The Physics of Procrastination

If you are a loyal reader of this blog, you will have noticed that I have not posted anything for over two months. In fact, it’s been 78 days.

It’s time to start blogging again.

The past few months have been a busy time of transition, and I’ll be writing about some of those things in the days to come. However, I have to admit that procrastination has also played an important role.

Procrastination happens from time to time with most of us. Along with its close cousins, denial and self-delusion, procrastination affects us not only as individuals but also as entire nations. At the national level, for example, we are avoiding making necessary changes in areas such as health policy or climate change policy.  For writers, we use a highly technical term for procrastination–we call it “writer’s block.”

Because procrastination is such a universal phenomenon, it’s possible to find many books, articles and websites on the subject.  (Here are some good quotes on the subject.) I spent some time looking at what these books have to say about procrastination, and I will definitely study them more closely–tomorrow.

All in all, however, the psychological theories about procrastination don’t really do it for me. When I need a new perspective on a problem or perplexing situation, I often turn to metaphors from science.  And I definitely need a fresh approach, one with some rigor and precision.  Sso I’m turning to physics for an understanding of procrastination.

When I visualize the problem of writer’s block, I see it as a big, heavy block of black metal sitting in my path.  I need to figure out a way to get the block moving.  Maybe simple physics can help me.

Here are some rambling thoughts about the physics of procrastination.  Let’s see if any of these help.

Procrastination is simply a problem of energy and momentum. When I’m unable to get started on a writing project, I’m just a “body at rest.”  The task is to get the body moving–to impart some momentum to it.

Here are several key equations that might help generate some helpful approaches:

1) F=ma (“Force” equals “mass” times “acceleration.”)

2) p=mv (“Momentum” equals “mass” times “velocity.”)  (Here’s a basic physics introduction to the concept of  “momentum.”)

If I need to introduce an acceleration and change the velocity from “zero” to “something,” then I need to apply a force to the mass.

Strategy 1 – Reduce the mass. As the mass gets smaller, the amount of force needed to achieve a certain change in velocity also gets less. This is the physics explanation for why it makes sense to “break large projects into small tasks.” (OK, so maybe I can keep this blog entry short. It’s easier to write a short entry than a long entry.)

Once I get the writing started and this blog post published on my blog, I will have built up some momentum. Then it will be easier to write a second post – and then a third and a fourth….

But in the real world, it’s not really that easy to start moving an object at rest, because there is friction. A sizable force is required to overcome the friction—which is a force keeping the object at rest. In fact, there is a physics explanation (and solution) for this situation, too.

Wikipedia has an extensive article on friction, discussing such exciting topics as  “the coefficient of friction (COF)” and “Coulomb friction.”

As I look through the Wikipedia article (by the way, this is one of my favorite ways to procrastinate), I notice an interesting topic called “acoustic lubrication.”   Did you know that the squeaky bearings of German Panzer tanks in World War II actually provided “acoustic lubrication” to reduce friction?

Maybe I should try some acoustic lubrication for my writer’s block.  (Remember, writer’s block is simply a form of intellectual and rhetorical friction).

So, I turn on some music to provide “acoustic lubrication.” And it works!  For me, Baroque instrumental music seems to be the best genre of acoustic lubrication to overcome verbal friction.

If you’ve read this far in this rambling post, you’ve been an important participant in my physics experiment to achieve writerly momentum.

Thank you.

Published in: on October 14, 2009 at 1:26 pm  Comments (5)  

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5 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. […] A blog posting (written several months ago, before my recent writer’s block) has just been published at the Careers blog of the American […]

  2. Welcome back, Randy. Missed you! Jane

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