Pragmatic 96: I’ll Do The Procrastination Episode Tomorrow

17 December, 2019


In an episode that could not be put off any longer, Merlin Mann joins John to unpick the habit of procrastination, how to identify when you’re doing it, why you’re doing it and how to stop yourself from doing it and get yourself back on track.

Transcript available
How long did it take me to book this with you, John? How long did it take? - I, should we, it wasn't that long. - It took a very, very long time 'cause I wasn't sure if I wanted to do it. And you know what I did? I kept snoozing your email to the next day for probably a month. - That's okay. - It was, no, no, no, it's not you, it's me. I'm the one who's broken inside. - Welcome to Pragmatic. (upbeat music) Pragmatic is a discussion show contemplating the practical application of technology. By exploring the real-world trade-offs, we look at how great ideas are transformed into products and services that can change our lives. Nothing is as simple as it seems. Pragmatic is supported by you, our listeners, and if you'd like to support the show, you can do so via Patreon for early release, high quality, ad-free episodes, visit to learn how you can help. Thank you. This episode is brought to you by ManyTricks, makers of helpful apps for the Mac. Visit ManyTricks or on for more information about their amazingly useful apps. We'll talk more about them during the show. I'm your host, John Tidgey, and today I'm joined by Merlin Mann. How are you doing, Merlin? Merlin Mann: I'm doing great, John. So nice to be here. Thank you for coming on the show. I've just always figured that I'll do a show. I'll do the procrastination episode tomorrow or when I get the perfect guest. So, and I think I've finally found the perfect guest to help me with this one. So, thank you for coming on for this. I guess, just to kick it off, I sort of, the older that I've gotten, and gotten is not really a good word, but still, the busier I've become, the less that I can keep my head in sort of in one moment. And so when I start losing track, I start to write things down the list, which is I think perfectly natural and helpful and healthy probably. And new things come up, then you add them to that list. We cross off a few, and I always seem to be adding more than I get done. And so my list kind of keeps growing and growing and growing and growing. And eventually sometimes you hit list bankruptcy and just throw it away. And sometimes that's your excuse to change to-do list tools and just say that that's perfectly fine, but I've come to think about why the list keeps growing. And in my particular case, a lot of it, I think there's a recurring theme of procrastinating. And it's something that I find is very, very insidious, and I struggle with it. Is that something that you've come across in? - No, not at all, never. - Okay. - Never a problem, yes. Yes, of course, it's the worst. I do it, I've always done it. I have finally, I don't know, 10 years ago, got diagnosed with ADHD. And for me, it's mostly the A for me. I have a brand of ADHD that's a very garden variety, boring version of ADHD. It's not the famous kind of 80s and 90s kid ADHD where you run in circles and hit things with a stick. It's the kind where I have, I can finally realize that I have had, historically, difficulty focusing my attention where I would like. Before we even get to, can I focus my attention on the good things I would like to do, I have to get to the point of acknowledging that because of my pipes and wires, at least in part, and then the behavior that spun out of that over the years, the habits I've built, there are certain kinds of things where it's improbably difficult for me to get certain tasks done, even if they are to any neurotypical person an easy task. So I'm, you know, that's, the reason that I've become a teacher is that I'm still a student. And I do struggle with that. And I would love to talk to you about that and all the ways you end up putting yourself in that condition. Why is that list getting bigger? Are you picking the best stuff? Are you, is anything allowed on that list that you think you're not gonna do? We've got a lot of angles we can work from, but it's a real thorny problem and we'll take it anywhere you want to go. - Okay, so basically I thought I'll start off with a definition because I like to start off with definitions, I guess, but I was digging around about different definitions for what procrastination is. And the one I like the most, 'cause there are multiple, I suppose, is to put off intentionally the doing of something that should be done. Kind of generic, but what I think is, I guess, that procrastination doesn't have to mean I'm sitting on the couch, not folding the washing. Washing needs to be done. The couch doesn't need to be sat on probably, but it could be something like straightening the pictures on the wall, not folding the washing, which could mean that straightening the pictures on the wall was an item on your to-do list, but it wasn't as high a priority as doing a head off folding the washing. So if you had like a little fancy scenario, and what I didn't mention in that scenario, I suppose, is that you got some people coming around to your house at five o'clock for dinner. Let's say that, you know, some people still do that. There's five laundry baskets waiting to be folded in the way, making a mess, gonna be very embarrassing. So I've had to choose a to-do list item to do first. It'd be do the washing first and then pitch is second because, you know, they probably won't care or notice if the pitch is crooked, unless they're really observant, maybe some would notice. And the thing that gets me is that those are two items on my to-do list, but that's still a form of procrastination because I'm not doing them in the right order. - Wow, yeah, there's a lot there. You've got three or four hours of content right there because there's, so as far as defining what procrastination is, I think it's something where maybe perhaps like the Supreme Court in pornography, you know it when you see it. I have some quibbles with that definition because as somebody, that's what procrastination looks like to someone who doesn't procrastinate, in my opinion. For someone who does procrastinate, it's not about priority, unfortunately. It's not about priority. It's not really about intention. It's an extremely irrational response to life. So the rational response to life is to figure out the things you need to do, decide which things are most important, and then do them. And that's extremely rational. And for a huge amount of things in life, I'm totally OK doing all of those. But for a person who procrastinates, it's much uglier than that. It's-- I feel. And that is that regardless of how much you want to do the thing, regardless of how much you need to do the thing, right? The problem is that for whatever reason, you're still not moving closer to accomplishing that. And why is that? Well, we'll get into that. There's a million reasons. But let's start to me. Let's start with my definition, anyhow, would be something more along the lines of despite your rationality, intelligence, best intentions, energy, enthusiasm, time, attention, all the the big nouns, regardless of what you know you should be doing, for whatever reason, you're not getting closer to that thing. Now I'll mention as a quick side note here, I think part of the problem, I said before about building a habit over the years, I think the fact that you haven't gotten killed yet, despite repeatedly not doing the thing, unintentionally builds that terrible habit. And I can, for somebody with ADHD, I can peg that right to dopamine. Sometimes it takes a real scary event to get me to fold the laundry, let alone straighten the photos, right? Sometimes at least for people with ADHD, it's not everybody, it takes a "whoa" moment to make you go take care of the thing. Because you just have not reached the level of what you need to accomplish this thing that for whatever reason, mentally, emotionally, maybe physically, you can't get there. So there's so many ways that we can talk about how this happens, and then I hope we'll get to some of the ways that you can address it. But as with so many of these things, whether it's social anxiety, whether it's just garden variety anxiety, there's so many things that are misunderstood by the folks who don't have it. And it's not that they're not being sympathetic, empathetic, they're trying to understand it, but it's especially difficult to understand a problem that you don't have if you're not motivated to really understand it. So I think social anxiety is something where it's become more okay to talk about that. Some people, it's just extremely difficult to deal with other people. A friend of the show, John Siracusa, he does not like talking to strangers. He would prefer not to. And how do you get that way? I don't know. But I'm glad it's becoming more okay to talk about this stuff. And when we get back to procrastination here, we do have to talk about all the barriers real or imagined or suspected that keep us from doing that thing. And that can include things like anxiety, that can include, it can just be, it can be pipes and wires, but why do we not do it? I'm not sure why we don't do it exactly, because it can vary so much, but I do know there is a way in to get better at it, but it starts with being honest about where we are to begin with, right? I mean, you don't want to go to a doctor who starts giving you medicine for the wrong thing. So, alright. Wow, okay. So, there's a lot to unpack there. I know. I'm sorry. I'm sorry. We could even get straight to the tips and tricks, but you know me, you're going to get a really nice dessert, but first you have to eat your vegetables. And the eating your vegetables part of this, as I hope we can talk about and learn more about your situation, is that we have to first start, let's just go step zero, as you like to say. is that this is not rational. And we need to understand and accept that it's not rational. A rational person knows what to do and does it. A person who is less rational knows that they need to do it and still don't do it. And why is that? You know, I feel like that's a really interesting jumping off point. - So a couple of things about having the vegetable source and everything. So peas and corn, yes. Potato, yes. Beyond that, I struggle, especially with broccoli. But I'm sorry, but anyhow. - Do you like Brussels sprouts? Have you ever roasted Brussels sprouts? - No, I don't think I actually have roasted them, no. But I hear- - See, that's the thing. A lot of people cook Brussels sprouts wrong. Their first Brussels sprouts exposure was to terrible boiled, overcooked Brussels sprouts. And it's just basically sad cabbage. If you roast it, you know, with some sea salt and a little bit of balsamic vinegar, it can be really quite delicious, just for what it's worth. - Okay, I'm gonna note that down. And I'll get back to that at some point in my future. I promise. Okay, so there's that. One of the things that you said that really just struck a chord with me is this, the idea of like a threshold, a consequential threshold, that is to say, if I don't, so I'm just paraphrasing, but the idea is you have a to-do list, I mean, you know, you need to do it, but you're procrastinating about doing it. And the consequences of not doing it have not escalated to beyond a threshold whereby you can break through that, that procrastination barrier, or for the want of a better way of putting it, it. And yeah, I guess my observation has been is that sometimes, I mean, it's a great way of thinking about it because the consequence