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.
If you call it a to-do list, you might be doing it wrong.
Might be working on the wrong stuff
For the wrong reasons
At the wrong times
For the wrong people.
This is something I’ve been wrestling with lately. My task list has grown lately to the point that I’m exploding out of a textbook-sized day planner with pages for twenty distinct projects. Unlike my pants, it even has pockets.
These are the problems of the multipotentialite. Everything sounds good and everything seems possible. It IS, it is, just maybe not all at the exact same minute.
Darn you anyway, Time Dimension.
I’m working on a particular project, something big. It’s the kind of thing that takes six months to plan. I’m doing it because it fits into a larger plan that is really important to me. I’m doing it because the skills involved are directly relevant to my interests. I’m doing it because it gives me the chance to work with a good friend. I’m doing it because that friend really needs my help and I want to be reliable for her.
Other than that, everything about it is driving me up the wall. The WHY is perfectly in place, the HOW is a continual stream of hassles and frustrations.
Meanwhile, I have another set of potentially extremely interesting projects that I really want to do instead.
Just like the frustrating project, these interesting projects involve a lot of steps that are the kind of task I don’t like.
Focusing on only one thing at a time!
Reading complicated instructions in fine print!
Filling out applications!
Putting dates in a calendar!
Choosing photographs of myself! *ugh*
Why can’t there be a super-interesting, super high-value project that involves me sleeping late, reading in the bathtub, and eating cookies?
What I’ve found out so far about GETTING WHAT I WANT is that it almost always involves my three least-favorite things:
Travel. Foot races. Trainings. Workshops. Hikes. Even a panel interview I did recently - yep, Saturday.
Why isn’t there more worthwhile stuff to do late in the afternoon??
Poor me, highly ambitious person, born into the body of a night owl. (Note: owls do not usually wear shoes) (Also note, not one minute after I wrote this, a child walked into my cafe wearing an OWL HAT and RAIN BOOTS)
I’m doing what I can to cope with all of this. Not the owl hat, the burgeoning project list. Try to stay focused.
The first thing is to always subvert the project in some way. That means I look at the desired results and ask, is what I’m being asked to do really the smartest way to achieve these results?
Surprisingly often, it isn’t! Perhaps more surprising, my ideas for ways that I’d prefer to do these things, my ways are often accepted or regarded as an upgrade. The trick to getting this across is first to explain that you want the same thing as everyone else, the highly valued end result. Also compliment specific things that are going well and thank everyone for hearing you out.
Each instance in which you save other people time, money, or resources is an opportunity to build a reputation as a solver of problems and an idea-generating machine. (Problem: then they bring you more of their problems to solve).
The second thing is that if you can’t subvert the project in tangible ways, you can still do it privately.
There might be a requirement to do certain things or take certain steps toward your desired end result, things that you have no interest in doing. There is not, however, a requirement that you refer to them as ‘tasks’ or ‘chores’ or ‘to-do’s’ or ‘honey-do’s’ or what-have-you. You can call them whatever you want.
You can also abandon ship and abdicate on the project, if you really hate it that much.
As an example, I simply would not do something if it “required” me to wear high heels, cancel my travel plans for my wedding anniversary, work in a room with cigar smoke, or probably a bunch of other things. Nope nope, that’s a big nope.
What I’ve been doing lately is to shift more and more of my focus to the desired end results, while I try to forget that I am often doing annoying things early in the morning when I’d rather be sleeping.
This is why I call my “to-do list”:
JUICY PROJECT OPTIONS!
There’s something that I do that most people don’t, and that is to remind myself that I have control over how I spend my time. It’s my choice whether to work on something or not. I didn’t feel that way when I worked at a convenience store, but I did start to feel that way as a young office temp. I was broke as could be, I didn’t have two nickels until I was thirty, but I always felt that I had the power to walk away from a truly cruddy job or a bad boss.
I often did!
I figured, if I was going to be broke one way or another, at least I could choose the job with the least-bad boss and the least-worst commute. So I did.
It’s my sense of power, control, and high agency that has brought me forward, onward and upward.
