Making Trouble — The Art of Productive Procrastination

About four times a year I seem to be able to concentrate well for eight hours in a row — in fact, about 48 hours in a row — and I just let it happen. I don’t know when it will occur or why, but it’s typically when some manic inspiration strikes.

The rest of the time, I am rarely, if ever, doing what I should be doing. I’ve never been able to go straight down the to-do list, to the chagrin of friends and co-workers, yet still everything ends up getting done, and a little more. Since that seems to be the way I’m wired, I have found some simple ways to productively procrastinate. Here’s what works for me; maybe it will work for you.

I gave up on trying to do exactly what I was meant to be doing in favor of always doing something. Frankly, I’m not sure we’re designed to focus on only one thing for eight or ten hours in a row. I’ve always found that it’s useful to have something else to be doing when you’re too burnt out to face the next thing on your list. That way, flipping back and forth between the two projects prevents focus fatigue.

Now, the most important thing is to make sure your other project isn’t “browsing on YouTube” or “catching up on Facebook.” Make it a project that forces you to learn, because you want to.

Always have a learning project in mind. For me, it’s typically learning some new tool, some new math, some new physics, or some new programming skill. It doesn’t really matter what it is, just have something on the back burner. It helps if it’s a skill you might need in your next project.

Then figure out something fun that requires that skill, like making a Sierpinski-triangle chopping board. Make sure you need your new skill to complete your weird and fun new project. The desire to finish the project will force you to learn the skill, and that skill will be available to you when you tackle a more serious project in the future.

I’ll illustrate this with my most recent example. I have projects in the future where I know I’ll need to do a lot of data visualization. I also have projects where I want to use more algorithm-based design. Christmas is coming up, and I want to give my friends who have children something cool and handmade, so I decided to make an alphabet book completely algorithmically: a computer program wrote, typeset, and produced the entire thing.

Why? I’ve always had a passion and fascination with fonts. And I need more day-to-day MATLAB skills. It’s not something that needs to be done immediately — I can do it in the hours between other projects and work, and at the end of it I’ll be a better programmer, understand fonts, colors, and visualization- and algorithm-based design better, and I’ll have an awesome gift for my kid and others.

I’ve been at it for about three weeks now, spending maybe an hour a day (more when on airplanes, less when at home). It looks close to being finished. Magically, I’ve learned a whole bunch of skills that had always avoided me because I wasn’t motivated to learn them — because I found a way to motivate myself. That’s like a full-semester programming course finished in three weeks while skill-building and distracting me just enough from real work to make my real work more productive. (The next question is, what should I be doing while I avoid writing my MAKE column?)

I love Clay Shirky’s concept of cognitive surplus, and the fact that there are more people with more time to contribute to more cool things than ever before, and that we can share all this learning and doing because we now have the web. I’ll be able to share my book and my code with the world. Someone will improve the code, or change it, or find a creative link or nugget in it, and the world is improved. Everyone’s a winner.

Harness your procrastinating self by fooling yourself into being motivated. Find recipes for your own ideal procrastination projects. Keep a list of them handy. You’ll never find yourself zombie-eyed in front of a video game ever again. You’ll be creating something new instead.

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Saul Griffith

DR. SAUL GRIFFITH is founder and principal scientist at Otherlab, an independent R&D lab, where he focuses on engineering solutions for a clean energy, net-zero carbon economy. Occasionally making some pretty cool robots too. Saul got his PhD from MIT, and is a founder or co-founder of,,,,,,, and more. Saul was named a MacArthur Fellow in 2007.

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