threshold of a lot of these tasks that we know we should be doing, in some cases, it doesn't increase with time. As time passes, it's like, well, I still haven't, you know, painted the walls. Okay, fine. Well, I could probably wait another year before I deal with it. Whereas I've got people coming over at five o'clock. So, that's a real deadline that's actually going to have real consequences. Hence the threshold will escalate the closer I get to that point in time, which is an interesting way of thinking about it. Yeah, I mean, let's stick with your party for now because I think that's a nice, pretty neutral example that will suit us nicely. We'll talk about whatever you want, but let's talk about your party. Straightening the pictures on the wall, you know, I get that you're citing a minor example. That's an extremely minor example. Let's make it slight, let's raise the stakes a little bit. Let's say, as you say, they're coming over at five for what? They're coming over for a dinner party. Have you done the dishes, right? Are the pots clean? Did you go to the store to get the food that you need? Let's take it maybe a thousand times further, and let's say you're somebody who has a disorder that a lot of people call hoarding. Can people get into the house? Is there a path? You committed to this a long time ago, but you got what, piles of newspaper and Amazon boxes? When are you gonna deal with those Amazon boxes? I don't know, it's just, I don't know where they're gonna go. Right? So that to me, that is stakes that even though you can understand, there's extremely low stakes to the crooked photo and there's extremely, there's higher stakes to not having any food or a kitchen in which you can prepare it. But those stakes can go all the way up to, like I say, is my house in a condition where I'm okay with people coming in? And there may be something, believe it or not, listener, this is not you, but there's somebody out there, believe it or not, who's not going to achieve that threshold motivation until maybe a few minutes before the doorbell rings. Which is not rational, but it happens. It happens. And so, I think your example will suit us just fine. How do you get to where you can achieve whatever threshold motivation you need to get that stuff accomplished without needing to panic. Absolutely. All right. So when it comes down to a lot of this, you say we talk about the consequences of not acting on these items and some of that's therefore will drive the prioritization. So, and I guess to some extent, you know, the whole getting things done, GDD, David Allen sort of suggestion about, you know, processing to-do list items and so on and so forth and setting some of those priorities. I suppose when you do set those priorities based on the relative consequences and you stack everything in a list, it's it seems so thoughtful and well thought through, so obvious and so clear at the time that you do it. But what I've observed is that sometimes the time changes the priority of those items, depending upon what they are. And maybe that's because of the consequence threshold changing as time moves forward closer to the event you're preparing for. And, and I think that where procrastination kills me, where it really does drag me down is that I look back at things like interruptions, which we could we'll get to, and things that spontaneously make you re-evaluate those priorities, and you don't do it as thoroughly. And you then feel this, this, this little, I'll just do this quick thing. And it's like, but this quick thing is a quick thing, but it's not an important, prioritised quick thing. And that's then slowing me down from the the bigger tasks that still need to be done. And so I'm essentially sabotaging myself, and yet I'm still getting a dopamine rush from doing this one little thing and checking it off. - Yeah, partly because it's something you can understand. It's doable, and again, for somebody who's afflicted as I am, now it's not that you have no attention, or it's that you don't have much of a governor or a steering wheel for your intention. And so you've now, you go do this deep dive, maybe you're gonna go update your homebrew, Like maybe you're going to play with your bash profile, but there's something that on the sort of Chixet Mihaly matrix is something that is very, you have high skills, but a small challenge, right? The kinds of tasks where you're like, "Yeah, I can do this all day long." Meanwhile, you've got this pile of flaming stuff over here that you're avoiding for some reason and that's rough. Yeah, it's interesting. - And one of the other comments you mentioned too, is like with the ADHD thing, it's like some people have that lack of governance or there's less, how should we say it? There's less governance for some reason. And it's just, it is what it is. And some people have a better, I'm not trying to, it's hard to put it into words. It's like some people understand, you said before, it's like, it's hard to understand an affliction of a certain kind if you don't yourself have it. It's one of those things I found frustrating when I was, when I was, before I was married, before I had kids and people would say, well, you know, you don't have kids, you don't understand. And I'm like, well, like, but I can try to understand. And I always felt like, what were you saying? That I can't understand this until I have children. And the funny thing is that if you now fast forward to my present self and I think back to my past self, I think, wow, I really had no idea 'cause I didn't have kids. And I don't mean it in a bad way, - No, no, but look at a crying baby on a plane. So when I was in my 20s, I would wanna, let me speak to your manager. I paid to have a quiet flight. Why can't you go take care of your baby? Flash forward to now, and like, that's all I can do not to say, do you want me to walk the baby up and down the aisle? Like a total creep. 'Cause now I've been in that situation, whereas before I got it, now I really get it. So yeah, I think that example works. One more thing in passing, just because I don't want to let this go by. Again, this is to your point about finding that motivation and how it's irrational, and you talked about prioritization. And one of the things I feel like it took me a while to get my head around is that for certain folks, prioritizing can be extremely useful, especially for a neurotypical person. It's something where you can prioritize and say, "Well, this is giving me some clarity about what I need to do." If you struggle with stuff like procrastination, prioritization ends up very much not being your friend. Because prioritization starts with something, to me it ought to start with something as simple as I like to say, what is the priority? You can't really have, you can have maybe two priorities, but when you get to the point where now you have six priorities and you have four different levels and you have color coding and you're bolding it, is that really even a priority anymore? It's closer to force ranking, maybe, but at the point, this is why I've always pushed back against applications that encourage endless levels of tagging and prioritization, because all the time that you're tagging and prioritizing, guess what you're not doing? The thing that you think is important. That is a huge honeypot for the distracted person. So one of the problems when we talk about prioritization is that for the person who has difficulty finding the typical motivation to get something done, get something accomplished, I find it does not, it does not help to over prioritize and add all those tags. And in fact, the more I feel the need to taxonomize that I've learned, the more I need to really examine why it's not already done. You can tell something as I again, like to say, you can tell it's a priority if it got done and it got done well, right? Do you follow? Yeah. And so, and so the, the trouble for the person who procrastinates is that a better use of your time at that point. If you're not gonna do the task, let's stop for a second, and let's look at what you've done here, right? So, in a very getting things done sort of way, well, okay, how did you phrase this task, right? Are there, so importantly, it's a huge piece of getting things done that just changed my world, is if you're procrastinating about something, I think a good first question is, am I ever really gonna do this? Is this a thing I'm gonna do? And if it is a thing, if it's not a thing you're gonna do, why is it on the list? Get rid of it. Hard as, difficult as that is, get rid of it. And if you are going to do it, let's talk about why it's not done. So there's some reason that you will have resistance to doing that. This is classic David Allen. I think one of the biggest things you need to look at is, does this task that I've set for myself have built-in work that needs to be done before I can do this task? And again, straight out of getting things done. So often, from a practical standpoint, one reason to-do lists don't work is folks tend to make lists of projects when they really should be figuring out tasks or as David Allen says next actions. So is that making sense? Like when you look at that list and you have all that prioritization, you can taxonomize those things within an inch of their life, but they're still not going to get done. If you have something on there, the classic example from David Allen, if you have a thing that says call Merlin Mann and you haven't done it, why haven't you done it? Do you have Merlin Mann's phone number? Oh no, I need to get that. Do I have a way to ask him what his phone number is? So to me, that's from a practical standpoint, that's a super practical way to look at it, is like, am I gonna do this? And if I am gonna do this, what is the resistance that has kept me from doing it? And that way you can slip into a more rational state of mind, but it does require being very honest with yourself about your intentions, your actual priorities, and the motivations that will cause you to do or not do a thing. - Wow, okay. Yes to all of that. Yes. I think that when you do settle on what priority or the priority, I think with my, God, I'm trying to think of the right point to continue on here because there's so much in that. I feel like you have to respect that decision. You reached a conclusion based on, I've done all my pre-qualification or pre-tasks in order to execute this task. I have decided that it's past the threshold of I actually need to act on this or the consequences will be too dire if I don't. And once you do that, you have to respect that and you have to say, well, a series of rational decisions and full knowledge of consequences have led me to this is now what I'm going to do. No matter what happens right now, I have to then focus and just get it done and push through it and execute on that priority because that is the priority at that moment. And I feel like procrastination is the, is just, it completely erodes that because essentially you stop respecting, I think, the decision you've made with the, the agreement you made with yourself. You're not, you're not, I mean, you're also describing something that I think is fascinating, which forgive me if I'm not using this word in the correct way from a CS standpoint, but modality where I feel like we do operate in different modalities. And you know, obviously again, in getting things done, a classic example is, well, you shouldn't have to think about your work all the time. You should mostly be doing your work. That's why you should set aside time to think about your work so you don't have to think about it. You want to make you treat yourself like an idiot and you