Thursday, June 05, 2008

Beating Procrastination

If you've been around here for a while, you may have noticed that I have a wee bit of a problem with procrastination. I'm obsessive about deadlines, and I always meet them, but I tend to wait to the last second before starting anything. If there is no deadline, I can put things off forever. It's not just unpleasant things I put off. I'll procrastinate on fun things.

But I may have found a cure. I found a book on procrastination, called The Now Habit by Neil Fiore, and it makes so much sense. In his description of the problem, I almost felt like he was spying on my life. He said that chronic procrastinators don't accomplish much work, and they don't have time for fun, either. Ouch. That's so true. How often have I talked about that hypothetical vacation I want to take that I haven't had time for? How huge is the list of things I want to do that I don't have time for? It seems like I don't allow myself to do the things I want to do just for fun when there's work to be done, but I'm also not getting the work done. So I'm mostly just frittering away my time on things that aren't really fun but aren't really work.

I didn't need to do the time-tracking exercise to see how I spend my time. I know exactly what I'm doing. Thinking about why I'm procrastinating was interesting, though. The three reasons he gives for procrastination are rebellion, fear of failure and fear of success. The rebellion hits when there's something you have no choice about doing, so the only way you can feel in control is to decide when you want to do it. Like doing your taxes -- you could go to jail if you don't, so you have to do it, but feeling obligated makes you want to delay the pain as long as possible. I had to admit to myself that my big writing procrastination reason falls under fear of failure. Let's face it, writing can be hard, and we tend to put off doing difficult things. In the first draft, what you have in your head is always wonderful and perfect, and then you put it in words, and it's a weak imitation of what was in your head. During revision, you have to look at what you've written, and that's something to dread for fear that it's total garbage. But then there's the fear that you can't make it any better.

I don't think I have much fear of success, which is a kind of dread for what will happen if you do finish -- like finishing the book means you have to show it to someone, who might hate it, so it's easier to avoid finishing it.

But the real wow I got from reading this book yesterday was the approach to stopping the procrastination. The author proposes what he calls the "Unschedule," which is essentially a big mind-fake, but since procrastination is essentially a mindgame, it may take one to cure it. You do a grid for the entire day, all 24 hours. then you block off times for things that are absolutely essential to life -- things like sleeping, meals, getting dressed, etc. Then you block off the obligations -- scheduled appointments, events and meetings. And then you schedule in fun and relaxation -- exercise, reading, going out, favorite TV shows, etc. The rest of the schedule stays blank. The empty spaces are times when you could be doing those things you need to get done. The idea is that if you already know you're going to get to do the things you want to do, there's less of a feeling that work is taking you away from fun. Plus, there's less to rebel against because the things you're dreading aren't written on the schedule. It's also surprising to look at the schedule and see how much free time you have, even after you've put in all the fun things you want to do.

Then, once you see where you have a blank space, you commit to a 30-minute block of concentrated work. To start with, do that starting half an hour before an already-scheduled fun thing, so you know you only have to work half an hour, and you already know there's a reward at the end of it. When you've done half an hour of work, you fill that accomplishment in on the grid.

As I said, it's a silly little mind game, but it may be life-changing. Yesterday, I found that after telling myself I only had to do the half hour before I could read a while, I wanted to just keep working. Starting is the hard part. We'll see how this works over time, and I'll report back. I may buy a copy of this book because I suspect I'll need a refresher every so often. Plus, someone had written all over the library copy, underlining passages and putting brackets around parts, which made it difficult to read (I hope it was someone who donated it to the library rather than someone who checked it out).

Meanwhile, I hit the grocery store that's kind of like a farmer's market with all the produce and bulk goods, so I have tons of seasonal fruits and vegetables for nutritious eating. Now, according to my Unschedule, I need to go to the post office.

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