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]

[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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There is Work and Work [en]

We freelancers know it: there are many kinds of work. Non-freelancers probably know it too, but let’s stick to the freelance way of life for the sake of this article.

There is work that gets you paid. There is work that doesn’t get you paid, but that you need to do in order to get the work that will get you paid.

There is also work that you have decided to do and planned, and work that you just happen to do.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the last distinction lately.

Three years ago, I had a big client project and was going through a slow procrastinative summer. At one point, I decided to stop worrying and embrace my summer days: I would work from 9am to noon and then would be free to do whatever I wanted.

It worked really well. I made quick progress on the project and got to enjoy my summer.

This year, I’m having a slow summer too. The weather is nice, people are on holiday, I’m learning to sail, and I’m not swamped with work (I am busy with lots of things, though, I think that’ll never change). And honestly, when I look at my productivity certain most days, I might not be working less if I had decided to do the 9-12.

Deciding to work 9-12 does not mean that I stop myself from working in the afternoons. It means that I don’t have to work in the afternoons. And this is where the work you plan and the work that just happens comes in.

I rediscovered this when I started working in my coworking space, eclau: office hours started to be devoted to “things I had to do” for work, and sometimes, in the evenings or week-ends, I would do some light work that I felt like doing (work that doesn’t feel like work). Blogging, for example. Fooling around online. Sometimes, even doing my accounting because I felt like it. But nothing because I felt I ought to do it.

So, next year, I’m thinking of trying the 9-12 during the summer months. Work well three hours, then do something else or allow myself to be completely unproductive in the afternoon.

Hell, why wait until next year? I’m starting tomorrow.

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Let's Buddy Work! [en]

[fr] Un bon truc quand on n'avance pas dans son travail: trouver quelqu'un (souvent en ligne) avec qui travailler en tandem. "Bon, alors moi, je vais écrire cet e-mail pendant que toi tu lis ce rapport, et on se retrouve dans 30 minutes pour se donner des nouvelles." Un moyen de s'encourager et de se soutenir mutuellement -- souvent, en aidant l'autre à déterminer quelle est sa prochaine tâche, à charge de revanche.

More than once, buddy working has saved my day. I think Suw came up with the term and the idea — though I’m sure there are many other people using this kind of technique. Suw’s the person I’ve done it most with, but not the only one. I’ve done it with Delphine a couple of times, and with a few other people.

How does it work? Basically, take two people who are faffing away or procrastinating through the day. Put them in touch through IM. Each helps/supports the other in figuring out a task to accomplish (15-30 minutes). Both go off and do their task, and come back into the chat to report on progress!

One of the first times I remember doing this was not for work, actually, but for something like washing the dishes. It’s a simple trick, and it works offline too. It gives you a little nudge to do things and is encouraging when you have somebody to share it with.

Do you do this? Do you have similar tricks to share? I’d love to hear about it!

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Inbox to Zero in no Time [en]

[fr] Un moyen radical (et quasi instantané) pour atteindre le fameux et très convoité inbox zero.

So, having trouble keeping your inbox count down? Piling up in the hundreds, the thousands, even? I have a totally foolproof method to bring your inbox count down to [the coveted zero](http://www.43folders.com/izero). It’s been tested in GMail, but I’m sure it works in other e-mail clients too.

The best part of it is how fast it works. The result is guaranteed.

Are you ready for it? Just follow these two simple steps:

– click on “Select All”
– press the “Archive” button

There! You’re done! Inbox to zero in now time at all. It works — or you can have your money back.

Now, for the slightly more serious part.

I really did this, this summer if I remember correctly, during a conference. I mean, I wasn’t going to go through all that piled up e-mail anyway. Most of the e-mails were obsolete — when stuff is really important, people e-mail again, and again, or call you, or tweet you, or catch you on IRC or at an event.

