Open loops are distracting. That’s their nature. An ‘open loop’ is the term for unfinished business, according to Getting Things Done. Sometimes that open loop is a task that needs to be done just once, sometimes it’s a persistent problem, and I think sometimes it’s also a philosophical quandary.
This is why we can get resolution on situations even when they will never change.
I work with chronically disorganized people. The two main things they struggle with are making categories and choosing priorities. This is why they always feel like they don’t know where to start. They’ll cheerfully follow orders, as long as someone is standing in the room with them, and they have no problem getting rid of things or cleaning up really distressing messes. As soon as they’re alone, though, they spin out. They no longer know what to do.
Almost everyone gets into a state like this at some level, tolerating a persistent problem, not knowing where to start or what to do next. We can ignore things that would drive someone else crazy, and vice versa.
The most obvious example of this is someone who clearly needs a new prescription for glasses. We see them scrunching up their foreheads, leaning forward and squinting. They don’t realize they’re doing it, even if they’ve worn glasses for decades and had to change prescription several times in their life.
Another classic is the person who comes to work, even though they’re obviously near death’s door with the flu or a bad cold. Go home! Get out of here before you get everyone else sick, you plague rat!
It’s when we’re struggling that we lose perspective on our problems.
We also lose perspective when life is coming at us from all sides. The harder things get, the less focus we have for what would normally be routine issues. The common cold is an example here, as well. We’re feeling low and only a few days later, the laundry is piled up, the fridge is empty, the sink is full of dirty dishes, the trash is overflowing, the nightstand is covered with bottles, and there are mugs and plates scattered everywhere.
We can use this as an analogy. Has anything been going on lately that is comparably disruptive, anything that has messed with our routines the way the common cold does?
When I come in to work with a client, I expect that almost nothing is working well. Their cars are full of clutter, usually including coins and cash on the floorboards. They have at least a three-day backlog of dishes and laundry. Unopened mail is everywhere. Their bathrooms are terrifying. They usually don’t have enough cleaning supplies, such as a total absence of a mop or even a sponge. They have health problems, their vehicles are breaking down, and if they’re employed then they’re often on the naughty list for being late all the time.
These things work like magic in my own life, because I have systems in place, so I barely have to think about them.
It’s an unfair comparison. The fewer problems you have, the easier it is to deal with them. You can tackle one at a time, especially when they only come at you one at a time!
For a chronically disorganized person, everything feels like it’s happening at once because everything is associated with a constant need.
This is one of the widest open loops. We have to have some kind of philosophical reckoning with the necessity of putting a large quantity of energy and focus toward boring drudgery. Every day.
My people tend to subscribe to the idea that: Why should I make my bed, when I’ll just have to do it again the next day?
The same exact thing could be said for eating meals, bathing, or brushing our teeth. We just keep having to do it over and over and over again!
Most of us eat because food tastes good to us, we bathe because it feels good, and we brush our teeth because minty fresh is better than filmy yuckmouth. We understand the connection between these things we do every day and the positive results we feel.
We can’t feel those positive results for things that we do not do on a routine basis.
It feels fantastic to be confident about your finances and your health, to have a solid reputation for being on time, to relax in an attractive home.
Meanwhile it feels dreadful to experience the anxiety of:
Missing important appointments
Paying unnecessary fines and fees
Getting in trouble at work
Rushing and being late all the time
Frantically searching for lost objects, or wasting hours looking for something
Not being able to get something fixed because your landlord might find out how messy your place is
Those of us who aren’t in that deep should take a moment to pause and feel grateful. As annoying as we might find it to do chores when we’d rather be doing something else, it could certainly be worse. Most of us don’t have problems with our executive function. We can make decisions and take action.
We can, but we don’t always want to. We feel that the annoyance of working on something is not worth it, not equal to the feeling of freedom that comes from a closed loop.
The most commonly procrastinated tasks are writing a will, planning for retirement, and dealing with health issues. This is because we aren’t very good at imagining older versions of ourselves or feeling compassion toward Future Self. Instead of thinking decades ahead, though, we can start by thinking a week ahead, or a day ahead.
Instead of asking ourselves, Why should I have to do this? we can ask ourselves, will I feel better tomorrow if I get this out of the way today?
What would it be like if I was confident about my health and my finances? What would it be like if I spent most of my time in a smoothly running home? Would I feel happy and relaxed if I dealt with my most obvious problems, or would I find a way to continue to feel anxious and distracted no matter what I do?
