“Unless you’re working on the biggest thing you could be working on, you’re procrastinating.” –Paul Graham
But, right on.
That quote is from a Paul Graham essay from ten years ago—Good and Bad Procrastination.
Graham makes a solid and sobering case that most people occupy their time with “small stuff” at the expense of work that really matters:
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.
That’s the “absent-minded professor,” who forgets to shave, or eat, or even perhaps look where he’s going while he’s thinking about some interesting question. His mind is absent from the everyday world because it’s hard at work in another.
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.
What’s “small stuff?” Roughly, work that has zero chance of being mentioned in your obituary. [Emphasis added] It’s hard to say at the time what will turn out to be your best work (will it be your magnum opus on Sumerian temple architecture, or the detective thriller you wrote under a pseudonym?), but there’s a whole class of tasks you can safely rule out: shaving, doing your laundry, cleaning the house, writing thank-you notes—anything that might be called an errand.
Good procrastination is avoiding errands to do real work.
Would the work you spend most of your time on be something that merits a mention in your obituary or at your memorial service?
But, “small” doesn’t always mean “small”. Just being fully present with and kind to a colleague or friend or child or stranger is actually big stuff, and if those small moments shine throughout your life, they will indeed shine in your obituary.
However, most of us do spend our days focused on very small stuff. I know it’s satisfying to “get things done” and go to bed with a completed to-do list for the day. But a collection of checked off to-do lists doesn’t lead to a meaningful legacy if those to-do’s were just a lot of small stuff.
I keep putting off big stuff that I know I want to do eventually. The big stuff is the hardest stuff, with the most at stake and the potential for the most satisfaction and meaning. Yet there’s a fear factor that ratchets up the resistance when I try to tackle the big stuff—a fear of coming up short or revealing my inadequacy or just the fear of the pain that comes with doing hard things.
I regularly feel like I need a certain mood or the right conditions or a vast expanse of unscheduled time to get started on truly important work. That’s the resistance whispering to me, though. It’s sneaky clever like that. But just starting on something big, even if it’s a tiny action, can reveal the resistance as the hollow fraud it really is.
So, put off the superficial, inconsequential work. Procrastinate if you have to on things that ultimately matter least. Figure out what the big stuff is for you and then get busy taking action on what will matter most.