Back in the days when correspondence came in envelopes delivered by the post office, I wasn’t much good at keeping up. There was a certain regular rhythm to things. Mail came in, and I started opening it. For some reason or other, I sat down and dealt with certain items promptly. Other things, like bills, were put in a pile that I absolutely had to deal with once a month, and I eventually developed the habit of paying them on time, since the consequences of not doing so were so dire. Other stuff, some opened, some unopened, piled up towards the back of the desk, to be dealt with “later”. Eventually letters would begin to fall off the back of the desk to the floor, where they went unnoticed for long periods of time, perhaps forever. In this way the pile stayed manageable, a repository for finding tasks to do as a way of not doing other more urgent things that came along.
Occasionally this system led to unfortunate results. Some letters that fell off the back of the desk, or remained in the pile but were never opened, turned out to be important. But not that often. If answering a letter was truly important, I would usually get a phone call or a follow up letter, and then I would search for the original and deal with it. Even I am not stupid enough to overlook letters from, say, the Internal Revenue Service, that are marked “urgent”.
Sometimes the system worked quite well. For a while, when I was a young assistant professor at UCLA, I was in charge of admissions to the M.A. program. It wasn’t a very big program, and I tended to let things pile up until the chair of the department reminded me that I it was time to bring a list of the best candidates to the next meeting . A number of years later, I was trying to raise some money for a research institute at Stanford, and I had lunch with an executive of a company that made high quality modems. This was in the day when all people who wanted to use a computer from home dialed into a mainframe, and a 1200 baud modem was “state of the art,” an expensive bit of equipment that everyone wanted. His company made the best ones. He was very successful.
During lunch, it emerged that he had been philosophy major at state college in California, and had applied to UCLA to get a masters degree. He did so only because he couldn’t figure out what else to do upon graduation. He never heard from UCLA, but while he was waiting he started his modem company, from which he made a fortune. I said I thought I knew what had happened. His letter had come to me, been piled at the back of the desk, fallen off, and thus never dealt with. I felt bad, momentarily.
But this fellow was very grateful for the way I handled his case. M.A.’s in philosophy, even from UCLA, don’t usually lead to fame and fortune, especially for those who are applying only because they can’t figure out what else to do with their lives. So things had worked out very well for him. He didn’t give any money to the research institute, but he did give me a top of the line 1200 baud modem.
Now you would think email would change all this. But, at least in my case, the psychology of the structured procrastinator has easily outwitted modern technology.
Instead of a desk I now have in “inbox” on my computer. I get a daily influx of email. I use Gmail from Google, which does a good job cleaning out spam, and automatically diverting stuff into files that I don’t want automatically deleted, but I’m sure I will only get around to when I’m in a real procrastinatory funk— things like reports from my Congresswoman, or descriptions of the latest assault on the environment from Forests.com, or minutes from Rotary meetings.
The rest piles up in my inbox. For whatever reason, I deal with some of it the day it comes in, but never quite all. I try to get to some of the things lower down on the list every so often, and especially when the number of emails in my inbox gets close to 100. People send little messages suggesting that their previous email must have gotten lost, and so I search for their previous email and try to deal with it. But just like the stuff that used to fall off the back of my desk, there is a certain amount of stuff that remains undealt with for long periods of time. Sometimes, when I finally get to these emails, I feel very bad for having ignored them. Luckily, I cope fairly well with guilt. And, for every email I ignore for months, there is one that I deal with immediately, as a way of not doing something more important, sending back a reply so quickly that the recipient is amazed at my promptness.
I’ve tried to use the resources of email to manage things better. I started a file called “Really Urgent Stuff that Must Not Be Ignored” and forced myself for a while to put everything that might be important, that I didn’t want to deal with the very day it came in, into this file. But then I forgot about it, only to stumble on it months later.
On Gmail, you can click a little star on a message. Then later you can select all the starred messages, and that list appears instead of your inbox. This seemed like a great way to flag the important stuff I wasn’t ready to deal with, but wanted to get out of my inbox. But it just led to a second list about as long as the inbox, so there wasn’t any gain.
In some ways, however, the structured procrastinator has an advantage in avoiding some of the worst dangers of email. In the old days, if you got a letter, even if you sat down and answered it right way and sent your reply back, there would be a four to six day interval before you could expect further stuff in reply to your reply. But there seems to be a certain group of people out there who live for email, and the minute they get a response they send a follow up. This can be very frustrating to a procrastinator, who hasn’t finished patting himself on the back for answering one email when another one arrives from the same person. Such people learn that I am not one of them, for even if I answer the original email promptly, I will almost certainly procrastinate on the follow up. This is frustrating for the gung-ho correspondent, and I fall off their list.
The main problem email presents for the procrastinator is that even if you don’t answer your email you can spend hours looking through your inbox, following up links that people send you, and link from those links. Sometimes this pays unexpected dividends. You develop little pools of expertise, perhaps about the sorts of metal roofing that is available for a barn — if one has a barn, which I don’t —, or the history of Tajikistan. These pools of expertise occasionally prove useful in conversation, or working a crossword puzzle. But it is easy to fall into losing an hour or two procrastinating without having anything to show for it —or a day or two, for that matter.
The only way out of this trap that I have found involves that rarest of resources, will-power. Luckily, the really rare sort of will-power , the sort that allows one to stop in the middle of following up a email initiated trail of online links in order to do something useful, isn’t usually required. Surfing from irrelevant link to even more irrelevant link is a bit like watching junk TV. It’s very hard to stop watching a junky program you have started to watch, simply relying on will-power. I’ve waited for the better part of an hour just to see how much they charge for a ginzu knife, or a pocket fisherman, or green bags that keep your vegetables fresh, or a bottle opener that looks like a bass and plays “99 bottles of beer” when you use it, even though I have no intention of ordering any of those things. What is needed is something to break the spell, like lunch, or an urgent need to go to the bathroom, or a completely boring commercial, or any program involving Keith Olbermann pontificating or Paris Hilton or Glenn Beck doing anything whatsoever.
In the case of email, the best strategy is to get started on email only when some natural event is sure to interrupt you and break the spell. I try to deal with my email only when I am already hungry, or I’m pretty sure my wife is going to interrupt me with some urgent task before too long, or I am already feeling the first signs of a full bladder. If you use a laptop, unplug it before you start your email; the spell will be broken when the battery dies — although as batteries improve, this technique becomes less useful.
If nothing else works, set an alarm clock to interrupt you after an hour. The main trick is to only rely on the little bit of will-power that is required to put off starting your email until some natural or pre-arranged event is sure to break the spell after a while. If you expect to have enough of that rarer kind of will power to quit right at the point when another link or two will resolve all your questions about Tajikistan, it won’t work.