Weekly Planning After the Winter Break [en]

[fr] Après Paris, la pause hivernale, et la reprise un peu chaotique, le planning hebdomadaire a un peu de mal. Mais on s'encourage et on tient bon!

After the two busy weeks of Paris and post-Paris came two weeks of winter break non-planning, and two weeks of “getting back into it” semi-planning (including the one that is ending now). The two-week winter break allowed me to understand that I need a certain amount of structure in my time to feel good — long unending days of “whatever” don’t sit that well with me.

A consequence of the winter break was that I came back to the office for a week packed with workshops and talks (well, not completely packed, but more packed than is comfy), a rather long list of e-mails and incoming calls to prioritize, and a pile of urgent things “to do”. I good exercise in disruption, if you ask me.

What I’ve learnt is that it takes much more time than I expect to:

  • get organized
  • catch up on daily business backlogs.

So, basically I spent my first week running a little (nothing so bad as what it was in the past, though), ended up exhausted and not having done a pile of things I expected to be able to, and spent this week drilling down my inbox, calling back prospective clients, doing client work, and dealing with a hundred little things that needed dealing with. This makes for days which seem horribly unproductive, because the “big stuff” that’s on my conscience is not getting done, but which are in fact quite productive because all these annoying little things (like emptying one’s inbox) do need to be done.

So, where’s the weekly planning with all that? Answer: in difficulty.

One thing I’ve kept up is keeping my various lists more or less in order. Evernote is always open or just one click away, and I seem to now have the automatic discipline of adding things in my lists whenever I think of them.

I’ve kept my list of week days and placed the urgent/important tasks on days where I had a chance to do them, but as I’ve been running a bit too much, I ended up pushing back the day I’d “plan my week” and end up doing it on Wednesday, because Monday and Tuesday would be taken up by doing “urgent things”.

Clearly, one of my issues now is when to plan my week and how long it takes. I’d like to do it on Friday afternoon but I’m often too exhausted. Monday morning sounds nice but I’m out most of it for judo, and so planning tends to take up the whole afternoon too. Maybe I need to write Monday off as a “planning and administrivia day”. I really do not want to be planning my work week on week-ends, though I might end up looking at what’s in store for me and doing some light pre-planning on Sunday (I do write my column on Sundays).

I’m also realising how hard it is for me to stick to including seemingly “not vital” tasks in my planning: business development and research/writing, specially when I’m a bit under pressure from too much “paid work” stuff to do. (Please don’t understand this at me wanting less paid work. I’m very happy to have more paid work. I just struggle a bit at times to balance what I spend my time doing.)

Next week only contains one office day (eeeek) so I’ll spend the first four days of the week running from one place to another on errands. Ugh, not really happy with myself for taking bites out of what were my office days for various errands. But I’ll live. Thankfully I have three office days the next week to make up for it. I will take whatever free time I have on Monday to plan, and report back on my progress by the end of the month.

Wish me luck! Hopefully things will be “back to normal” by February.

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My Journey Out of Procrastination: Not Running (Firewalls and iPhone Alarms) [en]

[fr] Je ne cours plus. C'est un pas important: si on court tout le temps, on est toujours en train de remettre à plus tard, et ça ne nous aide pas à résoudre nos élans procrastinateurs. Une vie un peu plus calme est un bien meilleur terrain. Je me souviens de deux éléments importants qui m'ont aidée à changer ça: premièrement, délimiter strictement du temps non-professionnel, plutôt que de travailler tout le temps (un piège surtout pour les indépendants). Deuxièmement, utiliser les alarmes (multiples!) de mon iPhone pour rythmer mes journées et mes semaines (ne plus partir stressée au judo parce que je n'ai pas vu passer l'heure, mais avoir une alarme placée assez tôt pour que je puisse y aller tranquillement, par exemple).

This is the fourth post in the series. You might want to read the first three ones: Five Principles, Perfectionism, Starting, and Stopping, as well as Getting Thrown Off and Getting Unstuck.

At some point during 2009, I realized that I had stopped running. I had stopped being late, doing things in a rush, and being over my head in emergencies. As with all virtuous circles, not running was at the same time a consequence of my decrease in procrastination and one of the elements that led to it.

If I look at my life now, I see clearly that I am doing many more things immediately (they never end up on a to-do list, and therefore reduce the number of procrastinable items in my world) — and doing things immediately is only possible when you’re not already running for your life.

I’ve been thinking back and trying to understand how this change happened, and I can think of two important things that I started doing during the course of 2008:

  • strictly firewalling off “non-work” moments
  • using my iPhone alarms to structure my days.

The first, firewalling off “non-work” time, might not seem immediately linked to a decrease in running, but actually, it’s very important. To stop running, you see, you need to learn that things can wait. You need to teach yourself that even though you’re behind on the deadline, you can still stop.

Lots of people stay trapped in a life of stress and running by saying things like “I have to finish this”, “I can’t afford not to”, “I don’t have a choice”. We always have a choice. We always choose to stay up late to finish something a client is expecting, for example, rather than face the consequences of not doing it. Not much of a choice, you may say. But it’s still a choice. And being aware that you are actually making a choice, rather than just enduring a situation you are powerless over, will in fact making you feel better.

More importantly, it opens the door to revealing your priorities: I am staying up late to work on this project for the client rather than relaxing in front of the TV after an already long day of work, because it is more important for me to avoid having a pissed off client than having a healthy balance in my life. Sounds a bit guilt-inducing said like that, but the point here is: what does this choice reveal of your priorities? What is more important, the client, or you, or your health, or your relationship, for example? All the time, we make these choices, but our priorities are so hard-wired in that we don’t realize anymore that they are choices, and we end up being victims who “have to do it”.

