To Work or Not to Work…That Is the Question

Some days you wake up knowing that you’re not going to get much done (today was one of those days for me). Popular wisdom would tell you to drink your joe, open up your work, and get to it. In this case, I think popular wisdom is wrong.

Let’s suppose that you’ve got a 20-page project that you’ve got to do. On a strikeout day, you’ll work all day and maybe get 2–3 pages done. Why? Because, dammit, there’s interesting news on Yahoo, you forgot to check your bank account online, a few friends wrote you, it was time to do the weekly vacuuming … in short, Procrastination has worked its voodoo on you.

Okay, so you’ve worked the full day, feel happy at the end of it, wake up the next day, and look at what you’ve done. The words carry with them the malaise of yesterday, and the process of editing, deleting, and, in general, overhauling what you worked on yesterday saps most of the better part of your Flow time. At the end of day two, you’re all of a page or two further along than you would have been had you just not worked the day prior.

“Charlie, that’s total nonsense! If I were to do that every day, I’d never get anything done.”

Okay, realistically, odds are you’re not going to do that. Also, realistically, you’ve been denying yourself some downtime for quite some time. We all have to refresh our batteries, lest we burn out. Let’s talk about Pareto’s principle in our context.

Pareto’s principle, sometimes called the 80/20 rule, proposes (among other things) that 80% of our results come from 20% of our efforts. How is this relevant to your slacking for the day? Consider the inverse of the principle: 80% of our efforts advance 20% of our results. We can probably surmise that your day’s worth of procrastination and funk-fighting would fall within the latter 80% rather than the former 20%. In short, it’s a lot of squeezing for such little juice.

I’ll give two options for how to spend your strike-out days: (1) do something fun or enjoyable (you remember what that feels like, right?), or (2) work away at some routine task that doesn’t require so much brainpower. Option #1 is good because you recharge your batteries and actually may be better able to work when it’s time, or, even better, you may catch some insight from not thinking about whatever you need to be doing (the “finding-the-remote-when-you’re-not-looking-for-it” syndrome). Option #2 accepts that not a lot will be accomplished on Project A, but Tasks B, C, and D, if completed, will allow you to more clearly focus on Project A, when you come back to it … and, without the psychic RAM being taken up by those inane tasks, you’re more likely to wind up in the Flow.

“Why do today what you can put off ’til tomorrow?”

Because, either way, you won’t be really doing it today. But what you don’t do today may help you do what you need to tomorrow.

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