crank widgets, right? I mean, but that's when you talk about honoring that, I think that's really interesting because when you say honor, you know, what you agreed to or what's a priority. Well, first of all, I almost feel like when we say priority, I almost want to say, can we try instead to say, what's the best thing I could do right now? Because priority is a very nebulous idea, and people use it in so many different ways. Especially honestly, in the world of developers, you hear people talk about what are Apple's priorities? What are these things? Well, for yourself in the moment, in any modality, you can always ask yourself, what's the best thing that I could do right now? You could say what's the best use of my time, but no, I want to go further than that. What's the best thing that I could do right now? Given where I am, given all of this, I get the big bucks for making these decisions in life whether that's as a parent or a developer. What's the best thing that I could do right now? And then, okay, so further here, when I talk about modalities, I've mentioned this before, but back in the days when Netflix was a company that basically you sign up and it's a certain amount each month and you can have three DVDs at a time. And it takes a day or two, we're pretty near where they are and they'd arrive pretty quick. But there's a funny thing what happened. My friend Catherine calls this not flicks, which is when you start you paying $7 a month or whatever. And you get these DVDs and you don't watch them. Well that's crazy. Why am I not watching these? Well, I'll tell you one reason I wasn't is because of modality. There's day Merlin and there's night Merlin, right? There's way more Merlins than that. But I'll tell you, here's one to start with. Day Merlin is very alert and awake and having coffee and reading things about film. And you know what? There's so many new movies from the new wave movement that I've never seen or haven't seen recently and so I'm going to get some Truffaut. I'm going to get Breathless, AlphaVille. I'm going to get all these movies and they're going to arrive and then when they arrive, I'm going to sit and watch these. But here's the problem. Now Night Merlin has these three DVDs with subtitles to read. And I just want to watch a reality show. Night Merlin has very different motivation than Day Merlin. Do you know what I mean? The person over here who said, this is what we're going to do, we're going to do these things. And when you talk about not honoring these two kind of modalities or your priorities or whatever, that to me is a pretty clear example. Both those Merlins are me. They're both the same dude. But why is it that in this one case, I think I have this appetite for reading subtitles for six hours versus over here, I just wanna watch girls have a pillow fight or whatever. And that's, I think we need to acknowledge that. And so when we say, respect it or give privilege to your better angels that come up with all these good ideas, I think you also have to be clear about when you're setting those things for yourself and you are well caffeinated and everything feels bright and you want to get it all down. You also need to be honest about the person who's going to have to implement that, which is you. If you keep biting off more than you can chew, or you keep, in the case of a developer, you don't have to be super into Agile, but you can look at yesterday's weather. You can say, "Wow, if I look at all this stuff that this Morning John suggested, my goodness, this would require a level of productivity and flawless development that I've never had on my best day. Is that a realistic way to start? So those two or more modes that you have do have to have a conversation with each other and do have to be honest. But remember, write this on a card. Put it on a piece of tape like Fellini. Put it over your camera. Remember ask yourself what is the best thing I could do right now. - Wow, okay, so I, okay, I love that. I think what I'm, the epiphany I had as you were describing that is the person you are in the morning, the person you are at night. When I'm in my J-O-B job kind of thing and I'm doing an estimate, so people come to me and say, hey, we need this feature added, how much is that gonna, how long is it gonna take, whether or not you use points or, 'cause you love Agile for some reason, or you, you know, would do it without. stories or whatever. Yeah, tell me a story. So anyhow, I... and you never mind, don't get me started. Casey and I went through that a while back. The point is, what was the point? Oh yes, the point was that... Day you and night you. That's right, thank you. Move, moving your cards across the board. Yeah, yeah, exactly. And so I, I've got this, this problem where I need to think about, well, what's realistic? And realistically, people get sick, people have lots of distractions from BAU or business as usual activities, whatever people want to call it. So, you look at an average person's week, 40 hours a week, 38 hours a week, whatever it is, standard JIB job stuff, and they're only going to be productive on your little project for at best, maybe 40% of the time, let's say, being like super really pessimistic. And so, when I'm doing an estimate, I factor that in and I say, you know what, Ian, it's not going to take like three months to do this, it's going to take six, because I realistically understand that there are going to be so many distractions and so many other interruptions, planned unplanned things that realistically I'm not doing my job from a project management perspective if I'm not factoring that in. So the epiphany that I had when you were describing the whole day and night thing is that I don't do that when I'm evaluating my own tasks for me. I've only ever seen me as me and maybe that's one of the things that I've been doing wrong all this time. Wow. Yeah, because yeah, It's it's it's it's it's so similar to me of like, you know, I When when I'm talking to a friend who's having a having a rough patch I pull out the most sort of stupid California notion that I really believe in which is like if if you If you were the person Listening to about this problem. What would you tell somebody you care about to do and It causes you to think so differently, right? Because if you have a good friend who came came to you with the problem that you have Maybe it's a form of rubber ducking. So you have this problem, but the problem is it's your problem. And that makes it different and special. How would you deal with it with another person? Also, as far as what you're describing here, I feel like part of-- well, part of a huge amount of my interest in this stuff really blossomed at a time when I was doing freelance project development. And I wasn't particularly good at it, as I've talked about on Reconcilable Differences, but I did try hard. And I did learn a few things. And something I don't think I would have put it in these words in whatever, 2003, but the way I would put it now is that there's so many reasons that we get estimates wrong. And there's endless sayings about this, whether you're talking about the mythical man month or whether you're talking about it takes nine months to make a baby regardless of how many women you put on the job, or you look at the rational developer guy, I forget his name, but that book everybody loved in the '90s. Any of those things. There is one thing that it's difficult to talk about, it's difficult to explain, and it's almost impossible to apply. But something I think that Syracuse and I have talked about is when you make an estimate about something, you make an estimate of let's say a range. And you say that based on the factors that you've given to me, the task that you're talking about, the way I would phrase it is, let's put it this way. The task you've given me, it would be impossible for it to take less than an hour, and it would be pretty unlikely to take more than a day. And maybe you can, your boss wants a better estimate than that, and you can narrow it down further. I think the thing we forget to apply so much of the time is perhaps how certain we are about the information that we got to make that estimate. And then how likely is it, the thing that's almost impossible to apply, you talked about the rest of the world and getting sick and stuff like that. Like have we tempered that estimate? How do we temper that estimate with an idea of how likely something else is to intervene? Which is like, as they say, like shooting a bullet with a bullet. But your estimates won't get good until you are certainly honest about it, until you are candid about lots of factors. If you got a project from BizDev, they did not write a spec, and you know there's an acquisition coming, there's all kinds of stuff that are going to affect your answer to this. You don't want the servers to go down because you guessed wrong based on what the necktie fella said. And then of course, when you start applying that to yourself, it gets a lot more difficult. So I just said a lot of words. How does that comport with your real world experience those issues? I think that there's definitely when you're doing estimates to understand that all of the different inputs and understanding that those inputs may also have errors in them which will then lead you to have errors in your estimates. I think that that's definitely a real thing and I guess I'm sort of thinking about this trying to like circle back a little bit to the whole concept of like understanding what the priority is and whether or not you ask someone else, of what would you tell that other person, sort of putting yourself outside of yourself and being honest with what you're the sort of person you're going to be when you're actually going to be executing this task. And then of course, being being fair to yourself and sticking to that priority. So, these are all these are all really good things to that people can do to help to sort of like set that and to avoid the procrastination. It's almost like a lot, I guess, a life hack, I guess it's sort of the expression people use, but it's just being fair and honest with yourself to try and stop yourself. I think it becomes part of your toolbox, is maybe one way to put it. Is that the more experience you get in whatever you're doing, and I'm not a developer, thank God, but I've been exposed to some developers, and I think you learn, especially when you have to start managing people, projects, and yourself. You have to learn some tools for getting at the soft skills of this stuff. And before I got into all this stuff, and boy, I was such a dingaling, my dot-com job, I was in 1999, I was hired as what we used to call a web producer. And so my job was to, I mean, what they really needed was production. They needed people to cut up buttons and stuff like that. But I was doing design. I was doing the very, very lightest of cold fusion development, but really I was there to work with the engineers to make a website. And I was the, there was somebody over here who did the high level graphic ID stuff and setting the sort of style book. And I was kind of in the weeds and doing this stuff. And as I got a little further along, it became part of my job to try and improve how the site worked and looked. straightforward stuff. But I in 1999, I got the best. I worked for two years with this guy named Richard, who was amazing. And I learned so much from him. He was my boss. He was the head of all the engineers, this huge team of ColdFusion engineers. And I used to go in there. I was just the biggest douche at the time. I would just go in there and say like, Hey, I got this really great idea. He's like, Okay, what's your great idea? Because like, got a lot of stuff to do. Okay, so my great idea is that we're gonna have like a of my functionality. Like where you go in and you get to set these settings, and then there's this thing called a cookie. Look it up. There's going to be this thing. When you do searches, all your stuff will be applied. And you go, OK. So just write up even just the basic spec, but just go define the functionality. And I'd say, well, Richard, the functionality is that you could say, are there certain areas that you do or don't want to search for houses in this area, there's a You go, yeah, yeah, I understand, I understand, but just go define the functionality. So you see where this is going, right? Further and further through this, I did not realize that I, I did not realize the extent to which I was coming in with a large noun that I thought I understood that I did not realize consisted of hundreds of verbs that I did not understand. And by Richard constantly demanding that I define the functionality, he was, first of all, saving himself from having to guess what I meant, bless his heart, smart guy. But perhaps more importantly, in a way that he-- I don't even know if he even realized. I don't think I'd earned enough respect from him to be helped at that point, 'cause I was such a ding-a-ling. But what he was really doing was making me turn that giant noun into-- to basically excavate all the verbs that were inside of that. -Yeah. -And then what happens with this case? And when you do that and click there, what's that page look like? 