The time I learnt to make time off work a greater priority for me was when I was organizing the Going Solo conference. It was a huge amount of work, and though I had a great support network, I was carrying the whole thing on my shoulders and doing more or less that had to be done. I was under a lot of stress. I would wake up in the morning, grab the computer from under the bed, and collapse in the evening after trying to squeeze in some food between two e-mails or Skype calls. I didn’t know what a week-end was anymore. I was exhausted.

One day, one of my advisors said to me something like “there’s only so much you can do in a day” or “at some point, you have to call it a day”. I can’t remember the exact words used, but the point was this: even if you have a ton of work to do, even if you didn’t do what you expected today, even if you’re behind… at some point, you have to stop. Turn off the computer, turn off work.

So, I stopped feeling guilty about calling it a day. I also started implementing mandatory lunch-breaks: I would leave the computer, set the kitchen timer on 45 minutes, and go about making myself food. 45 minutes was the minimum time my lunch-break was to last. Yes, at least 45 minutes.

And that’s where interesting things started to happen: I started cooking again, for one. In 45 minutes, I had time for more cooking than just grabbing a piece of bread and cheese — so I did it! I also started relaxing a bit in the middle of the day. I’d read something, or lie down. “Time out” like that is important, because if you’re using to your whole life being taken up by work, you tend to forget what living is really about.

If you’re less stressed, in a general way, you’ll be more fit to tackle your procrastination issues. You can’t tackle procrastination issues if you’re running around in circles from morning to evening. So first step: run around in circles only during “work” time, and have “non-work” time when you don’t run.

End 2008, I opened eclau, the Lausanne Coworking Space, and started working there. That was a tremendous help in the “firewalling non-work time” department. Without really trying to do so, I gradually and naturally stopped working at home, to work only in the office. I’d be able to relax better at home. I never implemented real office hours (and don’t want to), but I started going down there in the morning (it’s two floors below my flat!), coming back up for my lunch break (leaving my computer behind!), and closing house in the evening at some point when everybody else started going home.

And that’s the context in which I made my second big step: using iPhone alarms to pace my day. iPhones allow you to set loads of different alarms, repeating any way you like over the week. So I set a daily alarm at noon to encourage me to take my lunch break (otherwise, I would forget about it and end up without having eaten at 3pm — doesn’t make for a very functional Stephanie). I set an alarm in the evening at 6.30 to think about dinner, except on the days when I’d go to judo. On those days, I set a mid-afternoon alarm to remind me to have a snack, and one early enough to remind me to stop working, pack and leave. I set one to tell me when to get ready for my singing rehearsals. I even set myself a “go-to-bed” alarm at 23:30 and a “Cinderella” alarm at midnight, because I was going a bit overboard with late-night DVDs.

Of course, all these alarms worked because they were there to remind me of some important decisions I had made. I wanted to start getting ready for judo soon enough that I wouldn’t arrive late. I wanted to have lunch at regular hours and take lunch breaks. I wanted to be in bed by midnight so I would have enough sleep and still have a morning the next day. But as I know my sense of time is bad (and being in front of a computer is a killer), I used my iPhone to help me. It made my coworkers laugh that every midday, my quacking alarm would go off — but I knew it was an important crutch for me in applying my priorities to my life.

And that’s when the magic actually started to happen: I had the time to prepare my judo and singing things and set off without being in a rush. I had spare time during my lunch break — I would actually use it to do the washing-up. I even had a moment in the evening, in between 23:30 and midnight, to think about my next day and plan it a little (inspired by FlyLady). I would look up train times the evening before if I had to go somewhere rather than sometime in the morning, and then realize I was running late.

Gradually, some areas in my day and life started to slow down. It wasn’t chaos from start to finish. And slowly, that slowness started creeping into the rest of my life, including work. It doesn’t mean I do things slowly, though. But I take the time to do things. I’m not running anymore.

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My Journey Out of Procrastination: Getting Thrown Off and Getting Unstuck [en]

[fr] Je continue ma série d'articles sur mon voyage pour me libérer de la procrastination. Deux méchanismes importants que j'ai compris: premièrement, que j'ai tendance à me décourager dès que je fais une petite entorse à une "bonne résolution" ou une nouvelle "bonne habitude" que je me suis fixée. Du coup, je m'entraine à faire de petites entorses et à reprendre l'habitude en question, pour ne pas me retrouver démunie quand la vie me bombarde d'imprévus comme elle a tendance à le faire. Deuxièmement, j'ai identifié que quand je suis bloquée, c'est souvent que je suis stressée, et souvent par une chose précise que j'ai à faire. Identifier cette chose (et identifier que je suis bloquée parce que je suis stressée) suffit en général à me "débloquer" (quand je fais la chose en question).

In this third post about my journey out of procrastination (you might want to read part 1, “Five Principles” and part 2, “Perfectionism, Starting, and Stopping”) I’m going to talk about two things that I noticed happened to me regularly, and which are clearly expressions of the perfectionism and starting/stopping components of procrastination discussed in my last post.

Both are pretty straightforward to understand but it’s worth keeping an eye open for them. I think change is a lot about paying attention to things that didn’t seem all that important in the first place.

When I was a teenager, I switched from using exercise books at school to individual sheets of paper. I did that because I had noticed that as soon as I had an “off” day and was a bit sloppy in my exercise book, I would lose all motivation to continue making the effort to take clean notes (I was a pretty sloppy kid in general). The link to perfectionism is obvious here, right?

Now, way past my teenager years, I still get thrown off easily when I’m on a roll. For example, if I decide to do something every day and I skip a day, I tend to give up. I try to keep my flat clean, but as soon as it starts becoming a little messy, I stop making any efforts. I keep track of what I spend, but if I forget for a few days, then it’s “not worth it” anymore. Perfectionism. All-or-nothing.

