Vol. 9 No. 8 September 2001
What Online Searchers Do for Fun: 
The Fine Art of Procrastination
by Mary-Ellen Mort Director, JobStar
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It starts out like a dream. You're wandering through an old house, somehow familiar yet larger than any house you've ever seen one room leading to another, trap doors, secret passages. Or you're in the woods and someone is chasing you and you run and run and stumble and then you start to fly. Or you just can't think about that research project for another minute you're thinking about it too much. Why did you say, "Yes, of course" to a market research project on mayonnaise consumption in Argentina? You are such a fraud. And the next thing you know you're digging through the hall closet looking for jigsaw puzzles. 

The first step is the hardest. Have I done this puzzle before? Does it matter? Even if I've done it, I won't put it together any faster the second time. No. Be sure. Look at the box. Yes, I remember now. The bridge was the easiest part, then the buildings. . . I remember looking for the tiny faces at the cafe, I remember that each of the parked cars were almost one puzzle piece. I remember there was one piece at the edge with a tiny straight edge and I didn't find it until the very end. No. Do a new one. 

Okay. Here's what's important: Do I want to look at this picture for 3 days or a week? 

Now the ultimate act of faith. Dump the puzzle out on the table. There won't be any rewards for a long time. You're in this for the long haul. Here's the plan: 

Separate all the straight edges from the rest of the pieces. (This is boring, why am I doing this? This is going to take forever.) Turn on some music. Get a cup of coffee. Sit down again and go through the rest of the dusty pile. 

An hour passes. Puzzle pieces everywhere. (Man! There's a lot of them.) How many pieces? A thousand. The box says "1,000 pieces." It's okay, it's okay, you've done thousand piece puzzles before. (Should I count them? What if a piece is missing?) That's crazy, the puzzle is new, the box was long would it take you to count them all? Besides, once they're counted you're no closer to finishing. Stop worrying about how many pieces there are and finish that big pile, look for more straight edges. 

That's all the straight edges. (Doesn't look like enough. Should I go through the big pile again?) No. Look. There are cobblestones, that has to be the bottom edge. Just put all the cobblestone pieces together. Oh, there's a corner. There's another one, and another! We're really moving now. Maybe I'll be done in record time? 

(What if I could get this whole thing done this afternoon? That would have to be some kind of world record! No one will believe it. I could go on the puzzle circuit. I read an article once about people who do puzzles competitively. If I can finish this afternoon I could qualify. I wonder how you get on the puzzle circuit? How much money could you win? What a great way to earn a living especially when you're as fast as I am. Yes, I am really good at this.) 

What about the last corner? It's not here. Look again. It's not here!!! Go through the big pile and look for it? If you missed a corner, which, after all, has not one but TWO straight edges, what else did you miss? You're just not paying attention. You think you're paying attention but you're not. If you're not paying attention, you'll have to do everything twice. 

(Why am I doing this? I can't do this. I've never been able to do puzzles. Look at all that blue. That's all sky, too much sky.) You won't be able to do the sky, there's too much of it. If you can't do the sky, then you can't finish the puzzle. You'll get it halfway done and then quit. Do you want to spend all this time only to fail? (This is too hard.) 

(Why am I doing this anyway, I have work to do. I'm sick of work. I need a break. Well, what about a walk?) Or you could wash the kitchen floor, take those clothes to the dry cleaner, weed the garden. (Maybe I should? Oh look, there's the doorway and the arch. Do they fit together?) 


Is there more doorway? Look, there's a window to the left and a flower basket above are any of those pieces here? No, they must be in the big pile. Let's look through the big pile and see. 

No, no, no. Just put that doorway over there and keep working on the edge. 

(I don't want to work on the edge. I already did the easy part: see? There's about 7 inches of cobblestone. But there aren't any more cobblestone pieces...what's next? I won't be able to even finish the edge. This puzzle is hard.) 

Okay, calm down. Get another cup of coffee. Wait, maybe tea is better. Now just sit and look at the box. (I already saw the box.) No, look at it again. (Why am I looking at it? This is stupid, a waste of time. Remember that scene in Citizen Kane? Marion Davies in that big mansion, bored out of her mind, doing one puzzle after another?) Are you THAT bored? 

No, really LOOK at the box. 

Over by the left edge there's a big area of shadow and a little pool of light from the window. The pool of light is about 3 inches from the corner. Are there any dark pieces in the edge pile? Pull them all over here. Look at the pieces. Some are real dark and some are lighter. Try the lighter pieces together. Here and here and here wow! Now you're moving again. And the darker pieces? Those go to the right: BAM! 

