Prune Your To-Do Lists, Mercilessly [en]

[fr] Plus tôt on admet que l'on ne fera pas une tâche, mieux c'est (avant qu'elle nous pourrisse la vie durant des mois avant de mourir de sa belle mort). Soyez donc sans merci en révisant vos listes de tâches. Posez-vous honnêtement la question: vais-je vraiment faire ça?

Yesterday, I opened Things for the first time in… a year, maybe, to see if the link to a video I wanted to watch was still in my old lists there. It wasn’t, but trawling through the state of my to-do lists from Going Solo times made me realize just how much stuff was in there that I never did. And I’m still alive.

I’ve known this for some time: a good way to make our lives miserable is to stack our to-do lists (or next action lists, if we’re GTD-enabled) with piles of tasks that we will end up not doing. Seeing all those old tasks I never got around to doing reminded me, once again, of how important it is to realize as early as possible if I am not going to do something.

I think the first time I really heard somebody talk about this explicitly was at the Going Solo conference in Lausanne, when Martin Roell gave his talk on “Self-Organisation for Effectiveness” (watch the whole video, but the moment in question is about 10 minutes in). He told us that, contrarily to some understanding of GTD (who is to say what’s right or wrong?), he recommended throwing out as much as possible from action lists. YANGTDI: You Are Not Going To Do It.

It’s a bit the same frame of mind as when you come back to your e-mail inbox after a holiday. You can usually safely ignore the stuff that’s marked URGENT in all caps, because chances are if it was urgent a week ago, it’s simply not relevant anymore.

I think that this is where lies the trap in GTD’s “Someday/Maybe” list. Also because we quickly forget one important step in the GTD process, which is that when we put a task on a next action list, it means we are fully committed to doing it. That, I have found, is simply just not the case most of the time for mere mortals like us struggling around with imperfect implementations of GTD in our lives.

So, here are some ideas. They’re not perfect, but they might help.

If you’ve been ignoring an item on your list for a long time, take a moment to look at it. First, make sure it’s a real next action and not a project in disguise, because that could be why you’re not getting around to doing it. Then, take a deep breath, and ask yourself, honestly, deep down inside in your heart of hearts, if you are really going to do it, or if you’re going to keep on procrastinating it until it disappears into a little puff of smoke, in which case you’d have been better off removing it from your list straight away and preventing it from adding to your stress.

How do you know you’ve been ignoring a task for too long? Some systems have that built-in. For example, when I was in my notebook phase, once a page was filled with tasks-done-and-still-to-do, I’d copy over to the next page all the tasks that still needed doing. Once you’ve copied over a task to the new page five times, you start to realize that you’re not doing it.

Yesterday, somebody told me of another method: at the beginning of the week, make a list of tasks you want to accomplish. Opposite that list, draw columns — one per day. Each day, ask yourself if you are committed enough to spend (say) an hour and a half on that task. If you are, draw a green dot on that task’s line. If you aren’t a red dot. At the end of the week, look at what you haven’t done, and look at the amount of red vs. green. The decisions to make are probably made, by that time.

Another trick I have is that I have a sub-heading, in my lists, which is called “Obviously I’m not doing this”. That’s where I send tasks off to die, when I’m clearly not doing them but don’t have the courage to get rid of them completely. A bit like the “Should throw away but can’t yet” box in your cellar.

A corollary to this “task pruning” attitude is to extract subsets of tasks for given time periods, like I started doing (and still am doing) when I plan my week. Or on a stressful day, when you feel swamped, select three things (or five!) and forget about all the rest.

But the main point here is: show no mercy for those idle tasks that just sit there, make your life miserable, and never get done.

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La technologie qui nous pousse à grandir [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).

Depuis bientôt dix ans que je fréquente des blogueurs, j’en vois régulièrement qui succombent à la pression de leur lectorat. C’est ainsi qu’ils le présentent, en tous cas. Ils ne peuvent plus tenir le rythme de publication. Les commentaires de leurs lecteurs les minent. Leur public a des attentes, et ils n’arrivent pas ou plus à y répondre. Ils sont trop sollicités.