I hope you can see that this way of functioning is just not viable, as it puts a huge strain on never making any mistakes or skipping a class. You end up either not trying because you know you won’t be able to live up to the “no fault” standards, or trying and failing, which just proves once more how hopeless you are. And you procrastinate. You don’t put in place habits which will help you stop procrastinating the changes you want to make in your life.

One way I’ve found around this is to do things imperfectly on purpose. For example, I got an exercise bike this summer and I do 30 minutes on it every morning. “Every morning” is the rule, but in practice, I skip a day every now and again. Once a week, on average. Maybe twice. Sometimes I go for four days without touching the bike. I also have a little routine I’ve built up over time which I do after my cycling: sit-ups, stretching, etc. Most of the time I do it, but not always. Sometimes I only do part of it. Sometimes I skip it entirely and only do the bike.

The dangerous and difficult test was the first time I skipped a day. I’d been using the bike daily for 10 days and was very happy with myself. What would happen if I skipped a day? Would I never touch the bike again? Would I continue like before after my day off? Well, I continued. Then I went on vacation for a week. I didn’t use the bike on the first day (I was too tired), but I did on the second day.

Now, this might sound in contradiction with my enthusiasm about putting habits into place and having morning/evening routines that you stick to. But habits and routines, in my opinion, are fragile if they are not resilient to disruption. If you have an exercise habit that you stick to every day no matter what, what’s going to happen to it when you end up in bed with the flu, and it takes you two weeks to be functional again? Will you really pick it up again? Or will you drop it?

It’s not because I skip a day (or two, or three, or a week) that I’m going to give up.

I know that I’m not good at coping with unexpected stuff, and changes. I’ll be in a phase where I have a good life rythm, a good balance, and then something happens that stresses me out and forces me to change my schedule completely for two days, and it’ll take me weeks (if not months) to get back on my feet again to where I was before.

So I want to make sure that my life habits, my “processes”, those that keep me from accumulating a backlog of procrastination-friendly material, are disruption-proof. I think I first got this idea from Merlin Mann’s “Back to GTD” series: yes, you’ll fall off the wagon, but you can climb back on. It’s one of the things I like with GTD (and my partial implementation of it): it’s not very difficult to start doing it again once you’ve stopped.

Maybe exercising is not the best example to use, as nothing “piles up” (except guilt, breathlessness, and a waistline) if you don’t exercise — but it’s a very good case study for me of how, six months later, I am still doing something I decided to do regularly, even if I am prevented from doing so every now and again.

This is actually an excercise in starting and stopping. You learn to interrupt your habit, and pick it up again. Interrupt, start again. At first, you make the interruption easy: on purpose, just once. You become good at starting again. That means that if for some reason you have to stop, then you can start again. (Am I repeating myself?)

For example, I learned that with my exercise bike, if I’m feeling tired or haven’t done it for a few days, I just aim to pedal for 30 minutes. Never mind if I’m below my usual heart-rate. Never mind if I don’t perform well. I just spend 30 minutes on the bike, and I’m off the hook. And although I have now (gradually!) built this wonderful post-bike routine, well, I’m not going to let the size of it discourage me: if I feel a bit under the weather or lazy, I remember that the important thing here is the bike, and it’s ok if that’s all I do. The rest is optional.

The second thing I noticed I was often faced with was the fact that I fall into this “rut” of not-doing, and at some point “manage” to do something, and I become unstuck. Once that first thing was done, the rest followed. For a very long time the process seemed a little magical, because as you know if you suffer from procrastination, when you’re stuck in there, it can really seem (and be) impossible to simply do something. At some point I started figuring out how to get unstuck — and more importantly, how I got stuck.

One of the important things I understood was that when I’m stressed, I get depressed. When you’re depressed, by definition, you have no energy to do things. So, once I’d understood that, I very quickly started asking myself, when I felt in the rut, “what is stressing me?” — and often, the answer was “something I need to do”. One trick I sometimes use is the “cringe list”: write down a list of all the things that are on my conscience and that make me cringe so much when I think about them that I do everything I can not to think about them.

The next step, after identifying the source of my stress, is to actually do something about it, which in many cases (gasp!) means doing the thing I dread the most. But knowing it’s going to get me unstuck often helps — and if it’s not enough, I have a few tricks up my sleeve (like buddy-working or 15 minute timer dashes) to help me. Sometimes the “thing I need to do” seems unrelated to the other things stuck in the procrastination queue. For example, I have a whole lot of work to do, but what’s blocking me is that I need to clean the flat or go shopping before. You’ve probably been there already ;-).

“How do I get stuck” is a trickier question. Usually, it’s because when things are going well, I relax, and stop paying as much attention to how I manage my life (and things, and todos). This allows weeds to start growing in the backyard. Put clearly, I start letting things slip a little, and only “do something about it” once it gets bad enough and I’m stuck. This means that when things are going well, I still need to stay focused on keeping up with what I need to do: it doesn’t work magically, it requires effort all the time.

I have noticed that taking a moment at the beginning of each day to look at what I need to do and make sure I can do the most urgent things helps me not have these “OMG I’d forgotten this really important thing I must do!” moments. Weekly planning helps even more, and my ambition for 2010 is to go beyond that: less fire fighting, being more proactive. I’m aware we’re soaring above simple procrastination issues here, but it’s important to see all the ramifications and how “procrastination” as an identified problem sits with all sorts of other “life organisation” topics.

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My Journey Out of Procrastination: Perfectionism, Starting, and Stopping [en]

In addition to the five principles I described in my earlier post, two more really important things to understand regarding procrastination are:

  • how perfectionism ties in with it
  • how having trouble starting and trouble stopping are two sides of the same problem.

