A significant part of my job is to answer faculty members' and other people's questions when they get stuck, or confused, or just plain intimidated by technology or computers. Rarely do those questions have anything to do with topics that I've made a conscious effort to inform myself about (such as blogging, syndication, MOO programming, CSS arcana, or hypertext theory). Much more often, I come up with answers that draw on some buried nugget of tech knowledge I gleaned doing something entirely different and seemingly unproductive. For example, I've become fairly proficient with Microsoft Excel, managing to put together a nifty workbook that tracked demographic information about participants in a large grant project. I credit all my Excel prowess to several years I spent trying to use it to get an edge on my opponents in a fantasy baseball league. Does that mean that all the time I berated myself for wasting as I assembled my giant spreadsheet of player statistics are suddenly "billable hours," so to speak? Does being able to answer my dean's question about putting a desktop link to the university's administrative server (which must be telneted to) in OSX justify the frightening number of hours I have spent logged on to alt.org's nethack server (for which I wanted a desktop icon of my own)?
Those are extreme examples (i.e., I know the answer to both is "no"), but it is true that my private and professional interests both involve computers to a great extent, and the distinction between "working" and "playing" is easily blurred, and that's dangerous for someone as prone to procrastination as I am. I suspect this syndrome may affect many people, but I would bet academics and other "knowledge workers" are especially vulnerable, since their "work" is often open-ended and ill-defined. Joshua Newman of self-aggrandizement expresses the problem this way:
In part, I blame my job, which is enormously amorphous. There's very little in the way of procrastination that I can't somehow rationalize away as at least vaguely productive. Reading an old Malcolm Gladwell article on marketing khakis? Why, a deeper understanding of buyers' psychology certainly will come in handy selling Cyan and Long Tail's films!
Newman also has come up with a simple-yet-elegant coping mechanism in which work plays the role of interruption to the main activity of procrastinating.
Very recently, however, I've discovered a way that I can trick myself into listening to the smarter part: I schedule, on the half hour, tiny little increments of work, then let myself go back to 'productively' goofing off as soon as I've done each little increment, at least until the next half hour mark chimes....
The secret, for me, seems to be the safety of the worst case scenario: even if I'm not picked up by the surge of forward motion, I know I'll at least manage to slog through each of the small, on-the-half-hour actions. Which, for whatever reason, seems to take off enough of the pressure to perform that, about 95% percent of the time, I do get picked up by the productivity surge, pushing towards the best case scenario instead.
I've spent the past few years looking for ways to improve my productivity, organize my life, and generally Get Things Done. This is the first time-management tip I've seen that sounds at all plausible. I think I will give it a go.