Experiment Log No. 11 – An Attack on Procrastination

In this experiment I take on a lifelong procrastination problem by adhering to three simple practices.

There will be one “field test week” in which I determine if my three practices will suffice, I’ll make whatever adjustments are necessary, and then I will begin my customary 30-day commitment.

My three practices:

#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.

2) Ten minutes journaling about today’s progress. Set a timer.

3) Review Projects List and plan next day.

4) Sit and watch the breath for ten minutes. Forgive myself and everyone else. Emerson’s take on this one: “Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could.”

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. 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.

Put more simply: Know what you’re doing right now, and decide when you’ll be done doing it.

More details can be found in the original post.

This experiment began on schedule May 9, 2011, and will conclude on June 14, 2011.

The Progress Log

5/9/11

Well today went so smoothly I can describe it as a complete success. I carried an index card in my pocket with 11 items that I’d decided to do. I checked it early and often, asking myself “Is there anything here I can get done right now?” and the answer was almost always yes. I did everything with little hesitation, even phone calls, over which I typically do some humming and hawing.

Nothing on my list was particularly difficult today, although most of them were the type of task I would typically avoid doing right away. Every time I looked at the card and read a to-do item, my first thought was “Oh I don’t have to do that now.” Normally, I would take this as a cue to gleefully ignore it for the time being. If I don’t have to do it now, then I can be effectively free now if I leave it be.

This is an unutterably stupid way to operate, but it is the thought process that has been typical for me. Of course everything surfaces later, and the procrastinator effectively ends up waiting until they do “have to” do it, which means they’ve waited until the consequences of not doing it have become real threats to security and quality of life. By giving myself a free pass every time I don’t “have to” do something, I’m only ensuring that I will let everything reach a stressful state before I act on it.

My sense of accomplishment and the “Ok What Am I Doing Right Now” rule kept me moving throughout the day, but also kept the morale unusually high. I’m thrilled it went so well, and I have a lot to say, but I’ll save that for future updates.

5/11/11

Day three is in the books. Yesterday went smoothly too, though in neither day was I quite as driven as the first, and that could be a good or bad thing. It’s nice to know I can turn on the jets and knock down a bunch of to-do’s one after another. But there were times when I was acting aimlessly between tasks without having really decided to take a break, and knew it. It didn’t have much of an effect on my productivity but I know it’s something to keep my eye on. I liked the feeling of conducting my day with a real ethic the first day, and it’s slackened a bit the last two days, partly because I felt so ahead of the game.

The last two days have been extraordinarily productive days for me. I’ve been listing about 10 or 12 items to tackle the next day, a few get added throughout the day, and by the end of it I’ve got them all done but one or two. That’s fine. Most of them are quite easy (mail something, phone someone, do French homework) but they are still the type I would have normally let slide.

My stress level has been close to zero, even though today was the first day I tackled something intimidating. I had to go and explain my traffic offenses to a Provincial Court Justice, and it could have resulted in a $4000 in fines. I spent a lot longer rehearsing my explanation than I’d planned, which left less time for other things, but evidently it paid off because I got off with only a $300 hit! That was my “big rock” and I’m feeling a great relief.

My “master list” (the running list of current projects I prepare every week) has more crossed-off items than I’ve ever seen. This is already the most productive week I can remember having. It’s still early in the game, but I’ve already learned to identify the “Oh I can do this later” impulse and act then. “Later” is almost always a consistently more difficult time to do something than now, and by a big margin.

I’m really excited about future projects, because there doesn’t seem to be anything between me and them now.

5/15/11 – End-of-test-week Review

In my original post I said I would look at how the first week went and decide if any adjustments were necessary to my approach.

So. This week has been the most productive week I have probably ever had, and was also one of the most relaxing I’ve had in months. I started it off with a ferocious Monday in which I obliterated my list completely and I felt so great about it. By the end of Wednesday I had knocked off a whole bunch of nagging to-do’s that had been haunting me for months.

But as the days went on, I noticed I was getting less and less focused, and the last few days I’ve noticed myself getting a bit aimless, and ignoring my third rule, even when I noticed I was breaking it.

It’s fairly simple: always know what I’ve decided to do, whether that’s work on something or take a break and do whatever. But I found I would be clicking around on the web without having decided to, knowing that it’s a no-no, but rationalizing it with “Oh it will only take a few minutes to check my email or Facebook or whatever.

These little diversions probably didn’t amount to a huge hit to my productivity, but they worry me because they can turn into long swaths of mostly-but-not-totally unfocused and unproductive time, which leads to procrastination, regret, and ultimately wall-punching rage as I realize I’ve let another weekend slip by.

But it didn’t get to that point. This weekend was actually fantastic. I had gotten so much done during the week that I didn’t have my usual backlog of guilt-laden undone stuff. So when my friend called at 1pm on Saturday, I was able to put everything down and go out mountain biking and not feel like I really wanted to go back and salvage some of my day to work. I spent most of today (Sunday) outdoors too and enjoyed every minute of it.

Now that doesn’t mean I was perfect, or even quite where I want to be with personal productivity. I did let it degrade into para-procrastination this last three days. I did not take it by the horns the way I did Monday and Tuesday, and I let some important tasks go un-done (namely finishing the article I was going to post tomorrow.) This speaks more to time mismanagement than procrastination though, and that makes me feel much better. I have proven to myself that I can be an especially productive person, and I’ll start tomorrow out on the same foot.

My mentality for Day one was quite aggressive, and my list was no match for me. I tore it to pieces and it felt awesome. I felt a confidence I haven’t felt in years. This week I will try to keep up that level of “healthy aggression” that made Monday so liberating and pleasurable. So I do need to tighten up my self-enforcement of rule #3, without making it unmanageable.

