The Blog of Unfinished [en]

[fr] Un blog, c'est un espace pour lancer là-dehors des choses. Pas nécessaire que ce soit tout léché. Quand je veux faire du léché, c'est simple, je ne commence pas. Ou si je commence, je ne finis pas. Avec le blog, je me dis "bah, peu importe si c'est vraiment bien ou pas; l'essentiel c'est que ce soit publié". 13 ans que ça dure.

Hopefully you’ve heard by now that I co-direct a course on social media and online communities here in Lausanne. We’re preparing for the fourth year. This means I have students. And believe me, I learn a lot from them — they’re fascinating people. Of course, they are, they chose to follow the course I co-direct 😉

I’m mentioning this because I realized something very recently following conversations with two ex-students (or soon-to-be-ex). The reason I like my blog so much, and am still blogging 13 years after I started, is that it is a space where I can indulge in my natural tendency to start stuff and not finish it.

Said like that it’s a bit extreme, but let me explain.

The first step was the evening I spent with my ex-student who is starting a little side business of interior design alongside her day job. She waffled out a few free sessions and I took one. At some point the conversation drifted to more personal topics, and I mentioned my urges to start things and my difficulty in finishing them — probably related to my difficulty throwing things out. I’m a starter, generally. I have ideas. I want to do stuff. Way more than the space of my life lets me. Once I’ve started something, I do tend to lose interest, or at least find it more difficult to keep going. And don’t get me started (!) on finishing.

Yes, I’ll own up to being an immediate gratification junkie.

The second step, a day or two later, was a phone call with another ex-student that I had gently chided for signing a blog comment (“best regards” and the like). I was encouraging him to blog earlier about the project he was working on, and he was telling me he found it challenging to put things “out there” without them being sufficiently polished. My reaction of course (which I think wasn’t actually very helpful in his precise situation) was to say that blogging is for the imperfect, the good enough. A blog is great as a “put it out there” space.

And this is really how I use my blog. The stuff I don’t write about, I often don’t write about because I feel I need to work on it more. Wanting to do things well — too well — prevents me from doing them.

It sounds contradictory with what I said above about starting things and not finishing them, doesn’t it? It isn’t.

So this is why I like blogging. It’s a tool that makes it easy for me to “just get it out there”. It doesn’t have to be perfect. Yes of course it could be better. I’m sure I could have said the things I’m saying now more clearly. I’m sure I could have made them more compelling. More SEO-thingy. Found photos to illustrate. Thought about when to publish this kind of post and how to distribute it.

But no — I go the brain-dump way. And because I brain-dump, there are hundreds (thousands) of blog posts here which actually might come in handy to others.


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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: 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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S'organiser… en fonction du niveau de stress? [fr]

[en] I tend to grow out of my "GTD" systems. Initially, I found myself wondering if I shouldn't simply accept that I'm somebody who needs to change systems every few months (victim of "the magic of novelty"). However, I'm now inclined to think that I might need different time/task management systems depending on how stressed I am. It seems logical, after all, that the best way to keep your head out of water when you're on the verge of sinking is not necessarily the best method to be productive when you're not afraid of drowning.

Il y a une dizaine de jours, me promenant dans mon cher Chablais vaudois (je vous dois des photos, et aussi du Bol d’Or, je suis irrécupérable), je méditais tranquillement sur ma tendance (irrécupérable) à sombrer dans la procrastination. En effet, après quelques mois très chargés et productifs, rythmés par les petits billets colorés “à faire” sur mon bureau, la pression s’est relâchée, l’été est arrivé, et… je pétouille.

J’ai toujours bien des choses à faire, je vous rassure, mais je ne suis plus en train de courir derrière les deadlines. (Je suis disponible pour de nouveaux mandats, en passant, ne comprenez pas dans ce “bien des choses à faire” que “Steph est surbookée et n’a de temps pour rien, comme d’hab'”.) Et, misère, les petits billets colorés sur mon bureau ont l’air d’avoir perdu leur pouvoir de m’aider à organiser mon temps.

Ma première idée fut la suivante: peut-être que je suis simplement quelqu’un qui est très susceptible à la magie de la nouveauté, et que je dois simplement changer régulièrement de méthode d’organisation. Peut-être faut-il simplement que j’accepte que “j’use” mes systèmes de gestion du temps, et qu’au bout de quelques mois, il me faut simplement en trouver un autre.

Quelques kilomètres plus loin, ma réflexion avait suivi mes pieds et avancé également: peut-être que l’usure des méthodes de gestion du temps n’était pas une fatalité. En effet, une différence majeure entre la Grande Epoque des Petits Billets Colorés (février-avril) et maintenant est mon état de stress. Je suis beaucoup moins stressée. Et comme toute personne qui a un peu tendance à être motivée par l’urgence et les épées de Damoclès, l’absence de stress signifie que je me laisse un peu emporter par mon envie de me la couler douce.

On comprend donc aisément que les piles de petits billets roses et bleus sur mon bureau, destinés avant tout à me permettre de me concentrer sur les quelques tâches les plus urgentes du jour, ne fonctionnent plus vraiment.

Moralité: j’ai peut-être simplement besoin d’avoir à ma disposition une palette de méthodes à utiliser en fonction de mon état de stress.

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Passivity [en]

[fr] Quelques cogitations internes, sur la passivité, l'activité, et mon mode de fonctionnement.

Warning: introspective ramble ahead. Written more for me than for you. I’m not asking for solutions.

Inch by inch, I’m figuring myself out. What makes me feel good is Doing Something. The feeling I know so well, mildly depressed, mildly despaired, mildly guilty and somewhat anxious has a name: passivity.