'Cause I need to know what that, right? So I feel like that is something that then, that's part of why getting things done made so much sense to me. And why I've started to understand more about procrastination. A lot of times we don't know what is a noun and what is a verb, and we certainly have not walked through how that noun turns into verbs. That's procrastination in so many ways. That's how to be a permanent ding-a-ling, is that you are stuck in this state of not understanding why people won't accomplish your nouns when you haven't taken the time to figure out what verbs constitute that giant noun. - It's an interesting way of putting it. I sort of see a lot of what you just outlined there as being very much a case of I have a project to execute, but I haven't taken the time to break it down into all of the individual tasks that I need to figure out precursors to me actually delivering on a final product. And if I don't break it down, then that actually could be a form of procrastination. It could lead to essentially a non-result because I don't really understand everything that I need to do in order to deliver on that. And breaking it down- - Exactly right. And this is, again, this is day one David Allen, which is retirement is not a, retire, is not a verb. It's many, many, many, it's, that's a big noun that is made up of many verbs. So like, and you don't have to break down to the tiniest verb. That's another form of procrastination. But you do need to figure out, if I'm not getting closer to the big noun, what is the verb that I'm not doing? What is the verb that I need to do that gets me closer? Once you start thinking about your world in verbs instead of nouns, not instead of nouns, but alongside nouns, Nouns are outcomes. Verbs are doing. You know, like in Spanish, hacer, to make and to do. To make and to do requires verbing instead of an extensive amount of nouning. And when you've got a whiteboard that's full of nouns, well, just understand every one of those nouns is gonna have to turn into a lot of verbs and that's the work that you need to accomplish. You gotta have a good noun, but that noun will then have to be backed up by a very sensible collection of verbs. - Yeah, I mean, you gotta balance your verbs and your nouns and get that ratio right. And I think that the funny thing is, okay, I guess I'm, so looking at this from the perspective of, so we've touched on a bunch of really, really good points. And I think that it's probably a good idea at this point to sort of like say, well, when you're stuck in that mode, when you're stuck in that mode of, I'm gonna break this down to the most ridiculously small verb, no matter how small it is. 'Cause I just, I feel like I just, I need to keep going a little bit deeper, a little bit deeper. sub-task for the task for the sub-task. And that is essentially a form of procrastination. It's like identifying that and stopping yourself from doing it. It's like, I kind of feel like when I'm stuck in that mode of I'm over analyzing how much I need to break down a project and hence I'm no longer getting any value out of the exercise, feeling and I guess getting your head inside that fact and recognizing you're doing it, that can be really hard. - Oh, absolutely, 100%. And so again, see also, what's the best thing that I could do right now, right? That's definitely part of it, but there's a quote I learned about from Annie Lamott that's been attributed to E.L. Doctro. It goes something like this. You can only see as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way, which I think is very wise. And so what does that mean to me? What that means to me is, yeah, I mean, at a high level back in the day, you'd have a road map, right? And you'd say, well, this is where I start and this is where I end. I don't magically appear in that other city. I have to get there. Well, how do I get there? I get in the car and I go on the road. Okay, is there gas in the car? Hey, yes, there's gas in the car. Okay, to quote Steely Dan. But now I need to start driving. Well, oh my gosh, my headlights can't see all the way to Houston. How will I ever get there? Well, don't worry. The map is what helps you get to Houston, right? The headlights are what helps you get out of the driveway. What is, what is, what does your, what do your headlights need to be today? What illumination do you need today to say what's the next thing I need to do, as David Allen would say, the next action, or the blocking task, perhaps, in project management, right? The gateway, the milestone, or whatever it is. What is the thing I need to do to get or keep this in motion? And so that's, to me, that's the value of something like Getting Things Done. one of the many values, is that it enables you to be able to undertake or accept many projects in life and then always know what the next thing you need to do is. It's nice to know all of the things, but really what you're looking for for anything you're doing is the headlights that let you move forward. Does that make sense? - Yeah, it does make sense, makes perfect sense. And I've never heard that expression before, at least I don't recall hearing it before. It's a very interesting way of looking at it. I love the concept, and this is one of the reasons why people in, how should I say, I don't want to sound like a douchebag, but you know, like upper management positions, talk about mission and vision and so on and so forth. It's like, but as a younger engineer, I'd look at that and I'd sort of like scoff and it's like, yeah, okay, whatever, roll eyes now. But actually that is the map that gets you where you're trying to get to at the day-to-day tasks or the distraction. So long as they're aligned with where you're going, then you have a chance of getting there. 'Cause if you don't have a plan and a map of how to get there, then it's pretty much a one in a million chance you'll actually get to where you want to get to because you don't know where you're trying to get to. So statistically, it's possible to get there. - I kind of agree, but to me, it's so difficult for me to get away from this noun and verb thing. And so I've been in places or I've seen places where there are mission statements and that you talk about values and all these things. And that is and can be, as they say, well and good, but those are nouns. Now the question becomes, for anything that you want I don't want to get us off the nominal topic of procrastination, but in my travels as a sort of kind of productivity-interested person, I would more and more see, what are they saying in companies now, in the enterprise? Misalignments. We're saying this thing about this noun, but our verbs in the company are not supporting that. you that we want you to have work life balance because that's part of our mission. It spins out of our mission and our values. But all you see is people being promoted for working all the time, right? The nominal douchebag who gets the good parking space and shows up late for everything and sends one sentence emails with six months of work in it. Wow, that guy keeps moving up the ladder in spite of all the things that we're saying about how this company works. So I'm not against a mission statement. I'm not against values for the love of God. No, not at all. As your company grows and your teams grow and the number of teams grow, though, it gets more and more difficult to not be seen as being horribly hypocritical. When your company goes public, like you don't get to decide stuff based on just your values anymore. Now you've got shareholders, right? So it's the trouble is that like this is not dissimilar to a concept in my own pantheon that I call composting in the crisper, which is like if you buy like a bunch of really nice organic produce and put it in the refrigerator, but then you throw like a dead fish in there, like you're not gonna want any of that produce regardless of how good it is. It doesn't take that much dishonesty to harm things like values and mission statement. That stuff can be super valuable, but you need to make sure that everybody's executing on this same idea and that you, for every, how can I put this, for every value that you want to put up on the board, show me 10 verbs on how that is being supported today in the room. Now we're getting into management and stuff, but John, isn't that also true for us on the day-to-day? Where if we put the big thing up on the board about what we say is important, but then all the verbs of that day are not aligned with getting that accomplished, I hope that doesn't feel good because you're not walking in the right direction. - Yeah, that's actually an interesting, that's a really good point, and it's an interesting way of strategizing, And maybe that's one way when you do have something you really need to get done is to put it up and so it's highly visible. And then ask yourself that and challenge yourself and say, "Are the verbs I'm now executing actually contributing towards this end result?" Because if they're not, then I am most likely progressing. Is this real? Is this up to date? Yeah. Is this something I'm going to do? And if I'm going to do it, then why isn't it done? Well, it's not done because X. Now you have defined your job. leading on from that point, then, one of the things that I find really difficult is interruptions and interruptions and how they then, they create an environment where procrastination can take hold, or where it's, it's essentially, I had a plan, I had it up on the wall, and then XYZ happened. And and it frustrates me because sometimes when when new tasks come in and they're unplanned, they are distractions. They may, they're urgent tasks or rather the people that are, because sometimes they're delivered by people, right? It's not always just a text. Well, yeah, yeah. I suppose if you broke it down to the fundamental level. It does, it does happen. We are, we live in an interruption and distraction rich environment for sure. Yeah, and a lot of those distractions and interruptions, apart from natural disasters, the vast majority are triggered by other people. So, someone wants to get you on Skype or on Messenger or whatever it might be, someone sends you an email, someone calls you on the phone, you know, it's like the level of interrupt continues to climb higher and higher to someone walking up into your face and simply saying, can you please go straight in the paintings on the wall? And it's like, well, it's like, well, hmm, I've got this project I'm trying to work on here, I'm trying to get this done and I now have a series of tasks that appear to be urgent. I don't have time and this is the thing is the perception is to yourself you would tell yourself well I don't have time to sit down and re-strategize and I don't have time to go and break down all the verbs and figure out what I need to execute now and so we do this this this re-prioritization on the fly and that urgency is misinterpreted as the priority when it really isn't. 100% This episode is brought to you by ManyTricks, makers of helpful apps for the Mac. Whose apps do? You guessed it, ManyTricks. Their apps include Butler, Keymail, Leech, Desktop Curtain, Timesync, Moom, NameAngler, Resolutionator and Witch. There's a lot to talk about for every app they make, so we're just going to touch on some highlights for 5 of them. Starting with Timesync. Track the time you spend in apps or activities on your Mac the simple and easy way with Timesync. 