The biggest difference between the killer productivity edge I had on Day One, and the sloppy pseudo-focus I had on say, Day Five, was the number of times I checked the list. On Monday I would take my index-card list out of my pocket over and over, and ask myself if I could knock anything off right there. Later on in the week I found myself checking it a lot less and relying on my head to tell me what to do. This resulted in missing a lot of chances to get things knocked off early, and I ended up bumping a lot of items because I took too long getting around to them.

This frequency of list-checking seems to be the key, so I will be checking the list early and often tomorrow and every other day this week.

The other thing I will do this week is remind me of the aphorisms I made use of in preparing for Day One. I will reread them in the morning:

Now is the best time.

My identity and worth are not related to outcomes.

Work means undivided attention.

Task-switching is a red-flag behavior.

Progress is the only protection.

I’m only ever afraid of a feeling, never a task.

There is no such thing as “have to.”

So my approach works pretty well in general, I just have to keep it tight. Tomorrow begins the proper 30-day trial, and I know what to do now.

5/20/11

Well I am gradually steering myself back from derailment. After a bit of reflecting, I figure the weekend is what got me off track. As I mentioned, it was the first weekend in a while that I was able to just go enjoy the day and not feel guilty about it. But I think I went a bit overboard.

I should have finished my list Saturday before going out. I only would have had to delay the festivities by an hour or two. What I did instead was just leave it hanging while I went out at 1pm. I had dinner plans already for five, so after a great bike ride with my friend I only had time to come home, shower, go to dinner, come home briefly again and then go out to a social function I had that night. It was great too, but I didn’t get home until almost 3am. That pushed the next day’s start until late, and I had another social commitment at noon, so I didn’t get home until late afternoon, and the weekend was almost gone, Saturday and Sunday lists still incomplete.

So in that weekend, I quickly relearned to ignore my commitment to my list, and for the first few days this week I just didn’t care so much about my list. I did have  strong day today, in terms of getting a fair amount done, but there was too much aimlessness. I was actively avoiding getting back to my list. It’s still such a strong compulsion in me. I kept taking breaks, with no clear plan of when to resume again, and what to get to work on after my break. So they trailed on and a lot of extra time today just slipped away. It didn’t feel good and didn’t help me at all.

I want to resume the predatory mindset I had at the outset. I killed my list early, and then there was plenty of time for aimlessness if I wanted.

One important thing I’ve noticed is that it is so much harder to begin working on something if the first thing I have to do is decide something. Deciding is an action verb that intimidates me like no other. It’s much easier to get back to work if I’ve already decided what my first action is going to be. Then I can just up and throw my body into the process of opening the book / sitting down to brainstorm / picking up the laundry / doing the dishes. It is waaay easier to throw oneself into a pre-decided-upon physical action than to throw oneself into a decisionmaking state. I never thought of it that way, but it’s a big revelation: don’t leave off at a decision point. Decide, and leave off at an action point.

I will leverage this revelation tomorrow by making sure I know what the next step is before taking any break. No idle time without knowing when I’ll get back to work and what my first action will be.

5/29/11

Three weeks in.

I’ve reached a comfortable balance in my productivity, which is a bit troubling. I am getting a lot done, but now that I think about it I’ve been lax in my enforcement of the rules.

To review the rules again (which I haven’t done in a while):

#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.

2) Ten minutes journaling about today’s progress. Set a timer.

3) Review Projects List and plan next day.

4) Sit and watch the breath for ten minutes. Forgive myself and everyone else. Emerson’s take on this one: “Finish each day and be done with it. You have done what you could.”

I’ve been slacking here. Initially I was pretty strict with it. I do always plan the day, I almost always put everything away. I haven’t been journaling much this last two weeks (partly because it seems like I’m on something of a roll and there’s nothing new to say) and I have not been meditating before bed.

It’s easy to rationalize being more informal with this because I am still doing well, and the planning of the day has proven to be the crucial bit. But there is really no good reason for not just burning through this easy little ritual at the end of the day. What has been happening is I’ll be in the middle of something when my 9:10 alarm goes, and I don’t want to interrupt myself, even if it’s just something like watching a youtube documentary or reading something. I finish that up, and just make sure I make my index-card to-do list before bed and I feel okay about it.

But it really would serve me to go back to faithfully making these four items happen. The end of the day would feel much cleaner.

#2 – The Weekly Review

Basically, I make a complete list of everything I intend to act on this week.

This I’ve been doing and doing well. I’m getting good at it and there’s no compromise here. I’m always please with how much of my weekly projects list is crossed off by the weekend.

#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.

Put more simply: Know what you’re doing right now, and decide when you’ll be done doing it.

This has been harder to enforce than I thought. It’s jarring to interrupt yourself like that, even when you aren’t doing anything important. You have to leave a lot of stuff unfinished in an awkward place (web browser tabs open, paragraphs in books half-read) and I don’t like that “open loop” feeling in my head.

I think a good compromise might be to set an alarm (on onlinestopwatch.com, since my aimlessness is almost always in front of a web browser) whenever I notice I’m being aimless, to give myself five minutes or so to get it out of my system. I do this sometimes anyway, but I’ll make it the thing to do.

Overall, I’m pleased with my level of productivity, and this has really made my future look a lot brighter to me. I no longer have this doubt overhead that I will indeed be able to pull off what I want to pull off. I know I’m capable, even if I haven’t ironed out all the bugs yet. I still am able to burn an hour with an unexpected (and ultimately fruitless) self-interruption, and I still sometimes get to the end of the day with a few items un-done because of this, but I think I’m well on my way to where I want to be.

