Mindful Moments: Stories and Lessons of Procrastination

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Be “kaizen” till you’re “wabi sabi”.

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The Japanese concept of getting small improvements done: “kaizen” is kind of like “iterative” process. We’ve recently had 1, 2, and yes a whopping 3 posts about getting small things done. So let’s develop our theme somewhat:

Process concepts, like kaizen, play a big role in Japanese language because of the role that they have traditionally played in Japanese culture. Japan’s highest traditional aesthetic philosophy is the appreciation of transient and flawed beauty: the “wabi sabi”.

A tea cup would be considered wabi sabi if it was exquisitely made and if that making was in some way exquisitely flawed. The tea cup could still be functional, just not perfect. The wabi sabi position is that true perfection must necessarily be imperfect. We make things in the world and they are real and that is their beauty. This elegant imperfection is not to be confused with random or unpracticed sensibilities. Instead, wabi sabi artistry must be flawed if it is to retain its experimental intention toward perfection. (I know, there’s irony there… the reasoning is nicely imperfect.)

Procrastination can come from worrying too much about perfection. So an understanding of how imperfection is necessarily a part of the highest level of perfection is a contradiction worth embracing. Is that why the best bloggers don’t always spell too good?

I saw Peter Schumann talk the other night at MIT. He considers digital media to be a passing artform and compares it to the longevity of a cave painting. And he didn’t balk at telling “The holy halls of technology” so. It’s the “smallness” that he blamed for his non-interest. But I wonder if it’s also not the difficulty in creating anything that’s meaningfully wabi sabi over the digital (exactly duplicative) internet.


Written by clayward

March 12, 2010 at 8:44 pm

Lucy’s project development buddy: Pivotal Tracker

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One of the best things about working with Lucy is her enthusiasm for work process tools. We’ve tried a number of them working on bilumi, ProcrasDonate, and a couple other projects together. Pivotal Tracker is the tool that sticks. I’ll let her explain why… but let me just say that the smile on her face when she finally surpasses the tool’s expectations is wonderful (and motivating in and of itself.)

“I use Pivotal Tracker (PT) to manage software development. Pivotal Tracker is an online web service. After logging in to our private ProcrasDonate project, I see a prioritized list of stories (high level modules that may contain specific tasks).”

“I found Pivotal Tracker via a Hacker News poll of project management tools… From the get-go I was sucked in… We decided to use it for our big launch… Using the tool exceeded my expectations.”

Clay and I can add and reorder stories. We can loosely indicate the time to complete a story using “points.” A 1-point story will take less than 4 hours, a 2-point story will take a full day, and so on. We use a fibonacci point scale for stories because PT is just that cool.”

“The list of stories is partitioned into week-long iterations. PT determines how many stories to put in each iteration based on my previous performance. Working full time I tend to complete 10 “points” worth of stories. As my work habits and skills change, the expectations of PT will correspondingly change over time.”

“Pivotal Tracker has expectations. It is my buddy. It graphs how many story points I complete each day from the start of the iteration or release deadline to the end. The burn down graph also shows my expected burn-down rate.”

“For our first release, even when I burned down at a better than linear rate, PT was still quite cautious of my abilities. It still projected a flat burn down rate for the future, expecting me to miss the deadline by weeks. Every day I tried to burn down faster and faster to show it that I could meet deadlines. Of course back then we also added more and more features each day, so I always hovered around linear burn down. I did meet the deadline, and after a few weeks PT’s expectations synchronized with my actual performance. Still, it was super exciting in those first weeks to feel pulled forward by PT’s challenge.”

“PT’s expectations and challenges change as I change, and that makes it more forgiving and less emotional than dealing with a real person. The rewards and punishments are all wrapped up in the graphs, so in the end it is only as motivating as my commitment to the website.”

“PT’s website is excellent, especially because it takes so little effort to use. The stories list and the charts are right there on the main page. Stories are re-ordered using drag-n-drop. Stories are added and edited using AJAX rather than loading a different page. The UI is snappy and flexible, yet stays out of the way. There is a separate project settings page that allows one to enable advanced features such as fibonacci points and checkbox tasks.”

“Not enough peanut butter.”

“I fail PT when I stop using the service or start questioning the track. The fault is mine, but the point of project management software is still to help users have good process. I’m not sure what PT can do in these cases. Being on a team with someone a step outside the actual work is helpful. I suppose PT could know when it’s a good time for me to be using it, and then automatically open itself into a new tab and say something friendly, such as: hey, here’s a challenge, why don’t you burn down this little graph right now!”

“It would also be neat to see a larger timescale of progress shown, possibly on a calendar view. Then we could see when future stories would land given our current work rate, as well as understand past performance.”

“[PT makes me feel] like I have a friendly mentor keeping me on track. Of course, I also had a real person, Clay, managing the stories list and keeping me on track, so I might be mixing up the human and robot influences on my feelings. At the very least, PT’s charts offered excellent feedback on my progress. That kind of feedback can be boring for a human to give, yet make a huge difference in the motivation, focus and peacefulness of a worker.”

“[I would like PT to] provide statistics on my work performance. For example, am I personally accomplishing more over time? How does my performance change in weeks with lots of bugs, or weeks with lots of small point stories? What does my average chart look like? If I was on a team of developers, it might be nice to provide a little competitive motivation, but it would have to be done in the right way so that all sorts of strengths were highlighted, and none of the stats were too important.”

Written by clayward

March 10, 2010 at 7:06 pm

Posted in process, resources, tracking

Create something small, daily.

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This is useful advice for anyone doing creative work. Writers often talk about how writing every day is a great way to progress as a creator (and of course to be more prolific). My adviser, Tom Butter, asked me to make a sculpture every day when I was in grad school.