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Simply use Pragmatic19 that's Pragmatic the word and 19 the numbers in the discount code box in the shopping cart and you'll receive 25% off. Now this offer is only available to Engineered Network listeners for a limited time, so take advantage of it while you can. Thank you to ManyTricks once again for sponsoring The Engineered Network. Can I be just the slightest bit salty for just a moment? Go for it. Let me give you an anecdotal example. Think of something that you like doing more than anything in the world. For a lot of people, there's a thing we do in our bedroom with our partner over here. Um, it doesn't matter to me whether you feel that way or not, but whatever it is that you like doing more than anything in the world, imagine you're doing that and then ask yourself why you're so rarely interrupted, hopefully, or distracted while you're doing that thing. Right? So in the example that I gave, if you are involved in that particular sort of personal Congress with somebody, uh, whom you love, um, do you find yourself suddenly drifting away because you remembered you wanted to check your texts? Or do you find yourself drifting away because you want to see if the Mandalorian is up yet? Do you follow the analogy? >>Yeah, yeah. I follow. Yeah, yeah. >>Why is it that there are certain kinds of things where we have absolutely no problem with interruptions? And that is admittedly the most extreme example I can give, but I think it's very valuable to look at this continuum. On one side of the continuum is you doing the thing that you love more than anything else in the world and how is it that you are, it's so difficult to get you off, pardon my saying, of that thing that you love so much. Over here on the other end of the continuum is the thing that you despise or fear more than anything in the world and why are you distracted from that? Why do you procrastinate about that? Well I think the answer is somewhat clear. We really like doing the things we like and we don't like doing the things that we don't like and we will fight with the world as hard as we need to to be uninterrupted in the things that we love and to avoid the things that we fear. And I think that continuum, I admit to you that that is a very extreme example, but whenever people talk about, especially distractions, because I do think interruptions qualify as a sort of distraction, but I don't think it's the same thing. Because you don't get distracted from the things that you love and you'll fight every interruption all the way. Whereas if you are confronting the thing that you most fear, you will find every reason in the world to quote unquote be distracted. And then your brain, because of the way we're wired, in my opinion, the way that we're wired will now find a reason for why you did what you did. This is a very, you know, sort of neuropsych idea, but like we are, our minds will do almost anything to persuade us that we've always been how we are for a good reason. And so that's my jumping off point with distractions and interruptions. If you cared maybe too much about that thing, you would not allow an interruption or a distraction. And you would not apologize for it. If you were in the emergency room, God forbid, you're in the emergency room with your kid, you're not going to find yourself drifting off to check prices on snow tires. You're very focused on that, and if anybody calls you, you're gonna say, "I'm gonna have to get back to you." Or you might not even answer the phone. You might turn your phone all the way off or put it in VIP mode, because here is this thing that has such clarity about what needs to be done. For somebody like me, boy, that puts my dopamine through the roof. I have 100% clarity and no guilt, 'cause that's the thing I need to do. But then there's so many more things in life at the other end of the continuum. And I say fear, because I think that's a huge part of procrastination. Why haven't you done it? something you're scared about something right so let's we will talk about interruptions all you want but I think that's a great jumping-off point to give you some clarity on why certain kinds of things your brain will find every reason in the world not to do and it will tell you you're doing it for the right reasons that's yeah you're right it is an extreme example but it does make the point and the point being that how much we enjoy the either the end result of or or the execute, so the end result of the noun, as you refer to it, as the, my project, my, the priority being the destination, and all the verbs that lead up to that, if they're verbs and things that I need to execute that I'm not going to enjoy, then that's gonna have a bearing on how much procrastination can eat away at my ability to deliver on it, for sure. - Would it be helpful to focus on legitimately external interruptions and how to deal with those, or do we want to talk about identifying the distractions that plague us? The ones that plague us, I think. The thing is, the external distractions is that there are many ways you can manage that. And you can self-manage that. Just like you said, I'm going to put my phone in VIP mode. I'm going to turn it off completely in some cases. I mean, that's... Yeah, the external interruptions, the reason I mention it here is that there is a, as I would like to say, perhaps there's a simple but not easy way to address that. The simple but not easy way to address that is to ask yourself, "Well, is this legitimately an external interruption?" Such as someone banging on the door, someone texting me over and over to ask if I heard their voicemail about the email they sent. Is it something external? Well, that's tough, but if you have... So we're working through the decision tree here. So we have identified there's something here that is a legitimate external interruption that is not getting controlled and it's really, it's harming your work. So I think that right there, if it is legitimate, you have to ask yourself, is this chronic or acute? By which I mean, is this something where like, I have a new friend who's discovered my phone number and they're just texting me too much? Is this something that is a novel thing? Is this something related to the nature of the projects that are due right now? Is this somebody who's bugging me for money because I owe them money, right? and that would go away if I address that? Or, when I say chronic, is this an ongoing thing that has become part of what I do and I'm kind of hating it? Does that distinction make sense? - Yeah, it does. It's a dimension I hadn't really thought about. - Because you would address those so differently. If it's something, let's be honest, I mean, if you really wanna fix this, if there's some ding-a-ling that keeps, it's added you to a text group, you could just leave the text group. You could leave the Slack channel. Or why can't you? Well, because people. Okay, well that's still on you. You didn't ask for that. That's an inbox that has now been put into your lap. And if you don't want to accept it, you must be very muscular and fearless about kindly, perhaps, working your way out of whatever that new inbox is. You gotta get out of there. You gotta tell that person to stop. You've gotta like turn on the spam block and whatever it is. Who's gonna do that for you? There is no nanny that will fix that acute problem. Let's go to the next level. Is this a chronic problem? Is this a, I say problem, but you follow. Is this something that is a, has become just part of what happens now? Is this a thing where the slack has gotten out of control for everybody probably, right? Is this something where I have a new boss who is micromanaging me more than I would like? That's gonna be a tougher fix, but you do need to acknowledge that distinction, I think. You know, and again, remember now, we are in this very rarefied area right now of legitimate interruptions. We haven't even gotten started on quote unquote distractions. That's a whole 'nother kiddie pool we'll get into. But that's the thing. If it's an acute thing, guess what? That's on you. You need to go stop that up. You need to get that thing out of your life. If it's a chronic problem, that's tougher. Because if that's teen, if that's culture, if that's just a thing that's normal in your life now, that's gonna take probably more effort and almost definitely more courage. But you could ask to speak to the manager or you could start addressing it. I don't know what the answer is, but you will. You need to know. If you've identified this is a legitimate interruption, it's chronic, well, how do you deal with that? So it's impossible for me to answer that or solve that because it's really up to you to decide how that got chronic, why you accepted that, or that you accepted that. And then you need to address that on probably a person-to-person level. - For sure, on the chronic side, I definitely think that there are certain, you know, chronic interruption problems that because they are systemic, either organizationally or, let's just say that your life has just gone down that path. - Or maybe you've just got the desk near the break room and everybody talks to you when they go to the bathroom. - Oh, yeah. - That's a chronic interruption. - For sure. And sometimes the only way out of that is to quite literally get out of that. and you just, you know, you have to physically either, in some case, if it's a job related thing, you may have to even, if you can't resolve it through, well, peaceful means, I guess, for the want of a better way of saying it, you, sometimes it is drastic enough that you may consider a change of employment if it's really that bad. - I totally agree. And now you're understanding that that is a higher level thing to solve. If you don't like the chair, they move your chair or put it in an elevator. If you don't like the open office environment, but you need that gig, yeah, I think you're so right. Now that goes on a different list about what I want to be doing in the next six months to three years. - Absolutely right, yes. And just on the acute example of interruptions, just quickly, I actually did have an example that recently where I was added to a group thread and I woke up one morning and saw 319 messages on my iMessage. Normally, because I got this thing with the red circles and the numbers in them, right? On Apple devices. It drives an anxiety. Like I look at this number, I have to open this, I have to see what the message is. And I mean, and that's obviously, that's not a good thing necessarily. But, you know- - Oh my God, I hate it. I hate it. I turn it off on every single one unless it's extremely valuable. I updated it 13.3 the other day. And for reasons I absolutely cannot understand or solve, I've got the, you know, you know, like when you need a system update and you get the red one on the settings icon. I've had that for like, I think three days now and it's making me insane. 