6/4/11

My slide is continuing. This week went by quickly and I don’t have that much to show for it other than hit article. I am not taking my lists very seriously at all. I don’t look at them often, and I’ve been spending my time rather unconsciously. I am still probably more productive than when I started, but I’m lost almost all of the drivenness I began this project with.

There are two main issues:

1) I’ve been laissez-faire with my nightly reviews, which means I’m not crafting the next day’s list with any real intention. So I start the day with a list that doesn’t seem important, so I don’t look at it throughout the day, and by the time I get around to attacking the list, there just isn’t enough time and so I let it lapse.

2) I’ve been letting myself avoid things. In the first week of the experiment, I would look at my list whenever I wasn’t quite sure what I was doing at any given moment. I would see an item on the list, feel my natural reaction to not do it now, and take that as a cue to get right on it. Most items were taken care of swiftly by stepping through the little bit of fear that comes with them and immediately dialing/asking/writing/deciding. But now I feel that avoidance response and I find a way to delay it. Heeding those avoidant thoughts is the central mechanism that causes my procrastination, and I’m letting myself do it.

These factors compound themselves and each other. When a couple days goes by without a respectable list or a respectable effort, then I begin to take the whole idea of these lists and this experiment less seriously, and so I check the list even less, I justify procrastination even more.

Today was a joke. My most unproductive day since I began, and it’s a Saturday in which I had no obligations. The catalyst was last night’s alcohol. I went out with a friend for patio drinks at about 8pm, which I still think was a good idea (It was good to see him, and I’ve been hermiting up a little lately), but I decided to not take my car, which means I had it in my head to allow myself more than two drinks, which typically leads to more than six drinks over the course of the evening. It wasn’t a horrendous drunken night at all, it was quite mild compared to most nights where cabs are my transportation. I was home by 1am.

But I got a poor sleep, and I was sick all day with a mild but persistent hangover. My tolerance for alcohol has decreased steadily since Experiment #3 when I took a “drug sabbatical” and I’ve never been so ravaged by so few drinks. I accomplished nothing today except making a batch of scotch broth. Nothing. I lazed. I watched online documentaries (which has become my favorite leisure activity lately) and I clicked around on Facebook and other online media. I cleaned the kitchen, but poorly.

I resisted doing anything organized or purposeful with an incredible stubbornness. I don’t know how to describe it, but some spiteful part of me was determined to make it a disgraceful, regrettable day.

It was pitiful, but it prompted an important decision: no more third drink. I’m done with this custom of self-poisoning that my generation is so attached to. Beer and wine will only be a food for me from now on. Except for maybe the odd friend’s wedding or pre-planned bash of some kind, I will no longer drink enough that I won’t be able to drive legally, which means no third drink.

It’s 9pm and I’m still queasy and slow. The cost of drinking has become so great, I can’t do it anymore. And I need to really learn to socialize without this “having a few” pretense. During my 30-day sabbatical, I did spend quite a few nights out drinking only club sodas while everyone else drank booze. I managed just fine, but it was a bit different because I knew it was temporary, I had announced it to all my friends, and so I carried this sort of special status as a temporary, experimental nondrinker. It’s amazing how stubborn this habit is, and it sure made it easy to dodge my other commitment, to non-procrastination.

So I know what to do from here. Keep clear-headed and healthy. Take the lists seriously again. Act the moment I notice I’m avoiding acting.

6/5/11

Complete turnaround from yesterday. I got a lot done, even though I was (unbelievably) still under the weather from Friday. It wasn’t perfect but it was damn good. The only real difference was that I did not tolerate aimlessness. No matter what I ended up doing, it had to be a conscious decision. And I did all four steps of my nightly check-in faithfully. Looking forward to tomorrow.

6/12/11

My sickness ended up lasting all week (!) which makes me think it there was something else at play, a flu bug or something. I was dull and weak all the way through to this weekend. Yet I still had a productive week. I moved several major projects forward, and made some crucial decisions, and it’s left me very excited about life.

The one thing I couldn’t do well was write. I scratched a few false starts and decided not to post last week. I don’t like to do that, but I was just very spaced out all week. So I moved things forward on other fronts and I’m in a good place.

The main aspect I focused on this week is defining the work I have to do in the coming weeks and months — making decisions and plans and defusing all the psychological resistance that comes with ambiguity. Over the last month it’s really become apparent that this is one of my biggest hindrances to productivity — that I leave too many question marks in the near future as to what a particular responsibility is going to entail for me. I’m finding that the sooner I make decisions about what I’m going to do, the more smoothly my work flows.

This experiment was supposed to end this week, but it appears I do have a lot to work out still. So I am going to extend it for another two weeks at least (probably four) before I post my final report. Certain behaviors have become habit, but I am still working out bugs, and I want to deepen the grooves a little more.

6/19/11

Another week has snuck by and it’s the same story as usual: pretty good, but not what I’m looking for. I am getting stuff done but I am falling short of my intentions almost every single day. I am still not looking at my list often enough and I’m always making compromises.

What it’s boiled down to is that I don’t always know how to execute Rule #3 when it comes down to it in the moment. Rule three states that it must always be clear to me what I’m doing right now. If I’m working on item X then it’s because I’ve decided to work on item X. If I’m taking a break it’s because I’ve decided to take a break. If I’m staring at the carpet it’s because I’ve decided to stare at the carpet. If at any time I realize I’m not doing something I decided to do, then I look at my daily list (it’s on a 3×5 index card in my pocket) and decide what to do.

It sounds simple enough but in practice I’m not doing it well. This is what happens I become peripherally aware that I’m doing something I haven’t decided to do (which is almost always some kind of online distraction) and I keep doing it, as some part of my brain reasons I’ll be done this in a few minutes and then I can get on with my day. But one thing leads to another and it gets late in the day pretty fast this way.