Action is usually easier and faster than we think. It usually takes us less effort to fix our problems than we thought. Once we finally get started, we’re halfway there. We deal with our routines ten minutes at a time, after all. At least when we are taking action, we can allow ourselves a sense of pride and satisfaction that we are doing something for ourselves.
Close a loop today, and find out how it feels.
Minus the ghosts, there are some common images that suggest a haunted house, and you can spot them in any neighborhood. An overgrown yard with a dead lawn choked with weeds. Chipped and peeling paint. Windows with constantly closed curtains, blinds, or shutters. Nothing about such a home says Welcome, friends and neighbors! But a house doesn’t have to be haunted to look like that.
Houses are much more likely to be haunted by bad memories and a feeling of being trapped in the past.
Houses can also be haunted by power struggles, shame, constant fights, or occupants who have nothing to say to one another.
Myself, I wouldn’t mind a ghost so much. What’s it going to do, whisper in my ear at night or write on a foggy mirror? Leave my cabinets open? Pfft. I had student loans for twelve years so nothing scares me now. I’d much rather live in a house that WAS haunted or LOOKED haunted than in one that merely felt that way.
We do it to ourselves as often as not.
When I do clutter work during home visits, I almost always come across haunted relics. A sheaf of love letters, never mind the terrible breakups that followed. Random junk left behind by that roommate who left without paying the rent. Swag from every former job, especially the worst ones. Paperwork from...from everything:
Benefits folders from a decade ago
Collections letters from three years ago
Credit card statements from *gulp* today
Negative performance reviews
Scary medical reports
One of my very first space clearing jobs included an entire box of parking tickets, paid long ago, but there they were. An adult career woman carrying the guilt of a busy college student’s ancient mistakes.
We punish ourselves by keeping constant reminders of the worst moments of our lives. We don’t usually even realize we’re doing it. Either we’ve completely forgotten this stuff is hanging around, we have no memory of it, we’ve buried it in harmless junk mail, or we are avoiding it.
We know it’s there, we think about it constantly, and yet we can’t bear to face it or deal with it.
That right there. That’s the feeling of being haunted by your own stuff.
There is another category of stuff that haunts us, and that is the category of grief clutter. This is the hardest clutter of all to clear, and in fact I’ve failed at it every time. When the subject comes up, I tell people that I have no idea what to do about it. I have no suggestions. I don’t know what to say because nothing I have said has ever done any good.
In the worst example of this that I have yet seen, the surviving daughter sat on one couch cushion every night, because the rest of the couch had boxes on it. Both her parents had passed away, and she had ALL of their worldly goods packed in boxes, stacked four feet high, completely packing her home. Only a narrow goat path was available from the front door to the bathroom, the bedroom door, and the kitchen. You had to turn sideways. The bedroom was full, too.
She lived in a monument to the dead.
This impulse is universal. Death turns the survivors crazy, at least temporarily. Siblings will cut each other off for life. Entire extended families will disintegrate, just when they need each other the most. All that’s left is the stuff.
Hairbrushes with hair still in them
Prescription bottles on the nightstand
Old worn-out slippers
Every single stupid pot-holder and fridge magnet
We believe that these objects hold our memories, and so we turn them into horcruxes. It’s not a baking dish, it’s my childhood! We’ll drive ourselves to penury paying for storage units to hold stuff we don’t need, because we have no appropriate ceremony for letting it go.
It’s harder when it’s the residue of multiple lives. I know someone who moved into a family home hoarded up with at least two generations of grief clutter. The grandparents died, and the parents never dealt with it their entire lives, and then they died, and guess what. Pass the buck.
What I’d like when I go is a park bench, or ideally an entire park. I want my memorial to be a place where friends sit and talk together, where young people fall in love (or old people for that matter), where kids climb on and off their parents’ laps. I do NOT, for the love of all that is holy, want my memorial to be a bunch of boxes filled with my old clothes and dishes. Ugh.
One of my biggest fears is that this will happen, that nobody will throw out my old socks or my toothbrush and my spirit will be caught in purgatory for an extra generation.
It’s the time of the year to think about this stuff, how there is a time for every purpose and how the seasons come and go. We’re here for just a little minute, and then we’re gone. Why, then, does our old stuff hang around for so long?