So, perfectionism. I think the link between procrastination and perfectionism is perceived by most people, but it remains a superficial understanding. Like procrastination, perfectionism is not something you get rid of by just “accepting you’re not perfect” or “lowering your standards”. It’s not that simple.

Perfectionism is often rooted in deep-seated fears of the sky falling on your head if somebody says something negative about you or what you’ve done. Just willing away this emotional component will sadly not be enough to free oneself, in most cases. So, just like procrastination, one’s tendancy to go for perfection perfection perfection needs to be treated gently and with understanding. Where does it come from? Do I really believe that people can love me and appreciate what I do even if it’s (I’m) not perfect? (Don’t answer that question too quickly… The answer is often “no” if you’re really honest with yourself.) What small experiences can I do to show and teach myself that the sky will **not** fall on my head if I don’t do things perfectly?

It’s also important to understand that one of the things perfectionism does is make mountains out of molehills: if your standards for what you want to accomplish are very high, it’s discouraging. You think about decorating your flat to make it the perfectly decorated place of your dreams, and before you’ve even finished imagining it you’re already discouraged and don’t have any energy to even get started. This is where tricks like breaking up big projects (or aspirations) into smaller pieces can come in handy. (For example, I’ll accept that my flat isn’t decorated, and take the small step of putting up one picture on the wall, even though that won’t make it “perfectly decorated”.)

When I was a teenager, I understood rather quickly that my desire to do things “well” was getting in the way of my simply doing them. In a way, I’d say I’m a reformed perfectionist: I’ve long ago decided that I’d rather do things imperfectly than not do them (I have a “just do it even if it’s crap” mode). I also learned that what I considered “crap” was often considered by others to be “great” — like that time when I wrote a quick and dirty page on what I’d done at a job, mainly for myself, and sent it off to my brother who was working at the same company, who then (to my horror) forwarded it to the manager, manager who then (to my utmost disbelief) got back to me praising the professionalism of my crappy document.

In some cases, you might discover that perfectionism is not the real problem, but a “constructed” problem designed to achieve a goal like help you procrastinate. It might sound a bit crazy, but sometimes causality doesn’t really go in the direction we imagine.

Starting and stopping are a good example of this. Almost all people who procrastinate will at some point say something like “Oh, my problem is just starting — once I’ve started, then there’s no stopping me, I’ll do what I set out to do. I just really need to find a way to get started.” I said the exact same thing. Then one day I realised (I had a little help for that) that the real problem I faced was not that I couldn’t start things, but that once I was started, I just couldn’t stop.

I’m a little obsessive, and once I’m doing something, I get completely absorbed in it, don’t see time go by, forget to eat, forget to feel, forget to breathe (!), lose myself. It’s clearly one of the things that helped me develop RSI all those years ago, but that’s not the only problem. It’s that although I’m being productive, I’m “not there”, I’m out of touch with myself, and I’m not really enjoying it, except in a kind of manic, compulsive way. This is not flow, by the way — it’s something else and it’s not healthy.

So in a way, I have a very good reason not to want to start things. I have a very good reason for procrastinating — it’s my healthy reaction against behaviour that makes me lose myself.

The way out, therefore, is to learn to stop. If you know you can stop, then you are free to start. FlyLady understood this very well, and this is why the “you can do anything for 15 minutes” mantra works so well. Trust me, learning to stop is not easy. Once you’re finally doing something and getting into it, stopping after 30 minutes (or whatever time you’ve set) is going to feel very counterproductive. But remember where the real problem is here: if you don’t make the effort to stop, you’re cheating yourself (specially if you coaxed yourself into starting because there was a clear time limit to how much time you’d spend on the task) and it will make it even more difficult to start next time. I find the way FlyLady puts it in her “How to Declutter” page pretty inspiring:

Decide how often you are going to declutter a zone. Do a little every day – use a timer. But be warned – this can become compulsive! Once you get started you will want to clean like a banshee! Don’t burn yourself out! Only do small amount at a time. The house did not get dirty overnight and it will not get clean overnight. When you set the timer you can only do two sessions at a time. This goal may seem unattainable right now, but you can do it in little pieces. In a couple of months, the whole house will be decluttered.

So, concentrate on stopping things, rather than on starting them. Set time limits. Flip the problem on its head, and you should soon see things changing.

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L'importance du temps structuré [fr]

[en] I've realised that I feel better when my time is at least somewhat structured, so I need to figure out how to manage my "free time" (when there is lots of it, like during this staycation/holistay) a bit differently than "not plan anything and see what I feel like doing".

Ces derniers mois, et je dirais même cette dernière année, j’ai fait des progrès énormes en ce qui concerne la gestion de mon temps. Par cela, je veux dire que j’ai cessé de courir, cessé d’être aussi stressée, cessé de jouer toujours toujours toujours les pompiers. J’ai une vision assez claire, sur le court terme, de ce que je dois faire, je le fais, et en grande partie grâce au fait que j’ai maintenant un bureau séparé de mon appartement, j’ai aussi récupéré mes soirées, mes week-ends, et même des mini-vacances au chalet.

Bref, ça va plutôt bien et je suis très contente de moi.

Par contre, je remarque pendant cette période des fêtes, où j’ai décidé de lever le pied et de prendre des “vacances à la maison”, que si j’ai bien réussi à trouver un équilibre durant ma vie “travaillée”, ce n’est pas si simple pour le temps de loisir. J’avais d’ailleurs déjà constaté ça, à plus petite échelle, lors d’un ou deux week-ends très très tranquilles.

Je me rends donc compte que j’ai besoin de structurer mon temps (jusqu’à un certain point!) pour me sentir bien. Ça ne veut pas dire que je dois faire en sorte d’avoir un “programme” qui remplit ma vie du début à la fin, mais les longues journées de “libre” qui se suivent, ce n’est pas top non plus.