It’s a trap, because I use it as an excuse to do less, when all it takes to get out of it is to Do Something. And also, simply, because it’s a state which makes Doing Something difficult.

Hanging around on the Internet aimlessly chatting and surfing, especially when my hands hurt, is not Doing Something.

I need to remember this.

What I haven’t quite figured out yet is why it’s so much easier when I have company. Is it because what I really need is company, and having it removes the pressure to use passivity to get attention? Is it because when there are two (or more) of you, you tend to Do Things? Put two people together, and they get organised, and schedule things? Is it because when I have company, it’s inevitably goal-oriented?

Might be a mixture of all this. It’ll clear up at some point.

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Keeping The Flat Clean: Living Space As User Interface [en]

How I applied what I have understood about designing user interfaces to organising my flat so that it too is ‘usable’ and remains clean.

One of my ongoing post-study projects is reorganising my flat from top to bottom, hopefully throwing out half my stuff in the process. I have been thinking a bit about the way I store things.

First of all, I tend to try to minimise waste of space. I will organise things into cupboards and drawers so that they occupy the less space possible. Second, I tend to organise things with taxonomy rather than function in mind. I will try to store objects of the same type together, regardless of their respective frequency of use.

The result is a perpetually messy flat, with whole areas that I never use (places I do not go, cupboards I never open).

I have therefore been rethinking my whole living environment in terms of function and process. What do I use this thing for, and when? How do I deal with common tasks like washing up or doing my mail? And most important, how does clutter arise? An environment where each thing has a place is not sufficient to prevent clutter. If clutter arises, it is not due to “laziness”. It is because the storage system is not usable enough. It was not designed with the user in mind.

I have switched to considering my living space as a user interface rather than as a library of categorised items.

If I catch myself dumping something on the table instead of putting it away, I’ll try to identify what is preventing me from putting it where it belongs. I’ll try to bring this “where it belongs” closer to where I am naturally tempted to put it. (Instead of thinking “ooh I’m a bad girl, I’m not putting things away as I should,” which we all agree does not help in the least.)

Here are a couple of examples of what I have been doing.

First, I identified the main sources of clutter in my flat: dirty kitchen things, clothes, papers and books. Then I tried to analyse how these things ended up lying about my whole flat. I know that I can clean my flat spotless, and that within a couple of weeks it will be messy again. So obviously, there are things I do mechanically which create clutter. Something which breaks the natural “keeping clean” flow.

Let’s take the dirty dishes to start with. (Not the most glamorous example, but I’m sure there are many of you out there who can relate.) Why do I leave cups, glasses, or even plates lying around in various places? A first reason for this, obviously, is that I do not only eat in my kitchen. That’s a fact we will just have to live with. But why don’t I bring things back to the kitchen? Well, more often than not, the kitchen is in such a state that there wouldn’t really be any place to put them. The sink, of course, is already full of dirty dishes. We have here are perfect example of how disorganisation in one area leads to clutter elsewhere.

One factor which helps stuff pile up in my sink (despite my “fool-proof” method for taming dirty dishes) is that I usually have to make space on the drainer before I start washing up. (I’m one of these people who don’t dry dishes but leave them on the drainer to put them away “later”.) And putting the dishes away is a pain because my cupboard is so crammed with stuff that I have to empty half of it before being able to put my plates were they belong. That is where the bottleneck is. Or the limiting factor, if you prefer.

I realised that out of my four kitchen cupboards, there are only two that I regularly open. I proceeded to empty all the junk out of the others and get rid of the most of it (if I never open the cupboards, then I can’t really need what’s inside them, can I?) I then reorganised the things I use on a regular basis in all the available cupboards, focusing on “how easy will it be to put it back there?” rather than “could I use less space for this?”

One significant result concerns plates. (Don’t worry, we’ll soon be done with the kitchen things.) I have big plates and small plates, four of each. I used to keep the small plates piled up on the big ones, which meant that each time I wanted to put a big plate back in the cupboard, I had to lift up all the small plates first (see what I mean?) That didn’t help prevent things from accumulating on the drainer. Now I have the small plates on one shelf, and big ones on another. I use up more storage space, but it’s easier to put things away. I have rearranged all my kitchen cupboards along the same principle, and the kitchen is now much more usable.

This post is getting much longer than what I expected. However, I don’t want to leave you without letting you know what I have come up with for dealing with my incoming mail. I have been using a tray-based system for sorting paperwork for a long time, but it has shown its limitations regularly over the past years. The new system still uses trays, that groups papers according to what I have to do with them instead of what they are. So now, this is what my trays look like; I’ll see as I use it if it needs any modifications:

  • to do (bills to pay, things to investigate or have a closer look at)
  • to do, ASAP (anything urgent)
  • to file, daily business (bank papers, medical papers, salary slips)
  • to file, important (tax stuff and other important things)
  • to look at (optional) before throwing out (various newspapers, information leaflets)
  • to throw out (envelopes and anything else I don’t keep; the bin is often not close at hand)
  • to sort (anything unopened; sometimes I fetch my mail and don’t deal with it straight away

In conclusion, here is my line of conduct:

  1. pay attention to cupboards that are never opened or shelves that are never reached at
  2. keep an eye on what I do automatically and try to adapt the environment
  3. think “actions”, “process”, and “frequency” instead of “categories” and “families”
  4. accept my limitations

The last point is important: there will always be clean washing waiting to be ironed, because no matter how hard I try, I’ll never get around to ironing and putting it away as soon as it’s dry. I therefore need to take this into account and explicitly plan a space for my huge pile of Clothes Waiting To Be Ironed, even if in an ideal world, Clothes Waiting To Be Ironed should not be around.

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