One of the saddest things in the world is untapped human potential. It’s deeply sad when someone with massive gifts feels trapped, forced into a power struggle with a bad boss for low pay. Sometimes, of course, that is literally true - modern slavery is one of the all-time biggest targets for people with great gifts to tackle, should anyone be looking for a worthy project. Mostly, though, we are dragged down by the power struggle, to the point that we utterly forget about our ability to imagine something better into being.
This is why it is so vital that we reimagine what we are doing. This is why we need more... JUICY PROJECT OPTIONS.
Power is neutral. Just like any other tool, it can be used for good, it can be used for ill, it can be used in neutral or unimportant ways, and it can be set aside, not used at all. Procrastination is one such power.
There are certain things that can only be procrastinated for a short time. Breathing comes to mind! After that, peeing. You might think you’re too busy or you might not want to do it right now, but one way or another, it’s going to happen. Not just biological needs that arise from the tyranny of the body, but also inevitable factors of living in a society and an economy with other humans.
Life is easier when we acknowledge that certain things must be done, and that we might as well try to minimize their impact.
This is part of what makes me a contrarian. I willingly do certain things as quickly as possible, because I resent having to do them at all. I refuse to let them eat any more of my mental bandwidth than is absolutely necessary.
Taxes, paying bills, tossing junk mail, housework, blocking spam callers, going to the dentist, getting my hair cut, walking the dog. Eighty percent of life consists of maintenance, and I’d like to reclaim as much of that time as possible.
Certainly I’m not going to let it pollute the remaining twenty percent that is mine, all mine.
Procrastination gives us the power to resist doing the inevitable, for a little while. To what point, though? Why would I delay making my bed when it takes only 15 seconds? Why would I delay making a business call when, if I wait too long and they close for the day, I’ll have to think about it another entire day of my life?
Procrastination is power for another reason. It means we have more control over the situation than we think we do.
They’re onto us, by the way. People who don’t procrastinate think that we wait to do things because we’re trying to prove some kind of point. We’re trying to say YOU’RE NOT THE BOSS OF ME. We show up late because we don’t want to be there in the first place, and we’re doing our best to defy authority. We’re resisting on purpose.
I don’t think that’s true, at least not all the time. That’s because I work with a lot of chronically disorganized people who, let’s be honest, couldn’t pull off that kind of coup if they tried. Too many details.
It’s funny. If we really do have the power to resist other people’s claims to our time and attention, to disobey orders and refuse to do tasks, then doesn’t that mean that we have the power to...
Wait for it...
The power to go elsewhere and do other things for other people instead?
If we have it within ourselves to do these dumb things (show up at specific minutes of the hour, fill out specific forms, make specific phone calls, clean certain things, do other objectionable tasks), then couldn’t we just do them toward a purpose that mattered to us more?
I mean, if you don’t like working for one person, is there someone else for whom you would gladly do the same tasks?
If you don’t like this particular type of task, isn’t there something else you would rather do instead? Do you know what it is?
I have a friend who used to have an interesting job. She was a parking lot attendant on the night shift. She loved it because almost nobody ever showed up for their cars. She got paid to sit in the booth and wait. She got a lot of reading done.
Personally, I wouldn’t want that job, even though I’m a night owl and I love to read. Otherwise I would have applied there at the time. 1. It got really cold at night most of the year. 2. Uniform. 3. Bottom dollar.
In many ways, my friend worked my “dream job.” Get paid to read for seven hours and forty-five minutes a shift! In other ways, I learned that I preferred to make more money, not have a dress code, work during the daytime, and actually do something during my shift. I needed my job to be interesting.
Perhaps it’s this, the negative image of the thing we don’t want even though we know we could have it. Perhaps it’s this that keeps us moving.
(I know I don’t want to be unemployed again because it’s boring. I know I want to wear Real Clothes during the day because wearing pajamas makes me feel like an invalid. I know I don’t want to write at night anymore because I can never get any sleep during the day).
I’m incredibly stubborn and opinionated. I can’t stand being told what to do. I also have this little chip on my shoulder about working under people who “aren’t as smart as me.” Two things finally occurred to me. 1. If that person isn’t as smart as me, then why am I making less money, which is the part I care about? 2. I don’t have to have a boss.