Once your inbox actually is at zero, it’s much easier to keep it to zero. Archive without mercy. Answer easy stuff as soon as you see it (I do that to the point some people have told me my e-mails have become a bit curt, so I’m trying to add a bit of cream in again — but the basic principle remains: do it now). My inbox sometimes goes up to 40 or 50 if I stay away from the computer, but then I bring it back down again, over a few days. If I haven’t seen zero in some time, it’s time to deal with those two things lying at the bottom of my inbox for the last 10 days — or decide that I won’t, and archive them.

Sometimes, I feel I can’t keep up anymore, or don’t want to “deal”, so I archive.

Does that sound like I’m mistreating my e-mail? Sure. But so is letting it pile up in your inbox for weeks, months, and years.

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Dealing With Procrastination [en]

In her post about [going freelance](http://www.disambiguity.com/did-i-mention-im-freelancing-or-coping-strategies-from-the-dining-room-desk/), [Leisa Reichelt](http://www.disambiguity.com/) tells us of her favorite method for fighting procrastination:

> My number one favourite technique is called ‘[structured procrastination](http://www.structuredprocrastination.com/)‘ and here’s how it works. You’ve got a to do list. It’s reasonably long. Make sure it’s got ALL the things you should be doing or should have done on it. Then, attempt to tackle the task you think you *should* be doing. You may have some success, but if you are like me, this is a task that you’re probably doing ahead of time and the lack of adrenaline makes it less compelling than it could be. Rather than just surfing the internet or doing something even less constructive – go to your list and pick something else on the list to do.

Leisa Reichelt, Did I mention I’m freelancing? (or, coping strategies from the dining room desk)

Well, it’s not really foolproof, but one thing I often do is just decide I’ll work 30 minutes on something. 30 minutes is an OK time to spend on something, even if you don’t want to do it. Then I’m free to do what I want.

Sometimes, once I’m “in” it, I run over the 30 minutes and finish the task. If it’s very long, however, I force myself to take a break from it after 30 minutes — so that I’m not cheating myself and the next time I convince myself to spend 30 minutes on something, I know it’ll be just 30 minutes.

You see, one of the things I’ve understood about my “not being able to start” things is that it’s closely linked to my “not being able to stop” things.

In that respect, I quite like the [procrastination dash](http://www.43folders.com/2005/09/08/kick-procrastinations-ass-run-a-dash/) and [(10+2)*5 hack](http://www.43folders.com/2005/10/11/procrastination-hack-1025/). I’ve also used the [kick start technique](http://www.self-aggrandizement.com/archives/011705_kick_start.html) with success.

Being quite the [GTD](http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Getting_Things_Done) fan, I’ve had a chance to notice more than once that my productivity is usually the right opposite to my levels of stress. And my levels of stress — surprise — are usually closely linked to the number of things I need to do which are floating in my head. **Capturing** all the stuff I need to do and organizing it in one system (which is what GTD is about, really) is often enough to make me feel “un-stressed” enough that I can get to work on the next things I need to get done.

Sometimes, it’s a particular thing I need to do which stresses me most. And when I get stressed, I tend to feel down, and when I feel down, well… I’m not good at doing things. So I go through a routine which is similar to [Merlin Mann’s cringe-busting your to-do list](http://www.43folders.com/2005/05/23/cringe-busting-your-todo-list/) to identify *what it is* exactly that is weighing down on me most. Then, **do** something about it!

And as Leisa mentions, having a list of **all** the stuff you need to do that you can pick from really, really helps.

A word of caution however: “to do” lists are often a trap, because they can contain much more than “things you need to do”, and the items on the list are not always **[simple actions you can take immediately](http://www.43folders.com/2004/09/27/does-this-next-action-belong-someplace-else/)** (“Next Actions” in GTD jargon). Here’s [how to make your to-do list smarter](http://www.43folders.com/2005/09/12/building-a-smarter-to-do-list-part-i/) — it’s useful even if you don’t use GTD.