Thinking of grief clutter, we can use that energy for some positive procrastination. We simply pretend that it’s finally time to deal with all those boxes, and then instead we find ourselves sorting through our own haunted junk. The clothes that we quit wearing because they remind us of a bad incident. The broken ornament or decoration that we can’t make ourselves throw out. The dead houseplants. The papers!
Unhaunting your house is getting rid of anything that serves only to hold bad memories. If even thinking about it makes you feel sad, guilty, or depressed, why do you have it? Because you’d have to look at it again as you were trashing it?
Unhaunt your house and do it soon. Maybe there’s a bonfire coming up and you can burn a bunch of your old papers and photos, like I did with my old wedding album. What if your house was clear, and only for the living, and facing toward the future rather than the past?
This book is a gem by one of the all-time greatest motivational speakers and writers, the inimitable Mel Robbins. It’s more than inspirational, though. It provokes insight and emotional breakthroughs that are impossible to forget or ignore. Usually we know what we ought to be doing to move toward our dreams, so the question is, Why aren’t we? Stop Saying You’re Fine helps to answer that.
A key point to the book is that we already have all the information we need. Almost every dream is a dream that someone else has, too, and chances are that millions of people have done it before. That’s what I told myself when I was training for my marathon. If millions of people have done it, then surely I can, and I did, even when I was being passed by various para-athletes such as a blind runner with a seeing eye dog. The instructions are there, the workbooks are there, the teachers and coaches are there. When we finally decide to move forward, we will do it surrounded by resources, information, and support.
The problem is what we call Resistance. It’s the feeling of not wanting to do something, even though you believe you should. Resistance comes up in different forms for everyone. For instance, I feel it most when I have to make a business call. I’ll happily wash someone’s sink full of dishes or fold all the laundry on their couch if only they’ll make calls for me. Once we start recognizing the feeling of Resistance for what it is, it becomes easier to call it out and to catch ourselves acting out boring old patterns.
The solution that Mel Robbins teaches is to figure out a bunch of small steps toward your goal, pick one, and then TAKE ACTION within five seconds. This trains the impulse and strengthens the connection between thought and implementation. If I think, I should call my friend, and I do it, then I’ve done something positive. If instead I let that impulse slip away without calling, I may start to replace my positive feeling with guilt. I’ll then waste the time I could have been chatting with someone I like, and the exact same minutes could go toward reinforcing a negative impression of myself. When I do something within those five seconds, I get two rewards, the satisfaction of doing the thing and the freedom from beating myself up after procrastinating.
Mel Robbins is a coach, and this book comes from years of working with individuals and conducting workshops. This stuff works. I even used it to get this review written. If you have a tendency to procrastinate or you feel stuck on something, please treat yourself to the delightful and transformational experience of reading this book - Stop Saying You’re Fine.
Everything you could ever need to live the life you want is right there at your fingertips.
You are very powerful when you put your mind to it.
The snooze button is the perfect symbol of human resistance, and the emblem of anyone who feels stuck.
If you hear yourself ever saying “It is what it is,” that’s not the powerful you talking.
We are all stuck in some area of our life, pretending it’s not that bad so we can justify doing nothing.
If your mind can kill a great idea by dampening it with emotional turmoil, it will.
In any area of your life that you want to change, adopt this rule. Just do the things that you don’t want to do.
You need to hear this loud and clear: No one is coming. It is up to you.
Recognizing and seizing these moments is like opening a doorway into an alternate universe where your life is not governed by routine.
If there’s a way to avoid doing anything, you’ll do it, even though it won’t make you happy.
You’re actively trying to convince yourself that it’s okay to feel disappointed with yourself on a regular basis.
You will never just wake up with the motivation and fortitude that you’ve been missing for years.
The only choice you have is to force yourself to change whether you feel like it or not.
The only wrong choice is to do nothing.
Out of the chaos came a brief window of opportunity for something different, something polished and orderly. How it happened I’m still not sure. We found ourselves at an awards banquet, where I received a trophy for the first time in my life.
Actually not one but three!
This is how it looks on the outside:
A woman walks on stage and accepts an award. She is wearing a new dress and is in full hair and makeup.
This is how it looked 90 minutes earlier:
The scene, a studio apartment full of half-packed boxes, rolls of tape, and Sharpie markers.