Alors ils arrêtent de bloguer, se fendant d’un long (ou très bref) billet explicatif.

Et à chaque fois, je lis, un peu médusée, et je peine à comprendre. Tout l’attrait du blog, pour moi, c’est la liberté qu’il confère à son auteur. Les seules contraintes sont celles que le blogueur s’impose. S’il cesse d’écrire à cause des attentes de son public, n’écrivait-il que pour celui-ci en premier lieu? N’avait-il pas peut-être lui aussi, des attentes peu réalistes (d’une certaine forme de reconnaissance, à tout hasard) pour son lectorat? Le problème est-il vraiment avec ses lecteurs, ou est-il plutôt entre lui et lui?

Ceci n’est qu’une situation parmi d’autres où je vois que les avancées technologiques nous offrent l’occasion de grandir en tant que personne — plutôt que d’en devenir l’esclave (à l’image des blogueurs dont il est question ci-dessus) ou de les rejeter un bloc (mouvement de retour de balancier, parfois).

Le téléphone mobile nous rend joignable en tous temps? On apprend à ne pas y répondre juste parce qu’il sonne. On le met sur silence. On l’éteint. On filtre les appels. On reprend le contrôle.

Le chat nous permettrait de bavarder à longueur de journée? On apprend à se discipliner, à mettre des priorités sur certaines activités (travailler, peut-être?), à dire gentiment mais fermement que l’on n’est pas disponible maintenant. A approcher les autres avec un peu de retenue, aussi.

Les e-mails arrivent dans notre boîte de réception à toute heure du jour et de la nuit? On apprend à filtrer, à ne pas répondre à tout dès que possible, à basculer vers un autre mode de communication lorsque c’est plus adéquat.

Le blog et la publication en ligne ont fait de nous un micro-célébrité? On apprend à voir plus loin que la satisfaction un peu compulsive de l’attention reçue, à reprendre contact avec les motivations profondes et saines qui nous poussent à faire ce que l’on fait, et à mettre des limites aux sollicitations quasi-infinies du monde extérieur.

Un fil rouge, ici: être au clair de ses attentes, connaître ses besoins et ses limites, les faire poliment respecter lorsque c’est nécessaire. Dans le monde ultra-connecté qui devient le nôtre aujourd’hui, les compétences que l’on regroupe souvent sous l’expression un peu réductrice “savoir dire non” sont une question de survie. Et ce n’est pas plus mal.

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Just do it [en]

[fr] Parfois, on fait les choses même quand on n'en a pas vraiment envie.

“Just do it” is the answer many of us poor procrastinators get when asking for support from our non-procrastinating friends. And usually, it doesn’t help.

However, I’ve learned that there are situations where “just do it” is the answer. Years ago, I realized that I had become trapped in an excessive “what do I feel like doing” state of mind. I would wait until I felt like doing something to do it. I thought that I needed to feel like doing things to do them, and expected that at some point I would always feel like doing the things I had to do.

Probably too many childhood and teenage years what I wanted and what I felt like were not given enough place in my life, but let’s not dwell on that.

The important realization was when I understood that sometimes you don’t feel like doing things, and you still do them. You don’t feel like doing the washing-up, but you do it because you’ve decided that you wanted to live with a reasonably clean kitchen and clean dishes for your next meal. You don’t really feel like eating anything in particular, or maybe chocolate, but you make a salad, cut some bread, and put a piece of meat in the pan because you’ve decided it was important to have a balanced diet, even when you didn’t really feel like it.

And sometimes you work, or study, because you have an end goal in mind, or need to earn a living, even if you don’t always feel like it.

This is not to say you should ignore your feelings. But sometimes, for some people, listening to them too much can get in the way of living.

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My Journey Out of Procrastination: Doing Things Now [en]

[fr] Une clé pour procrastiner moins: faire les choses à mesure. Evident, bien sûr, mais important. Pour pouvoir faire les choses à mesure, ralentir, prendre le temps. Comprendre au fond de soi et pas juste dans sa tête qu'une tâche effectuée maintenant ne sera pas à faire plus tard.

