Procrastination: The Finale

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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 terms

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.

***
Photo by Carissa Goodncrazy

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{ 36 Comments }

EcoCatLady August 24, 2011 at 10:33 pm

Well…. in my experience giving yourself more rules to follow is seldom an effective strategy when it comes to personal change. My advice is to give up your quest for self-improvement and focus instead on self-acceptance and understanding. Change will come, but only when it’s what your “deep down self” really wants.

David August 25, 2011 at 6:45 am

With respect, I will never give up self-improvement, and I don’t think it is necessarily at odds with self-acceptance. This experiment doesn’t arise from a shallow part of me, it’s from the part of me that says “do something extraordinary with your life. Don’t be complacent with what is comfortable.” If I do not push myself, I become complacent, and I’ve proven that over and over again.

EcoCatLady August 25, 2011 at 3:48 pm

OK… I didn’t mean to suggest that your self-improvement goals were in any way shallow, I just think that it’s a slippery slope. There is such a fine line between “self improvement” and “self loathing.”

We all spend so much time and energy trying to make ourselves “better” or make ourselves conform to some idea of how we think we “ought” to be. But obviously, the way we “are” is serving us in some way, and unless we can learn to accept and honor that, nothing will ever really change.

Now often, our “complacent” behaviors serve only as hiding places from our authentic selves, but trying to force yourself to conform to a set of ideals is also a good avoidance technique.

Not sayin’ that’s what you’re doing, but the whole idea of striving to “do something extraordinary” frightens me.

David August 25, 2011 at 8:58 pm

Yes, there is a slippery slope. I always cringe when I hear driven types say “never be satisfied.” That’s really not my philosophy here. It is really not a matter of conforming to an ideal here, my aim is nonconformity. My goals surround creative expression, ethical living, self-sufficiency, service to others and to my species. These things are extraordinary, in my experience anyway, and cultivating them is hugely important to me. I think the slippery slope on the other side is much more dangerous, at least with my habits: complacency, compromise, and excuse-making.

Esther September 6, 2011 at 3:41 pm

David, hi.

I felt the urge to comment because I think I know what EcoCatLady is saying. I completely understand your point of view. The thing is that I feel there is this unavoidable “being this way is wrong” feeling to personal change. I guess it doesn’t make sense at first but if you judge it wrong, you so much keep it in place. It sounds paradoxical but your rejection of that part of you is a form of attachment and in my experience that attachment usually gets you back to the unwanted behaviour at some point.

Anyway, I strongly recommend these guys’ perspective on the topic: ariel and shya kane. They have a book “working on yourself doesn’t work” and a radio show that can be listened at http://www.transformationmadeeasy.com/en/radio.shtml. Their approach is not “do nothing and be lazy” but rather accepting and not judging what you notice about yourself, realising that you could not be any other way right now (but maybe yes in 10 minutes) and basically being compassionate with yourself. they talk about 3 principles that do not actively involve “doing things to change” but help you accept yourself without judgements and end the games in that way. i think sometimes we procrastinate because we need that excitement of starting anew, now i’ll make it right, now i’ll make myself an organized person, etc. Like needing something to solve to find purpose in our lives. I am not saying it is your case at all, I just think it can happen to some of us.

Thank you for your lovely lovely blog! I’m a big fan!! Cheers from Spain!

Fons August 25, 2011 at 2:16 am

I was wondering what had happened to the experiment, so I’m glad to hear about it. Too bad it didn’t work out as well as you hoped, but I think it’s great that you’re ending it like this, instead of just leaving it and quitting now.
And if all goes well this week, maybe just stick to something like this? It might be near impossible to quit procrastinating altogether, but if this makes your days and weeks more productive, I’d say it’s a great way to continue.

David August 25, 2011 at 6:48 am

Yeah that’s the idea. I felt great when I was working through a list every day. I went to bed happy, I woke up happy. I know it’s the healthy thing for me.

yliharma August 25, 2011 at 3:41 am

Hi David! Have you ever thought about using the Pomodoro technique? Here is a good post about it: http://jaeminyi.com/pomodoro/
I haven’t tried it yet, but it seems interesting at least to solve the third rule issue.
Good luck!

David August 25, 2011 at 6:48 am

Yes I have, and it’s similar to what I do. I take 30 minutes, though instead of 25.

Tobi August 25, 2011 at 3:56 am

Well, I was going to do it but never got around to it… my excuse was to wait until you were finished, so I could see the best way to tackle this thing and not follow you into anything that didn’t work. I suppose that let me not experience that jarring feeling of stopping you were talking about, but here you’re saying that your life has changed so much and you’re miles ahead- while here I am, no change what-so-ever. I don’t have any excuse to not to start this thing now, but somehow I don’t feel like that will matter.

