Josh Levin and Seth Stevenson get around to answering readers' questions on procrastination.

Real-time discussions with Slate writers.
May 16 2008 4:46 PM

Taking Your Time

Josh Levin and Seth Stevenson finally get around to answering readers' questions on procrastination.

Slate editor Josh Levin and writer Seth Stevenson were online on Washingtonpost.com to chat about the nature of procrastination, the biggest time-waster of all time, and slacking off in general. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.

Josh Levin: Josh and Seth here, ready to take your questions.

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St. Louis: In Bill Watterson's "Calvin and Hobbes," Calvin once said creativity doesn't turn on and off like a faucet—you need the right mood: "last-minute panic." What effects do you think procrastination has on human creativity and art?

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Seth Stevenson: I think procrastination can be an aid to creativity. Rather than locking your mind into the task, I think you might get more interesting results if 1) you let your mind wander where it will, and then 2) you use that "last-minute panic" to focus you in as the deadline approaches and let it force you to be succinct and efficient in your expression of the creative ideas you formed while lollygagging.

Josh Levin: I confess to writing the bulk of my article for Slate's "Procrastination" in one (very) long night. It definitely took that last-minute panic to get me to transition from playing lots of Solitaire to writing about Solitaire.

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New Castle, N.Y.: Not to downplay the importance of "Solitaire" and "Minesweeper," but "Tetris" has to be the most or second-most important computer game, no?

Josh Levin: Interesting question. I'm going to go with Solitaire at the top spot, because it's been around longer than Tetris. It paved the way. In tribute to Solitaire, I am going to start playing classic Windows Solitaire in Vegas mode. I will report back at the end of chat on how much money I am up or down. Since I'm doing this chat for free, I'd appreciate if at the end of the chat everyone here chips in to pay me the amount that I'm up. If I'm down, I will donate the money to the Seth Stevenson Guitar Hero Fund. (Note: No money will be donated.)

Seth Stevenson: Guitar Hero III is the most important computer game ever. Second place is Pitfall.

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Washington: Seth, I loved your letter to a young procrastinator. Spliffs, "Guitar Hero," and "Gilmore Girls" all have been staples of my procrastination repertoire at one time or another. I thought you'd enjoy my MySpace "General Interests": "I'm about to start work on a book called 'The Well-Rested Brain.' It will be based on my study tactics ... first you play some 'Spider Solitaire.' Then you work for five minutes. Then you check out the food sections of all the major U.S. papers. Then you work for five minutes. Then you read Slate. I think it will be a five-year project, so look for it in stores around 2012. It'll be pretty cheap though, because I only have the stamina to write about 20 pages. Maybe I'll just turn it into a blog where I post once every three months."

Seth Stevenson: I'm glad to see those are staples of your procrastination routine. But have you ever tried all three simultaneously? I'd be interested to hear the results. I look forward to the book— given your timeframe, I expect to be reading it ... never.

Josh Levin: A side point, but I think blogging is an underrated procrastination tool, especially for journalists. If I had a blog, I would probably never finish an article. Or never get to complete a game of Solitaire.

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Portland, Ore.: Hi. What worked best for me while teaching a university course called "Procrastination, Writers Block and Creativity" was to have my students stand up before the class and share their progress fighting the fight against the dreaded effects of writers' block, a large component of which was procrastination.

Seth Stevenson: I think "writer's block" is probably 80 percent procrastination. But there may be an element of intimidation, too. The blank page is an intimidating beast, and everyone fears creating something subpar or, worse, laughable.

Josh Levin: What I've found to be really helpful recently is to start writing my stories in Microsoft Outlook. I've always heard the advice that it's a good tactic stylistically to write like you're sending a letter to a friend. But I've found that it works mechanically, too ... it's a good way to trick yourself into getting started. Because everyone loves writing e-mail!

I'm down $32 in Vegas Solitaire, by the way.

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Bellmore, N.Y.: My 16-year-old son is a major procrastinator, in the classic sense of the word. I can't relate and am constantly frustrated by his actions (or lack thereof). You'd think I'd get used to it by now and accept the behavior, but I can't. Any advice for those of us who have to live with a procrastinator?

Seth Stevenson: Probably the most foolproof cure for procrastinators (in terms of actually spurring some production) is a deadline with consequences. If you can create that for your son, it might get him moving. But then you can't complain when he procrastinates as the deadline looms—let him do his thing, hope he springs to life as time ticks down, and judge his output on its own merits when the deadline has passed.

Josh Levin: Agree with Seth that fighting through procrastination is something that you have to do on your own. Nagging him about a deadline as it's approaching isn't going to change his behavior. If the deadline has teeth, then hopefully he'll learn (eventually) how to structure his time to meet it.

