In this NFC podcast, we have a special guest: Hershal Pandya. We talk about procrastinating, Stephen King, and soul crushing jobs.
Valentin, you forgot to mention to Hershal the ever-pervasive, sometimes oddly positive, but mostly dwelling theme of nihilistic spiralling we have around at NFC. And in this theme of pointlessness, I believe lies the preservation and perseverance of procrastination.
When people are driven with sheer purpose in life, especially a grand purpose that stems from a strong willed faith, it’s easier to get that stem of motivation to get things done to coincide with that purpose. And when I say strong willed faith, it’s not necessarily referring to just believers of a higher power, a life after death, or any real purpose beyond the limits of the human experience, I also include people who operate under goal centred ideals of motivation in their current existence. When I graduate from law school, or help save the world, or raise a great couple of kids, or buy a beach house, or finally turn that one pack into a 6 pack, I’ll be happy. That faith in the gratified future you drives you on those nights where you’re running on low motivational fuel. And the closer you are to believing the satisfaction in the end destination of that goal or the blinder your faith is, the easier it is to make those tough calls on those nights.
So what does this mean for the ones prone to nihilistic spiralling, the ones that can’t staple meaning on an idea for longer than a rat can wait to hit an inconsistent food lever? I think this is where we channel the inner Lykovs in us. Instead of relying on passion to drive our career choices and motivation, dial it back a generation, and just accept that a job is a job to survive off of, to put food on the table for you and your family. So long as you choose to be a participant in society, i.e. you’ve decided not to kill yourself, treating and programming your career as a job to survive in the world makes the whole thing a bit easier to not procrastinate. And of course it’s not a binary thing, it can be a mix of passion and survival. So I suppose it’s more accurate to say prioritizing survival over passion motivation might make the productivity to procrastination window a little more clear in our nihilistic spectrum of the world. And as for the rest of your hobbies and creative pursuits, I think as you said Valentin, embracing the spice of procrastination is to embrace the curious nature of the universe around us.
Our first guest contributor! Welcome, Hershal, to the wonderful world of armchair pseudo-intellectual speculation, loosely held together by pithy titles and out-of-nowhere rhetorical questions! Isn’t it great?
I see you did some research on procrastination – I did as well. This week, I spent countless hours on the internet perusing various flavours of instant gratification instead of focusing on other, more pressing, matters (like this post). Completely unlike any other week, I swear. Here’s one article I stumbled upon. It’s a facinating read about a Russian family, the Lykovs, of ‘Old Believers’ that fled from the atheist Bolshevik purges of Christianity in the 1930s. The Lykovs escaped into the Russian Taiga, a harsh wilderness that’s cold and barren in the winter, and full of dark clouds of mosquitoes in the summer. Amazingly, the family of four (growing to six, after two more children were born in the wilderness) managed to live on their own with no human contact until 1978, completely unaware of World War II, space travel, or nuclear weapons. When the father was shown a cellophane container by a party of geologists who made first contact, he exclaimed ‘Lord, what have they thought up—it is glass, but it crumples!’.
I bring this up to highlight two points. First, a meta one. Procrastination does sometimes lead to bits and pieces of wonderful new knowledge like the fascinating story of Old Believers. How much do I retain during a typical procrastination-induced binge? I don’t know, probably not much. But I do enjoy breaking up the monotonous routine that often seems like the way you’re supposed to live your life. Plan out your schedule, do everything the schedule says, and be a good little robot. Procrastination is the antithesis to the schedule, it’s a way for me to be anti-programming (to use Rachit’s phrase he coined during our life and death segment). Are you ok with never knowing about the Lykovs, in exchange for a few hours of more peaceful sleep? I’m not. But maybe I’m that rat that’s checking for new knowledge constantly, instead of scheduling a one hour binge session once a week? The ‘b’ word may or may not be applicable here.
Second, the Lykovs could not have procrastinated much. How could they? Their lives, and the lives of their entire family were at stake. Procrastination is a product of a societal safety net, something that does not exist in the harsh Siberian wilderness. From an evolutionary perspective, procrastination doesn’t make much sense. We procrastinators should have died out ages ago. Where are all the lions surfing the safari-equivalent of Reddit? They’re dead. As humans, we procrastinate because we can, but when push comes to shove, we get shit done. In some ways this thought is a relieving one: we are programmed by millions of years of evolution to survive, to live until we can reproduce. I’m sure everyone’s heard the advice that’s given to entrepreneurs, artists, and other people looking to start a long, intimidating journey: just put yourself out there, and commit yourself fully. Just do it, as Nike has been saying for decades. Sure, it’s trite, but it makes sense. Fear is the ultimate motivator, it triggers a response that has been hardwired into our brain: get shit done.
I have a few more thoughts I’d love to share, but in the interest of space, I’ll end it here and leave you with my one of my favourite comics of all time:
Before I delve into the topic of productivity, I want to say that it is an honour to be the first ever Never From Concentrate guest contributor. Shoutout to Rachit and Valentin for providing me with a platform to pontificate on profound subjects and for implicitly endorsing my pseudo-intellectual bullshit. Reading through the archives, it’s admirable to see how the two of you attempt to arrive at clear conclusions about ambiguous issues, particularly when it’s so easy to be a non-committal fence sitter and thereby seek validation from people on both sides of an argument (author’s note: sometimes my self-awareness is exhausting). I hope to be able to hold myself to the same standards as the two of you and use this opportunity to flesh out some concrete opinions. Here we go:
Considering the name of this blog, I’d be remiss if I didn’t begin by sharing an anecdote about a Google Chrome extension I used to use called “Concentrate.” The conceit of the tool was relatively simple; I would enter the URLs of various websites that typically hindered my productivity, specify the length of time that I wanted these websites to be inaccessible for, and then try my hardest to be productive. Whenever I opened a new browser tab and my Pavlovian response kicked in—typically, this meant checking Twitter—my browser would redirect me to a screen that showed me a picture of an orange and said “Concentrate.” If I’m being nitpicky, I’d prefer if it showed me some sort of inspirational quote rather than just a picture of an Orange, but like, what is this, TechCrunch?