I know I posted a big disappointed rant (sorry about that lolz), but even so this has given me some hope… even if it’ll be a life long uphill battle I know could have been avoided, it can still get better, at least in some way. :)

David August 25, 2011 at 6:50 am

I guess my thinking here is do more of whatever has worked in the past. Some aspects of the experiment worked, so I’m focusing on them and dropping the others.

George August 25, 2011 at 4:40 am

Was interesting to hear the results. I’ve been paying a bit more attention to how I was doing (or not-doing) alongside.

I like it coming down to a “note a few things you really want to get done and have some mechanism of reminding yourself when you need to”. Then details of your behaviour, of how you actually do it, don’t matter and don’t need to be arbitrarily controlled, so long as those things do get done. But those “things” really do have to be things that you actually want to get done.

Maybe approaching it that way allows you to stand back, rather than constantly putting yourself ‘in your thoughts’, trying to manipulate them or somehow fool yourself into getting things done. (Taking the approach that the thought about things needs to be okay before the doing.)

For me, I find that if you let the thoughts alone, and almost-literally take a ‘step back’ in your head and ask what needs doing next, and stay in that spot, it all tends to happen much more easily. As soon as I spend time trying to make myself feel okay by working out where I am in the plan, or try to know in advance exactly how I’m going to get the things done, before trying to ‘make’ that happen in that way, I find it all freezes up.

I think the thought thing is key here. I can get OCD pretty quick if I get stuck in that bit…

David August 25, 2011 at 6:52 am

But those “things” really do have to be things that you actually want to get done.

For sure. I ended up dumping a lot of items when I realized I just felt like I should do them, but really had no desire to do them.

Ruthie August 25, 2011 at 5:34 am

David, maybe you were just resisting the intensiveness and all inclusiveness of your third rule? Down time and freedom are important too. A loving, well-intended tyrant is still a tyrant that burdens our ‘soul’. The older I get, the more I find that moderation (un-romatic as it is) is not only more pleasant, but more effective.

David August 25, 2011 at 6:53 am

Yeah that’s what rule 3 felt like: a tyrant. It was unsympathetic and I knew I wasn’t going to live my life like that.

thunderbloke August 25, 2011 at 8:08 am

I imagine you’ve read The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, but if you haven’t then it has a good section on beating procrastination; it’s about changing your mindset rather than trying to alter your habits and not getting at the root of the problem.

David August 25, 2011 at 8:35 pm

I did read it but it was a long time ago. I should give it another shot, knowing what I know now.

Lindsay August 25, 2011 at 8:17 am

I’m still struggling with it. I toggle between tasks with a disturbing frequency. I don’t seem to have the self discipline or attention span to stop myself from doing it every time I do…I mean, if I were to sit here and not toggle between screens at work, for instance, I think I’d spend just as much time trying to fight the urge to multi-task or procrastinate as much as I would spend doing actual tasks!

Jackie August 25, 2011 at 9:27 am

Ya know, the problem with the rules is that you usually (at least I don’t) schedule or plan for daydreaming. The reason we procrastinate is that we NEED to have that aimless time to just do nothing of import. That is the brain’s way of creating the things in our lives that matter!! I don’t beat myself up anymore about when I do those things I “should not be doing” when I think I should be doing something else.

Let it go!!

David August 25, 2011 at 8:37 pm

I am a compulsive daydreamer and I can waste hours doing it. So I can’t resign to it completely or I’ll live my whole life in a daydream. But my rule #3 effectively created a zero-tolerance policy for it, which felt too harsh. I think a bit of it is healthy.

Steph in Berkeley August 25, 2011 at 1:46 pm

I’m curious whether the 3rd rule may just need tweaked. I have ADD and can spend up to 18-hrs a day doing just one thing (extreme hyperfocus symptom), whatever my focus du jour happens to be; usually something novel and exciting.

In order to curb this, I’ve taken mental note of the kinds of pleasures and interests that absorb this much time. And also given serious thought to the kinds of projects/goals I want to complete, as well as day to day necessaries. Some of the more painful to-do’s do backslide, but overall, I am achieving my desires. I believe it’s because of the overall awareness of both my tendencies and my desires for achievement, and the ability to then switch from one to the other.

So I completely get your a-ha awareness. Great post. Thanks.

When I notice that I’m in a hyperfocus period that isn’t a productive one, I now set time limits, “I’ll stop in thirty more minutes. And I’ll do X instead.”