'Cause I can't, usually that means system update, but it's stuck on there and it's driving me irrationally crazy. - Yeah, I'll force quit the app, I'll reopen it, I'll force quit it again, I'll reboot the phone. - I can't have it in my life. It needs to go away. - I know, it's terrible and people don't get it. - I once had a calendar program I downloaded. One of the worst, not one of the worst, but a terrible design decision. So, you know, if you've got something like OmniFocus, an app that I really like, you look at it and you can choose what shows up on your badge, right? You could say like the number of like upcoming tasks or the number of due tasks or overdue tasks, like you get to pick how that number is generated. I once had a calendar program. Do you want to guess what the red badge represented? - Upcoming appointments today or something? - That's a good one. How about day of the month? - Oh, right. (laughing) - Okay. - That's weird. - So, as we record this today, it would say 12. - Right. - Whereas later in the month, it would say 30 on the red badge. - That's, yeah, but that's an incorrect use of-- - Shh. Terrible use. Do you wanna talk about distractions? (laughing) - We should. Just to finish off on the interruptions a bit, I wanted to just get to the point that I was trying to make about it is that, I mean-- - I'm so sorry, please cut that out. I apologize, you hadn't finished your story. - No, no, no, it's fine, it's all good. Look, I, 'cause just the red badge thing is just people don't understand it. They don't understand why I can't handle it. Anyhow, nevermind. It's fine, it's fine. I'm recovering. - No, you, this is a safe space, John. I'm with you. It drives me completely bananas. It's like, there's a reason I called it Inbox Zero, which is like, if I took the time to take care of this, I want that stuff all cleared out. - Yeah. - I do not, I want a badge to be meaningful. Like I like to say, this is why I like my smoke alarm at the house is it's never gone off. - Yes. - Right? If my smoke alarm just started going off four times a day, that's a terrible alarm. - Yeah, exactly. - Like I need the red to mean something. I need it to be something that I have to act on now. I trim all my notifications down to like what I'm gonna really need at a given time. Otherwise, when I see people whose phone just beeps and they pick it up, I'm like, oh my God, what was that? I don't know, it beeped. So that could be Facebook Messenger your kids in a ditch. I'm with you. Don't worry. I'm so with you. - Oh man. All right. Okay. Someone else gets me. That's good. I'm glad to hear that. Okay. So, circling back to the interruption part and the group messaging 300 and plus unreads. And I felt really bad. I felt really bad. I had to punch out of that thread. And it was a thread that just blew up overnight and it was nothing bad, it was nothing, it wasn't negative, it wasn't, there was nothing really wrong with it exactly, but from an interruption perspective, my brain couldn't process it and I'm like, I just cannot wake up every morning with 300 unread messages on my iMessage for a group thread where most of the stuff in there, well whilst it was innocuous, did not directly require my attention and it's like, okay, so that's a perfect example of, you know, it's an acute problem and I addressed it. And I know I hurt some feelings. I know I did. And I didn't want to do that. But I guess there was a threshold of self-preservation there where I was like, from my psyche, I'm looking at this and thinking, well, I need to handle this because it is it's causing me an anxiety, which is going to feed other issues. So I had to do that. And it felt it was hard and I didn't like it. You did the difficult thing. but I mean, I was talking to somebody, actually, I guess it's an interview that'll eventually be in Wired UK. I was talking to a really cool reporter there. But this is, to me, a big part of what I came to call Inbox Zero, is that we all must be very picky about understanding the inboxes we allow in our life. There's so many inboxes that I don't get a choice about. Like, I don't love being automatically added to tons of threads and apps and groups and digests for my kids' school, but it's difficult for me to completely opt out of that. Now, on the other hand, it sounds like you've heard the show I do with Dan called Back to Work. An ongoing bit on there for years has been that, you know, we get really nice email from people, but we legitimately get, I'm gonna say, at least half an order of magnitude of the mail that we get is people pitching people to be on our show. Now, should that bother me? It shouldn't, but it's been going on for years, right? It's been going on for years and years and years and years. I finally, and I mean, I hope Dan eventually adds a form 'cause I miss seeing that email. But I did what I always do, I went into Gmail and I created basically a filter that sends it to the dev. No, like it's gone. It doesn't go to spam, but it's deleted. Any email that I get at my address for that podcast, the email is deleted. Do I feel great about that? I absolutely do not feel great about that. But that has become a low nutrition source of information in my life. I don't need empty calories. I don't need that in my inbox. You're not allowed to pour a gallon of corn syrup into my inbox. I never ask for that. This is for important things, right? So do I feel great about that? No, I do not. But I am so with you on that because you already, If you need to exercise a certain amount of muscularity, maybe it's privilege. I don't know, on a certain level, it's probably a little bit of privilege too, but you need to be muscular about what you're going to do and have and make in your life. And I think you need to be, you need to believe enough in the importance of your life to say when stuff is not allowed in. If you start from that, it doesn't make it easier, but it does make it less difficult. It makes it less super hard, because you're saying, hey, I'm doing this for me. Like, you're not allowed to bug me when I'm playing with my kid. When I'm on the floor playing with my kid, you're not allowed to do that. I'm making dinner, I can't do that. A lot of that is very just like low-key, like I just turn off notifications, right? I just showed my kid how to do this, 'cause she's on all these threads with her friends, but showed her how to do the, what is it? Turn off alerts, right? - Yep, yep. - But no, I feel you. It's just that I think we begin with this principle that everyone's gonna hate me if I do what I need to do in life. And I don't know. I think we should all just be more cool with each other about what's allowed in. Absolutely. And I think it also comes down to respecting the fact that other people, you know, they do have a life. And when you sort of like drag them into threads and messages and so on and so forth, it's like, well, do you stop and think, well, are they going to appreciate this interruption? Are they going to appreciate, is this something that they're going to get value out of? Is this something that I actually need to put in front of their face? You know, and because the technology... - And they may not know, they don't know what you're carrying today. Can I be honest, the first time that I got yelled at about what we're describing here, 1993. Okay, so this is back when I was on a telnet connection to something called Freenet and using probably Pine or whatever, and I used to do this thing. It might have been '95 because that's when my band was around, but the point is, it might have been on Eudora, but the point is that I used to do this thing where I would send an email to every single person that I had an email address for, even if they lived in another country, and I'd say, "Hey, my band's playing. "My band's playing at the Bacon Race, "playing at the Cow House, "10 o'clock on Friday," or whatever. - Sure. - And what was I thinking? It took a guy that I knew, actually a, not a developer, but a guy who worked in the NOC at the university. He's like, "Hey, don't send me these anymore." And I was incredulous. I said, "What do you mean, I'm not gonna send you this anymore. I was basically everybody's right wing uncle for a minute. And he goes, hey, don't send me these anymore. I'm like, what do you mean? I mean, what? You can just throw it away if you don't want it. But I hope you come to the show. He's like, no, no, just like, don't include me on these big threads with people. And I get enough email already, you know. I, there's just so much email. And I was like, but can you imagine that? Merlin Mann in 1995 or whatever doing that? And the fact that I would then be so mad at that guy that I got into a whole thing. And now I'm generating more email to argue with him about that. I mean, that was a long time ago. But there is a person every day who hasn't been yelled at about that yet or isn't sensitive to that. And their life is Facebook and forwarding memes. And they wouldn't for a second think that it's a problem to serially bug somebody, because their whole life is serial bugging. And they don't seem to mind it. - And I guess everyone's-- I like to think that everyone's on a learning curve. and on many aspects of like life, including social interaction and what's acceptable and what's not and putting yourself in other people's shoes and like, are they gonna appreciate these, you know, 300 messages in the morning when they wake up? You know, it's like everyone is in a different place on that. And I sort of, I used to get upset and annoyed, but it's something that as I've gotten older, I've realized that, well, other people are further ahead on certain things. And some of that is accelerated by the fact that you mentioned like privilege before, It's like one of the downsides of being well-known, at least in our sorts of circles, is that you will get a higher volume of people bugging you for different things, or just saying hi even perfectly innocently, fans, what have you, and that could cause additional load on you that you're like, "Well, why are these people doing this?" And it's like, well, they're not doing it to be difficult, but it's like-- - Sometimes an email is just a way to say, "I like you." Yeah. Right? It's not-- I've sent plenty of those emails. I am not immune to that at all. But I also like your point, though, of trying to be-- something we could all try to remember to do more often is just to remember that we don't know what everybody's trip is. We don't know what anybody is going through on a given day. I'm not saying it should make us timid, because sometimes you need to deal with somebody on a day that's not going to be great for either of you. That shouldn't necessarily stop you. But I feel like, just to go a little pop the stack, as John Syracuse says, I feel like one of the biggest problems that we run into, especially in the age that we're in, is-- it's true for all times, but it's so true now-- is trying to guess other people's motivation. And sometimes not being extremely generous about the motivation