This is the fifth post in my ongoing series about procrastination. Check out the previous ones: Five Principles, Perfectionism, Starting, and Stopping, Getting Thrown Off and Getting Unstuck, and Not Running (Firewalls and iPhone alarms).

Obviously, doing things now (as opposed to later) is the remedy against procrastination. If you do things now, then you can’t procrastinate them, right?

Now that the obvious is out of the way, let’s dig a little. Doing things now is both the result of not procrastinating and part of the cure against procrastination. This means that if we understand what’s going on, and manage to make a habit of doing certain things immediately, we have a key to easing the accumulation of incoming tasks on the procrastination list.

At one point in my life (the “when” is a little fuzzy here) I really understood (deep down inside) that if I did something now, then it meant that I wouldn’t have to do it afterwards. I’m sorry for stating the obvious. Everybody knows this. But between knowing it in your head and knowing it in your gut, there is a difference. The procrastinator’s gut believes that if you don’t do it now, with a bit of luck you’ll be able to continue ignoring it safely until the end of time.

So read this again: if you do something you need to do now, you will not have to do it later.

I know that one decisive “aha!” moment in that respect was when I reached the “2-minute rule” part of GTD. Here’s what this rule is about: when you’re in the “processing” phase of GTD, going systematically through a pile of stuff and deciding what you need to do about each item — but not actually doing it, just making decisions and putting tasks in the system for later — well, there is one situation where you do what needs to be done instead of putting your next action in the system, and that’s when it takes less than 2 minutes to deal with the task. The logic behind this is that putting a task in the system and retrieving it later is going to take two minutes or so — so you’ll actually spend less time if you just do it now. Also, a 2-minute interruption in your processing is not the end of the world.

The trick here is to use a timer — if the timer goes off and you haven’t finished what you thought would be done in 2 minutes, then you stop, put the task on the right list, and continue processing.

Now, I’m not saying that this is where I got the “do it now” revelation, but it’s definitely one blow of the hammer that helped drive that particular nail in.

Another moment I remember is when clicking around on a few links on the FlyLady site brought me to Bratland. I like this metaphor of the “inner brat”, the part of you who finishes the toilet roll but doesn’t put a new one on for the next person (who, if you live alone, is going to be you). The brat who spills the milk and doesn’t clean up, so it ends up caking the kitchen counter and it takes you 5 minutes to get rid of it instead of 30 seconds. I started keeping a kind but firm parental eye open for my inner brat, and that is something that helped me not create more work for myself by letting things drag along.

One area I managed to put this in practice rather well is e-mail. If an e-mail comes in my inbox, and I answer and/or archive it straight away, it won’t be sitting there looking at me next time I go into my inbox. I know this goes against the “deal with your e-mail only twice a day” (or whatever) rules — I’ll write more about why I think my way of dealing with e-mail works, though.

But clearly, if you are the kind of people for whom tasks tend to go onto todo lists to die or weigh on your conscience for months, there is a decisive advantage to not letting them get on the list in the first place.

Related, but not exactly in the “doing things now” department: I have a trick I use when people ask me if I can do something for them (I’m usually tempted to say yes, because I want to be helpful and I want people to like me, and then I feel horrible because I let things drag along and don’t do them). I ask the person to send me an e-mail to remind me about it. This has three advantages:

  • if the person doesn’t really need me to do this for them, they won’t e-mail
  • I don’t have to answer right away
  • I have a “physical” reminder already in my system (I know that I am going to deal with stuff that reaches my inbox), that I will answer when I have the brain space to do so, and if necessary, can politely steer to “sorry, have other commitments” or “this is stuff I get paid for” or even “so sorry, I know I said yes, but actually, to be honest, I just can’t because xyz”.