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Columbia, Md.: Did you really expect people to show up spot-on at 1 p.m. for this chat? Great work in Slate this week. What a fabulous way for me to procrastinate even more, and what a timely topic as I stare down three deadlines that I have no choice but to meet, that I've known about for six weeks, and that I haven't done the first thing to address. I always wonder what's wrong with me that I do this, so it was nice to know that I'm in good company with 20 percent of the population.

Josh Levin: Our "Procrastination" issue was really spectacular ... all praise to my colleague Dan Engber for putting it all together.

Actually, to be perfectly honest, I haven't read any of it. But people who got around to reading it told me that it's really good.

Seth Stevenson: I'm planning to read it sometime next week.

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Carson, Calif.: I was going to ask you a question, but I will wait until tomorrow.

Josh Levin: Sure, I'll be here. (Not really.)

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Kailua, Hawaii: Thank you for this piece—I read it immediately after just meeting a story deadline for a piece I had two weeks to work on. But my question for you is, what do you think Gilmore Girls' Paris Geller would say about procrastination?

Seth Stevenson: Paris was not a procrastinator, as I remember. She was one of those go-getters who leave the rest of us in her dust. I think she'd just find us weak and unserious—she'd casually insult us and move on.

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Baltimore: I read the articles on procrastination, just so I could put off working in my yard! I'm either seriously committed or should seriously be committed. Is there help for people like me?

Josh Levin: You should check out Emily Yoffe's story on Procrastinators Anonymous. I am sad to report, though, that her attempt to get help didn't quite pay off in the end ...

Seth Stevenson: You could try doing your yardwork as a way to put off something else that's more important and pressing.

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Los Angeles: Hey, I enjoyed the article. I was hoping it would give me something insightful without being too challenging to say to my mom. Ever since my parents got a laptop, my dad sits in front of the TV with the laptop and plays solitaire for hours at a time, and not one visit goes by without my mom complaining to me about it (to be honest, she complains about it more than once a day every time we see them). I share genes with him, and I know he's never going to stop it because I do it most of the time too—it just doesn't drive my husband crazy with the same intensity that it propels my mom. Can I tell her it's actually helping his brain stay sharp or something? What do you think?

Josh Levin: I talked to some computer solitaire pioneers while I was reporting to my story, and they all emphasized that they believe that the game is a great stress reliever and mind clearer ... not just a mindless time waster. But you would expect them to say that. You could tell your mom that he's learning about shapes and colors and counting, but then again he's probably older than 5, so that's not a huge accomplishment.

At least he's not addicted to this game, which I am currently. You really shouldn't click on that link. But if you do, can you beat my high score of 210?

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Shout out: To the Tetris poster. I'm with you, dude. There is no better procrastination tool than Tetris, not least because you can multitask while playing. Which leads me to this: I find that multitasking and procrastinating are Janus-like phenomenae. We multitask because no one job is interesting enough to hold our entire attention. Consequently, nothing much gets done. You do get a wicked case of wrist-ache, though, from playing Tetris during entire two-hour conference calls. Discuss.

Josh Levin: I played a TON of Tetris back when I had a free version of the game on my cell phone. But then I got a new phone that has no games, so no more Tetris.

I confess to playing Solitaire and other games while on the phone. Tip: Make sure you click quietly. But don't worry about that too much. The other person is probably playing Solitaire too.

Seth Stevenson: I'm not playing Solitaire during this chat. As far as you know.

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Washington: How do you determine what is mere procrastination and what is truly a useful alternative activity that may not be one's top priority, but is a priority nonetheless (like reading a live chat on procrastination to search for ways to cut back on procrastination in the future)? Or is it merely a matter of clearly defining a hierarchy of priorities, and if reading this live chat isn't at the head of the list today, I shouldn't read it to get the answer to my question? Or is there a completely different way of approaching this?

Seth Stevenson: If it's a truly useful alternative activity then I don't want to know about it. I'm procrastinating, man, not accomplishing useful things. Stop trying to harsh my mellow.

Josh Levin: I'd say that if you're supposed to be running a nuclear reactor or putting out a fire right now, then maybe this live chat shouldn't be up on your screen right now. If you're a lawyer, anything's fair game.

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Mesa, Ariz.: So am I just lazy, or is it ADHD? When I am at work (Apple), I crank. At school (ASU), I suck. Sixty milligrams a day of Adderall can't get me going if I am not interested. Nothing can stop me if I am in the zone. What gives? Your thoughts please.

Seth Stevenson: I would guess that you are lazy and have ADHD. It's a lethal combination. Seriously, it sounds like you have a very common affliction: You get bored working on things you're not interested in. I would consider scaling back the Adderall and putting more effort into making sure the bulk of your time can be devoted to projects that excite you.