Tiens, c’était déjà pas top durant les longues vacances d’été interminables quand j’étais enfant.

J’ai aussi appris à quel point il est important pour moi d’avoir un minimum de routine dans mes journées.

Du coup, je réalise que j’ai besoin de gérer légèrement autrement mon temps de loisir, et de m’éloigner un peu du “je ne planifie rien et regarde d’un moment à l’autre ce que j’ai ‘envie’ de faire” — ça marche pour une journée (le week-end) mais pas pour bien plus longtemps que ça.

Solution? Pas encore tout à fait trouvée, mais j’y réfléchis, c’est la première étape!

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My Journey Out of Procrastination: Five Principles [en]

When you’re trapped in the procrastination rut, solutions coming from those who are out of it just seem inapplicable. “Just do it,” for example.

I think I’ve recently pulled myself out of the rut for good (fingers crossed), and before I forget what it is like to live with the heavy black cloud of “things I should have taken care of last week/month/year” over my head, here are a few thoughts on what helped me build a life for myself where my invoices are sent, my bills are paid, my deadlines are met, and I actually have guilt-free week-ends and evenings.

It wasn’t always like that. Actually, for most of my life, it wasn’t like that.

Changing, like most changes, has been a gradual process. I know that (for me, at least) one of the thick roots of my procrastination lies in a very archaic urge of mine to not be alone, to not do things alone. I rarely found it hard to do things (even the washing-up) if I had company, and I understood at some point that putting things off until I got myself in an unmanageable mess was in a way something I did to either force myself to ask others for help, or manipulate them into helping me out.

I think it was really important for me to understand this, because unfortunately, freeing oneself of life-threatening procrastination is not just a question of tricks and methods, but also about understanding what role such a behaviour plays in one’s “life ecosystem”, and what can be done to replace it. In my case, it included being proactive about asking for assistance or company, making sure I was having enough of a social life, and sorting out a few personal issue I’m not going to dive in here.

That being said, I learned five important principles throughout my journey that are worth sharing.

The first is that radical change will not work. If you tend to live in a messy home, it’s not spring-cleaning once every three years which will change that. Going from living in a messy home to living in a more or less ordered home is a lifestyle change. It’s like quitting smoking or starting to exercise regularly, or eating more healthily. Reading GTD, spending two days setting up your system, and “sticking to it”, will not be enough (though I’m a great fan of GTD). Be aware that you’re in for a long process, which will probably take years (it took years for me, in any case — maybe even half my lifetime). This means that you need to start by making small changes to the way you do things, instead of aiming for a revollution.

The second is to not do it alone. By that, I mean involve others to support you. Things I’ve done include buddy working, asking a friend to come over to help me clean the flat, or having my brother literally hold my hand during three months whilst I started getting my finances back in order. If it’s easier to do with somebody just sitting next to you, then ask somebody to do just that. I remember one of my first experiences of this was being on the phone with a friend, and we both had a horrible awful pile of dirty dishes to deal with. We both decided to hang up, do it now, and call again an hour later when it was done. Somehow, it felt easier to be doing the dishes when I knew my friend was doing the same thing in another country.

The third is that backlog and process both need to be dealt with. When you procrastinate, you start off in the worst of places: not only do you not have a healthy “lifestyle” process in place for dealing with things (you let them wait until it’s so urgent the only thing left to do is to call in the firemen), but you also have a (sometimes huge) backlog of “stuff” that needs dealing with. Be patient with yourself. Also, understand that there’s no point in just dealing with the backlog if you’re not fixing the process. GTD is mainly about the process. “Do it now” is also just about the process.

The fourth is to find pleasure in the doing. One component in my procrastination is that I’m overly goal-focused. One thing I had to learn to do was to enjoy doing things, and not just enjoy having done them. Life is now, even when you’re doing the dishes or cleaning the flat or paying bills. What can be done to make the process more pleasant? Well, there are things like listening to music or focusing on the task at hand in a zen-like way, but it’s also possible to keep in mind that by paying my bills now, I’m being kind to myself and treating myself well (by keeping myself out of future trouble). It helped me to realise that I really didn’t mind doing the dishes for friends when I was invited — it was doing them for myself that sucked. It wasn’t about the dishes: it was about doing stuff for myself. (Which opens a whole new can of worms: is it easy to treat yourself kindly?) When I started doing my dishes as if I were my own best friend that I loved, things started changing.

The fifth is to know your boundaries and enforce them (aka “say no”). When there is too much to do that you can’t keep up, it means that you’ve been accepting or taking on too much. This is a major chapter in itself (and as I’m getting increasingly better at setting limits and saying no when needed, I’m starting to realize how hopelessly bad most people are at this). If you catch up on the backlog, set up a good process, but keep on piling up your plate with more than you can eat, there’s no way out. Again, this principle opens up potential cans of worms: why is it difficult to say no? Fear of rejection or angering the other are not to be taken lightly. “Just understanding” this is often not enough, as the root of such behaviour is often emotional and needs to be treated with respect. (You’ll probably have noticed: you won’t get much out of yourself — or anyone — if you don’t treat emotional components of problems with respect.)

I think that before diving into any “method” to change one’s procrastinative habits, it’s worth pondering on all five of these principles and trying to keep them in mind whilst going on with one’s life: change will be successful only if you pay attention to them all. This is, in my opinion, where GTD on its own fails at “solving the problem”: it’s mainly about the process (part of the third principle here). You can get started implementing GTD, but if the deeper roots of your procrastination are not dealt with, you will simply fail at implementing GTD properly enough for it to be “the solution”, just like I did. Not that implementing GTD isn’t useful: it was a very important step for me, and helped me a lot (it changed my life, clearly), but it was not enough to free me from procrastination.

