Monday, December 10, 2007

Process: Procrastination and Drafting

When I talk to the class about drafting, I usually include a lecture on procrastination. Since this section meets online, I thought I'd include three links with good articles on procrastination along with my current top ten ways of dealing with procrastination. The last full week of class also seemed a good time to talk about procrastination, writer's block, and some tricks to use when you encounter loggerheads in the drafting phase.

Procrastination is a problem with which I've struggled for years, mostly out of fear. The task seems too large. I worry I'm not good enough. I worry I'll be judged lacking. The task isn't well enough defined. You get the idea. You've been there. Chances are, if you don't learn to deal with the habit of procrastination, you'll be there again.

Over the years, I've found a host of advice and a few tricks which have helped me. As you read through the ten rules which help me, read one, stop, think about it, read it again, and move on to the next.

1) Take control. One of the worst aspects of procrastination is that one feels out of control. You know you have a task to do. You know your life would be better for doing the task. It seems irrational you'd avoid doing it. You must recognize that not doing something is a choice. You choose to not. That's OK. It's your choice, but go into the decision with your eyes wide open. Allow yourself time to articulate all the consequences of your choice not to do. Examine your choice rationally. Don't avoid this examination. Then, if you still decide not to do, OK. You've made that choice. Live with it as your choice. Chances are, however, the articulation will add that extra bit of umph you'll need to find the motivation to do.

2) Find motivation. One productivity coach argues the only problem with procrastinators is they're under motivated. There are all kinds of ways to find motivation. Try visualizing in as much detail as possible a scene where you've done the dreaded task and succeeded with it. Envision the results. Envision success. Try to stay away from dwelling on the negative consequences of not doing. Concentrating on them will trap you into feeling more anxious and frustrated, two feelings which we avoid by procrastination; so, you'll might find yourself procrastinating on finding the motivation to succeed.

3) Deal with stress. There's more advice out there with dealing with stress than most any other subject. Truth is, up to a point, stress and anxiety are your friends. They're one aspect of your motivation. Learning to embrace the increased feeling of stress which comes from starting or anticipating starting a project is a major step in overcoming procrastination. Past a certain point, however, stress and anxiety become part of the pattern of procrastination. You avoid the stress and anxiety associated with a task by distracting yourself with more enjoyable behaviors. Indeed, one way of thinking about procrastination is as delaying a stress inducing task by substituting more pleasurable tasks which temporarily reduce stress. Note the word temporarily. To deal with stress, you've got to establish good habits. You must exercise. You must get enough sleep. The best method I've found, however, is to meditate. I meditate on the task at hand. I meditate on what it would feel like to succeed. I remember in detail past successes and project them into my visualization of my success doing the task at hand. I also have learned the habit of every day meditation. Now just looking inward, shifting my posture, and breathing correctly eases stress. To get to this point, however, you've got to meditate daily, so you can learn to associate on a deep level certain ways of breathing, thinking, and posture with calm. Another trick is to meditate walking, step-by-step to a place where you feel comfortable and mentally settling down there. My mental, stress reducing walk is one in the mountains where I grew up. It ends at at a waterfall. Each step takes me deeper into the woods. With every mental step, I can feel a little of life's weight dropping off. When I settle down at the waterfall, I am at peace.

4) Learn your triggers. There's something(S) causing your procrastination. It might be you learned to rebel by not doing; and, paradoxically, you're not doing gave you a sense of control. You might have certain fears which trigger avoidance. Learn to recognize the behaviors you use to avoid and procrastinate, and use these as an index to the things which cause you to procrastinate. Once you learn what triggers avoidance, you can think about your triggers from a more objective distance and plan how you'll react to them rather than reacting with knee-jerk avoidance.

5) Do a little bit. Identify one physical action which will bring your task closer to completion. Sit down at the computer. Open the word processor. You get the idea. The trick is to make sure you identify a single, physical act. You can't "write a paper." You can spend 15 minutes brainstorming or free-writing.

You must then give yourself permission to do your one task. Then identify the next task. Rinse. Repeat. Often just getting a little momentum will make the dreaded task less stressful, give you a small success on which to build, and help you motivate yourself.

Another trick is to use a timer program. You can download them from the web. Set your timer for 5, 10, or 15 minutes. Give yourself permission to just work till your timer runs out. Often, just getting started with those few minutes is enough to overcome the worst of the initial, anticipatory fear--the stress inducing fear which you procrastinate to advoid. If the first few minutes weren't all that bad, set the timer again. Rinse. Repeat. If the first few minutes prove too much, then all you've lost is doing so many minutes of the work you know you need to do anyway.

Don't do too much. Most productivity coaches recommend moving your timer up to a routine of 48 minutes working with a 12 minute break following. There's good psychology behind the 48 minute mark. It's why many classes are divided into 50 minute sections.

