Last week’s post on the roots of procrastination has evidently motivated a whole slew of procrastinators to focus at least long enough to comment or email me to say that they feel like the post was describing their own lives.
I knew a lot of people would identify with it, but I didn’t realize quite how pervasive procrastination is in people. I thought I was particularly neurotic in this regard and it brings me a selfish sort of comfort to know that many of you are suffering in the same boat. Misery loves company — welcome aboard.
As promised, today I’m going to outline my plan for taking on the procrastination monster, with my 11th Raptitude experiment. I have a lot to say about this topic, so if you’re about to fret over how long it is in this high-speed age of 600-word blog posts, then take a break in the middle and get back to it later. Have a nap if you need to. I’m confident that in the long run reading it will give you an outstanding ROI for your time.
Ok, here goes. First things first:
Pitfalls to be aware of
As with all my experiments, the broader purpose is to learn more about how my mind and my habits operate in order to better know how to contend with them. In the two weeks since I decided it was time to tackle my procrastinatory tendencies, I’ve been studying the patterns and pitfalls in my behavior that continually lead me to procrastinate. Time will tell, but at least right now I have an idea of what I’m up against.
Here are what I suspect will be the greatest dangers:
Disorganization – Being disorganized leads to overwhelm and indecisiveness. So there are a few fundamental minimums for organization that will need to be met in order to lessen the threat of losing track of my commitments. Once you lose track of the finite list of responsibilities you’ve taken on, they appear to the mind as one big insurmountable entity. I don’t want to let it get to that point. The more organized I am, the better I can see the proverbial forest for the trees. Planning the next day is most important. If I do not have a plan I don’t know where to start, and if I don’t know where to start I don’t start. It’s that simple.
Perfectionism – If you read last week’s article, you know that an intolerance for errors and mistakes pretty much guarantees procrastination. No matter what rules or intentions I set for myself in this experiment, I cannot depend on being able to execute them perfectly. I must be able to botch one of my agreed duties now and then and not have the whole effort collapse. I must be forgiving, and carry a spirit of “No matter what happens I will not make a total loss out of this moment, this hour or this day.” Mistakes are fine. Writeoffs are not.
Defensive distractions – When I hit even the tiniest snag while I’m working, my hand automatically moves to click on my email, Facebook and Twitter icons without even thinking. Anything that’s mildly gratifying and entails no responsibility will do. It’s a reflexive act of self-defense against responsibility. This all happens almost on the level of muscle memory, so I must have the resolve to shut the browser without thought every time I notice myself doing this. This conscious interrupting of myself whenever I notice I’m off-track is a reflex I’m going to be practicing a lot.
Restarting - This is one of the procrastinator’s sneakiest strategies. When you notice you are procrastinating, you feel justified in letting it take over, because you can start again the next day, or the next Monday when you get another clean slate. I have been restarting on a daily or weekly basis my entire life. It doesn’t work. If I’ve fallen off the wagon, I must restart immediately. I must stop right there, look at my plan for the day, and decide what really makes sense to do. I can reflect at the end of the day, but I cannot ever convince myself that I should write off the rest of a day, or even a part of a day (such as deciding I will stop trying to get anything done between now and dinnertime, since it’s only an hour and a half away anyway.) The clean slate is always now.
Indecisiveness – When it is not clear what to do, I only feel okay doing nothing. This is a good reason to stay organized, but I am hesitant to let the whole thing hinge on just staying organized. I must know how I’m going to decide what to do when I don’t have all my concerns written in a tidy list. What’s most important is to pick something that has to be done and get on it, without too much thought. I always worry that I’ll pick the wrong task somehow, so I do none of them. I will practice picking a task with a casual abandon. If I survived twenty years of doing nothing instead, then clearly I can survive getting the “wrong” thing done instead of the optimum thing. The time will go by anyway.
“Over-starting” – I don’t know what else to call it, but I know this phenomenon is one of the major justifications I use for procrastination. When a task seems like it will take a fair amount of time (hours or days) I tend to avoid it unless I can cleanly block off two or three hours to begin it. I reason that if I were only to commit half an hour to a task or project, that I’d have to leave it off in some hopelessly messy un-done state and I’d never be able to cleanly resume doing it. Yet from experience I know that a thirty-minute commitment is more than enough time to really advance a project to a new position where it looks smaller and less intimidating. I know that I have gotten unbelievable amounts done in thirty minutes.