Another element I’d like to add, in case it comes handy to somebody, is that I noticed at some point that when I am under stress, I tend to feel down, and when I feel down, I tend to find it difficult to do things, and therefore procrastinate. Figuring out this vicious circle was a really important milestone for me. Of course, it then took many months of careful observation of myself to reach the point where I could go “Oh! I’m feeling down and crappy, am I stressed? What’s stressing me? Oh, let me deal with that now so I can climb out of the pit!” — and now, it never even gets to that stage (or very rarely) because I catch it even earlier and nip it in the bud.

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Triggers and Dopamine [en]

[fr] Deux idées importantes concernant la façon dont on fonctionne, particulièrement pour ce qui est de nos habitudes: les déclencheurs, qui appellent un comportement stéréotypé ou enregistré (une bonne ou mauvaise habitude), et la dopamine, qui lance plutôt l'appel du "reviens-y" que du plaisir, et qui s'active face à la nouveauté (ce qui explique que nos comportements un peu obsessionnels ou addictifs ne se soldent pas forcément par plus de plaisir).

As I have slowed down my work life for the end-of-year celebrations, I’m taking more time to read and write, something I want to keep going throughout 2010 and beyond.

These last days I’ve stumbled upon two interesting ideas that I’m adding to my understanding of how we change and why we do what we do — a subject of endless fascination for me.

The first is triggers and their importance in forming habits. I had never really thought of this until I looked at the new website 6 Changes. The idea here is that a habit is linked to something that triggers it. For example, feeling down and reaching for the fridge or the remote. Or putting your pyjamas on and brushing your teeth. Or getting up from a meal and doing the dishes.

In a way, this is something that FlyLady teaches you to put in practice by establishing morning and evening routines. (See the “Baby Steps” page on FlyLady for more similarity with what Leo explains in 6 Changes.) Creating routines is a way to have a series of habits where each one triggers the next.

I’m now keeping an eye open for triggers (think “API hooks” or “CSS classes” for the geeks out there) that I can build on to put in place new habits or replace undesirable ones.

I have a (minor) problem when I watch TV series, for example: I tend to watch one episode after the next more or less until I drop — I find it very hard to just watch one or two and be done with it. So I thought: “what could be the trigger here?” Obviously, the end credits of an episode. So, what I’ve decided to do now is pause the DVD, remove my headphones, get up and go to the kitchen or the bathroom when the end credits roll. Then I can go and watch the next episode if I want. See the idea? Clearly, I’m not building a new daily habit here, but using the idea of the trigger, a small first step, and incremental change to modify an undesired behaviour. Next step will be adding something more to “pause the DVD, remove headphones, get up” once that habit is established, which goes in the direction of helping me not dive mechanically back into my season, however fascinating it may be.

The second is the role of dopamine in relation to novelty. Dopamine is in fact not the “pleasure” drug, but more the “gimme more” one — it’s activated when we’re faced with novelty, and encourages us to come seeking it again. I’m not sure how I’m going to apply this to my daily life, but for me it’s important to understand that craving for something is not necessarily linked to pleasure in getting the something in question. In my opinion it explains why we can get stuck in compulsive behaviours (checking e-mail or iPhone being the most obvious) which do not make us really happy when we indulge in them — on the contrary, I know that I often end up feeling a bit empty when I’m stuck in a compulsion circle.

I find the last paragraph of the HuffPost article linked above very wise:

Given all of this, what can we do to prevent ourselves from becoming novelty-seeking zombies? The first thing is to simply become mindful of one’s use of media and devices. I find that one of the best things to do is to institute regular vacations from email. It usually takes a couple of days for the itch to check my email every five minutes to go away, and watching it happen reminds me just how obsessed I can become, but it also shows that it’s possible to lead a perfectly normal and fulfilling life without constant email access. Once we see that we can live without constant access to our devices, we can start trying to exert some control over device use in our daily lives. Evolution gave us the ability to overcome our urges, but we have to have the will to employ this control. One bit of good news is that we can improve our self-control with practice […].

Russell Poldrack

I think the most important thing that Russell says here is that technology is basically putting us in a position where we have to grow as human beings if we do not want to be slaves to our impulses. This is true in general, but once more, technology is magnifying and making apparent issues which are already there, but which might not have been that visible until now.

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6 Changes For 2010 — and My Objectives [en]

[fr] 6 Changes est un site qui vous encorage à mettre en place 6 nouvelles habitudes (ou à éliminer des anciennes) pour 2010, plutôt que de vous acharner sur de "bonnes résolutions" qui font long feu. L'auteur du site propose une méthode très progressive pour effectuer ces changements, et qui est complètement en ligne avec ce que je prêche à droite et à gauche: commencer très petit et modeste plutôt que de viser les grandes révolutions.

Nathalie just pointed me to the website 6 Changes, which I’ve quickly read through, and which is very very good. It’s an antidote to the failure of New Year Resolutions. It’s very FlyLady-ish in spirit (read my post “The Wisdom of Small Changes“) and is completely in line with many conversations I’ve had lately about changing things in one’s life.

From the site’s Quick Start Guide (the author is Leo Babauta of Zen Habits):

Here’s a quick overview of this site and how it will help you.

  1. About this site. What is 6Changes.com? Choose 6 habits for 2010, and I’ll help you form them.
  2. The 6 Changes Method. Here’s the method that you’ll use to form each of the 6 habits.
  3. Suggest habits. Which six will you choose? Some recommendations.
  4. The Importance of Public Accountability. Why it’s one of the foundations of the method, and how to do it.
  5. What’s a Trigger & Why Is It So Important? Another key to the method.
  6. Why You Should Do Only One Habit at a Time. Answers one of the most common questions people have about the method.
  7. How to Be Patient as Your Habit Develops. It’s not easy to do it this slowly, but here’s how it works and how to do it.
  8. The Problem With New Year’s Resolutions. Actually, a number of problems. And how this method will solve them.
  9. The Art of the Start of a Habit. Why starting is so hard and how this method overcomes it.
  10. How to Kick a Bad Habit. Suggested method that has worked for me in the past.
  11. How to Form the Exercise Habit. One of a series of planned posts about how to apply the method.