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New York: In your collection of procrastination rituals, "Lindsey" the "Cheerleader (NFL)" says she procrastinates on tanning, but she goes on to explain that her practice schedule effectively prevents her from tanning ahead of time. I always assumed procrastination implies that you forgo viable opportunities to get work done earlier. When does Lindsey think a non-procrastinating NFL cheerleader would tan?

washingtonpost.com: Procrasti-Nation: Workers of the world, slack off!(Slate, May 15)

Josh Levin: I think this question came from my friend Chris. I hope other people don't mind that I'm using this chat to catch up on my personal correspondence. It's an effective way to save time.

So, Chris, on to your question. Lindsey's tanning schedule is something we've been puzzling over in the Slate offices for some time now. We have several of our best people working through this, and we're planning to roll out an aggressive eight-part plan next week. Let me just tell you that this would be a lot easier to solve if the NFL put all of its games on Monday night.

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Los Angeles: I submitted a lengthy post in Slate explaining how Solitaire could be used to understand life itself, and I didn't even get a damn check mark. What does a guy gotta do to get a little love around here?

Josh Levin: Are you Utek1? That was a good post ... meant to reply and didn't get around to it yet. You wrote: "Played Vegas-style, Solitaire is a form of gambling in which no money is lost, conferring the lessons of risk and reward without blowing one's life savings in the process."

I can speak to that, considering that I am down $84 in Vegas Solitaire. Planning a huge comeback in the second half of this chat.

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washingtonpost.com: The Fray: On the profundity of Solitaire(Slate, May)

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Los Angeles: I think you'll admit sometimes the lag can be seasonal. Someone who's quite lazy in the spring and summer can be far more focused in the fall and winter months. For some, there may even be life seasons—times when you're just so "I'm done being cluttery!" or "I'm tired of the same routine at work everyday!" that it turns off your inner procrastinator and turns on your inner justice fighter—for yourself if no one else. Just some food for thought, boys.

Josh Levin: Maybe your seasonal procrastination has to do with the TV schedule. Summer rerun season = more productive. Fall and spring, when primetime's stars come out to shine = not so much.

Seth Stevenson: Since the advent of the DVR I've lost all track of seasons.

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Catonsville, Md.: Is there such a thing as Adult Onset Procrastination? In school I was Paris Gellar—in charge of everything, met deadlines with time to spare, served on every committee, got straight As and had time leftover for varsity sports. Then a guy I was dating challenged me to "blow off one thing a day." He thought I needed to lighten up. I had been given an assignment, so of course I did it ... and discovered that I was good at blowing things off ... and that it was fun ... and all the stuff that really needed to get done somehow got done anyway. Now here I am, 18 years later, and a veteran procrastinator. Oh, and married to the guy who set this challenge for me. Our house is a mess. I'm just saying that procrastination isn't necessarily an inborn trait. Even the most annoyingly driven person can learn this important life skill.

Seth Stevenson: Congratulations on joining the many, the not especially proud, the procrastinators. It sounds like it all worked out in the end, and I'd bet you're a much happier person this way. After all, if you weren't a time-waster would you be here enjoying this fabulous chat right now? Think about it!

Josh Levin: Agree with Seth ... this chat has been fabulous. We are enriching people's lives. Just think how much happier you are, chat-reading people, than the folks in the adjacent cubicles, updating their spreadsheets and whatever else they do.

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Vancouver, B.C.: Is the best method of beating procrastination through practice, as opposed to sheer will power?

Seth Stevenson: For a true procrastinator, the practicing itself would require immense willpower, wouldn't it? I'm telling you: Deadlines with consequences are the only answer.

Josh Levin: Bribes also work. Washingtonpost.com's able producers, knowing how unreliable I am, told me that if I arrived promptly at 1 pm they would buy me a pony. And let me tell you, the pony is beautiful.

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permutations: Re: Procrastinators Anonymous meetings—you mentioned that the phone meeting isn't happening anymore. That's true, but there's a weekly online meeting on Sundays that is happening. I guess that front page notice needs updating.

Seth Stevenson: I'm sure they'll get around to it at some point ...

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Iowa City, Iowa: Have you found this site? The only fruitful approach to dealing with procrastination is to embrace it and find a way to work with it, not against it. Those who try to "reform" us just don't get it. As a committed procrastinator I have learned that the only way to proceed is to use it to my advantage, as Seth Stevenson suggests in his letter. This site, "Structured Procrastination," has great ideas for how to use this problem in a positive, hopefully productive way. I'm a total believer.

Josh Levin: Yes, I think I ran across it at some point and didn't read it. Just skimmed through. I'm intrigued by this part: "The observant reader may feel at this point that structured procrastination requires a certain amount of self-deception, since one is in effect constantly perpetrating a pyramid scheme on oneself. Exactly."

Sounds like my kind of guy, although I hope that site is not just some front for Amway.