Rage – As I wrote this on Saturday I was in a state of rage. I had blown my most open day (Saturday) again. It was closing in on 5pm and I had already committed my evening and my Sunday to something. To be ready to go Monday (today) I had to do two things: write this post, and review all of my commitments and get them written down. But I’d left so little time that I thought I might not be able to pull it off. The remorse over blowing my Saturday sent me into a fury. Everything set me off. I was looking for things to set me off.
It was unbelievable how angry I got. I was at the point of hitting inanimate objects. I strangled a plastic water bottle, which was almost full, nearly ruining my laptop. It’s embarrassing to admit that I still reach that point sometimes, but I do. My thought process became completely hijacked by disjointed parts of my victim story, about how I’m constantly being thwarted by the job that “takes” five of my seven days, or the social conventions that take parts of the other two.
Rage is a brick wall to progress. It’s the point where all bets are off. There is no reasoning with myself here — by then I’m lost in my story of injustice against me and there is no accountability anymore. The story is always, “Things have been made difficult for me and I have no choices here.”
As awful as it was, it is interesting to note just how violently resistant I become when I get close to confronting this procrastination problem. I’m starting to see that what this experiment amounts to is becoming fully responsible for myself for the first time ever, and part of me seriously does not want that to happen.
If procrastination is a network of addictive behaviors — and I think it is — then exploding with the victim story is one of the more powerful ones, and victimhood is what rage is all about. I must recognize the danger of rage and know its triggers because there is no way to reason out of it once it’s happening.
The No-Procrastination Philosophy
I need to keep my experiments simple in essence or I won’t keep them up. If I invent some convoluted system to govern my behavior, it will amount to making too many adjustments at once. Further down in the post, I’ll define my behavioral commitments in a few simple rules.
But it’s just as important to be constantly reminding myself of the spirit of what I’m doing here. If I’m trying to operate only on a commitment to completing certain actions, they’ll probably come to feel like obligations to me — things I “have to” do, which only lends itself to resistance and procrastination.
So I’ve got a few mottoes and mantras to keep my intentions sharp here:
Now is the best time. Sooner is many times better than later, and now is many times better than soon. Not somewhat better, but vastly better — analogous to pulling out a weed now as opposed to uprooting a tree later.
My identity and worth are not related to outcomes. Identity is forged from intentions, not outcomes. If my intention is to avoid, that will become my identity. If my intention is to progress, that will become my identity. I will act and let the outcomes settle, including people’s impressions of me, and work with the results indiscriminate of what I might prefer instead.
Work means undivided attention. I often convince myself that I can listen to a podcast or some other audio while I work, even though it’s clear that it only detracts from my effort, usually spoiling it completely. If I want to recreate while I work, it’s recreation, not work.
Task-switching is a red-flag behavior. All procrastination is avoidance. This is obvious, so in order to nip it in the bud I must ask myself a question whenever I switch tasks: “Am I doing this to avoid something?” I want to condition a general distrust of task-switching.
Progress is the only protection. Procrastination is nothing but an attempt to protect oneself from bad feelings. The feeling of failure, of rejection, of disappointment in yourself, the feeling that you are never going to be who you insist you should be, the feeling of awkwardness you experience when you’re not sure what to say, the feeling of derision from others when you step on toes or make assumptions, the feeling of being judged as a hack or a wannabe, the feeling of being reduced to an archetype or a dime-a-dozen personality — procrastination is only ever an impulsive effort to protect oneself from these unpleasant feelings, which we all know will happen anyway. So there is no real protection, no real security. From here on in I will resolve to prefer progress over protection. Growth over security. Ultimately, progress provides the best security anyway. Prizes over protection.
I’m only ever afraid of a feeling, never a task. The tasks on my to-do list aren’t actually what’s scary. Even the biggest project will come down to a finite number of very simple, doable steps. What I’m afraid of is always some unpleasant emotional experience that I suspect might be a little part of it. I have experienced many thousands of instances of these types of emotions in my life, and while I will never like them, evidently not one of those instances killed me. Do the task, be willing to eat a bad feeling now and then if they come along, but don’t start anticipating them or thinking you can live free of them.
