Priority Pie! Graphing procrastination

I am such a workaholic. I have been working as hard as I possibly can for well over a decade now — as though Tyler Durden had threatened to shoot me if I let him down. I have my black belt in organization and productivity now. And I also still have some things to learn.

This is about my most recent lesson in the school of working your ass off. There will be pie at the end.

Workaholism: The Early Years

Throughout “the early years,” my main organizational strategy was to wake up with a jolt at 3am, heart hammering because some neglected priority is suddenly urgent. (Thanks a bunch, brain. See: If my brain were an imaginary friend.)

I would then be awake until just before dawn, trying to remember all the other urgent things I had somehow failed to deal with in recent days or years, from minutiae to much tough challenges:

Then I would then finally get too sleepy to care, fall asleep for an hour or two, and wake up completely unable to remember most of what had gone through my head — of course. If I was lucky, I’d remember the one that woke me up, and that would kick off my to-do list for the day.

Not exactly an organizational whiz kid.

Workaholism is a skill, and I sucked at it back then. For quite a while, my addiction consisted mostly of desperate pedalling with no traction, like trying to race a chainless bike.

Enter GTD® — “getting things done” — the fabulously popular productivity strategy. As a rule of thumb, I have little love for trademarked schools of thought, but this one saved me from drowning. I called it “better than any psychotherapy” because, for the first time in my grown-up life, I got relief from those 3am spasms. You can’t be relaxed about what you’re not getting done when you don’t even know what’s lurking just off your radar. For the first time, I knew! I was more or less able to keep track of all my commitments. You can’t do everything, but you can keep on eye on all of it.

I slept better, and I started to really pack the days full.

Learning to drink from a firehose

And then I started waking up in the middle of night trying to remember something new: not tasks, but information. This carried on for some time, a grim reprise. Apparently I have a strong natural inclination to waking up in the middle of the night to chew on my worries. If I run out of something to wake up in a cold sweat about, I find something else.

And then I had my second major productivity revelation.

My new problem is that I was drowning in a highly abstract torrent of unsorted and unfiled data, documents and knowledge. GTD couldn’t help me. Most of what I was desperately trying to remember was not tasks but information. My productivity challenge was shifting from “getting things done” to “filing things well” — coping with the unbelievable data deluge, everything that I need to know, integrate, consider, cite, and so on.

I got really, really obsessed with filing. And then, once again, I slept more soundly.

For a while.

You are now arriving at procrastination station

My 3am terrors started showcasing a new theme about a year ago, getting strong in recent months, like a bad smell: I wake up disgusted by my lack of progress on major projects and initiatives despite being continuously, breathtakingly productive and organized. Every day I get to the end of an impressive checklist, but I haven’t touched my main projects, the Important Work that will get me where I want to go in life.

It’s a new, devious species of procrastination: bustling mastery of the urgent at the expense of the important. Avoid what matters by doing everything that is almost as important. If your inner coach gripes, just point to all the genuinely high priority crap you’ve been doing.

What bollocks.

The pie chart does not lie

The pie chart of my days looks all wrong. There should be fat, moist slices representing the work that really matter to me. Those slices are ominously missing. In their place is a hulking wedge of “miscellaneous,” half the pie or more. Miscellaneous is an unavoidable and significant category … but it shouldn’t be two thirds of the dang pie.

Basically I’ve been waking up at 3am again because I am choking on miscellaneous, and the projects that will get me the life I want are represented by pie slices so thin they couldn’t be served upright on a plate.

I have let miscellaneous take over, and it is like being stung to death by mosquitoes. My priorities are barely in the pie.

The illusion of productivity

You can go to your grave being efficient and busy, without ever getting the right things done (or filed!).

This is a subtler and more personal problem than an organizational or productivity challenge. I have great task management systems, and there’s nothing stopping me from choosing to work on the projects that matter — nothing except me.

Why does anyone procrastinate? Why avoid the projects that matter the most, the projects that are the obvious pre-requisites for long term goals? If I want to be a novelist, there’s going to have to be a big slice of novel-writing pie! Every day. For a long time. (See Scalzi: Writing: Find the Time or Don’t) So why isn’t there?

<sarcasm>How could a brilliantly organized workaholic possibly screw that up?</sarcasm>

I screwed it up by being brilliant organized, of course — an elaborate mechanism for a simple procrastination goal. Although there are all kinds of ways I could explain myself, the most obvious is probably the most useful, and probably the main reason most people procrastinate: the big stuff is just intimidating, and it was easier to put my energy into getting really, really good at the little stuff and creating the illusion of productivity.

Ultimately, productivity is not all that complicated. There are only so many priorities that can be served. The pie can only be sliced so fine.

How to make priority pie

Use a spreadsheet to track time spent on different major priorities and projects. You’ll go nuts if you try to track every little thing, so keep it to things you spend real time on — or think you should — like “household chores” or “updating Facebook.” It’s really easy to show time spent on different activities as a percentage of the total (or even of the whole day) and make pie charts of it.

Things get interesting fast when start comparing what you’re actually doing to the theoretical ideal. Do you reckon you should spend 10% of your day working on Project X? Now: how much time to you really spend? And why?

You don’t have to do this forever — it’s just an useful short-term exercise. You’ll quickly notice that some activities come nowhere close to the ideal. Figuring out why is the point.

Your priority pie will school you.

Update: It turns out I wasn’t exactly the first person to notice this strategy of avoiding the most important things by working really hard on slightly less important things. In fact, a dude won an Ig Nobel prize for it! He calls it “structured procrastination.”