Seth Stevenson: It sounds like setting up the structuredness (structuring the structuredness, if you will) would require me to get up off my badonk and then show some follow-through. I'm not into that.

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Utek1: That's me! Personally, I didn't consider it a win in solitaire until had a winning hand while playing with house money—which comes out to a score of at least $260. Which led me to another life lesson I learned in solitaire—lower your expectations. Now I'm happy just to finish in the black.

Josh Levin: I am down $153. Can someone float me a loan?

Seth Stevenson: Sure, when I get around to it.

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Vienna, Va.: My wife loves her Mac, but one thing she really misses is "Microsoft Solitaire." I've looked high and low for a version for Mac that will satisfy, to no avail. Are you aware of a solitaire program for Mac that is identical to the Microsoft version? Huge extra points if that package also has a "Spider Solitaire" program that is identical. Thank you.

Josh Levin: I don't really know of one, sorry. Though there are a bunch of programs that let you run or emulate Windows on a Mac now. I'm sure the people who worked for years to build that software would be happy to know that it's being used so your wife can play computer cards.

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Ripley: "The chronic procrastinator knows he's presenting a negative image, but he'd rather be perceived negatively for lack of effort than for lack of ability," Yep, that's me. I've started writing several books and have finished one; it took six years and it's really not very good. I like to pretend that the problem is that I have too many ideas (and that's not a lie, I've got lots of thoughts swimming around in my head), but I know the real reason is that writing a book is a lot harder than it sounds.

Seth Stevenson: Yes, but to clarify: I'd say writing a good book is a lot harder than it sounds, while writing a really awful book probably isn't so hard. As for the image-presentation: I'm not sure a real procrastinator can be bothered to think about outside perception. It's more the realization that the output will be equally bad or good whether you start now or a week from now, so you may as well enjoy that week.

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WrenchDevil6: Solitaire is a bonified time-/mind-killer. I have uninstalled it from every computer to enter my home since 1999. Don't get me wrong, I still procrastinate, and my family still procrastinates or wastes time—but my time-waster is forums/blogs/news-sites/chess. I just cannot stand solitaire. And I agree ... Slate is the thinking person's solitaire.

Seth Stevenson: Can I be the thinking person's Minesweeper? Like there's a danger that if you don't read very carefully, my articles might blow up in your face? I'd prefer that.

Josh Levin: Ooh, I like that. I'm the thinking person's Sim City 2000. My articles will force you to pay taxes, to me. If you don't, there will be earthquakes.

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wookster: My recent spate of procrastinatory behavior (i.e., my decision to read Slate's entire procrastination issue) has made one thing painfully obvious to me: The Internet does not help in our procrastinatory habits. As I progressed through the articles, it was only natural that I gained a heightened sense of my own procastinatory habits. With that awareness, I realized that one of the most time-wasting things that I do is click on all the hyperlinked words that take you to related articles. Because the Internet allows you to view so many things at one time—and because I take advantage of this ability (I open up all of them)—I have a tendency to create a complex Web of pop-ups that prevents me from finishing the first article in what would be expected of a normal human being. I still remember the days when Slate did not link to other articles. Perhaps returning to that state —leaving links to the end of the article or on the sidebar—would help combat procrastinatory behavior.

Josh Levin: Obsessive link-following is definitely a way to go down the rabbit hole. You start off reading a Slate article, and you end up looking at the Wikipedia entry for Rutherford B. Hayes. It happens to me every day. But I don't think because some people have a problem, that means we should remove links from articles. That's like asking bars to stop serving alcohol because some percentage of the population has a drinking problem.

Seth Stevenson: This suggests an interesting idea: a prohibition to tame our unchecked indulgence in internet ephemera. I can't wait to visit a speakeasy where people huddle around Nipsey Russell's IMDB page.

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epapaluap: Is procrastination the same as distraction? I don't think so. As I'm reading these articles, it occurs to me that the surfing, coffee-drinking, cigarette-break behaviors that are on the rise ("chronic" procrastination from 6 percent to 25 percent?) are symptoms of a society that encourages distraction to sell things. Now we can buy books and no doubt courses to cure us from this chronic syndrome.

Not that distraction is not part of procrastination—I am a long-time procrastinator who welcomes/fears distraction for many of the reasons elucidated in these articles. However, procrastination has avoidance at its heart, whereas distraction is simply a flirtation with something that appears briefly in our peripheral vision ("hey look, something shiny!"). In other words, procrastination comes from within, whereas distraction is located externally. If that matters.

Josh Levin: Were you avoiding doing other work when you came up with this distinction? Which I think is probably accurate, by the way. If so, I think that's ironic, or something.

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Josh Levin: OK, time for me to get back to work. I finished down $259 in Vegas Solitaire. Seth, the check is in the mail.

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