When I began the experiment, I remember that cutting myself off from a distraction-activity abruptly felt really jarring to me, something like snapping a book shut in mid sentence, rather than rounding out the paragraph. It seemed unhealthy. But clearly it’s not serving me to ignore my commitment to stopping this kind of aimlessness whenever I notice it.  My mind seems to still be rebelling against this kind of abruptness, giving me even more reason to distract myself, and “dirty” up my day so that I don’t have a productive streak to ruin. Very sneaky.

So what to do? I don’t know. What worked the first few days was being extremely aggressive with my list. The moment I notice I was hesitating on an item, I jumped on it. That was the only thing that worked, and it worked really well, and I felt great. Over the weeks my little list has gone from looking like an attractive, vulnerable prey, to a giant crate of dry spinach that I have to choke down.

I don’t know what I can say except that I’ll kill my list tomorrow. I’ll make it modest, to give me no excuse. If that doesn’t work I’ll get more in depth with figuring out a solution here.

6/20/11

Ok, today rocked. It really comes down to looking at the list every single time I’m not sure if I’m on pace to finish it. I looked at it maybe ten times and got every single thing done. Maybe it’s not so complicated.

6/26/11

After a disappointing Saturday (which is typical… I think I expect to get too much done on my days off) I had a pretty productive day today, but the day was wrought with bad feelings. I’m not entirely sure what caused it, but I had some real self-esteem attacks today. I was scrambling to make up for yesterday (during which I was supposed to make up for the rest of the week) and that gives me that perpetual not-good-enough feeling. I began thinking uncontrollably about the course of my life and my track record and (stupidly) extrapolated that into the future and I didn’t like what I saw. I’ll chalk it up to a sour mood and the fact that I only went outside for a few minutes today. Remind me never to cave-dwell through a sunny day again.

Part of the problem is that I think I’m scheduling too much during any given day. I do underestimate how quickly I can get certain items done. Today I had reminded myself to stay aggressive with my list (which at least I know now is *The Key* to this productivity thing) but there just weren’t enough hours today. That’s fine, because it means I didn’t waste a lot of time.

The week in general had its typical Wednesday breakdown. At least it’s a consistent pattern, because now I know what I need to take a look at. Here’s the typical week:

Monday I resolve to kick my list’s ass, and because I’m still a bit traumatized by the disappointing weekend, I do.

Tuesday I feel good because I had a good Monday, but I’m scrambling to get my article done by 9pm Tuesday, so I can publish for Wednesday morning. So I often overschedule this day, forgetting that I only have four hours between work and 9pm (my desired cut-off and wind-down time — I wake up at 5:30) and so I let the list go to hell while I focus on my article.

Wednesday is when I typically finish the article, which always takes longer than I expect, and I run right through past ten PM, and so I don’t do a proper 9pm check-in (where I typically plan the next day). I reason that I’ll plan Thursday over breakfast, but it’s a completely different atmosphere. I can’t seem to make a serious, decisive list when it’s not for the next day

So Thursdays I start the day a bit defeated, don’t care about my list, and by evening I’ve gotten little done.

Friday I usually don’t go out, so it’s a prime evening for getting stuff done, and this is when I am best at getting nothing done. I will do anything that adds nothing to my life. Anything at all. I feel bad about this as I do it but that doesn’t snap me out of it.

Saturday I wake up early, determine to blast through like ten different things. I usually start pretty well, and get one major thing done and a few minor things before I go out to get groceries and some other stuff. I try to work all errands into this time and it’s quickly late afternoon. Then I often go out, and my list is not done, but that’s probably because I’ve made it too big, trying to make up for friday and thursday.

Sunday I wake up feeling that dreaded sunday feeling, and often it’s a pretty productive day but I don’t get everything done, and if I stay in I feel bad for not going out and if I go out I feel bad for not working.

So there are definite patterns to my bumbling here, which is good I think, because it gives me identifiable troublesome behaviors to address. Certain lessons keep arising and some clear changes are in order, but I’ve typed so much here I’ll let it mellow and look at it tomorrow.

***

So, some lessons are emerging:

  • The simple act of checking my to-do list early and often is by far the greatest determinant of my productivity. The earlier I check the list, the better my reaction is to what I see. If I look at it at 9am and there are a few items checked off already, I feel a surge of capability and enthusiasm. If I check it at 5pm and there’s too much left to do, I feel bad and the usual result is an unofficial “abandoning” of the list — I’ll do something, but there will be no resolve left to work through the list earnestly.
  • Clarity is crucial. There are three routines that comprise the backbone of my system, and all are designed to keep my head clear. Those routines are putting everything away before I go to bed, writing out my to-do list before I go to bed, and doing a GTD-style weekly review wherein I gather everything (notes, half-finished stuff, stray reminders, etc) and process it so that I know what I’m going to do with this stuff.
  • Taking time to do stuff with friends is crucial to my self-esteem, which is necessary to keep productivity up. I’ve been holing up a little bit, trying to become someone who can work for long stretches, but I took it too far on Sunday. I will never let a day pass where a) I don’t spend some time outside, or b) I don’t interact with another real live human being.
  • The only goal I need to have is to be proud of myself by the end of the day. I do have my essential routines (as described above) but the resolution to go to bed happy with my day is all I need to make sure what needs to get done gets done. The cost of going to bed ashamed is too great. It leads to sorry dreams, a sorry wake, perhaps a skipped morning run, resentment for my job, compromised performance at work, and maybe a couple of bad days in a row. There is a really insidious domino effect that can happen if I don’t make a point of going to bed proud.

This experiment has had its ups and downs but things are becoming clearer here.