Do they hook up? This way? No, this way. 

(Hey! The bottom edge is done. I got the bottom edge done!!! Let's compare it to the box. Yes. Perfect. See that little line there? That's where the second door is. Is that little thing a foot? Looks like there's a person about 5 inches from the right, that must be his foot. I bet I can find that piece if I look through the big pile real quick.) 

Okay, while you're looking for that piece, separate out all the can put those back in the box and ignore them 'til later. 

(How long have I been here? No way I have been sitting here for 3 hours. Better stop now and start making dinner and return some phone calls. Yes, I'll stop now and come back and work on this tomorrow. Is that the flower basket? And that must be the window above the flower basket. SNAP! Can I connect it to the door? YES!!! There's some leftover soup in the refrigerator. It'll only take a minute to heat that up. Just a little longer, I'll just do this a little longer.) 

I love puzzles. I hate puzzles. Mayonnaise, here I come! 

Deep Thoughts on the Lessons of the Puzzle
(Or What to Say When You're Caught Doing a Jigsaw Puzzle When You're Supposed to Be Working)
Epstein, Mark. Thoughts Without a Thinker: Psychotherapy from a Buddhist Perspective. Basic Books, 1995, p. 110. 

"Buddhist meditation takes [the] untrained, everyday mind as its natural starting point, and it requires the development of one particular attentional posture of naked, or bare, attention. Defined as 'the clear and single-minded awareness of what actually happens to us and in us at the successive moments of attention,' bare attention takes this unexamined mind and opens it up, not by trying to change anything but by observing the mind, emotions, and body the way they are. . . This is what is meant by bare attention: just the bare facts, an exact registering, allowing things to speak for themselves as if seen for the first time, distinguishing any reactions from the core event." 

Csikszentmihalyi, Mihaly. Finding Flow: The Psychology of Engagement with Everyday Life, Basic Books, 1998, p. 30. 

"Flow tends to occur when a person's skills are fully engaged in overcoming a challenge that is just about manageable. Optimal experiences usually involve a fine balance between one's ability to act, and the available opportunities for action. If the challenges are too high, one gets frustrated, then worried, and eventually anxious. If challenges are too low relative to one's skills one gets relaxed, then bored. If both challenges and skills are perceived to be low, one gets to feel apathetic. But when high challenges are matched with high skills, then the deep involvement that sets flow apart from ordinary life is likely to occur." 

Stevens, Wallace, "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird," Poems by Wallace Stevens. Vintage Books, 1959, p. 12 []

Among twenty snowy mountains, 

The only moving thing 

Was the eye of the blackbird. 

Klein, Gary. Sources of Power: How People Make Decisions, The MIT Press, 1998, pp. 141-2. 

"There are two primary sources of power for individual decision making and problem solving: 

  • Pattern matching (the power of intuition) 
  • Mental simulation 
"Pattern matching provides us with a sense of reasonable goals and their attributes. It gives us a basis for detecting anomalies and treating them with appropriate seriousness. It helps us to notice opportunities and leverage points, discover relevant analogues, and get a sense of how solvable a problem is. The judgment of solvability is also responsible for letting us recognize when we are unlikely to make more progress and that it is time to stop. 

"Mental simulation is the engine for diagnosing the causes of the problem, along with their trends. It plays a role in coalescing fragmentary actions to find a way to put them together."

Minsky, Marvin. "Negative Expertise," International Journal of Expert Systems, 1994, Vol. 7, No. 1, pp. 13-19 [].

"We spend our lives at learning things, yet always find exceptions and mistakes. Certainty seems always out of reach. Except in worlds we invent for ourselves (such as formal systems of logic and mathematics) we can never be sure our assumptions are right, and must expect eventually to make mistakes and entertain inconsistencies. To keep from being paralyzed, we have to take some risks. But we can reduce the chances of accidents by accumulating two complementary types of knowledge: 

"We search for 'islands of consistency' within which commonsense reasoning seems safe. 

"We also work to find and mark the unsafe boundaries of those islands." 

My Favorite Site

Free online jigsaw puzzles (no software to download). Puzzles range from 6 pieces to 247 pieces. Interesting puzzle shapes compensate for the limitations of the interface: All puzzle pieces are presented in correct orientation. Puzzles are timed and, should your frustration reach its limit, you can ask the puzzle to solve itself while you watch. Turn on your speakers for a very satisfying clicking sound when you make a match. You may never play solitaire again. 

Mary Ellen Mort's e-mail address is
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