One important element to be able to start doing things that need it “right away” (you do not want to be putting things like cleaning up spilled milk on your to-do list) is to slow down, run less. If you’re trying to run out the door because you’re late for an appointment, you’re not going to clean up the spilled milk. You’re not going to do the washing up right after your meal. You’re not going to put the laundry away today if you haven’t planned that you need time for that. Yes, household chores, but it’s the same thing with work-related stuff: accounting, invoicing, getting back to prospective clients. You need wiggle space in your days, and that will not happen if you’re running from morning to evening.

I had forgotten about this when I wrote my previous post in this procrastination series, but one thing that helped me break out of the vicious running cycle was heading up into the mountains with no internet for a few days, in summer 2008. Up in the mountains, with nothing to do but eat, sleep, walk, and read a bit, I slowed down. I started taking the time to do things. And I kept a taste of this when I came back to my work-life.

I’ve found that, in the spirit of incremental changes, it’s no use deciding “from now on, I’m going to do all the regular stuff I should be doing as it comes in, à mesure“. Picking an area or two where you stick to it, on the other hand, is helpful. It’s helpful because it means one area where you will be accumulating less procrastinable material, and one area where you can experience the change, the slowing down, the “less backlog”, and get a taste of what it can be like to encourage yourself to make these changes in other areas of your life too.

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Weekly Planning: Weekly Routine? [en]

[fr] Je réfléchis à un rythme pour mes semaines. Même si elles se suivent sans se ressembler, certaines choses se répètent de semaine en semaine. J'en suis ici: lundi, courte journée consacrée essentiellement à m'organiser et à planifier la semaine, et à faire un sort à autant de tâches routinières que possible. Mardi, journée bureau. Mercredi, journée bureau ou meetings suivant les besoins. Jeudi après-midi, workshops ou meetings. Vendredi pour m'occuper de ce qui a passé entre les gouttes durant la semaine et faire des tâches "légères" (annoncer et promouvoir Bloggy Fridays et autres p'tits déjs, mettre le blog de l'eclau à jour, compta, paperasse, socialiser en ligne, mettre à jour ma présence sur les réseaux sociaux, etc...)

Attempting to plan my weeks has left me wondering if I should try to settle into some kind of weekly routine — especially when a week like last week comes up, where I realize that I have only one office day planned for the whole week, and on a Friday.

One thing I need to do in advance is plan my office and meeting days. Sometimes they are decided for me: a client wants me to come and give a talk on this or that day — well, that makes it a meeting day. But most of the time, I get to choose. So, which choice is best? What are the best days of the week for me to stay in the office, and what are the best days for me to be running around or seeing people all day?

Though my professional activities vary a lot for week to week, my personal ones are pretty regular. I finish early on Mondays and Fridays to go to judo. My Monday mornings and Thursday mornings are usually booked. I sing on Wednesday nights, or go sailing in summer. People from the coworking space often go out to eat together on Wednesdays.

There are also professional activities that I do or want to do each week: plan my week, for one. I’m the editor for a couple of blogs, and I have the choice between scheduling publications for the whole week at one moment, or publishing day-by-day. I write my column every week (on Sunday, so far). I want to write a few blogs posts every work, do some research, work on my business development, keep up with administrivia, and of course do my client work.

So, with all these different activities, and different types of days, maybe there is an optimal way of organizing my week.

Here’s my thinking so far (and many thanks to Suw who patiently listened to me thinking all this out loud over IM).

Planning my week is something, I realized, which can take upto half a day (scary!) because I’m still learning how to do it. It often involves rethinking priorities, doing a mind sweep (or an inbox sweep) to capture stray tasks that have slipped through the cracks, and sometimes dealing with actual emergencies. As I write this, I realise that my “plan my week” moments have a little “GTD weekly review” ring to them. They aren’t the weekly review, I’m aware of that, but there is some kinship.

I guess in an ideal world I would plan the next week on Friday afternoon, and make that a proper weekly review too. Unfortunately things do tend to crop up during the week-end, and I’m usually pretty tired by my week on Fridays, so I’m not in an optimal state of mind to be doing something new and a bit challenging.