7/10/11

I’m still chugging along here, and I’m no productivity whiz yet. This experiment has been extended indefinitely, because evidently it’s not a change I can make in 30 days. My original three rules had the right idea, but the problem is it’s hard to actually enforce #3. It isn’t always clear what it means, in terms of an action to take in the moment. So I can’t strongarm this experiment like I have with other experiments in the past, which have had clearer rules. It was far easier not to touch alcohol for a month, for example, because I know exactly what it means to succeed and fail at that.

But this issue is a lot more complicated. How much productivity is enough? How do I know when I’ve worked hard enough to give myself the rest of the day off? My daily lists aren’t always realistic, and as soon as some part of me believes it’s not going to happen, then it all falls apart.

So I’m coasting along, making modest improvements, but still making huge blunders. Yesterday is a perfect example. It was a textbook blown weekend day. I got a late start, it was quickly afternoon, then early evening, then after dinner, then I was already planning to go to bed early and get a good start today. Sunday is cruising along well, but I start the day catching up and that self-perpetuating confidence never shows up when you start a day by doing what you should have done yesterday.

I think (I hope) what I learned yesterday was that I’m terrible at making something of a compromised day. I had plans for a very productive saturday, and because it started late, I knew it wasn’t going to be wall-to-wall productivity like I’d planned. But instead of making a great half-day of productivity out of it, something inside me gave up on it, kept delaying my “start” until it was bedtime. So learning to salvage a day with a slow start is a good place to make big improvements, because I have been especially terrible at that.

To zoom out though, looking at the past two months I have made a lot of improvements, and I’m learning bit by bit where the biggest leaks are. I’m just continually surprised at how big they can be.

7/25/11

An astute reader (who also happens to be my mother) pointed out to me that this experiment will go on forever in its current form. Nothing much is changing and although I’ve made improvements, there’s no finish line here. So next week I will be posting a sort of “Finale” in which I set a very short-term goal and take it on with what I’ve learned. That way I can get a sense of achievement and wrap this thing up.

9/5/11 — FINALE

The experiment has ended. I debated whether to publish another post detailing my findings but decided against it. It wasn’t a very clear experiment and I didn’t reach a conclusive ending, but I did learn a fair bit about how I procrastinate and I’m not as bad as I was. But I do feel like what I learned pertains mostly to my particular routines and wouldn’t really help anyone else. On top of that, I don’t think I’m the one who should be dispensing advice on procrastination. So I hope you can take away something useful from my struggles, I just don’t think there is much value in my writing another post about it.

{ 44 Comments }

Joey May 10, 2011 at 9:55 pm

I am doing this with you, man. As a highschool student, i’ll have to alter it a little bit, but even so, this is brilliant. Thank you so much for this.

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David May 11, 2011 at 10:02 pm

Good luck bro! Keep me posted.

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Tobi May 11, 2011 at 2:17 am

I’m also doing it! I have to alter it a bit as well. Thank you thank you thank you.. for making me aware, inspiring me, and existing!

By the way, the link on the other page to ‘experiment log no. 11′ leads to experiment log no. 10, just so you know lolz.

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David May 11, 2011 at 10:02 pm

Ah, thanks Tobi, it should be fixed now

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Tobi May 12, 2011 at 12:10 am

Anytime

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Laura May 11, 2011 at 5:45 pm

I’m with you. My summer break from college just started last week and I really want to make this one worthwhile. I always have so many ideas for fun things I’m going to do with my friends, books I’m going to read, Spanish I’m going to study, but it never seems to pan out for me. I realized that the procrastination article really was about me and that I need to do something about it.

Thanks for the insights, I’m going to make my list out right NOW.

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David May 11, 2011 at 10:03 pm

My history is riddled with blown week-long breaks that I expected to get everything done in. Let me know how you do.

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Tamarra May 13, 2011 at 6:14 pm

David, thank you first of all for putting words to something that has plagued me (and so many others it seems) for so long. I’m jumping in along with you and have used this as an opportunity to not just conquer my fear of success but to build a groundwork for creating the life I know I want. My daily lists are coming from a larger level view I called “how I see my life”. It only has 6 items but it ends with This Is Who I Am. All of the daily items I’m completing I’ve tried to somehow relate back to that core list and it gives me just that little bit of extra motivation to do them now rather than my usual “I’ll get to that later”. My daily reflection includes checking in here as your updates are not only inspirational but just the act of rereading your experiment helps with the mindfulness needed for me to make this one stick. Much appreciated!

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Gábor May 15, 2011 at 7:19 am

What kind of strategy would you suggest for situations where there’s not many small tasks that need to get done, but one big one? Say: spend the whole day studying for $exam, and then the whole day after that too. Or write $big_assignment, again multiples days of work. Or write $diploma_thesis, which is weeks. Staying focused, and not getting repulsed by the task and doing something else to distract yourself every two minutes (like right now, say), is really, really fricking hard.

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sara May 15, 2011 at 3:55 pm

Gabor, I had the same exact problem- I am studying for a board exam. I read a book called the Problems of Full Engagement which really helped (not to say it’s a walk in the park though). The advice it gave was to think of life as a sprint not a marathon- full effort and then recovery.

I now set my timer for 22 minutes try to study as much as I can with full effort. After the timer rings, I take a 2 minute break. When 3 sets of this is up i take a 10 minute break. If I am extra tired and even 22 minutes seems like a big deal to me i set the timer for 11 minutes and take a 1 minute break in between. Depending on your stamina, you could even do 5 minutes at first and then gradually increase. Hope this helps!!!!

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David May 17, 2011 at 6:46 am

Big tasks are only ever completed as small ones. Even the biggest projects boils down to small, discrete actions.

