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Tag: procrastination

Faire les choses pour soi [fr]

Faire les choses pour soi [fr]

[en] With less anxiety in my life in general, and at a professional crossroads which asks for work on projects which delay gratification more than I am used to (which is not much), I find myself struggling to make progress. I love doing things for others, but find it hard to put as much energy into things for myself.

Dans cette période “entre-mandats” où je suis en train de réfléchir à réorienter la façon dont je présente mes activités professionnelles (et probablement par la même occasion les recadrer), je me retrouve aux prises avec un des “challenges de ma vie”: avancer, faire, sans que ce soit directement pour quelqu’un d’autre ou un objectif gratifiant immédiat.

Heavy Load

Je m’appelle Stephanie, j’ai 41 ans, et je suis encore accro à la satisfaction immédiate.

Je me suis déjà cassé le nez sur ce problème de fonctionnement à l’époque où j’écrivais mon mémoire (enfin, où je ne l’écrivais pas, surtout). Depuis, j’ai fait beaucoup de chemin, et c’est clair que 10 ans d’indépendance professionnelle m’ont obligés à trouver des stratégies. Mais quand même.

J’écris volontiers sur impulsion (pour ce blog principalement), mais beaucoup plus difficilement sur commande.
Je fais volontiers quelque chose qui a un effet visible rapidement (ce qui fait de moi une “faiseuse” — allez, hop, trêve de blablas, passons à l’action!), mais je traîne les pieds pour les choses importantes et invisibles (bonjour, compta).
J’aime passer du temps “dans le moment”, à parler avec des gens, mais je me décourage vite lorsqu’il s’agit de travail de longue haleine.

Certes, je suis capable de persévérer, ce n’est pas le désastre total, sinon je n’aurais jamais survécu professionnellement ni personnellement. Mais je paie le prix par le stress de dernière minute (faire les choses dans l’urgence — relative) et les opportunités non poursuivies (le fameux livre, ça vous rappelle quelque chose?

Mon moteur principal pour faire les choses est, il me semble, faire plaisir ou rendre service aux autres. J’aime être utile. J’ai dû apprendre à dire “non”, d’abord aux autres, puis à moi-même, et je prends donc mes engagements de façon plus maîtrisée et réaliste, mais mon premier élan est toujours de me porter volontaire, d’aider autrui, de dépanner. Beaucoup de mes rapports aux autres reposent sur ça, d’ailleurs. En gros, pour dire les choses de façon un peu triviale, je veux qu’on m’aime. Et dans mon monde, on est apprécié parce qu’on est utile. (Oui, je sais, je sais…)

Corollaire, l’angoisse-moteur. A la base, je suis suis quelqu’un qui fonctionne à l’angoisse. Quand j’ai le couteau sous la gorge, que le délai me chauffe les talons, que je sais que je vais m’attirer des ennuis si “je le fais pas”, je fais. Vous aurez fait le lien: si je ne rends pas service, on ne va pas m’aimer, donc je veux rendre service. La peur n’apparaît pas en surface dans ce cas de figure (j’ai vraiment envie de rendre service), mais qu’on ne se leurre pas, elle est là, dessous, tapie.

Il y des degrés aussi chez les spécialistes de la dernière minute: je n’ai jamais fait de nuit blanche pour rendre un séminaire d’uni le lendemain à 8h que j’aurais fini de taper à 7h10. Par contre, je me suis retrouvée plus d’une fois à faire mon impression finale à 1h du matin. Idem avec les impôts et la compta: toujours en retard, toujours à la bourre, mais jamais vraiment dans les ennuis. Et pas de nuits blanches non plus. Je tire sur la corde, mais pas jusqu’à ce qu’elle casse.

Alors, aujourd’hui?

Aujourd’hui il se passe deux choses:

  • d’une part, mon moteur “angoisse” est moins actif — je suis simplement moins angoissée dans ma vie (c’est bien!), mais du coup j’ai “perdu” ce bénéfice, cette force (pas très saine) qui me poussait en avant
  • d’autre part, comme déjà évoqué plus haut, je suis à ce carrefour professionnel où je n’ai pas de gros mandats immédiats en cours, et où j’ai justement l’opportunité d’investir du temps pour faire des choses comme présenter mon activité autrement, mettre sur pied des produits, réaliser (enfin) ces fameux cours en ligne auxquels je pense depuis 5 ans, etc.