There is no such thing as “have to.” No matter how victimized I feel, I don’t have to do anything. Whatever I do, it is all voluntary. I don’t have to go to work, but I choose to because it’s a smarter choice than not going. I cannot escape the reality that everything that happens to me requires a response, and if I let avoidance be that response, then I will be receiving whatever fruit that response bears, which is consistently, predictably poor. This truth is the one thing I can’t avoid. There are always, always superior ways to respond than to avoid deciding. If I’m going to do nothing, it will be a conscious decision to do nothing.
The Hard Rules
All of my experiments must take the form of a clear commitment to certain behaviors, for a certain period of time.
I’ve decided that it would definitely pay off to have a “field test week” in which I try out my initial plan to identify what’s working and what’s not. Next weekend I’ll assess whether these rules are good enough, or require some changes. The idea here is to avoid striving for airtight system, but to stay playful and forgiving while I see what really is serving me. Following field test week I’ll stick to my rules for a 30-day period, after which I will decide what to do with the rest of my life.
Field test week starts today, May 9, 2011, and the thirty day period begins a week today, May 16, 2011. The last day is June 14. I’ll post my final report a few days later.
At the outset I have three behavioral commitments.
#1 – Daily planning and reflection.
At 9:10 each day, I’ll stop what I’m doing, and go through a little checklist:
1) Put everything away. That means everything in its place. If it does not have a place, put it in the “Stuff without places” box. This should take less than ten minutes. Waking up to an orderly household has a profound effect on my clarity of mind that sets the tone for my whole day.
2) Ten minutes journaling about today’s progress. Set a timer. I’ll Just get down the gyst of what worked and didn’t work today. Ten minutes maximum here. No need to get fancy.
3) Review Projects List and plan next day. Take out a sheet of paper and write up a clear to-do list for next day. Highlight one mission-critical item. Put the binder open to the projects page on the dining room table. That is its home.
4) Sit and watch the breath for ten minutes. Forgive myself and just sit for a few minutes. Five is better than none. I know this is an extraordinarily worthwhile use of my time. Let the day go, and be grateful for where I am. Go to bed forgiving of myself and everyone else. Emerson’s take on this one: “Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could.”
This checklist is crucial because it provides a backstop for everything I do throughout the day no matter how it went. If unresolved issues and ambiguous areas never get addressed, my resolve will go stale pretty quickly and my habits will take over.
There are times I won’t be home at 9:10. In those cases I will do it before I leave, and if this is not possible, there is a failsafe: If at any time I realize I have missed one of these reviews, I will do it right then, which means planning the remainder of the day, journaling and sitting. It never takes long and brings my course of action into clear focus again.
#2 – The Weekly Review
I’ve been doing weekly reviews on Sundays, on and off, for a couple years now. Basically, I make a complete list of everything I intend to act on this week, which includes everything from buying new jeans, to calling so-and-so about that thing, to posting a new Raptitude experiment. This is adapted from David Allen’s famous Getting Things Done (GTD) system, which I’ve been unsuccessfully implementing for years now — the planning part goes brilliantly for me, but my unwillingness to ultimately do any of it is why it hasn’t worked. No problem listing, organizing, reviewing — just doing. For me it should be called “Getting Things.”
#3 – The “Ok, What Am I Doing Right Now?” rule
I will make a commitment to always knowing what I’ve decided to do. Whenever I notice I am doing something aimlessly, (like reading a flyer or poking around on the internet) I will stop and stand up and decide what I am going to do right now. There’s nothing wrong with reading flyers or poking around on the net, but it must be a conscious decision — I will not live impulse to impulse. This means I will know when I’m going to do something else. The idea here is to get into the habit of deciding how I spend my time and taking responsibility for that. All breaks must be a conscious decision to take a break, and I must decide how long it will be and what comes after the break.
Put more simply: Know what you’re doing right now, and decide when you’ll be done doing it.
I will post my progress in the progress log after the first day, where you’ll be able to cheer for me or heckle me if you want. Better yet, join me.
Photo by tropical pete