6) Do the dreaded task first thing in the morning. I have an established morning routine. I get up with Nance. We get a bath. We go for a walk. We fix breakfast and eat it. We give each other seven lucky kisses, and she goes to work. I start my morning with the mediation I discussed above. I then do the dreaded task. Productivity coaches call this doing the worst chore first, eating one frog each day. Once you've eaten your personal, daily frog, everything else is easier. Seriously, before I do anything else, before I allow myself to get distracted, I set my timer for 48 minutes, and I work on the task I want to put off the most. I identify this task the evening before, and I've meditated on the task and it's success. Usually, I can then make progress.

7) Sprint. Not the telephone company, sprint though your dreaded task. Once you learn the 48 minute rule, you give yourself permission (just like your 5, 10, or 15 minute sessions) to do as much as you can in that 48 minutes, then quit. Often, however, you'll find that first 48 minute sprint gives you enough momentum you'll want to keep going.

8) Reward yourself, but be careful. If you've worked for the 48 minutes, give yourself a little reward. You'll have to figure out your system of rewards. Maybe it's a cup of tea or a brownie. I don't know. I do know you don't want to reward yourself with one of your avoidance behaviors. It's then too easy to quit and fall back on bad habits.

Don't forget to give yourself the big rewards. If you manage to complete the dreaded task on which you've tended to procrastinate, reward yourself. Take a day off. You then deserve the reward. Those rewards, both big and little, are part of the ammunition you can use when you visualize success, and they're part of the motivation you can use to get started and to keep going.

9) Don't try to be perfect. You aren't. Remember Kaizen? It's about picking the lowest fruit and then learning to pick the higher. It's about getting some reward with each effort. If you don't do because you want what's done to be perfect, you'll never do. Learn this lesson. Do a good enough job, and if you have time, polish it into a better one. You want the success of getting a job done which does well enough. You can then spend time working out a better production process so the next job will be better. If you keep up with the plan, sooner rather than later, you'll find yourself producing a pretty damn good product. It still won't be perfect. The Second Law of Thermodynamics applies to the world we share, but your products will do the work you want them to do. Usually.

10) Make mistakes joyfully. Remember my earlier post. Learning to embrace the opportunity a failure offers is a major step toward dealing with the stress and anxiety which causes you to procrastinate. OK, so the product you produced didn't meet standards. It didn't reach your goals for it. What didn't you do that you should? The only way to test a product is by giving it a chance to be used and judged in the field. If it fails, learn why. Alter your process for the next time. The only sure way to fail is to give up and rest on your failures.

Here's a freebie: overcoming the habit of procrastination is a long term process. You picked up the habit of procrastination over a lifetime. Learning to overcome the habit won't happen in a day. It's a process. Work on one aspect of your problem at a time. Focus on the successes as they build up. Embrace your failures as another opportunity for success. Give yourself the time you need, and take the time. When you slip up, get back on the horse and give yourself credit for the ground you've covered.

Enough lecture. Here are three articles on procrastination and tricks for making yourself write. They can give you a other perspectives. Read them. If I can help, make an appointment and we'll talk.


Jason Williams said...

I try hard not to procrastinate myself, but it is not easy. I have usually been able to stay on time when it comes to class work. In my own experience, it is sometimes easier to procrastinate when it comes to other tasks not related to school.

The general schedule that I use is to work on college tasks for about 2 hours, take a break for 1 hour, ad then repeat the process for the whole day. This allows me to write notes, respond to posts, and complete assignments in a reasonable timeframe while still having the time to do other tasks.

I can pretty much use this tactic all day, and not overwork myself. So, that is my process.

Steve Brandon said...

If it's any help, professors usually assume two to three hours work outside of class for each credit hour earned. In online classes, I usually count in the three hours which would normally be spent in class as time lost to typing, reading, etc. This still means I assume students will spend between six and nine hours per week in a sixteen week section just working on my class.

Jason, I like your schedule. I work in blocks of time. This semester I take care of online teaching, email, and calls from 8:00 until 11:00 or so. This time corresponds to my office hours, which I hold Monday-Friday. I teach between 11:00 and 2:00. I take a short break, and take care of anything which has come in, reading, research, and writing of content posts, etc. On Mondays and Wednesday, I then head to the down town campus, where I hold office hours and then teach between 6:30 and 8:30, and then hold one additional office hour. On Tuesdays and Thursdays, I try to spend some time with my wife, and I try to spend most of the weekend taking care of relationship and home stuff and--if there's time--fun. This schedule will change every semester, and meetings, etc. have to be fit into already crowded afternoons.

The reason I share my schedule is to let folks in the class know just how much time and passion a career takes. I used to laugh at my father when he'd say, "No one gets ahead working just forty hours per week." It's true. The odd thing is I don't mind the time I spend working. I look forward to it, mostly because I was very careful to pick a career which fit me, and I took the time to come to know myself and what I wanted to do in the world very well.

Take care,