I’ve never been a New Year Resolutions person, because I understood early on that they didn’t work. Over the last years (and especially the last) I’ve really learnt that dramatic change rarely works, and how important habits are. I have to say FlyLady really helped with that.

I had a few objectives for 2009, though:

  • get my finances back on track (being up-to-date with bills, earning enough to live on, starting to pay off debt)
  • get my flat back under control (it’s now “visitor-ready” at all times even though it’s far from perfect, and I’m housecleaning almost every week)
  • have a healthier lifestyle (I’m not sure this was a conscious decision at the beginning of the year, but I’ve reclaimed my evenings, week-ends, and lunch breaks, continued to pay attention to what I eat, and started exercising almost daily)

So, what do I want to achieve by the end of 2010?

  • decorate my flat (I’ve been living in it for nearly 10 years!)
  • improve the “packaging” of my professional services (that’s the “selling myself” department)
  • save up enough money and time to go on a “big trip” somewhere (India, most probably)
  • move beyond weekly planning.

Now, can I translate those into 6 changes? I’m going to think about it seriously.

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La règle des deux minutes [fr]

[en] I write a weekly column for Les Quotidiennes, which I republish here on CTTS for safekeeping.

Chroniques du monde connecté: cet article a été initialement publié dans Les Quotidiennes (voir l’original).

Après deux chroniques un peu méditatives, je me permets de vous servir cette semaine un petit truc pratique: la règle des deux minutes.

Elle est très simple: si quelque chose prend moins de deux minutes à faire, faites-le tout de suite.

Puis, pour égayer votre journée, je vais vous donner un peu de contexte et des recommandations de lecture (anglophones, donc sortez vos dictionnaires ou filez vite faire un petit séjour outre-Manche pour rafraîchir votre anglais!)

Chez les geeks et les gens bien connectés d’aujourd’hui, il y a un grand amour pour les méthodes dites “de productivité”. Allez savoir si c’est à force de vivre dans un monde numérique où le temps ne se déroule pas à la même vitesse que dans le monde extérieur (“Quoi? Ça fait trois heures déjà que je suis devant l’ordi?!”), ce qui ne manque pas d’avoir des conséquences parfois désastreuses sur la gestion du temps, ou bien parce que le cerveau cyber-compatible est excité à l’idée de systématiser la gestion de sa vie, mais toujours est-il que la productivité ainsi que la lutte contre la procrastination et la désorganisation sont des thèmes récurrants dans le monde connecté.

A coups de blog ou de Twitter, on se refile en effet les adresses de sites comme 43folders ou FlyLady, et les livres tels que “The Now Habit“, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People“, et surtout “Getting Things Done” (abrégé GTD, disponible en français sous le titre “S’organiser pour réussir“) finissent immanquablement par se retrouver dans nos bibliothèques, ou du moins sur nos listes de lecture.

La règle des deux minutes est tirée directement de GTD. En très très résumé, un des éléments importants de GTD est de séparer la réception d’une tâche à faire ou d’une demande (on la met dans la “boîte de réception”), la décision quant à ce qu’on va en faire (jeter, classer, déléguer, mettre sur une liste la prochaine action concrète pour avancer), et le moment où l’on fait les choses.

La seule exception à ce processus, ce sont justement les tâches très courtes. S’il me faut moins de deux minutes pour accomplir une tâche, la mettre dans mon “système” et l’en ressortir le moment venu prendra en fait plus de temps que ça. Autant donc s’épargner du travail en évitant tout simplement que la petite tâche en question se retrouve sur une des ces maudites listes de choses à faire!

Une remarque toutefois: l’utilisation de la minuterie s’impose, afin de ne pas se retrouver encore à la tâche trente minutes plus tard…

Quatre points de départ en français sur GTD pour creuser un petit peu:

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Weekly Planning: Third Week (Learning Steps) [en]

Here we are — I’ve completed my third “planned” week since I started looking a bit further ahead than the current day (first week, second week, passing thoughts). Gosh, it was a busy week. I had only two office days, and I realize that it is not quite enough.

Around me, I’m faced either with people who are used to planning their weeks and find it normal, or people who could never dream of doing it, so busy are they putting out fires day after day.

I was like that for a long time. How did I get where I am now? I’ve been thinking a lot about which were the “first steps” on the road from chaos to “planning”.

Oh, before I forget: when I say I plan my week, I mean that I have a rough outline of what I am going to accomplish during the week, and on what day. It doesn’t go any further than that. Like when I “plan” my day, I don’t decide “I’m going to spend between 9 and 9.30 doing this, then do that for 20 minutes”. I know what I want to accomplish in the day, and go from there.

So, back to what brought me here, let me mention a few landmarks or “important steps” you might want to meditate upon if you are currently too busy putting out fires to even dream of planning your week. They’re in no particular order, because I think I haven’t quite finished figuring this out yet. If you spot one that seems doable, then start with that one.