A man has blood all over his face because he has somehow cut open his eyelid. This is terrifying and also very inconvenient timing! The man and his wife are in the process of getting ready to leave for a formal event and ‘blood everywhere’ is not part of the dress code.
Injury treated, the couple dress in haste and run to the street to catch their rideshare. Picture a woman sitting next to an open window, hair blowing vertically because all the windows are open, as she tries to apply makeup using her phone camera.
Couple stops on the way to pick up keys to their new apartment, where they will be moving in five days, hence the precarious towers of cardboard scattered around their home.
Couple climbs out of rideshare. Wife still has vertical hair, complemented by mascara on only one eye. Wife scurries into restroom hoping nobody will try to take her picture as it is not Halloween.
While the doors have not yet opened, wife feels that she is 20 minutes late. She was supposed to help set up the table for the door prizes.
When you see a normal, average person, it can be hard to tell that that person is having a tough time. Not unless he still has blood on his face or she is still walking around with her hair pointing toward the ceiling.
This has been a tough year. I signed on to fill an office, and almost immediately my personal life exploded. I had a devastating death in the family, my husband traveled for work 21 out of 50 weeks, our dog was diagnosed with a liver tumor and given two months to live, and I started having migraines and night terrors again. Then there were all the oral surgeries and now we’re moving. The hardest part has been our inconsiderate upstairs neighbors, who are only reliably quiet between midnight and 4:30 am. I’m so tired all the time I feel like I have amnesia, or maybe dementia.
I have felt scattered, disorganized, guilty, desperate, and often incompetent every day for the past twelve months.
Yet how do I explain the trophies?
Oh, sure, I did the work. I did it all and I did it well. A lot of the stuff I did was not even mentioned.
I wasn’t just an area director, I had a Distinguished area.
I may have been a Spark Plug for one person, but I also coached a club from two members to twenty-one and trained officers from two districts and five divisions.
I did all the stuff they mentioned for the Above and Beyond trophy, and I also did three other similarly-scaled projects that weren’t on the list.
Not only that, but I also co-chaired a conference in another district, completed four award levels, completed all the work for my Distinguished Toastmaster except for faxing in the final paperwork, ran a campaign, and won a contested election.
It feels weird and inappropriate to actually list off all the stuff I did over the past twelve months. It doesn’t seem real, or fair, or something I can’t quite name.
I’m having a lot of trouble reconciling my self-image with my outer image, my emotions with what is apparently objective fact.
Why do I FEEL like an incompetent slacker loser? Why do I constantly feel like I am procrastinating when objectively, I get so much done?
They say it’s Impostor Syndrome. That when we’re growing and learning, it means we’re working outside our comfort zone. That the only way to never feel like an impostor is to only do things we know we can handle 100%, like making toast or putting our shoes on the correct feet.
Can’t I just feel for one day like I’m on top of everything? Can’t I just for one day feel like I know what I’m doing?
Every day in Toastmasters has been a battle for me, every day since the first day, when I stood shaking like a leaf and barely able to say my name. My fight against shyness, social phobia, and pathological stage fright has been one of the toughest things I’ve ever done. It looks like nothing and it feels like someone should call me an ambulance. I have felt that I would collapse if I took another step. I have felt like sprinting for the exit. I have felt like crying and I have felt like I would black out and hit the floor.
I never did. I forced myself and I kept going.
Oh, it’s hard. It’s hard sometimes.
People say I’m a great speaker now. Most of the time, I’m not scared anymore. People notice that I show up and I’m willing to help out anywhere I am asked. Sometimes they tease me about being District Director one day. Let’s not be getting ahead of ourselves, I say.
The analogy I gave earlier is that I feel like I’m constantly falling up a flight of stairs. I trip and stumble and bounce from one step to another, and somehow I always seem to stick the landing, breathless and rumpled. How far can someone tumble upstairs, though?
The truth is that we can’t tell how other people feel by looking at them, we can only tell if we ask. I have no way of knowing whether all my friends and peers feel just as uncertain and overwhelmed as I do. Maybe they also shun the spotlight and work out of a sense of duty and curiosity, maybe they also find themselves up there trying to be gracious when they’d rather peek out from under a tablecloth.
What I’ve found in my case is that my emotions are rarely appropriate to the occasion, and they always try to steer me wrong. I’ve found that my stress level is always about the same, even when I’m doing 10x more than I previously did at that exact same mix of neurochemistry. I’ve found that I am not good at feelings like pride or satisfaction or fun or relaxation. I am a tightly wound person, and I probably always will be, and I may as well use some of that energy to benefit society.