I don’t have any data to reinforce this, but my best guess is that procrastination is composed of two main elements: (1) an inability to delay instant gratification, and (2) a general lack of interest in a given task. In my case, the “Concentrate” extension helped me combat the former. It gave me an opportunity to regain my perspective and think, “It doesn’t matter if Andy Richter tweeted something funny about a topical internet subject, my exam is in eight hours and that’s objectively more important right now.” Eventually, I bought a smart phone and I once again succumbed to my utter lack of self-discipline.
I read an article a little while ago that suggested that some of this might be out of my control. The author compared an individual’s excessive need to check their phones with a study conducted on rats. The study examined two groups of rats: a primary group who were fed at the same time every day and a secondary group who were fed at random intervals. The first group of rats began to sense a pattern and eventually began checking for food only at the designated time; whereas the second group of rats, unsure of when the food was going to come, began checking obsessively. This sounds a lot like humans, checking our phones obsessively because we are never quite sure when the next ‘ping’ is going to come. In the modern technological age, procrastination is now a subconscious impulse.
Unfortunately, even before purchasing my smartphone, the “Concentrate” app did nothing to combat the latter element of procrastination. It would seem that when I’m disinterested in a subject, I will purposefully go searching for distractions because literally anything else will seem more interesting in the moment. I’m pretty confident in my assertion that I’d rather watch five conspiracy theory documentaries than update my LinkedIn Profile.
I think this supports your point, Rachit, about why people tend to be more creative during periods of procrastination. In a perfect world, nobody would be forced to work towards tasks that they’re unmotivated to accomplish because it is a complete waste of human capital. Economic theory tells us that society is collectively more productive when we’re all allowed to focus on our comparative advantage. For many people, this is the thing that inspires them—the place their brain wanders when they’re doing mindless data entry. I’m not naïve enough to think that this is feasible at all times, but I think it’s worth noting that the person with the potential to solve climate change could very well be too busy analyzing lab samples to ever get to that point.
It somewhat fitting that our topic of productivity is delayed by a slew of procrastination on my part. So in that spirit, lets talk about delicious, yummy procrastination. Whenever I delay, avoid, or push things to future Rachit’s problems list, I find that all the distractions are that much tastier. I remember reading an entire book (Richard Branson’s autobiography) during an exam period, and have a fond memory of the experience and the scrumptiousness of the words. It feels naughty and rebellious, akin to when a child is supposed to be doing his chores, but is playing video games with a chocolate stained moustache. However, other than causing issues, procrastination also has its importance in creative productivity. Tons of studies on incubation periods during problem solving, or any sort of creative activity has shown the positive effects of not thinking or not actively working on your task at hand. I probably just have a higher incubation period than you do, Valentin. Yeah, I’m going to run with this — I needed some inspiration to be productive about productivity. It’s science bro.
And here we are, productivity. Lets talk macro first. The economics of the free world, at least on this half of it, point us towards growth. Grow GDP. If GDP isn’t growing, there’s something that’s not in tact. But when we shrink down to the micro level, the philosophy isn’t always in tact. While we praise career home run hitters, the majority of us strive for that delicate B word between the two. Maybe the other side of the world is on the right end of that scale – most places in Europe, and Australia are famous for mandating an extensive amount of vacation time. A friend of mine that lives in Paris told me he gets 9 weeks of vacay a year. 9 weeks! But even beyond that, as much as I am a fan of long binges of vacay, I came across this company that mandates a 3 day weekend, every week. And I think theres something to the short vacay you don’t get with longer ones: the constant recharge, the further local exploration, and just the increase in weekly tomfoolery time. Its good for the soul. And productively speaking, its worked out well for them since implementing the policy – no major differences in output or company growth. So this isn’t that difficult of an argument to make on the micro level, everyone loves weekends, but if you take it up to the macro scale, it can start to sound silly. Take things a bit slow, don’t necessarily grow right away, stabilize and strengthen. Actually it sounds pretty sound, but these are all words and not sound science. So I went off to the God of Google, and after some tens of minutes of googling, I came up shorthanded. There are arguments to the incompleteness of GDP as a tool of growth, but a non-growth-based-emphasized economy wasn’t to be found. So when you can’t science, you go to your next best resource, Drake. No new friends. Once you’ve found a good solid group of friends, it doesn’t always make sense to keep growing your inner circle, instead spend time servicing the ones you have.
And on that note, I’m going to pass you the rock for the other angle that we wanted to discuss on the productivity topic, and thats the super micro scale of the physical constraints of actually getting some work done. Has the stimuli filled world of the internet economy physically strained our brains to be less productive? Or are we just incorrectly romanticizing the productive landscape of the past? Or both. Likely both as always, but where does the optimal balance lie?