David August 25, 2011 at 8:47 pm

That was probably the biggest fruit of this experiment so far: I am much more aware of my tendencies now. The third rule does need tweaking, which maybe means it doesn’t really need to be a rule, exactly.

Steph in Berkeley August 25, 2011 at 1:50 pm

oh and the trick is often being excited about the item(s) I’d been avoiding…because there is always a pay off. So in order to motivate the switch I focus on the payoff.

(How the heck do I create a photo icon. I’m working on that.)

David August 25, 2011 at 8:48 pm

That’s another thing I got a clearer picture of. I have a strong tendency to focus on downsides, and often I forget what benefit I was actually thinking of when I decided I ought to do a given thing. I know now that I need to spend more time thinking about what I want than what I don’t want.

Steph in Berkeley August 25, 2011 at 1:50 pm

I misspelled there. I hate it when that happens and cannot not correct myself. Apologies… and for the rambling. Crikey.

David August 25, 2011 at 8:50 pm

Fixed it for you

Maria Long August 25, 2011 at 3:20 pm

Do you know I procrastinated the reading of this post until this afternoon? I was dreading finding out that there was a solution and that I would know about it.There! I said it.

David August 25, 2011 at 8:51 pm

Hah!

Katie August 26, 2011 at 4:21 pm

I totally put off reading this post. ;)

Katie Long August 26, 2011 at 4:22 pm

HA! I just noticed the comment above mine. Great minds and a great last name!!

Maia August 27, 2011 at 3:47 pm

Hi David,
well done for doing the experiment, at least you tried and I hope it goes well next week.
I read somewhere that it was a life changing idea to do a list with 5 things on it to do each day and then attempt to do all of them. Yet I wasn’t sure if things like – go workout, should be on the list, it you do them regularly, or should it just be things you don’t do regularly. Or would something small count as a thing to do, for example ‘read electricity meter’ (which by the way I still haven’t done for the last few weeks)?
Well, I ended up not doing it after a while. But it is definitely a good idea. I also read somewhere, that it is good to write down what you did at the end of each day, and so that way you will want to do something significant everyday, so you have something to write about. I like this tip more, I think as it makes you do something fun/unusual instead of something mundane.

Good luck!

Katie Benedetto September 1, 2011 at 11:25 pm

Protip! Best start page ever: http://yellowrubberball.com/startkatie.php

Louis September 2, 2011 at 12:33 am

Have you read “The Now Habit” by Neil Fiore. The Now Habit, GTD by David Allen and the Pomodoro Technique have helped me so much – though I still struggle with procrastination it’s much better than before. I might procrastinate still, but at least I’m not beating myself up and feeling guilty all the time!

Among the useful advice the book gives you, Dr Fiore says by writing up a to-do list, or packing up a schedule with tasks and appointments, you actually get more stressed and overwhelmed as you look down the list, and items start slipping. He also says that procrastinators (though we shouldn’t be calling ourselves ‘procrastinators’ – negative self-talk) aren’t lazy, lack willpower or motivation – in fact, most procrastinators are quite driven – it’s because we have ambitions and drive that we beat ourselves up for not getting things done. That made me feel re-assured.

The Now Habit suggests you schedule in leisure activities first, and fit work around those (you’ll have to read the book to really get the details of this – it isn’t quite all fun!!). Knowing that I’m not going to take my work laptop home in the evenings makes me work that little bit faster and harder come 4:30pm. Before I would have ‘written off’ the rest of the day and decided to work on a task in the evening at dinner.

Andrew | Self Help Products September 5, 2011 at 5:10 am

Hey David. I seem to have a similar problem as you. I have the index cards as well to list tasks that need to be completed… I also have a diary that lists bigger, more important tasks and a date that it has to completed by.

The problem is implementing these “systems” on a regular basis… they often fall by the wayside and I find myself having to get back on track again. :-(

Katie September 6, 2011 at 3:37 pm

Hey there, David – it’s totally okay if the experiment doesn’t work. :) Let’s all suck at managing procrastination together! :)

Corroborating your conclusions in the “Procrastination isn’t Laziness” post, I wrote a blog post about a recent experience I had. An accomplished web designer wrote a post titled, “Let’s all suck at GitHub together”. Just hearing that permission to be bad at something was all I needed to learn GitHub right away:

http://kguac.com/2011/09/1×52-week-6-hex-color-shader-perfectly-shade-tint-colors/

Chris March 5, 2012 at 10:37 am

Simply doing and not thinking is by far the best advice I can give. It doesn’t get any simpler and the rewards are instant!

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