This is why I occasionally go above and beyond, because acceptable and enough isn’t really in my comfort zone.
The Procrastination Equation is a curious artifact, the product of a former extreme procrastinator who became an academic researcher and actually completed and published a book on procrastination. Piers Steel, PhD in your face! Something like 90% of doctoral candidates never complete their thesis, so this is a pretty big deal. If a procrastinator can get a PhD, then maybe anyone can do anything?
I keep reading and reviewing procrastination research books because guess why.
About 95% of people admit to procrastination and about a quarter consider it one of their defining personality traits. I’m in that quarter, although I have worked so hard at it for so long that when I try to cop to it, people will laugh. You?? Yup, me. I want to be in that magical 5% elite group that never puts anything off, never feels guilty or distracted, gets to wear a diamond tiara that spells out IN THE NOW.
While this book includes targeted behavioral suggestions, it revolves around research, including quizzes which are always a great way to be entertained while procrastinating. It’s pretty funny, for instance when Steel includes a footnote as a supposed reference to an astrology factoid.
One of the most interesting ideas I picked up was the link between impulsivity and procrastination. There is probably a strong link here with hoarding and chronic disorganization as well, because my people tend to be big-time guilty procrastinators as well. The impulsive streak tends to make them fun to be around, ready to try out mental exercises and games as we clear. It’s the same trait that makes them want to bring home random bargains and anything shiny, patterned, or brightly colored. It’s also what makes it hard for them to stay on task.
Procrastination Polka is one section of The Procrastination Equation that is particularly telling. Maybe flip to that section first and see if it catches your attention. I felt smug about several items but there were three out of thirteen that applied to me. Ouch.
Procrastination is as old as agriculture, extending at least to the dawn of written history. There’s a term for it in every culture and language. This makes me feel better. Then I learn that procrastinators get lower grades, have less money, are less healthy, and also less happy, and it gets harder to pretend that my cute little personality trait derives from perfectionism. When Steel calculates it as a trillion-dollar problem and points out how little Congress gets done, procrastination starts to look like a bigger deal than just whether I personally keep up on my email.
I enjoyed The Procrastination Equation, and it actually changed my perspective. Viewing my petty to-do list in a broader historical, anthropological, and economic context gave me a new perspective. I’d rather see myself as different type of animal, like a crow maybe, than a typical procrastinating ordinary human. I read this book and then I did the first next thing on my list, which was to review it.
Now, how about you? What are you going to do next?
By your own standards, if you thought delay was a good idea in the first place, you wouldn’t be procrastinating.
“...the only thing I really ever finish is dessert.”
Those bizarre outfits that languish in your closet were likely purchased toward the end of a shopping trip.
The End of Procrastination: could there really be one? Is there a way to stop a basic tendency of human psychology when it affects literally everyone? (Those who believe they don’t procrastinate should ask themselves about their retirement planning and fitness goals, since those are the most commonly procrastinated tasks). Petr Ludwig explores this desire to avoid all those things we think we should be doing and how we can convince ourselves to get back on track.
Laziness and procrastination, contrary to popular belief, are not the same thing. Laziness, if there is any such thing, means that someone is perfectly happy not to do something and may just have low standards. Procrastination is avoiding something that someone thinks they really should be doing. Start here, if you think you’re a lazy procrastinator, because you can’t actually be both! Pick one, why don’t you.
Personally I’ve been leaning more toward laziness because it’s summer. Also, I’ve found that I get the same amount done whether I stress out or relax. As I’ve gotten better at just jumping on the most obnoxious task of the day and getting it over with, I’ve found that none of the time I spend stressing out is productive. It’s the same with the weary dread of procrastinating, knowing that time is passing and beating yourself up over why you aren’t doing the thing you should do.
The End of Procrastination teaches valuable concepts like self-regulation, hedonic adaptation, and decision paralysis. There is a method for habit tracking that should be attractive for those who like bullet journaling. Perhaps the most valuable concept for me was the idea that you can plan your day with two different paths. If you get stuck on one path, use the other. It seems simple, but sometimes all it takes to break up a stuck energy pattern is to do something different.
This is a research-based book full of great diagrams. It’s fun and easy to read, which of course creates a double bind for the committed. Are we procrastinating more by fully enjoying it or by reading it only partway through?
