of the cult of early, but it’s a bit more interesting than that.

As the linked article explains, precrastination is when you do things quickly for the sake of getting them done sooner, even if that means losing other benefits. Quickly replying to an email with a message that doesn’t actually move things on at all, just to get it out of your inbox. Paying a bill early so you don’t have to worry about it any more (which to me is completely rational, given that the interest you’d earn by holding on to the money is probably between zero and 1p). Ordering that textbook online right now rather than buying it from a local shop tomorrow, even though the online purchase means you’ll have to wait longer before you actually get your hands on the book.

A couple of years ago I helped a relative buy some birthday gifts for another relative, and I was surprised at her sense of urgency. She felt she had to get everything bought by the end of that day, even though the birthday was over three weeks away.  In her hurry to get the task finished, she misunderstood my suggestions and ended up getting the wrong items. And because the items were bought so very early, once the birthday rolled round and it became clear the items were wrong, it was uncomfortably close to the end of the exchange-or-return period and we had to rush to swap the items for the right ones.

Still on the subject of gifts: in my family, a person with a birthday coming up will often circulate a list of presents they would like. (It’s not done in the spirit of avariciousness, more in a spirit of “I know I’m hard to buy for, let me help you out.”) There is one family member who used to respond to these lists by immediately buying everything on it. In the pre-internet days that would involve a shopping trip the next day or maybe the next weekend; once Amazon came along, it all got done in less than an hour. Highly efficient – and incredibly annoying to all the other family members left scratching around for gift ideas. Eventually we Had Words.

It’s clear that precrastination doesn’t always lead to the best outcomes. So why do we do it? Many of these actions could easily be prompted by a cult-of-early mindset. But I think there’s more to it than that. The cult of early is about thinking that your actions are intrinsically better because they’re performed early. I think precrastination is more about closing loops. So a precrastinator who pays a bill early isn’t being smug about their superior money management; they’re paying the bill early so they won’t have to give it any more brain-space. They want to be done.  They want to close that loop. I think it’s the same with all precrastination.

The concept of “open loops” comes from the time-management system GTD. An open loop is basically a piece of unfinished business, and most of us have hundreds at any given time. One of the big GTD concepts is getting those loops out of your head, where they drain energy, and into some trusted system. But many people – most people? – don’t have a trusted system. So our open loops buzz around our heads and when the chance comes to close one easily, it’s as satisfying as swatting a fly.

People who email you saying: “This isn’t urgent, but if I don’t email you now I will forget”? They are trying to close a loop in their own head by pushing it in your direction. They’re not being malicious, but now “Poss meetup discuss dept reorg June???” is on your plate. And then the temptation is to do a spot of precrastination yourself by sending a quick yet unhelpful reply that bounces it back to them.

Of course, closing a really big loop, like signing off on a major project, is scary as well as freeing. Your lizard brain is frightened. I think that’s why “perfectionist” project leaders indulge in the utterly toxic behaviour of stalling a project by reopening other people’s closed loops. They drain other people’s energy and morale so they can put off the vulnerable moment of completion and stay in the comfortable place of nearly-done for as long as possible.

That’s also why some people’s novels are “nearly finished” for such a long time – but I learnt recently that it’s surprisingly common for authors to submit early, not-quite-finished drafts of their novels to publishers just because they’re sick of writing and want to get the book off their hands. (Publishers don’t like this.)

It would be lovely to conclude that precrastination and procrastination are opposites, so if you’re guilty of one you probably won’t tend towards the other. But my hunch is that the vast majority of us have a problem with both, often at the same time.

Why? Well, think about the kind of stuff we procrastinate on. It’s the big, scary hard stuff, right? Tim Urban of Wait but Why is the author of the most insightful writing on procrastination I have ever read. In his post How to Beat Procrastination (a follow-up to Why Procrastinators Procrastinate, which you should read first) he describes a procrastinator’s planning session:

A big list of icky, daunting tasks and undertakings.

We procrastinate because we don’t really know how to start on the big icky list, and working out how to start is work, because decision-making is work, and defining your options in the first place is work, and dealing with all this open-endedness is a drain on your cognitive resource and makes you feel kind of icky. But you can get yourself a nice energy boost and a feeling of satisfaction by doing a small, do-able thing and getting it done done done.

So we pay our credit card bills quickly. We press “reply all” and write “Copying in Pam for her thoughts on this,” because it’s easier than having our own thoughts on this. We get our Christmas shopping done in November. (Actually, I have a relative who does hers in the January sales, and she’s not even one of the two relatives I’ve already mentioned in this blog post.)

Meanwhile, we drift on the big scary things where there’s no real deadline. We abandon writing that novel after the first chapter. We put off deciding whether or not to try marriage counselling. We get stalled in our PhD studies. Maybe we want to move somewhere new but we don’t put in the work of researching possible places. Maybe we’re unhappy with our job but we don’t put in the work of finding a new one.

The consensus on how to handle this is (all together, now): break up the big icky formless stuff into discrete, manageable tasks and actually schedule those tasks. We all know that; the tough bit is actually doing it. The only extra insight I have is that if you want to achieve big things in your life, you’re going to have to make your peace with open loops, because big and important things don’t tend to get done quickly and simply. Open loops keep claiming our attention and energy. But if you’ve chosen to focus your attention and energy on something, because you’ve decided it’s worth it, it will be OK.