Par rapport à la perte du “moteur angoisse”: beaucoup de gens fonctionnent avec ce moteur. C’est très courant. Ce n’est pas idéal, mais c’est comme ça. Dans mon cas, ma “désangoisse” est quelque chose auquel j’aspire (et travaille) depuis de longues années. Ça porte ses fruits. Je vis mieux mon quotidien. Je me sens bien, dans l’ensemble. Bref, je ne suis plus si angoissée. Je me sens plus en paix avec ma vie, j’ai moins peur des gens, j’ai des rapports sociaux plus chaleureux au quotidien.

Mais le revers de la médaille, c’est que je n’ai plus “mon moteur”, et que je n’ai pas encore réussi à le remplacer par un autre. Idéalement, on s’investirait au quotidien dans les projets et activités qui ont un sens par rapport à ce qu’on veut faire de notre vie. Que désire-t-on accomplir, faire, ou comment désire-t-on vivre, pour pouvoir, à l’heure de notre dernier souffle, quitter ce monde sans trop de regrets? Quel est le sens de notre vie, quelles sont nos valeurs, quelle est notre mission? Ça peut être faire la fête, hein, ça n’a pas besoin d’être sauver le monde.

C’est là que je bats un peu de l’aile. Je peine à me projeter, je peine à savoir quel est mon sens. Je peine à accrocher ma charrue à mes désirs à long terme, à faire aujourd’hui ce qui m’apportera des fruits dans le futur — la fameuse gratification différée.

Et de retour de quatre semaines de vacances où j’ai pu vivre comme un petit papillon, sans obligations, portée par les envies de l’instant, je suppose que c’est d’autant plus dur.

J’aimerais être capable de mettre autant d’énergie avec aussi peu d’effort dans ce que je fais pour moi que dans ce que je fais pour les autres.

Si vous avez ce profil papillon-procrastinateur et que vous êtes parvenus à le surmonter pour mettre votre énergie dans des projets ou activités à long terme, j’avoue que je suis curieuse d’entendre votre histoire.

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The Zeigarnik Effect and Open Loops [en]

The Zeigarnik Effect and Open Loops [en]

[fr] L'effet Zeigarnik, c'est ce qui nous fait finir quelque chose dans lequel on est lancé, ou qui fait qu'on repense à ce qu'on a interrompu pour y revenir. A mon avis, cet effet joue un rôle clé dans ce qui nous attire encore et encore à retourner sur Facebook ou autre: en prenant part dans des communautés et réseaux en ligne, on met en marche toutes sortes de choses dont on veut voir l'aboutissement. J'ai posté un lien, la chaîne d'actions logique est ensuite que des gens vont liker, commenter et partager. Il y aura peut-être une réponse à donner, ou tout du moins, je veux "suivre" pour savoir comment ça fini. Les conversations en ligne, idem: il y a toujours quelque chose qui se passe dans un chat, la discussion ne se termine jamais.

A few months ago, I stumbled upon the Zeigarnik Effect. It is the effect that prevents us from interrupting our teeth-brushing in the middle. Once we’ve started, we feel a need to keep going. It’s really useful.

For me, it was a missing piece of the puzzle that fitted nicely alongside the idea of GTD’s “open loops”. If you have to interrupt something before you’re done with it or the task is completely, the Zeigarnik Effect will make sure your brain nags you about it.

It explains why it’s important to “just get started” or “just do something”. It also explains why having a lot of ongoing stuff in parallel is stressful.

While I’ve been writing this post, I’ve given myself a wonderful demonstration of the Zeigarnik Effect in action. You see, I couldn’t remember exactly where I’d heard about it. I’m pretty sure it’s in one of James Clear‘s posts, because it’s definitely the kind of thing that he writes about, but I’m not 100% certain.

I can remember the context: for a given task, there is a kind of “tipping point” where the Zeigarnik Effect kicks in, and you finish what you’ve started. Knowing where that point is comes in really handy for getting things done rather than just thinking about how we’re not doing them. I remember the example clearly: for flossing, the “tipping point” or “trigger” in question was when he’d torn the piece of floss off the roll.

I’ve just spent… oh, I don’t even dare tell you… way too much time trying to find that article so I could link to it. I found plenty about flossing and the Zeigarnik effect. The worst is that I already spent way too much time trying to dig out that source when preparing a mini-workshop on “time/task management” I gave two months back. And didn’t find it.