  • Protect yourself. Set a very high priority on keeping “downtime” aside for yourself. Of course there are very busy periods where you won’t get much, but this shouldn’t be your “normal” week. Don’t answer the phone during lunch break, for example. Book an evening a week for yourself, and tell people who want to see you then that you “already have something planned”. Learn to become more comfortable about making people wait. If you always put others first you’ll just burn in the fire.
  • Set maker days and manager days. Yesterday evening, Claude pointed out to me that this was one of my first obvious steps towards weekly planning, back in April. It’s obvious: once you start having a clearer plan of how much actual time you’re going to have in the office to work on projects, it helps you not overcommit.
  • Under-promise, over-deliver. I can’t remember who recommended this, but it stuck with me. It helps me fight against my natural tendancy to underestimate the amount of time I need to deliver something. So I figure out a reasonable estimate, and then add a lot of security padding to give myself space for bad planning and other emergencies.
  • Everything takes more time than you think. I think David Allen says this somewhere in Getting Things Done, but I could be misquoting. It could be Nassim Nicholas Taleb in The Black Swan, too. Or Merlin Mann. Anyway: the unexpected almost always adds time to things. And in the cases where it doesn’t and actually reduces the time you need for something, it’s no big disaster (OMG! I have too much time to do this! I’m going to die!). So, add a lot of padding to any estimation of how much time something is going to take you. It’s always more than you think. Try doubling your initial estimate, for starters, and see if that improves things.
  • End your day by looking at tomorrow. This is something I got from FlyLady when I realised it was important for me to have a “getting started” (=morning) and a “winding down” (=evening) routine. She recommends including 10 minutes in your evening routine to prepare the next day: check the train timetable, know what appointments you have, etc. It’s easy to do, and it means you’re not diving blind into tomorrow anymore.
  • Learn to say no. This is the really hard one for most people. I’ve become pretty good at saying no, but I’ve come a long way: initially, I was somebody who said yes to almost everything. I was both enthusiastic about all sorts of things and terrified of hurting people by refusing their requests. So I didn’t say no. I’ll probably blog about this more extensively at some point (I already did in French), but the important thing to remember is that as long as you have trouble saying no, you will not escape fire fighting. One thing that really helped me learn to say no was to start by never immediately accepting anything. Say you’ll answer in 24 hours. Then I used that time to have a long hard think about how I keep saying yes to stuff I want to do to help out, and then end up procrastinating, not doing it, feeling horrible because deadlines slip, etc. That usually gave me enough courage to say no.
  • Have a list. You can go all GTD or only part-way, like I have, but you need some kind of system or list to capture the things you need to take care of. Learn the difference between a project and a next action, and list only the latter. To start your list, just write/type down all the stuff that’s bubbling at the top of your brain and stressing you out. If you think of something you need to do while you’re working, add it to the list. Ask a friend to hold your hand (it can be through IM) if your list gets too scary. Trust me, it’ll be better when it’s written down — anything is better than being an ostrich.
  • Learn to prioritize. I have huge problems with this (in other areas of my life too). When it comes to work-related stuff, here are a few rules of thumb I use. Invoicing is high priority, because it’s what brings in the money and it’s not very long to do. Anything really time-sensitive is also high priority (if I don’t announce tomorrow’s meetup today, it won’t be any use, will it?) Responding to potential clients. Paid work for clients with deadlines, of course. Asking questions like “what is the worst thing that will happen if I don’t do this today?” or “on this list, is there any item which is going to cause somebody to die if I don’t do it?” (start with “to die” and then work down on the ladder of bad things — thanks Delphine for that tip) also helps. This doesn’t mean you need to order your lists. It’s just to help you figure out where to start.
  • Admit when you’re in over your head. If you over-promised, said yes when you really should have said no, and basically find yourself incapable of keeping up with your commitments, tell the people involved. And use that safety padding again. If you told the client it would be done by Wednesday, and on Monday you already have that sinking feeling that it won’t be possible, tell the client. Apologize. Say you messed up if you have. If you’re pretty certain you can get it done by Friday, tell them that it’ll be done Monday. See? Safety padding. Under-promising. Of course this doesn’t work in all situations, but you might simply not have a choice — and it’s better to be upfront about a deadline slipping than keeping it silent. Not just for the relationship with the client, but for your learning and growing process. Same with money: if you need invoices paid earlier than you initially asked because you have cashflow issues, ask. If you can’t pay the bill, ask for a payment plan. Somebody might say yes.
  • You can only do so much in a day. At some point, you reach the end of the day. Either it’s time, or you’re tired, but at some point, the day is done. Pack up and go home. Watch TV. Eat. (Maybe not in that order.) Do something nice. Take a bath. First of all, it’s no use working yourself silly until ungodly hours, you just won’t get up the next morning, or if you do, you won’t be productive. Second, doing this will help you “grow” a feel for what can be done in a day.
  • Plan your day. At the beginning of the day, look at your list, and think about the 2-3 important things that you want to accomplish today. Rocks and pebbles might help. Forget all the rest and get cracking on those. You’ll be interrupted, you’ll have emergencies, of course. That’s why it’s important not to plan to do too much — or you’re setting yourself up for failure. I started doing this regularly this spring, first with index cards, then with a list in Evernote. At the beginning you’ll be crap at it, but after months of practice, you get better. And this is one of the building stones you’ll need to be able to plan your weeks at some point.
  • Save time for the unexpected. When I was teaching, I did quite a bit of time planning — I knew when I was in class and when I had “downtime” to prepare courses and mark tests. Doing that, I realized that I could not perfectly plan my time. There was always “unexpected” stuff coming up. So I started making sure I had empty time slots of “surprises”. At some point during the last year, I calculated that roughly half my time was taken up by “unexpected” things and “emergencies”. Now, it’s less, because I’m better at planning. So, depending on how deep in chaos you are, you want to make sure you leave enough “free time” in whatever planning you’re doing to accomodate everything you didn’t know about or hadn’t thought about. As organisation increases and stress goes down, the “things to do” will get more under control and there will be less and less emergencies — but it’s still important to leave “breathing space”.

This is more or less all I can think of for the moment. Is it useful to anybody? I like to think it would have been useful to me, but one can never know… would I have listened?

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