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.