I learned a great strategy in the book I read. All you have to do, for any big task, is start on it by investing a solid 30 minutes in it. Push it 30 minutes further along. Keep starting in this way until it’s done. Don’t think of it as multiple days of work. Nobody can “do” multiple days of work, they can only work right now or not work right now. You can either decide not to do it or decide to keep starting it until you’re done. Pick up wherever you left off.

Be aware of the tendency to resent that you have to do it at all. I know I’m really prone to that, but the truth is we always get to choose whether we’re going to do our work or not. It’s just usually a better choice to do it.

What I’m doing now is this: I just identify the next step, wherever I am, and start doing it. I don’t worry about how long it will take. When I find I’m distracting myself with anger or entertainment, I return my attention to the task. It is working for me. I’m learning to identify that impulse to distract myself and mistrust it, because I know it only makes it harder.

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sara May 21, 2011 at 9:59 pm

I totally get what you mean about resentment. So many times I feel resentful that I have to study for this board exam, and I wish I could just be care-free and not have any responsibilities. I find myself wishing that I had chosen something else that didn’t require as much responsibility on my part. I really like what you said about no one being able to do multiple days work. Part of the reason I find myself feeling drained at times is because it feels so overwhelming, because I tend to look at it with that perspective. Another thing I find myself doing is beating myself up for all the time lost (from procrastination) once I do start studying. I have to consciously remind myself not to do that and to appreciate that I am studying, and that I am doing the best I can. It really is hard at times though

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Karen J February 25, 2014 at 8:46 am

Indeed, David and sara ~ Thank you for these musings on progress and lack-there-of; and especially this nugget about *resentment* – I often find myself in that same leaky boat!
Love and Hugs from “Procrastinate Later/ February 2014″ :)

Milana March 11, 2013 at 1:58 pm

Thanks for this.

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Ben May 16, 2011 at 4:45 pm

Hi David

I’ve been following Raptitude for nearly two years now and firstly just wanted to say thanks for bringing me so much positivity and inspiration. From your last experiment I’ve been vegan for over 30 days now, going from full-blown meat & dairy eater, and I’m sticking with it. The procrastination issue has likewise been the cause of a painful number of missed or ignored opportunities. Cracking this would make an enormous difference to my life, so I will be joining you again!

Best of luck and thanks for the great material.

Ben

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David May 17, 2011 at 6:37 am

Right on Ben. Good to hear you’re going to stay vegan. And it’s good to have you alongside me with this experiment too.

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Anna May 18, 2011 at 5:51 am

Thank you so much! I’m also doing this now, and had the most productive week ever. A bit of backlash as well, partly because things that seemed huge turned out to be tiny, and I’m not getting as much of an accomplishment buzz out of it as Earlier Me thought I would (as she most certainly based self-worth on productivity).

Well, have to get back to my study books, as it seems I’m hanging out on the internet again ;)

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David May 19, 2011 at 6:43 am

Nice!

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Maxim June 5, 2011 at 12:12 am

Hang in there, man! I’m following this experiment from the start, and trying to keep a lighter version of it going myself. I know you’ve been slipping up, but we all believe in you, so keep trying! Figure this – it’s only a month. If you don’t feel like keeping it up after, you don’t have to =) But until then, just keep doing what you’ve started to do, cause you’re absolutely 100% capable of it. I look forward to your further success!

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Tom June 8, 2011 at 5:29 am

Step it up

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Nick June 24, 2011 at 6:59 am

Hi David!
I also struggle with procrastination. I’m not usually a huge quote fan but I find this quote to be a good compass when I’m lost in the middle of daily activities:

There is no failure except in no longer trying. ~Elbert Hubbard

Good luck with your experiment!

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JC July 9, 2011 at 7:55 am

new arrival at your website from a link – I think it was guardian.co.uk (lifestyle section). Added you to my bookmarks…great idea to journey your various experiments, inspired to do the same. Thanks..

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Tobi July 11, 2011 at 10:47 pm

David, after readubf 7/10/11 something tells me you’re on the verge of some huge awesome discovery! I can’t wait to see how this turns out.

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David July 13, 2011 at 8:17 pm

Readubf. haha.

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Tobi July 11, 2011 at 10:47 pm

*reading

What a weird typo.

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Karen J February 25, 2014 at 8:50 am

~ fingers on the wrong “home keys” – really easy to do! :)

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Gail Denham July 12, 2011 at 5:20 am

I laughed out loud with happiness when I discovered your piece on procrastination yesterday. Oh the relief and joy to know that I am not alone. PHEW!!!! I’m going to be brave and try experimenting myself.

Your website is wonderful; thank you.

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David July 17, 2011 at 8:55 am

Heh… If there’s one thing I’ve learned about humanity and self-improvement, it’s that generally we all suck at the same sorts of things.

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Wally July 22, 2011 at 5:30 pm

What if you don’t put so much pressure or emphasis on being productive? That is, if you blow a weekend vs. having a great Monday. What if you just think of it as simply doing the list and following the rules – nothing more. If you’re productive great, and if your not then just recognize that and go back to following your plan. Don’t over think it.

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David July 22, 2011 at 5:35 pm

I do think of it as just doing the list and following the rules. That’s all I’m trying to do here.

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Tobi July 27, 2011 at 5:31 am

David,

This latest post has got to be the most depressing anything I’ve ever read… (and I read about underage consensual teens being listed as child offenders for the rest of their freaking lives today).

I was trapped, hopeless… nothing I read helped. People only looked down on me, not understanding that there was a real problem here. Even I thought I was lazy, and not being able to get over that laziness made me a horrible person, even knowing that I didn’t do anything so that must make me worse than I could ever imagine.

Then your article came along and hallelujah! You know the song “Here Comes The Sun” by The Beatles? That’s the feeling I got… then I heard you were doing an experiment and it was like the finale of Star Wars.

