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Get a Wife

Paul Graham offers valuable thoughts on productive procrastination:

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. 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.

Read the whole thing (via Marginal Revolution).

Graham's point cuts against the zeitgeist. In today's NYT, David Brooks argues that, at least for those not blessed with a Y chromosome, errands are what matters most. His paean to domesticity as the highest and best use of women's time, and maybe even men's, does not conclude with an announcement that he's quitting the Times and PBS to spend more time with driving the kids around. (For those who hate Times Select, the column is on p. 8 of Week in Review.)

Taken together, these arguments address several old questions: Why, as Sir Francis Bacon asked, is it that the most important contributors to human progress have often been childless? Why did the rise of the 18th-century city, with its coffeehouses and abundance of servants, promote science, philosophy, and literature? And, of course, why have relatively few women made enduring contributions to fields that require single-minded devotion?

Quite simply: Somebody's got to do the errands of life. You can either do them yourself, hire someone to do them, or get a wife. Historically, the last has been the most common option.

Let me be clear: I do not believe there is One Best Way to live. I do not believe that the gracious life created by attending to small chores (including, but not only, those necessary to raise children) is inferior to one devoted to more focused pursuits. What I believe, and what you'll almost never see suggested by an establishment pundit, is that different people are suited to different sorts of lives and that both strategies have their downsides and their risks. (I wrote about one aspect of this topic--the politicization of parenthood--here.)

My New Year's resolution: Fewer errands, less sleep (I sleep a lot), more reading, more writing. Still to be determined: Is blogging an errand? For me at least, I suspect so. But perhaps I can find a way to manage it.

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