You know the irony? I just stumbled upon the article in question! It wasn’t James Clear after all. And you know the funny bit? I thought I’d add a link to a Google search in the above paragraph. Just to show you how much stuff about Zeigarnik and floss I had waded through. To my surprise, many of the links there were not those I had been wading through an hour ago. Maybe I only searched in specific places where I thought the article was, like Clear’s blog. Anyway. I have it! Incredible!

The reason I went down that rabbit-hole was because it was an “unfinished task”. And the more time I spent trying to “finish” it, the stronger my urge to keep going became. Typical, right?

And here we go again: while looking up some old articles of mine, I remembered that the markdown plugin wasn’t working on the new server. I had to hold myself back from downloading and installing it. It would have meant interrupting the writing of this blog post, though, so I guess that is what just saved me. But now I have this nagging “open loop” in a corner of my mind.

(Bear with me while I add it to my running list of things that need to be done so I can stop thinking about it.)

(Oops, while I was there, I quickly checked a spreadsheet to see if there were any new sign-ups for my next workshop. There weren’t. Do I leave the form open or close it now?)

As you can see, there is a clear link here to multitasking, procrastination, and the general feeling of “not enough brain space” that I have a times. It also makes me think about how when I start something, I have a lot of trouble stopping. Hypertrophied Zeigarnik Effect?

Today — and this is what prompted this post — I suddenly realised that the Zeigarnik Effect played an important part in dragging me back to my computer, or my phone (home to Facebook and Google Plus). By participating in online communities and networks (sounds better than “social media” doesn’t it? more human?) I set things in motion that do not end.

An online conversation is never-ending. There are always people in the chatroom. I post a link, it will be interesting to see who likes, comments, or shares it. I stumble upon interesting articles that need to be read.

My time on my phone or my computer is spent creating innumerable open loops that I am then desperate to close, while at the same time opening yet others that will also have to be closed. Whack-a-mole.

It feels like my “tipping point” for feeling the urge to finish something (or at least dive in) is ridiculously early. Am I mixing two things up here? Do we still speak of the Zeigarnik Effect when a task has not actually been started? Is thinking about doing it sufficient in some cases to “initiate” it?

So here’s my next mission: taming my open loops. I can’t remove them, but I can learn to live with them better.

(This was originally the title to this post, but given I’m not sure how I’m going to do that it seemed a little misleading.)

Before writing this post, I googled for “open loops social media” and other related searches, and I now have about a dozen articles to read about “compulsion loops” and the inevitable “social media addiction” (disclaimer: I’m not convinced it is correct to speak about “addiction” in this context). I’ll probably have more to write on the topic… if I manage to get around to reading them. 😉

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Bien utiliser son temps hors de l'urgence [fr]

Bien utiliser son temps hors de l'urgence [fr]

[en] How do you deal with making good use of your time when there is no urgency or looming deadlines?

Ça, c’est mon challenge de l’été. Il n’y a pas d’urgence, pas d’huile sur le feu. C’est le moment de penser un peu long terme (et je le fais) et donc de s’attaquer à des choses comme:

  • cette série de ebooks que je pourrais écrire
  • me lancer dans la production de contenus e-learning (dieu sait qu’il y a de la matière)
  • bosser sur mon site web “pro” (je suis en train de le faire, mais en-dehors de mes séances avec Fabienne je suis un peu molle du genou, par exemple pour la version anglaise)
  • préparer des formations de base et les proposer à gauche et à droite
  • réfléchir à mon positionnement

Et côté perso:

  • trier mes photos (argh!)
  • faire les nettoyages de printemps (je fais, suivant l’impulsion que m’a donnée la visite de Natacha d’adndeco)

You want me to do something? Really?L’été, c’est aussi:

  • regarder pousser les tomates sur mon balcon
  • faire de la voile
  • décrocher et déconnecter en partant en vacances
  • prendre le temps… pour vivre.

Alors là au milieu, je peine un poil à être aussi efficace que je le voudrais. Surtout qu’il y a beaucoup de choses qui flottent un peu dans mon paysage professionnel.

Comment je fais, du coup? J’ai des trucs. Reste à penser à les utiliser, à trouver celui qui va marcher dans cette situation précise, et… le faire.

Limiter mon temps de travail

Ça paraît paradoxal mais c’est un truc qui marche. Plus j’ai de temps, en général, moins je suis efficace. (Ça va avec mon côté un peu procrastinatrice, qui a besoin d’avoir un délai dans le viseur pour se bouger.)