Now that I’ve read The End of Procrastination, I’m going to sort out a box so I can find my missing thank-you notes. I’ve got a little task I need to do.
Procrastination can be overcome once you improve your motivation, discipline, outcomes, and objectivity.
Don’t procrastinate when it comes to fighting procrastination.
How many times in your life have you tried telling yourself what to do and haven’t obeyed?
How can you avoid the hamsters of failure?
Someday is Not a Day in the Week. Sam Horn wants to remind us that we can find a way to live out our dreams today, rather than waiting until “later.” First of all, later doesn’t always come. Second, by the time we retire, many of us don’t have the health or freedom to do the things we’ve been waiting for decades to do. Whatever it is, let’s figure out how to do it now.
This book is centered around a “Year by the Water,” Horn’s way of living what she teaches. She decided what she wanted to do, gave away all her stuff, and hit the road. This sounds like something for kids in their twenties, and of course it is, but Horn is a mom of a kid that age. Pay attention, non-kids, because the message that Someday is Not a Day in the Week is aimed at us.
Horn reminds us that we can’t take our mobility for granted. She has a few examples of people who worked hard their entire lives, only to be unable to enjoy their freedom once they had earned it. So many of us are such workaholics that we don’t know how to unplug. We don’t take our vacations when we’ve earned them, and we don’t retire even when we can. How would we feel if we had to look back and realize that we never took the time when we had the opportunity, and suddenly we never can?
How can we make more time to live out our dreams and be more consistent with our values? How can we restructure our commitments? If George R. R. Martin isn’t obligated to finish writing Game of Thrones, then how much are we obligated to do?
I loved Sam Horn’s book, which is full of practical advice and exercises. I’m taking the advice that Someday is Not a Day in the Week and building my semi-annual review around it.
I hope you choose to stop waiting and start creating the quality of life you want, need, and deserve now—not later.
Are you overthinking your dream?
....when we focus on what we don’t want, that’s what we’re going to get.
Get crystal clear about what makes you laugh and enjoy your life, and schedule it on your calendar.
...meaning makes us happy, not money. And everyone can afford that.
Have some of your dreams come true and you’re not even noticing them?
The Achievement Habit is a completely amazing book with the potential to change lives. It joins the exalted ranks of Books I’ve Followed My Husband Around Reading From. There is so much here about creativity, fixing persistent problems, fighting procrastination, and developing a bias toward action.
Bernard Roth is my new favorite professor-I-never-had. His book arises from decades of teaching experience. While technically his field is design, there is no limit to the applicability of the ideas here. What he considers ‘design thinking’ is a way of adopting a completely new perspective.
The first assignment Roth would give his students is to find something in their life that bothers them and fix it. I can’t emphasize enough how important this is, and how very, very few people are actually willing to live this way. My clients will tolerate persistent problems the likes of which an ordinary person can barely imagine: Living for years among a rat infestation, sleeping on a tiny strip of a mattress that is piled with clutter and food waste, breathing black mold, horrors beyond description. They will hear “do something about this” from literally every person who knows the truth, and they won’t. They always have their reasons, chief amongst which is not knowing where to start.
“Reasons” are a pet peeve of Roth’s, and they get their own entire chapter. The reason we claim for doing or not doing something is only a surface level reason, not the deeper, true reason. For instance, I have a serious phone reception issue everywhere in my apartment complex except for a small area near the entrance to the gym, and thus my voicemail asks people to text or email me because there’s no way I’ll know if they called me. My “reason” for being inaccessible is technological. A deeper reason is that while I might be able to find a fix, considering how many engineers I know, as a writer I am strongly invested in preventing interruptions while I work. “Fixing” my phone problem with additional money, devices, or software, or relocating, would give me an entire new problem. The real reason I can’t get phone calls at home is because I don’t believe I am obligated to. Right now, if someone wants to talk to me on the phone, they send me an invite and we schedule it. This is not wrong. Roth’s advice here is to use reasons externally but not internally, making sure that we are honest with ourselves about why we do or don’t do things.
The Achievement Habit is ultimately a book about high-agency thinking. We have the ability to live better than we do and we have the imagination to fix any problem, if only we decide for ourselves. Now I’m going to go look for a problem and fix it, just to keep my edge sharp.