I was going to do it along side you… but never got around to it. Also it seemed you were on a trial and error thing so I decided to wait until you were done so I wouldn’t follow into the same errors.

But now… a scratchy record noise followed only by stunned silence has interrupted the musical chorus of hope you had instilled into me.

This is a debilitating habit that has probably ruined more lives than drugs, in fact it probably leads to a lot of drug use.

I was waiting for the cure… how to kick this habit and get a weird life, (I was weird instead of normal because it’s normal to not succeed minimally and not normal (or weird) to actually be the person you want).

“You can grow up to be whatever you want!” I’ve known this statement isn’t entirely true for years, no matter how much you want to you’ll probably never become a princess or the first man on mars or a big time celebrity (or any kind of celebrity), but up until now I always thought that unless you had a real mental disorder you could be whoever you wanted (as oppose to whatever you want). With a little desire and commitment you could face down any mental, emotional, or sometimes physical demons you had. You could kick a smoking habit, get your grades/work performance up, and make changes to become a better friend/spouse/parent/ect.

But… maybe that thinking is part of my debilitation. You can’t make yourself into any kind of person you want, because no matter how much you try to get rid of them some demons will take their boney hands they have wrapped around your soul. Instead, some of them are like diabetes or polio, the only thing you can do is learn to deal with it. Sure you can be happy, but it would be so much better without this sickness…

I’m not trying to say I’m as bad off as drug addicts or people with real, serious physical problems. Just that in much the same way they do I have something that no matter what I do, will not go away. I can lean to manage it, but that’s about all. Forever I’ll be tortured with not being productive enough and every day of the rest of my life will be an uphill battle, and there’s nothing I can do about it.

Well, at least I know what exactly is going on with me so I an learn to deal with it as best I can. I suppose that’s all any of us with this procrastination debilitation can do. There is no light at the end of the tunnel, just the tunnel then you die.

I don’t mean to sound mean in any way… I’m just disappointed and very sad and scared that this is the reality of things.

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Tobi July 27, 2011 at 5:40 am

OK… I’m going to fix the multitude of typos in order.. lolz.

*I SAY weird instead of normal

*some demons will NOT take OFF their boney hands they have wrapped around your soul.

*so I CAN learn

Sorry about all of that, didn’t bother to fix missing commas or anything like that.

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Travis August 27, 2011 at 3:16 am

After reading many of your articles and experiments, I want to say Thank You. It is enlightening, and I believe I am going to start a few of your experiments (one at a time though). After reading your article on self-sabotage, I felt connected. I do the same thing, and have a similar upbringing.
I don’t know if this is true for you, but I see a few things in your articles that you haven’t stated, and it might be useful to you or readers sharing your challenge.
From my perspective, it seems that your cycles of productivity are fueled by your earlier said self-sabotage. Your guilt drives you to over productivity, only to procrastinate and build guilt. I think that the best way to work on this, is to work on the cause of your procrastination. Your idea to think positively before bed is a great idea. Another way to help yourself, is to reward list following. Put your daily joys on the list. Eat dinner, see friends, call a friend, etc. Put them on the list, so that you can cross items off of the list having lots of fun and excitement doing so.

Hope this helps, best of luck tackling the self sabotaging.

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Nebet March 30, 2013 at 8:18 am

I think this commenter is on to something. Scheduling time for self-care is important; we can’t be “on” all the time.

When I had a big push of studying to do in this past week and a half, I set up a schedule for myself where I actually scheduled “goofing off” and fun in addition to blocks of studying. I didn’t always do very well by my schedule, but I knew that if I felt like I was under such pressure that every minute not spent studying was wasted, I would get resentful and cranky and rebel against myself. And I DID get my enormous chunk of studying done AND get myself fed AND get plenty of sleep — and I aced my exams and the major writing assignment. So I am pretty happy with myself right now, lol.

We all need downtime, and being in tune with ourselves is a big part of that. Sometimes we need to look at how we are feeling and decide, “My task today is to rest and take care of myself as much as I can” and then refuse to beat ourselves up about lost productivity.

So yeah, I think that putting good things on the list too is important. And realistic goals that can be adjusted as we go, if needed. The beating ourselves up thing is counterproductive, though.

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Karen J February 25, 2014 at 9:11 am

Thank you , Travis, for suggesting “put rewards on the list, too!” That makes soooo much sense, in hindsight. And is so easy to NOT think of, while I’m in that overwhelmed, beat-myself-up mode!

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Sinth November 30, 2011 at 11:23 am

Hey David,

I just read through your whole log. I think you’re mother had it spot on, this is a lifelong experiment. If I can suggest a tip. For me, I felt that it was my inability to focus my concentration for long periods of time that lead me to procrastinate. You might want to check out a book called The Power of Concentration by Theron Q. Dumont. The author outlines many exercises that you can do to improve your ability to concentrate. Some of them are very simple such as staring and concentrating on a doorknob for 10 to 15 minutes. This may seem a little weird or easy, but trust me it can be very mentally exhausting. I tried it for 3 1/2 weeks and you would be surprised to see how well it works. I think it has to do with the fact that other tasks become much more interesting and easier to do, when your mind becomes accustomed to concentrating on something so mundane. Just like a muscle that you workout to exhaustion, it comes back bigger and badder the next day. Also, these types of exercises are not the same as meditation. The reason is because meditation usually focuses on clearing the mind of thoughts where as these exercises are designed to focus your thoughts.

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Sinth November 30, 2011 at 11:25 am

although I guess meditation is kinda like concentrating on nothing lol.