So for comedy? Jerry Seinfeld’s working technique has gotten a lot of attention. The “do it every day” technique…


Written by clayward

February 22, 2010 at 4:05 pm

Posted in goals, tips

My dog says I should play less tankball.

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Sometimes I wish I could record my regular field of view as I experience life. If I could then you would now see an attached video of Bear (my dog) interrupting my virtual pummeling of RC-like tanks. The scene shifts (but not the camera) as Bear steps firmly into the living room. “Hey Buddy.” He quick-walks around my legs, squeezes past the coffee table. He leans around my lap and stretches his neck into the flaccid space between me and my laptop screen. His alert eyes, that practiced pout, and a whine so quiet that it can’t be ignored. “Yeah, I know Buddy. We’ll go outside after this game, ok? Outside, Bear?”

Bear sees the way my laptop glows and he certainly looks confused when I turn the speaker on. But he doesn’t get why I stare at the screen. There’s one thing he likes about laptops… they make a definite clicking sound when they close (and maybe then it’s back to fun time.)

Written by clayward

February 15, 2010 at 7:38 am

Posted in addiction, stories, tips

1 of 5 adults delay starting everything.

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Behavioral Psychology is still as much art as science. Before a treatment can begin an appropriate diagnosis is critical. So it’s no surprise that psychologists have come up with classifications for different types of procrastination patterns.

Someone who starts most things on time, but puts off writing emails, might be referred to as a ”situational procrastinator”. That covers most of us. But a sizable chunk of the normal adult population are instead described as ”chronic” or ”dispositional” procrastinators.

According to Joseph R Ferrari, who wrote chapter two of Coping With Stress: Effective People and Processes, chronic procrastinators put off almost everything they can get away with. And 20% of the normal adult population are chronic procrastinators!

“Although chronic procrastinators engage in situational delays, situational procrastinators do not necessarily delay chronically across all different types of tasks. (13). Besides situational forms of procrastination, there are some procrastinators for whom frequent delays have become their way of life. Harriott and Ferrari (14)… found that approximately 20% of the normal adult population engages in frequent, chronic procrastination. This figure is equally applicable to both men and women. People also have self-identified themselves as tending to delay the start and completion of numerous daily tasks. For example, procrastinators report delays responding to phone messages, buying gifts and sport/concert tickets, doing the dishes, and the laundry… they don’t make decision on where to eat out, what movies to see, or how to dress for a social event; instead, they let others make those decision for them. They also miss doctor’s appointment and fail to pay bills on time. These people would be labeled as dispositional or chronic procrastinators.” (p. 31, 32)

Written by clayward

January 18, 2010 at 5:08 am

Posted in research, theory

Set clear and easy goals.

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Thanksgiving brings long nights and holiday lights.  Here in New England that means no more ultimate frisbee and not that much exercise.  So it’s a good time for me to hunker down with a cup of hot liquid and get some work done… if I don’t lose focus and start getting glum.  So how to keep on task?

According to Burka and Yuen, authors of Procrastination: Why You Do It, What To Do About It, setting goals isn’t as easy as it sounds.  “many [procrastinators] are busy setting goals all the time.  They almost always set ambiguous goals, as, “I’ve got to get some work done today” or overly ambitious ones, as, “I want to be president of my own company someday.”” (p. 131)

So this brings us to our ProcrasDonate tip for the day.  Make measurable goals for yourself.  How about “I’ll make an outline for the report I’m working on today.”  Or “I’ll ask my boss for an appointment to talk about how to advance my career today.”

For me – getting little things done is satisfying enough.  I don’t want to risk disappointing myself if I can’t get big goals accomplished.  Getting many little things done is how I can get big things done without realizing it.

Here’s how someone at Web Worker Daily plans for holiday productivity.

Written by clayward

November 26, 2009 at 10:19 am

Posted in goals, tips

Life as a slacker.

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OK, if this blog is about sharing stories then maybe I should share a story.

I guess my story is about life as a slacker.

I was always a slacker.  But that doesn’t mean that I don’t like doing things that other people think are tedious.  Something about the way my folks praised me or the time I spent entertaining myself as an only child whose mom didn’t do the mini-van thing must have set up those apparent contradictions.  She made sure I got my homework done, but it was up to me to care about quality. She has loved everything I’ve ever done, regardless of quality.  And she held the Ohio state record for fastest joyful tears.

Tests at school always felt like fun games and that meant good grades.  My slacker nature went undiagnosed until my buddy Becca (who made Sheep Beats) correctly noticed that I preferred eating snacks to reviewing calculus problems.  I felt like the secret was out.  Well, the secret has stayed out since then… and life continues to be funny and good.

So how have I paid the bills if I don’t keep a regular job?  I was lucky enough to get the following advice from Dennis Adams (whose art is a more perfect history) when he was my adviser in grad school:  “The secret to being an artist is to keep your expenses low and you’ll be fine.”  His crooked smile and that reminder.  How to keep expenses low on a slacker lifestyle?  Well I don’t have kids.  I live in the same town as Harvard and MIT, same town I grew up in.  But I don’t hop back and forth to San Francisco nearly as often as my former classmates.  So there’s always money in the bank and elite flavored organic foods on the made-it-myself plate.

Let’s jump to the ending of this story where my wife and business partner Lucy has come to accept that I don’t get work done at all unless I’m enjoying it.  When I’m not on a roll my time gets divided between a wonderful array of hobbies and low key vices.  But I’m always learning.  And I do all right.  btw, Lucy keeps a blog about her experience creating the technology behind ProcrasDonate.  She’s working and playing always and bursting of web dev joyfulness.

So what’s your story?

Written by clayward

November 22, 2009 at 6:49 pm

Posted in slack, stories