As my Monday mornings are spent out of the office, and my Monday afternoons are pretty short, “Monday” actually turns out to be a good day for me to plan and get organized. Of course, if it doesn’t take the whole afternoon (which I hope!) I will get other things done — but I’ve learned it’s better to plan larger time slots than tight ones.

So, there goes my Monday.

Friday is another interesting day in the week: business is slow on that day, and meetings tend to happen earlier in the week. I’m tired (everybody is). Traditionally for me it’s an office day, and a rather quiet one: not many phone calls, not many incoming e-mails. If my brain is still functional it’s a good day to get things done, but most of the time it’s just not that productive. It’s useful to have it as an office day rather than a day full of meetings or errands, though, because it serves as a safety net to catch any emergencies that might not have been dealt with during the week. When I plan my week, I don’t usually *plan* to do much on Friday, apart from do the stuff I didn’t manage to do during the week.

Ten days ago, I was thinking about the type of activity that would be suitable for a low-energy day like Friday, and actually came up with quite a few ideas:

  • announcing events and promoting them (Bloggy Friday, eclau breakfasts and apéros, etc…)
  • updating blogs, mailing-lists, Facebook presence for my various projects
  • social media gardening: LinkedIn, Facebook, and all the rest
  • uploading photos
  • updating WordPress and plugins
  • trying out new toys or services (light research)
  • pruning my task lists (another hint of “weekly review”)
  • dealing with administrivia and filing paperwork
  • catching up with the week’s invoicing, accounting, and payments
  • getting back to people and socializing online.

A lot of these activities are actually more important than they might seem at first glance, and therefore they tend to slip through the cracks, grow hair and legs, and turn into scary emergency-monsters after a few weeks or months.

So, let’s say I declare Friday a “casual office” day, to catch up on the leftovers of the week and do the above. That leaves me with Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday.

Tuesday is a great office day. I have nothing planned in the evening, so it really gives me a clear day to just get on with work. Wednesday is also a good office day when I’m singing, as I can hang around until 7pm, though not so great when I’m sailing, as I’m likely to head out around 4pm. Thursday is usually only half a day, but will turn into a complete day similar to Tuesday in a few months’ time.

So, for the moment, it looks like I’m going to declare Tuesday a regular office day, Thursday afternoon a regular meeting/workshop time, and Wednesday will be office or meetings, depending on whether I have more “office” client work or more “meetings” client work.

Mondays are there to plan the week and get as much of my regular tasks out of the way. Friday is there to catch up on the “overflow”, deal with emergencies, and “casual” stuff. I’ll continue writing my column on Sundays.

What’s important to note though is that this is the framework. Many of my weeks will not work out like this — just like my days don’t always follow my daily routine. But having this framework is going to allow me to plan ahead better, I think.

Do you have some kind of weekly routine, or do you just go from week to week and deal with them as they show up?

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Getting Daily Business Out of the Way [en]

[fr] Je ressens généralement le besoin d'être à jour avec les "affaires courantes" avant d'attaquer le travail "proprement dit", comme lorsque j'avais besoin de ranger ma chambre ou mon appart avant de commencer à étudier pour mes examens, lorsque j'étais étudiante. Je ne suis pas sûre si c'est une bonne ou une mauvaise chose.

Over the last months, I’ve noticed how important it is for me to keep more or less up-to-date with daily business before dealing with “proper work”. Like when I was a student, and I needed to clean the flat before getting to work on my exams.

Non-done daily business floats about in your brain and distracts you. It’s the stuff you might forget to add to your next action lists because you do them pretty regularly all the time, like checking e-mail, responding to the easy ones, writing down expenses, keeping your desk clean, getting back to people who leave voicemail, writing a blog post.

This is the stuff that I’ve got in the habit of dealing with pretty much as soon as it comes in.

Maybe it should go on my lists too (in pure GTD terms, it should probably).

I’m not sure if this is a good or a bad thing.

It is linked, in a way I don’t quite grasp yet, to what I’m going to talk about in the next post of my procrastination series: getting into the habit of doing certain things immediately.

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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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