Now and then I do habit experiments here on Raptitude, usually trying something out for a month or two to see what happens. See them all here.
It’s about time I got around to wrapping up my procrastination experiment.
A quick recap:
Over three months ago, I recognized that my problem with procrastination was, in a way, threatening my life. Deep-rooted avoidance habits were keeping me from making any meaningful ground towards my goals. Days, weeks, and months would go by with lots of busyness but no real progress. It felt like it could continue that way until I was suddenly eighty, with none of my aspirations having materialized.
So I posted an official experiment on my experiments page, and immediately launched into the three most productive days of my life. After that I just kept falling a little bit shorter every day, and the momentum faded. Soon I wasn’t really doing anything resembling an experiment, just bumbling along as usual.
What went wrong?
Well, I’m not about to say the experiment has been a failure. Life is different now in a good way. But I quickly ran into a stalemate with the rules I had set for myself, and after a few weeks I no longer had a real idea of what I was doing, until I wasn’t really doing anything.
The premise was pretty simple, with three rules:
1) Check in with myself at the end of every day — Get clear on the plan for the next day. Make a to-do list on an index card. Put away anything left out in my house.
2) Check in at the end of every week — Tie up all loose ends by emptying all inboxes and deciding what I’m going to do about everything that has come up. Get all my concerns on paper and set reminders for anything I need to be reminded of.
3) Put a stop to aimlessness the moment I notice it — Recreation is fine, breaks are fine, as long as I always do what I’ve decided to do, and I know when I’m going to get to work again. Whenever I notice I’m being aimless, I decide what to do right then.
The problem was the third rule.
Checking in at regular times isn’t difficult and it has an immediately rewarding effect. Life feels cleaner and clearer.
But halting whatever I was doing to make myself decide what I ought to be doing instead was something that was quite jarring and easy to avoid. It was such an ugly feeling, to cut myself off from something I wanted to do — mid-paragraph or mid-bagel — and I knew I absolutely didn’t want that to be a regular experience in my life.
So I resisted that third rule, which manifested itself as a strong tendency to jump into aimless activities (reading magazines, clicking around on the internet) and a stubborn commitment not to interrupt myself from those or any other low-benefit activity. Distracting activities became even more attractive and more difficult to escape than ever.
In my mad experiment I had inadvertently created what astronomy geeks might call a behavioral singularity — a black hole with a deadly event horizon. If I got close enough, the gravity was too strong and there could be no return… on any given day, anyway. The more time it swallowed, the bigger it got.
The third rule backfired in a huge way, and without it the check-ins felt kind of pointless, knowing that I was so susceptible to the black holes in my routine. So I began to avoid them too, out of their bad association, and soon I was no longer really doing the experiment.
Not quite a failure
Still, in spite of how the experiment sort of faded from my consciousness over time, it wasn’t a failure. I am now a lot more aware of how procrastination happens in my life. I’ve learned what behaviors are crucial in order for me to get things done, and which are pit traps.
What I haven’t learned, evidently, is how to do them consistently. The whole picture is much clearer though and I feel like quite a different person than I was three months ago. At the outset I felt like I had no control over the general course of my life. Now I am much more confident in my ability to get things done, I have proven it to myself, and I am a considerably more productive (and more confident) person.
While the experiment updates became less encouraging and more infrequent, a reader suggested to me that obviously this experiment is never going to really end this way, and I should create a “finale” — some sort of test to see if I can indeed bring it all together for a short, consistent stint.
I believe I do have the tools now, and I’m going to bring them to bear on the upcoming week.
The most effective thing I tried during the experiment was using a daily to-do list on an index card. It would be in my pocket all day and (ideally) I would look at it every time I wasn’t sure what I should be doing. That seemed to be all it really took to make the difference between a productive day and a disappointing one.
Keeping the lists modest was worthwhile though. It’s way better to get a 5-item list done than abandon a 10-item list the moment I realize it’s not going to happen (which happened a lot.) I left very little “contingency space” most of the time.
The reviews I did (both the nightly and the weekly one) were always worthwhile, whenever I did do them. My nightly review was really just cleaning up the house and making my list, which provides the ideal start to the next day: clear mind and clean environment. The weekly review stopped anything that managed to slide, and cleaned up any messes before the next week began.
So here’s what I’m going to do for the week starting this Monday (August 29th):
- Make and complete seven modest lists.
- Do seven nightly reviews.
- Do one weekly review, Saturday morning.
That’s all, and doing this will end this experiment on a high note instead of letting it taper off to nothing. I did improve a lot and have a some insights about the mechanics of procrastination, and I want to put them to use. I’ll go over how I did and what I learned in the wrap up post.
A lot of you emailed me and posted comments in the experiments section, saying you were sick of procrastination and were joining me. With apologies for being such a bad role model, I’m curious to know how you did.