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.