Another thing I’ve been doing lately (it worked well enough until went through a bad personal phase — nothing to do with doing things — and everything went to the dogs) is deciding that I devote a small number of hours a day to *paid client work*. If you’re a freelancer, specially in the consulting business, you’ll know that a lot of our work is not directly billable. So, I try to keep my 9-12 mornings for paid work and what is related to it (e-mails, phone calls, billing) and the rest of the day is then free for me to use for what I call “non-paid work” (blogging, trying out new tools, reading up on stuff, nasty administrivia…) or relaxing.

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Getting Things Done: It's Just About Stress [en]

[fr] Getting Things Done: non pas un moyen d'accomplir plus de choses, mais un moyen de passer moins de temps sur ce qu'on a décidé qu'on devait accomplir. Moins de stress. Plus de liberté. Plus de temps à soi.

Anne seems to have struck a chord with [thing #8 she hates about web 2.0](http://annezelenka.com/2007/03/ten-things-i-hate-about-you-web-20):

> Getting Things Done. The productivity virus so many of us have been infected with in 2006 and 2007. Let’s move on. Getting lots of stuff done is not the way to achieve something important. You could be so busy planning next actions that you miss out on what your real contribution should be.

[Stowe](http://www.stoweboyd.com/message/2007/03/anne_zelenka_on_1.html), [Shelley](http://burningbird.net/linkers/linkers/) and [Ken](http://ipadventures.com/?p=1653) approve.

It’s funny, but reading their posts makes GTD sound like “a way to do an even more insane number of things.”

Huh?

That’s not at all the impression I got when I read and started using GTD. To me, GTD is “a solution to finally be able to enjoy free time without feeling bogged down by a constant feeling of guilt over everything I should already have done.”

Maybe not everyone has issues doing things. If you don’t have trouble getting stuff out of the way, then throw GTD out of the window and continue enjoying life. You don’t need it.

But for many people, procrastination, administrivia piling up, not-enough-time-for-stuff-I-enjoy-doing and commitments you know you’re not going to be able to honour are a reality, and a reality that is a source of stress. I, for one, can totally relate to:

> Most people have been in some version of this mental stress state so consistently, for so long, that they don’t even know they’re in it. Like gravity, it’s ever-present–so much so that those who experience it usually aren’t even aware of the pressure. The only time most of them will realize how much tension they’ve been under is when they get rid of it and notice how different it feels.

David Allen, Getting Things Done

GTD, as I understand it, isn’t about cramming more on your plate. It’s about freeing yourself of what’s already on it, doing the dishes straight after the meal and spending your whole afternoon walking by the lake with a friend without this nagging feeling that you should rather be at home dealing with the paperwork, but you just don’t want to face it.

Here are the very few sentences of “Welcome to *Getting Things Done*”, the forward to GTD (and yeah, there’s a bit of an upbeat, magical-recipe tone to it, but bear with me):

> Welcome to a gold mine of insights into strategies for how to have more energy, be more relaxed, and get a lot more accomplished with much less effort. If you’re like me, you like getting things done and doing them well, and yet you also want to savor life in ways that seem increasingly elusive if not downright impossible if you’re working too hard.

David Allen, Getting Things Done

And a bit further down the page:

> And *whatever* you’re doing, you’d probably like to be more relaxed, confident that whatever you’re doing at the moment is just what you need to be doing–that having a beer with your staff after hours, gazing at your sleeping child in his or her crib at midnight, answering the e-mail in front of you, or spending a few informal minutes with the potential new client after the meeting is exactly what you *ought* to be doing, as you’re doing it.

David Allen, Getting Things Done

I don’t hear anything in there about “doing more things is better” or “you should be doing things all the time”. The whole point of GTD is to get **rid** of stuff so that it’s done and you can then go off to follow your heart’s desire. It’s about deciding not to do stuff way before you reach the point where it’s been on your to-do list stressing you for six months, and you finally decide to write that e-mail and say “sorry, can’t”.

That frees your mind and your calendar for what is really important in your life (be it twittering your long-distance friends, taking photographs of cats, spending time with people you love or working on your change-the-world project).