Donc je bloque 2h ou 3h pour travailler. Le reste du temps j’ai congé.

Planifier à plus long terme

S’il n’y a pas d’urgences urgentes, essayer de planifier un peu quand je vais faire “toutes ces choses” que j’ai enfin le temps de faire me montre qu’en fait il n’y a pas tant de temps que ça à disposition.

Je commence par faire une liste de tout ce qui me trotte dans la tête “à faire”, j’organise un peu tout ça en projets/next actions, je sors mon calendrier et je pose des choses. OK, demain je fais ça, après-demain ça… Purée puis ça en fait ça devrait être fait dans 10 jours, donc entre les 5 autres trucs ça va être chaud… Idéalement, sur quelques semaines (plus j’ai un peu de peine encore).

Mettre des délais internes

La brochure pour la nouvelle formation, elle sera faite d’ici mercredi. Hop. Comme ça. Le problème avec ça c’est si on n’a pas tendance à tenir ses engagements avec soi-même. Impliquer une autre personne peut aider (par exemple, je dis à la chef de projet “mercredi prochain je te donne les textes”).

Ça va avec la planification à long terme, parce qu’on commence à placer des choses au moment où on se dit: “OK, je veux lancer les formations e-learning en janvier, donc…”

Tomates du balconFaire des tomates

Histoire de ne pas glander durant son temps de travail, la méthode pomodoro peut aider à rester concentré. “Je fais 4 pomodoro par jour” par exemple.

Rendre tout ça ludique

La “gamification”, c’est pas que pour les applications sociales. On peut aussi l’utiliser pour rendre certaines tâches moins ennuyeuses. Je me souviens de cet exemple que j’avais lu quelque part étant ado: pour faire le ménage, un couple se répartissait les tâches. Je fais l’aspi, tu nettoies la salle de bains. Une alarme est réglé sur 20 minutes (par exemple). Chaque fois qu’elle sonne, c’est la course pour l’éteindre, car le premier arrivé choisit s’il veut garder la même tâche pour le prochain round ou bien échanger.

Quand j’ai du mal à décider par quoi commencer, je mets mes différentes tâches sur des petits cartons. J’utilise une minuterie (15, 20, 30 minutes selon l’humeur et le genre de tâche). Je tire au sort un carton pour la première tranche — quand ça sonne, j’arrête et je tire un nouveau carton. J’ai aussi trouvé de l’inspiration pour cette idée dans le “Weekly Home Blessing” de Flylady.

Vous avez des trucs, vous? Là, ce que je m’en vais faire c’est un peu de planification “long terme” — je crois que c’est ça qu’il me faut juste maintenant.

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Just do it [en]

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]

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

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]

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]

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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My Journey Out of Procrastination: Five Principles [en]

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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Brain Space [en]

Brain Space [en]

[fr] Mon amie Steph a utilisé hier au téléphone l'expression "brain space" pour exprimer qu'une tâche était peut-être minime mais qu'elle occupait beaucoup de place dans son esprit (dans le genre envahissante). Je cherche une bonne expression en français, mais j'échoue: "espace mental", peut-être?

Yesterday, I was having a lovely “catch up” phone call with my good friend Stephanie Troeth. At one point, she mentioned something that wasn’t a huge project but it “took up brain space”.

I thought, “Brain space! What a great expression!”

Of course, it’s about stress, attention, you name it — but I think that “brain space” is a really good way to express what it feels like.

Regularly, I’m asked to do a small thing (or worse, I volunteer) and it ends up eating at my ability to focus on something else. It’s on the “stress-list”. It’s the thing I’m asked to do but I’m not really supposed to be doing, so I have to use up energy to explain that to the client. It’s the thing that seemed simple initially but ends up having an emotional charge that is more important than expected. It can even be my taxes, which I put off doing each year until it’s really really late (think October or even November, people).

David Allen’s Getting Things Done method also recognizes that each “thing you have to do” eats a certain amount of storage space, irrespectively of how large the thing actually is. Hence the lists. Getting things out of your head.

Over the past year, I’ve been trying to learn to say no to assignments which will use up too much brain space. I’m getting better at it, but it’s not completely painless yet. I’m also very much aware that I’m flirting with the limits of how many different projects or clients I can have, or even how many friendships I can keep alive (Dunbar’s number, anyone?) — even with the help of technology, which in my opinion does allow one to push those limits further.

Thanks to Steph, I now have a new way of classifying tasks and activities, by the amount of brain space they take up.

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