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The Secret Skills of Master Teachers: Paul Graham and the Right Kind of Procrastination

By Dave Stuart Jr.

“That's the sense in which the most impressive people I know are all procrastinators. They're type-C procrastinators: they put off working on small stuff to work on big stuff.”
— Paul Graham, computer scientist and essayist, on his blog

There are always infinity things that you could be working on as a teacher, so procrastination isn't really optional. Today, some things will get done, others won't.

I've written a whole book, of course, on which things I think are worth the lion's share of our time, based on a decade of teaching and half that time of intensive research and writing. But still — how do we manage the daily cries of our inboxes and paperwork and data collection duties and errands and such?

I don't have the magic formula, but I've got the shape of how it works, thanks to computer scientist and essayist Paul Graham. (Here's his essay on procrastination.)

Graham splits procrastination three ways:

There are three variants of procrastination, depending on what you do instead of working on something: you could work on (a) nothing, (b) something less important, or (c) something more important. That last type, I'd argue, is good procrastination.

The most dangerous kind, Graham says, is “unconscious type-B” procrastination — because here it feels like we're being productive, we're making lists and checking them off — but we're actually just managing the constant stream of urgent things that come our way, keeping work on important things always beyond our reach. Productivity, Graham argues, can be its own form of bad procrastination when we're being productive with unimportant things.

I think that Graham is right.

The first thing is to be asking the right question. I've written about this a bit here, but the gist is this: it's all about long-term flourishing. How do we best promote the long-term flourishing of young people in our schools? (“Best,” of course, meaning that we have to find ways that are efficient and sustainable versus ways that burn out teachers every year and eventually drive them to quit.)

Graham cites Richard Hamming in his essay, who asks three questions to folks who might be type-B procrastinators:

  1. What are the most important problems in your field?
  2. Are you working on one of them?
  3. Why not?

So in my career, type-B procrastination has looked like this:

  • Formatting student handouts
  • Making cool bulletin boards
  • Researching yet another reading strategy instead of building expertise in a few
  • Checking my email throughout the day (versus one time with discipline)
  • Worrying about how my classroom looks
  • Investing inordinately in student relationships with an “open door” policy
  • Running errands (e.g., getting paperwork filled out at district office, etc.)

I can't not do this whole list if I want to keep my job, but I can procrastinate on doing that list for the sake of getting a greater quantity of focused, deep work sessions toward pursuing big questions like the orange one up there.

A warning about the right kind of procrastination

The thing is, Graham's type-C procrastination does have costs. For example, when we neglect to respond to someone's email for days, simply because we've not checked email, it can harm our relationship with that person. In the case of emails I receive from colleagues who read this blog, this really pains me (and it's why I've brought on help to make managing my inbox more successful).

But neglecting the inbox today means that I write four blog posts in a few hours, each of which gets to live on the Internet indefinitely doing who knows what good, unleashing who knows which educator into type-C procrastination on the big, pressing questions of our time.

Special thanks to two folks whose work inspired this article. First, obviously Paul Graham. Second, Tim Ferriss, author of books like Tribe of Mentors: Short Life Advice from the Best in the World, who introduced me to the concept of “letting bad things happen” (so that important things might also happen) years ago. I rarely totally subscribe to Tim's philosophies, but I'm always sharpened.

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