You’ll notice that I didn’t use the word “productivity” in this post a single time. “Productivity” is a word businesses like. If people are “productive”, it means you get to squeeze more out of them for the same price. That isn’t an idea I like. But being “productive” can also simply be understood to mean that it takes you less time to do the things that you’ve decided you needed to do. In that way, yes, GTD is a productivity method. But I think that calling it that does it disservice, because people hear “squeezing more out of ya for the same $$$” and go “eek, more stress”.

Bottom line? (I like ending posts with bottom lines.) If you see GTD as something that takes away your freedom and free time, turns you into an even worse workaholic, and encourages you to become indiscriminate about interests you pursue and tasks you take on because you “can do everything”, think again — and re-read the book. If you spend your whole time fiddling with your GTD system, shopping around for another cool app to keep your next action lists in, and worrying about how to make it even more efficient, you’re missing the point. But you knew that already, didn’t you?

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How I Made my To-Do List Fun to Use [en]

This is just a simple way I made my to-do list a bit more fun, with a sheet of paper, a ruler, and coloured pencils. Give it a try, if you’re tired of to-do lists!

[fr] Au lieu de faire une bête liste de choses à  faire, j'ai fait un grand tableau sur une feuille. J'ai ensuite mis chaque chose à  faire dans une case (ou deux, si c'est une "grande tâche"). Quand j'ai fait quelque chose, je colorie la case. C'est plus amusant que de biffer des choses sur une liste, et le résultat final est bien plus joli!

If you’re anything like me, you’ve found yourself more than once in front of a very long and depressing to-do list. I’ve given up on to-do lists. I’ve given them another chance. I’ve given up again. I’ve done them on paper. On the computer. On my phone. I’ve tried sticking individual post-its for each task on my front door. Nothing really works for me.

I had an idea yesterday afternoon. I’m at a point in my life where I’m realizing that I need to find other drivers for my actions than my old friend fear. (Oh my God, I’ll never have time to finish on time, Oh my God, I’ll be late and they’ll be mad at me, Oh my God, I’ll get in trouble, Oh my God, they’ll stop liking me… you know the chorus.) Anyway, the point is I had a sudden idea for making my to-do list fun and getting some pleasure out of maintaining it, rather than just seeing it like a long list of “things-I-must-do”.

My first idea was to get rid of the “hierarchy” that a column-like list imposes. Compare this:

  • put clean laundry away
  • correct maths tests
  • call doctor
  • clean cat litter-tray
  • pay the bills
  • write blog post

with the following:

kitty litter pay bills
call doctor write blog post maths tests
laundry away  

First, notice that the table layout supresses the “first do this, then do that” implied by the column-type list. Trying to decide what to put first in a list is usually a very efficient way for me to avoid writing anything down. Here, I have a whole page I can fill up in any order I like.

Second, I use up one, two or three table squares for each task. This is just a gut-like evaluation of the “size” of the task. “Size” comprises the time it will take, but also how much energy it will take me to get it done. A longer task that I find easy might fit in one square, and a shorter one that I’ve really been putting off for a long time might use up two or more squares. I don’t try to calculate this, I just use up the number of squares I feel like using when I write my task down.

Where is the fun? Well, I thought that instead of just crossing things out when they were done, I would colour the square(s) they are in. This means accomplishing a task allows me to choose a pretty colour pencil and colour part of the page. When I’ll have done lots of things, I’ll end up with a multi-coloured mosaic of things accomplished. Not much, maybe, but enough to make me happy.

Get started! You’ll need:

  • a sheet of paper (preferably squared)
  • a ruler
  • coloured pencils, or markers, or whatever you enjoy colouring with.

Then do the following:

  • draw lines on the paper to separate it in “task-sized” blocs (I did something like 3cm by 1.5cm)
  • write down your tasks in the squares you have drawn, anywhere on the paper; use colour! I also go over the outline of each task square in colour (useful for multi-block tasks)
  • when you’ve done something, rejoice and enjoy the colouring!

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