Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task. ~William James

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

To Do Nothing, or Not?

For much of her childhood, my daughter slept on "Happiness sheets" depicting Charles Schulz's multiple views of this elusive state.  According to this antiquated bed linen, "Happiness is," among other things,  
  • being able to reach the doorknob
  • finding a caddy who doesn't fall into the hole [i.e., bigger than Woodstock]
  • being one of the gang
  • one thing to one person and another thing to another person

 In the chapter we reviewed yesterday in Procrastinating 101, Dr. Timothy Pychyl, procrastination researcher and author of The Procrastinator's Digest:  A Concise Guide to Solving the Procrastination Puzzle,  tells us that 
both philosophers and psychologists have proposed that happiness is found in the pursuit of our goals.  
He goes on to say, existentially speaking, that 
It is not necessarily that we are accomplishing anything in particular, but that we are engaged in the pursuit of what we think is meaningful in our lives.
So we might conclude that happiness, in addition to being "a warm puppy," is also getting on with doing what we think is important to do.

Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project and perhaps the best known of a growing crop of "happy-ologists," has written frequently about procrastination, underscoring this inverse relationship between happiness and procrastination.  Implicitly, and sometimes explicitly, she argues that we will be happier if we learn to procrastinate less.  

In a post last week--"Problem With Procrastination? Try This: Do Nothing."--Ms. Rubin considers the advice of Roy Baumeister and John Tierney, in Willpower: Rediscovering the Greatest Human Strength.  

Baumeister is an increasingly prominent social psychologist.  As I was reading Rubin's post, my husband was, quite coincidentally, reading about Baumeister's work on self-regulation in Jonah Lehrer's How We Decide; I had earlier encountered his work on "the costs and benefits of dawdling" and wrote about it in a previous post; and he was cited in Chip and Dan Heath's book Switch:  How to Change Things When Change is Hard, which inspired several Put it to Bed posts.  Like Chickenman in the ancient comic radio series, "He's everywhere!  He's everywhere!"

Gretchen Rubin is most interested in Baumeister and Tierney's recommendation of  the “Nothing Alternative” to procrastination.  This approach borrows from Raymond Chandler's practice of not allowing himself to do anything else during the time he set aside each day for writing--whether or not he was actually writing.  Thus the multitude of distractions so many of us succumb to become taboo.  And theoretically we have no choice but to knuckle down to the work we most need to do.

This tactic is the opposite of Stanford University philosopher professor John Perry's Structured Procrastination
an amazing strategy I have discovered that converts procrastinators into effective human beings, respected and admired for all that they can accomplish and the good use they make of time. All procrastinators put off things they have to do. Structured procrastination is the art of making this bad trait work for you.
Perry appears to have despaired of procrastinators behaving rationally.  Instead he would have us make use of some fairly sophisticated self-deception, whereby we 1) pretend that there is something extremely important that we really want to accomplish; 2) fill out to-do lists with other useful and important projects; and 3) (since we're going to be procrastinating anyway) avoid the supposed top priority work by applying ourselves to the other tasks on our list.  Thus we back into a state of personal productivity.

Gretchen Rubin's readers seem somewhat divided in their reactions to her "Do Nothing" prescription.  Some of the comments to her post, and her own responses, are concerned with the definition of doing nothing.  Is "reading message boards for hours, thus accomplishing neither the task I am avoiding nor any other useful task," for example, as one reader holds, doing nothing?  Rubin responds "Reading message boards is absolutely something, a distraction. Allow yourself to do NOTHING. No reading, no using the internet."

Then there are the comments that question the effectiveness of the strategy.  For example, the reader that claims to be "the do nothing MASTER," and says that she could sit forever doing nothing, no problem!  

One intriguing comment may offer a way out of our quandry--to do nothing, or not to do nothing.  This reader writes
I'm wondering after reading all the comments if this approach could work for only people who generally like to DO lots of stuff. I see there are lots of do nothing folks already and it won't work for them.
Maybe it's an individual thing? 

Perhaps there is something to be said for both doing and not doing--and whether or not the doing is avoidance-related, or the not doing intended to force eventual doing of high priority tasks.  Lou Marinoff, author of Plato, Not Prozac! Applying Eternal Wisdom to Everyday Problems!, told Amy Finnerty, for an O! Magazine article entitled "Is Procrastination Actually Good for You?" that 
[Ms. Finnerty's] husband's idleness and procrastination are grounded in a venerable Eastern tradition.  "Chinese philosophy—the I Ching, for example—is full of advice about the natural order of the universe and the correct timing of actions," he says. "Indian philosophy also gives equal weight to the paths of action and inaction." The right timing, he explains, can be just as productive as effort and sweat: "Sometimes we fulfill our responsibility not by acting but by doing nothing."
 I admit that some nothing was done in the process of producing this post.  It's evening now, and I'm overdue for a whole other kind of nothing.

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