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Alicia April 11, 2013 at 10:17 pm

I’m just coming upon this years later, but I also wanted to thank you for writing it, and the post that preceded it on procrastination, and for doing the research and having the self awareness to highlight the real psychological reasons behind it. I’ve been grappling to understand it for years, too, and now I do, and will work towards erasing this in some of the ways you have. It feels great to read a competent person write an extremely coherent and honest piece that described myself to a T. Will keep reading your blog! Thanks!

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devo September 7, 2013 at 2:30 am

hi david,
the gut bell chimed loudly when you referenced Neil Fiore’s The Now Habit, specifically the section on the psychological causes of procrastination.
yup, that feels solidly like “it”, the taproot of the densely foliated tree of my procrastinating life.
maybe i missed something in the experiment (which i really enjoyed reading about) as the cure you pursued resembled so many other “get my life together” plans i’ve seen (and tried). it seems like you accurately called it on the the base pathological problem:

“…procrastinators tend to be people who have, for whatever reason, developed to perceive an unusually strong association between their performance and their value as a person. This makes failure or criticism disproportionately painful, which leads naturally to hesitancy when it comes to the prospect of doing anything that reflects their ability — which is pretty much everything.”

however, the experiment still resembles trying to escape the confines of a ten foot tall hedge by pruning the leaves into an attractive shape.

please correct me if i misunderstand but it looks like you cited your historical failed attempts at behavior modification (which echo my own) yet set out to use different methods to once again modify behavior.

maybe an approach that resembles detachment from social paradigms of competitiveness and comparative self-judgement might reap associative benefits that could give subsequent behavior modification attempts a fighting chance.

keep up the good work, thanks for sharing!
=-D

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Mais Strauss February 8, 2014 at 8:12 am

Hi David. I am eighteen years old and I write screenplays. Anytime I open my system and load my writing software, I all of a sudden, tell myself I’ll do it later and then watch a movie. When I get to writing eventually, I spend just fifteen minutes…tops thirty, then I close my system and get back to watching a movie, problem is I wasn’t like this toward writing….I was towards other things but not writing. Now in everything I do I procrastinate and I think procrastination makes a person feel like they don’t have the passion anymore for doing a particular activity. I look for excuses for why I shouldn’t do it and I feel so scared that someone my age does not like chores, having friends and all that. A lot of what you said about being afraid of criticism and having so much pressure put on you is so true. I am going to follow this experiment and hopefully I will kill this bad habit. Thank you so much.

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David Cain February 11, 2014 at 2:48 pm

Hi Mais. Procrastination does have a certain momentum. If you’ve been doing a lot of it it’s easy to do a lot more of it. I was able to make a huge dent in my procrastination problem after this experiment. There’s a lot to how I did it but the main thing was to experiment with doing things when I absolutely didn’t feel like doing them. I would just stand up and start moving my body towards picking up the phone or putting on my shoes, without waiting for my feelings to give me permission. Good luck with your experimentation.

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Sheena February 24, 2014 at 9:11 am

Hi David. I have been a bit slow to find you, but am so glad that I have now!
I went through all this stuff with lists years ago, and found the same as you, that it was almost impossible to do everything on my list for that day. I kept the effort up for several years, and filled notebooks full of to-do lists, schedule plans, and suggestions to myself for different ways I could try to improve. It did all help a little bit, but not much. I have tried visualization, meditation and other techniques to control my own mind. I have tried everything I could find.
Then one day, I stopped trying and just did what I felt like doing from minute to minute. I decided to listen to my body, and stop to rest whenever it wanted to. I no longer tried to push myself to the point of exhaustion. I began instead to focus on being as kind to myself as I would to another person. I learned to love myself in the way that my parents hadn’t, instead of being critical of my shortcomings.
Guess what? I am now much happier, do not feel stressed at all, and still have enough for my needs. OK, maybe I will never be a millionaire, but I don’t want to be. I enjoy being able to do what I feel like, when I feel like doing it. I enjoy what work I do, because I am not forcing myself to be a slave to it. I do it because I want to, because I enjoy both the process and the results of doing it.
I am afraid that if you continue to live your life the way you have described it here, you will end up seriously depressed. You do not seem to be having a balanced life at all, there is so little allowance for pleasure and being kind to yourself.
I have turned a quote of yours around to ask myself several times a day:
“In what way does this contribute to my well-being?” I might ask it of what I am doing, reading or watching on TV, or of something I need to get rid of, or of something I want to buy, or eat, or drink. This one thought of yours has helped me in several areas of my life, so I should like to give you a big “Thank You”.

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Karen J February 25, 2014 at 9:22 am

Sheena! :)
The 3 years between this post and today have seen a lot of growth towards the sun, haven’t they? I just read it from the link in “Procrastinate Later” too.

I’m in the process of seriously culling my far-too-much-stuff, and “In what way does this contribute to my well-being?” is a vital question I ask (when I remember to) about anything with a question mark still attached to it.

Bright Blessings ~

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Justin October 19, 2014 at 9:41 pm

For some reason tonight, I felt compelled to look up how people feel when they get the urge to procrastinate.

I’d describe it as being similar to the urge to not step into a cold shower. Sometimes there’s a reason you can at least rationalize, like avoiding a doctors visit. (What if it’s nothing? I’ll waste the doctors time, my time, the patients who actually need help, and everyone’ll think I’m a hypochondriac!)
Sometimes it’s just an overwhelming desire not to pick up that sock. It doesn’t need to be picked up right now, since it’s not laundry day.

Anyway, before that turns into a huge pointless ramble; thank’s for sharing your experiment those few years ago. Sticking to the habit as well as you did is very impressive.
I’m not sure if you directly mentioned it, but there is a lesson in there that anyone wanting to follow your footsteps should learn. It really is how many times you get back up on the horse that matters most.

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