that we imagine that other people have. And I think that's something that could help all of us a lot. But it really works on just a personal level. In that interview with the person from Wired, talking about where inbox zero is today, the really only practical stuff that I had for her was how to write better emails. The practical, I said to her, "Look, put this in that little box "that's called tips and tricks, do this. "Write a great subject line that makes it clear "what the person needs to do with your email. "Send them an extremely short email "where there's white space under the note "that you've written, and in the first sentence, make it clear what you want them to do and why. And if you're really cool and smart, make it end with a question that they can easily answer yes. - Sure. - Okay, that's if everybody did that more. Not all every email, you don't need to, I mean, sometimes you just wanna say, "Happy birthday, Grandma." That's fine. She's probably real happy to get that email. But if you're dealing with other people and you want them to do stuff, you must be clear and you must be, you must make that the easiest email that they will receive today. Not just to look at in the process, but to do something about. Also, you could make it the easiest email to delete, grow up. But you've got to, the way to improve email in particular, it's not to get more filters. I mean, you have to as a defensive mechanism. It's not to go get this new douchebag email app that puts hidden, invisible gifs, clear gifs in it so they can track people. The key is for us all to write better. If we all write better email and change our expectations, everything has to get better. Will that happen? I don't know. I just can't think of another way than applying more empathy and care to what we do and just assuming that other people will hopefully expect the best out of people and have communications that support that. And when it doesn't work for you, cut it off. - For sure. And taking a little bit of extra time when you're writing an email, for example, to have that sort of forethought and consideration goes a long way. And it's not something that you always or often or may never get any positive feedback from. Like someone said, "Hey man, you sent me a fantastic email." It's not something that I don't think I've ever gotten that. I've had people come back to me and say, "Thanks for your two-page email." Which I sort of like, if I had more time, I would have written a shorter email. Yeah. Or it used to be like for the longest time, if you were the kind of person who had decided to send shorter emails, people would get kind of upset. And be like, wow, that was really, are you mad at me? Like, no, I'm not mad at you, I'm just trying to be clear. I think one, there's so much that is great about the way we communicate today. It can be used in terrible ways. But it's cool that we can keep up with our friends. I mean, it's become easier than ever. But I do feel like one possible kind of downside, I enjoy the texting and the emoji, and I enjoy all of that, I'm not a sourpuss about that. I do think the thing to be careful of is ambiguity. I think to be unambiguous in how we communicate with each other is still valuable. And the reason I'm saying that here is, if you do take that extra second to think about what you're writing, well, you know, let's start with, does this person need to get this email? Really? How will they feel about getting this? And how will that be reflected in my subject line in the note that I write? And I don't mean to obsess about email, but it's something people ask about, right? So do they need to get this email from me? Is this the right person? Okay, and how do I express that in what I'm doing here? But also, have I made it unambiguous? And unambiguous in such a way that if they, you didn't know they were in the emergency room, and they got that email two days later, will they be able to know that this is definitely something they don't need to do anything about? Ask yourself how many emails you get every day that are that thoughtfully done. 'Cause it is valuable. you know, clarity, lack of ambiguity, make it as they say, we're misusing this word from law, but make it actionable. And if you're a project manager like I used to be, try to always phrase it as a easy yes or an easy no, right? Can I, do you want me to book the conference room for Thursday at 10 a.m.? I can take care of that and get donuts. Cool? Yes, done. Three letter response, you've just made that person's day. - Totally. And I always like to finish my emails on setting an expectation for the response. And if it can be a simple yes or no, then just stating that definitely won't-- - How long did it take me to book this with you, John? How long did it take? - Should we? - It took a very, very long time 'cause I wasn't sure if I wanted to do it. And you know what I did? I kept snoozing your email to the next day for probably a month. - That's okay. - No, no, no, it's not you, it's me. I'm the one who's broken inside. 'Cause what did I do? What are we talking about? We're here to talk about procrastination. Well, guess what? I'm very happy that we're doing this, but I procrastinated doing this 'cause I wasn't sure if I wanted to do it. I wasn't sure if I wanted to book it. You know, we had Halloween and we had my kid's birthday and then we had my birthday and we're gonna see the Warriors tonight and there's never a good day to take care of your stuff. It's always manana. And you wrote a great email and you were very kind about it and I still blew it. So, you know, physician heal thyself. - Well, I still think it's beautiful that we're here talking about procrastination and then organizing a time to talk about procrastination was susceptible to procrastination. - Oh, it's just, that's, yes. I can do multitudes and they're all terrible. - It's poetic. Oh God, no, they're not. It's fine. It's okay. It's fine. It's all good. We lead busy lives. It's fine. I think we've more or less talked about interruptions, although I'm sure we could keep going. So you sort of characterized earlier the differences between distractions and interruptions. I guess I want to sort of tease a little bit more of that out. If that's, so what are your thoughts on the differences? Well, first of all, I guess I should stipulate-- I mean, folks don't have to agree with me on this. This is my own opinion. But this is my own taking a cut at disambiguation. Because I think words mean things. And then words end up being how we govern our lives. And if you don't see a difference between a distraction and an interruption, you're changing a lot, or you're reshaping a lot of why you're how you are in a way that may be slightly dishonest to say the least, right? So when people say to me, oh my gosh, I have so many distractions. Well, what the hell does that mean? What is so distracting for you? And is that the same thing as your interruptions, right? Like, I'm glad we've made that distinction 'cause I think it matters. So what is a distraction? A distraction to me, it's certainly, an interruption I guess can be a kind of distraction. But to me, a distraction is the kind of thing where it's caused by a lack of clarity, enthusiasm, commitment to the thing that you're working on right now. And there's about a million ways that we can address that. Maybe one of the first ways to address that is why are you doing the thing that you're doing now? See, also, is this the best thing I could do right now? Well, as you say, maybe if we look at that kind of like a Stephen Covey chart, like maybe this is a high, it could It could be low priority, but like high, how does this chart work? High urgency, right? - Yes. - If your boss is yelling at you about the kind of donuts in the conference room, well, you're gonna deal with that because it's low priority to you, but it's urgent to him or her, right? So just deal, I guess, right? Why are you doing that thing right now? And is there a reason that your mind or your intentionality is finding an interest in something that's not the thing you're doing now? Now, most people won't do that. Most people will say, Well, if I'm doing it, it must be important, right? Don't we find a reason to say, well, because I'm the center of the entire universe, obviously what I'm doing needs to be done. It's these distractions that are bothering me. Well, as somebody who's very interested in the work of David Allen, I'm here to tell you, there's probably a pretty good chance there's another reason why you're finding yourself distracted. Should you be doing this at all? Are you committed to doing this? Are there other tasks that should precede the thing that you're working on right now, where you're finding all these distractions. Is there a different way that you might want to frame what you're working on? Is there a different, if you're stuck, if you're writing and you're feeling stuck and distracted, is there another piece that you could work on for a little while? Do you need to drink some water, take a walk, or get a short nap? You know, with a baby, there's like seven things you just keep doing over and over until they stop crying. You don't know which one worked, doesn't matter which one worked. You just keep doing the fixes until the baby is, You bundle it, you change the diaper, you give it food, you get water, take it to the bathroom, do all the things, right? So we're just all really big babies in a lot of ways. What's our swaddling gonna be? So there are at least a couple levels. Like I said, there's a million levels, but two quickies are like, should I be doing this thing at all? And if it is something that is priority, high priority as we like to say, if it's something that needs to be done, if it's something that's due today, what is it about these distractions that are such an attractive nuisance for me? What is it about these interruptions that I allow? So do you wanna maybe start there? - Yeah, I think so. I think that the interesting thing is that there's distractions from the intended, so if you've got a bunch of verbs you're trying to execute in order to get to that completion state that you're trying to do driving forward to satisfy that noun, you've got up on the wall. And it's a distraction versus an interruption, sort of the differences between them, I was sort of thinking like, well, if it's not an external interruption or distraction, it's something that we could distract ourselves with, that concept of, well, it's not one of the verbs I need to be actioning, but it is still something that may need to be done. I don't want to reprioritize it. The insidious part is when you find yourself creating those distractions and recognizing that you're creating those distractions. That's the part-- - Maybe you started shaving a yak in one way or another. - Yeah, it's like what motivates us to do that to ourselves, to sabotage ourselves and derail ourselves. And that's, and recognizing that we're doing that to ourselves, that's the thing that I struggle with, is getting a grip on, you know, and maybe it's, maybe it comes down to a question of discipline and saying, well, you know, the verbs are up, the nouns on the wall, the verbs have been described, I'm not going to distract myself and I'm gonna be true to myself. and I'm just going to do what is up there and that is it. And maybe that is the best, and maybe that is the only way to really to manage it is to be that, I don't know, it's difficult. - It's very, the way you're describing though, it's a very noble way to look at it. If you'll permit, I would like to propose a somewhat radical thought technology for approaching this. So I'm not saying this