In life, typically, the only one keeping a scorecard of your successes and failures is you, and there are ample opportunities to learn the lessons you need to learn, even if you didn’t get it right the first—or fifth—time.
It’s incredibly empowering to realize that you have the power to change your attitude toward anything.
Many reasons are simply excuses to hide the fact that we are not willing to give something a high enough priority in our lives.
You can’t know the reason for anyone’s behavior.
The best way forward is embedded in the design thinking methodology: manifest a bias toward action, and don’t be afraid of failure.
When something is a priority in your life, you have to be willing to walk away from anything that’s standing in its way.
...it is better to start to do something and fail than it is to do nothing and wait for the correct path of action to appear.
Be honest and notice the differences between your self-image and the ways you actually act.
You can make a decision right now to see yourself differently, and then to become different.
It’s a declaration of choice: instead of playing the role of passive protagonist in your life, choose to take charge of your future. Resolve to get things done, whatever it takes, and no matter how many valid “reasons” pop up.
I’m doing it again. I have two obnoxious projects I don’t want to do, and each of them represents about three hours of work. One is due in a week and a half, and the other is due in six weeks. The fresh hell that is chronic procrastination! I recognize myself setting up Future Me for a rough time, and thus I’m tricking myself.
I have a Decoy Project.
Next to me is a business card representing a phone call I should really make.
There are few things I hate more than making business calls. I’d rather disinfect my trash cans or clean the oven.
This call isn’t as high a priority, though, as the big projects. That’s why I’m using it as a decoy.
The card is propped up where I keep seeing it, directly to the right of my keyboard, junking up my line of sight.
I can’t avoid looking at it.
I can, though, avoid doing anything about it!
Suddenly, the yucky projects seem a lot less aversive.
Also to my right is a big vegan chocolate chip cookie.
I am currently wearing workout clothes.
This is the order of business. 1. Start the report. 2. Nibble at the cookie. 3. Finish the report. 4. Finish the cookie. 5. Work out.
A cookie is not a decoy project. My relationship with cookies and snacks and food in general may or may not work for other people, but here’s how it looks in my world.
I don’t keep junk food at home, as a rule, because there’s no room for it in the kitchen, and I just don’t know about storing bags of chips in the fridge.
I also can’t keep it in my work bag, because whenever I have done that, my dog has found it. Not only will he steal and eat my treat, he’ll scatter torn-up packaging all over the room and pull out everything else in my bag. This is more or less the same reason why we never leave laundry on the floor.
Another reason is that my husband is in the middle of losing 45 pounds, and it would be seriously unfair to ambush him with delectable goodies, or eat them in front of him.
We both eat four meals a day: breakfast, lunch, afternoon snack (protein bar, fruit, or smoothie), and dinner. We find this convenient, comforting, and cost-effective.
This thing with the cookie is, therefore, a productivity exercise. I don’t generally eat recreationally but I’m not above harnessing it for work purposes.
Okay, I’m set up. I have everything I need. I have the threat of the “if you’re not writing your report, then shouldn’t you make this call?” business card. I also have the treat of the big cookie, waiting for me to finish a section before I allow myself to take a bite.
Threats and treats!
Working out is my stress relief. I like myself better when I do a lot of endurance cardio. When I come in, I feel waves of delight radiating through me, the proverbial runner’s high. I get about three hours pain-free afterward, and I sleep better. My mood is improved. Wearing my workout clothes while I do something that I don’t really want to do is my way of promising myself that good times are coming.
I can also associate a bit of that runner’s high with the negative project.
When I lived near a regional park, I would run there almost every day. It remains one of my favorite places in the world. I would sometimes go up there when I had a phone call or email that I really didn’t want to do. I’d stand at the halfway mark, get the thing done, and then run home.
The trick is that FINISHING SOMETHING feels wonderful, while procrastinating feels terrible. Associate the pleasant feeling of one thing that you really love with the different, yet also pleasant feeling of finishing a project. This reinforces the good feeling.
The eventual goal is to simply do things, quickly and easily, rather than getting into the rut of feeling stuck and dreading the task. Just get it out of the way! Spend as little time as possible avoiding the thing, which merely adds to the precious life energy that you are spending on it.
Sometimes a list of tasks that are no big deal can serve as a decoy project.
For instance, I always get ready for a shower right before I scrub the toilet. That’s not a fun job, but it only takes two minutes, including wiping down the floor between the toilet and the wall. Then I step right into a hot shower, and by the time I’ve shampooed my hair I’ve forgotten all about it.
I take out the garbage and recycling in between loads in the laundry room.
I clean out the fridge and other odd chores while unavoidably on the phone.
Getting stuck on a lot of video conferences gives me plenty of time to put myself on mute, clean out my work bag and my desk drawer, and clear out my email inbox.
As few things as possible should have even a snowball’s chance of lingering in Procrastination Station. Just hustle and bustle through the day and try to avoid leaving a backlog. Because it hurts! Having a big ugly smelly to-do list is the sort of thing that can bother you all day. It eats into your mental bandwidth.
One of my goals for the day was to write this post, because my folder was empty. I didn’t feel like I had anything to write about, and I was distracted by the presence of the two big reports that I still don’t really want to do.
This whole post was a trick on myself, with the clever use of a couple of decoy projects.
Describing my situation, I finished my most time-sensitive task in only about twenty minutes. Now to take a picture of my work area, and done!
All I have left is to start my report before this cookie gets too stale.
The Big Thing is a terrific book about chronic procrastination. Phyllis Korkki had been wanting to write a book for forty years. Never mind that she worked as an editor at the New York Times, living a lot of people’s dream career. She was going to let her vague dream of Writing a Book torment her and make her feel like a procrastinating lazy person for most of her life.
What exactly is a Big Thing? According to Korkki, it’s whatever you want it to be. There are numerous examples in the book of other people’s projects, including performance art, creating a museum, remodeling houses, and, of course, The Big Thing itself. What these things have in common is that they are personally meaningful, complex, have no deadline, and “require sustained concentration and effort.” So my trying to learn to wrap a burrito properly probably doesn’t count, but my desire to go to grad school (and study... what, exactly?) probably does.
In the course of writing her book, Korkki consults all sorts of experts in fields as diverse as ergonomics, dream research, and mindfulness. She even sees a dating coach. This process of research is funny because it’s so wide-ranging, vastly increasing the level of difficulty of her Big Thing, and yet she feels that all this extra activity qualifies as procrastination. Same here. In engineering we call it “scope creep.” It’s something of a miracle that this book exists, and it’s wonderful because it feels very much like being inside the mind of a divergent-thinking creative and working artist.
What causes people to put off doing their Big Thing? It’s different for everyone, just as the accomplishment and achievement of various Big Things is different. Perfectionism, ambiguity, drug use, chronic pain, mental illness, all sorts of things can be obstacles, although people are overcoming them to live out their dreams and finish their projects all the time.
One of the most interesting insights in the book is that Korkki is challenged on her description of herself as lazy. According to one of the experts, laziness and procrastination are not only not the same thing, they’re almost mutually exclusive. A truly lazy person wouldn’t work on anything at all, or even have a job. Delaying on something is its own form of commitment. It often involves “structured procrastination,” when the supposed procrastinator is bustling around doing other types of chores and tasks. There’s an argument here that the emotional flogging that goes along with procrastination makes it even more difficult than simply getting on with the work.
Not everyone has a Big Thing; maybe only half of people do. Some people would rather focus on daily life, friendships, and uncomplicated contentment. Korkki distinguishes between happiness and meaning. This is part of the secret to getting past procrastination: to acknowledge whether the Big Thing is truly worth doing, and then to find intrinsic value and enjoyment in the process rather than focusing on outcomes and deadlines.
Korkki learns how to finish her Big Thing by working on The Big Thing. She learns to reframe the project. She collects insights from others about how and why they work on their own Big Thing. She practices mindfulness and continues to return her attention to the project when her focus wanders. She works on turning off her self-judgment. She hires a couple of accountability partners, including one who milks cows at 4:00 AM. She thinks about leaving a legacy in this world. Finally, she finishes her dream of a lifetime, a provocative and curiously compelling book about procrastinating that is completed by not procrastinating.
I procrastinate, I’m lazy (although others would disagree), and I have low energy unless I’m under the gun.
And now I understand why I was so lazy for all those years. It was a way to forestall this anxiety I am now feeling on a daily basis.
The moment when you heave yourself over from inactivity to activity is the hardest to endure.
Can I use this intensity somehow? I don’t want to waste this pain. I don’t want it to be for nothing.
My failure in earlier years to write this book amounted to a broken promise to my future selves, who were counting on it for their happiness and fulfillment.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.
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