is true, not saying this is you or me or anybody else, but for the sake of argument, if you find yourself distracted, especially on a regular basis, and whether it's the same thing or different things or whatever it is, but you have some kind of niggling feeling that you're not achieving the focus that you need to accomplish the things you would like to do. Let me propose a thought technology that's either going to seem impossible or obvious. Is it possible that there's something you are very, very scared about right now? In my experience, a lot of procrastination, when you really get down to it, a lot of it's bad planning or bad thinking, right? Like, I haven't thought through my tasks, I don't know the phone number, so I can't call. A huge amount of procrastination is based in some kind of fear, and it's a fear that we don't want to look at, let alone confront. So what do we talk about when we talk about writer's block? Well, writer's block. What is writer's block? Well, people who write, write. So just go, "Write. Well, I can't write because I have writer's block." Why do you have writer's block? You may have writer's block because you're terrified. You're worried that what you're doing sucks. You don't want to confront the idea that you'll never make something good again. You don't want to confront the idea that you'll never finish this. All those things. That's a pretty straightforward one. Couldn't we agree that that's fear? There's other kinds of fear, which is like fear of being bored, fear of a task being difficult, fear of the way that I'll be judged if this thing doesn't turn out great. I just want to toss that out to you, John, is that for so many of us, if we really keep digging on procrastination, you know, let's go back to that continuum. There's a thing we do in our bedroom with our partner over here at this far end that we have very little fear of doing, perhaps, whatever your favorite thing is, and then you have the stuff over here you just can't even stand to think about. And again, I'm not a neuroscientist, but I do believe that our brains will work extremely hard to find a way to keep us away from the things that we fear. And I think if we just, I'm just tossing this out, but if we were to accept this model, then a solution becomes what is the thing that I'm afraid of? If I'm being honest, if I'm going to roll with this, Merlin's crazy thought technology about procrastination. Even if it's something really stupid, that really stupid, tiny, dumb task that's super high priority, easiest thing in the world to do, as people like to say, is there a chance that there's a little bit of fear about something somewhere? Oh my God. All I have to do is text this person, but I just realized why I haven't done it. And it's that I still haven't responded to their invitation to the Christmas party that I super don't want to go to. So is it really about this task? No, it's about the fear that they're going to bring up the invitation. And I don't know what to say. And it's about the fear that I have for telling them that I just hate their parties. So I'll throw to you here, what do you, is there a thought technology that works for saying a model? Maybe it's kind of rubber ducking again, but is it possible that we can look at fear as the cause of whatever is keeping us from doing the thing we know we need to do. It's definitely an angle that I hadn't sort of pulled the thread down to that far, I think. And it's something that... The thing with fear, you mentioned, is like, fear isn't rational. And it's like, it may be the silliest thing, and the notion of something being silly or not is highly subjective and obviously down to the individual and you know what one person finds silly or something is deadly serious to the next person and you can't sort of like, you can't judge that, you can't predict that. It's very very specific to you as an individual and fear is much the same. What scares one person will not scare another. It's like to your example. - The other person will think it's silly. Why are you scared of spiders? There's no spiders here. - Yeah, exactly. Why are you scared of a party invitation. It's like, well, what's wrong with being in a crowded room with 30 other people? And I'm like, well, what's right with that? But also then, let's go back to that neurology, which is that if we kind of accept we're following this thought technology, but remember, there's one thing above perhaps all else that your brain is trying to, your mind, it's trying to keep you from dying, it's trying to keep the species going, all those kinds of things. But if you look at what causes a lot of our behavior, one way or another, in my opinion, it comes down to integrity. So So we use integrity today to be this thing about values and character, right? But as somebody who has an aging body, I look at integrity in a different way. So integrity is wholeness. It's something that has stayed committed to what it's here for, right? Your arm works like an arm because you have bodily integrity. But we also have a kind of emotional or psychic integrity. And that's the thing where I really do feel like our brain will do anything to justify what we've done in the past. A lot of research about this, right? So try to justify what we've done in the past and to make sense of what we're thinking about doing right now. So when it comes time for you to send that text to the person whose party you don't want to go to, is it possible that you will suddenly, you find yourself angry? That's weird. Why am I angry? Well, I'm angry because this person is so difficult to work with. Is that really the reason? Well, your brain has convinced you that that's the reason. Is it important for you to send that text? Well, it's important, but I'm not sending it because I have my reasons. I have my reasons. Like, I don't want to admit that I'm fearful. I don't want to-- again, what if I owe them money? Like, what if I never sent a thank you note? Whatever it is, your integrity as a whole functioning, good human does not want to have even the tiniest crack in it. So when we talk about courage, what-- you know, as they say, courage is not doing things that, you know, you're scared. Courage is not a matter of having no fear. Courage is a matter of having fear and doing it despite that. Right? So I don't know. I just find that extremely useful. Now maybe it's not that. Maybe it's something much more quotidian. Maybe it's just that your phone's about to die. Maybe it is that you really do need to sharpen these pencils. Maybe it really is that you just want to finish this one level on your PlayStation game. But if you start applying that thought technology of saying, is there a chance that I'm scared of something here? And what is that thing? Is that a thing I should be scared of? Is it a thing I wish I weren't scared of? How do I address that? If you start addressing what you're scared of, you may find that you procrastinate a lot less. - I think that's a fantastic point. And honestly, I'm gonna reframe a couple of things that I'm struggling to get through and just try and dig down to see if there is something else beneath that. - Good for you. - Yeah, I think that's really great advice. So I think it's actually a really probably a good point to sort of to wrap up on actually. If you wanna talk more about this, can reach me on the Fediverse at [email protected] and you can find Pragmatic at or you can follow @engineered_net on Twitter to see show specific announcements. If you're enjoying Pragmatic and you want to support the show you can via Patreon at or one word with a thank you to all of our patrons and a special thank you to our silver producers Carsten Hansen, John Whitlow, Joseph Antanio and Kevin Koch and an extra special thank you to our gold producer known only as R. Our patron rewards include a named thank you on on the website, a named thank you at the end of episodes, access to raw detailed show notes as well as ad-free high-quality releases of every episode. So if you'd like to contribute something, anything at all, there's lots of great rewards and beyond that it's all really really appreciated. Of course there's lots of other ways you could help like favoriting the episode in your podcast player app, sharing the episode or the show with your friends or via social. Some podcast players even let you share audio clips of episodes so if you've got a favorite segment feel free to share that too. All these things can help others discover the show and can make a huge difference. I'd personally like to thank ManyTricks for for sponsoring the Engineer Network. If you're looking for some Mac software that can do many tricks, remember specifically visit this URL, for more information about their amazingly useful apps. Now, if you'd like to get in touch with Merlin, what's the best way for them to get in touch with you, mate? - Well, you can check me out on Hot Dogs Ladies on Twitter, and I very rarely talk about this stuff anymore. I mostly do podcasts. So I would say, if for some reason you wanna hear more of me, I can't even imagine, let's put it this way. If you want to hear some John Siracusa, you can check out a podcast I do called Reconcilable Differences with John. John is the way that I was introduced to you through the famous RSI episode. You can go to and find episodes of John Siracusa and me trying to figure each other out. - Fantastic. Yep, highly recommend. I listen to every episode and I love it. So definitely check that out. And yeah, and I know you just said before that you don't talk about this stuff as much anymore. I'm very grateful that you took the time out to talk to me about it today. And I actually, I've come out of this with a lot to think about. So thank you so much for your time. You're welcome. And I want to give you a thank you and an apology. I thank you for having me on because it's nice to talk about this stuff two or three times a year, but also an apology that I talk so much because I don't really want to talk about it anymore. And when I get the chance, I really appreciate it. I hope it was useful to your listeners, John. Thank you for having me on. Anytime. time. [Music] (upbeat music) (upbeat music) (upbeat music) (upbeat music) (upbeat music) [MUSIC PLAYING] (upbeat music) (upbeat music) [Music] It's all good. The whole talking thing. When we get on a roll, we get on a roll. And that's okay. It's all good. It's just all the latency sucks. It's nice to be the remote guy, except when it's not that fun to be the remote guy. But I do appreciate you having me on. It was really fun to do.
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Merlin Mann

Merlin Mann

Merlin Mann is an independent writer, speaker and podcasts regularly on Do By Friday, Reconcilable Differences, Roderick on the Line, and Back to Work. Merlin is based in San Francisco and is also well known for his work at 43 Folders.

John Chidgey

John Chidgey

John is an Electrical, Instrumentation and Control Systems Engineer, software developer, podcaster, vocal actor and runs TechDistortion and the Engineered Network. John is a Chartered Professional Engineer in both Electrical Engineering and Information, Telecommunications and Electronics Engineering (ITEE) and a semi-regular conference speaker.

John has produced and appeared on many podcasts including Pragmatic and Causality and is available for hire for Vocal Acting or advertising. He has experience and interest in HMI Design, Alarm Management, Cyber-security and Root Cause Analysis.

Described as the David Attenborough of disasters, and a Dreamy Narrator with Great Pipes by the Podfather Adam Curry.

You can find him on the Fediverse and on Twitter.