It turns out that working for yourself and being your own boss is a lot more work than having someone else tell you what to do. It has to be worth it. Also, there’s always some rule or some “boss” at some level: submission deadlines, editors, minimum balances, minimum orders, style guidelines, something. Then there are customers and reviewers! If there’s a way to make a solid living with zero demands or feedback from other humans, I haven’t found it yet.
Ultimately, it’s the difference between I DO WHAT I WANT and I GET WHAT I WANT.
Doing what you want all the time doesn’t usually lead to getting anything else. It’s also unsustainable if you are relying on others to pay your way or clean up around you. They start making all kinds of extra rules on you.
Getting what you want tends to mean doing a lot of things that weren’t necessarily your first idea. Going places at a time you don’t want to leave the house, making calls you didn’t want to make, focusing for extended periods, managing minor details that are annoying and boring. Ah, but then, you get what you want.
There are a lot of hidden powers in procrastination. The power of identifying rank and status, therefore knowing whom to defy. The power of picking and choosing how you spend your time and where you focus. The power of finding more interesting things to do with your day, with their secret signals as to what you’d rather be doing. The power of physically surviving in spite of not doing the things you think you should be doing. The power of the inner dream to be doing something better.
Procrastination is avoiding the thing that you personally have decided is the most important thing you should be doing, the best use of your time. It’s inherently irrational - or is it?
Procrastination is power. Now, what are you going to do with that power?
There are two types of procrastination:
Either way, procrastination is default mode. Not doing something is the natural state of affairs. It’s taking action that is unusual, getting the thing done that takes planning and effort. That’s why we shouldn’t let it get to us. It’s normal and everyone does it.
The thing is, default is not the same as stasis, or maintenance. Not doing something is not a valid way of keeping everything the same. The universe doesn’t work like that. Entropy is coming for us, and coming for us, and coming for us, and coming for us. Ignoring and avoiding something means that, as time goes by, the situation is getting worse.
That suspicious container in the fridge? It’s going to be oh-so-much scarier a week from now.
That nagging issue, that medical thing, the “you should probably get that looked at” thing? Possibly it’s going away on its own. But do we really want to gamble on that?
That laundry pile. Laundry is like the ocean - never turn your back on it.
That credit card balance. Fines, fees, finance charges, extra swipes, duplicate charges we could have noticed but didn’t, because we were afraid to check. If anything in this world builds up on us, it’s debt.
We often feel like we’re procrastinating about things that aren’t actually tasks. We’re not always necessarily responsible for everything. Not everything counts. When I work with chronically disorganized people, we often assign equal valence to everything. A list of movies to watch feels like it’s of equal importance to an email backlog and a stack of unsorted, unpaid bills. False! We have to build our skills of discernment and rational thought. We have to assess whether a particular job is important and whether it’s urgent. The lists of books to read and podcasts to check out, those are entertainments and rewards to keep us company while we take care of business.
For most things, it genuinely doesn’t matter if they never get done at all.
Craft projects, for instance.
Guess what else? You don’t have to clean anything. There are people in this world who don’t own any kitchen implements. They use their kitchens to store books, or leave them empty. Never a dish to wash. Shower at the gym every day and you may never need to clean your bathroom again. I knew a guy in my dorm building in college who slept on a bare mattress. Uncomfortable, in my opinion, but then I didn’t sleep in that bed. Not my problem. Your problems stem directly from your standards for yourself. Drop the standard, drop the task.
I’m going further. We don’t have to fold laundry. For most people, for most clothes, it doesn’t matter at all. The only reasons to fold things are 1. So they don’t get wrinkly and 2. So they’ll fit better in the drawers. If you hang everything up on hangers, boom! No folding! If you get rid of 80% of your heaps of clothes, boom! Enough space to just toss things in! I learned about the “no folding” method from my stepdaughter. She took her socks, t-shirts, pajamas, et cetera and simply tossed them in her drawers. I was so astonished when I found out that I just sat on the floor for a while with my jaw hanging open.
We don’t have to cook, we don’t have to clean, we don’t have to fold clothes. Heck, come to think of it, we don’t even have to WEAR clothes! That’s basically a “remain gainfully employed” and/or “avoid indecent exposure charges” kind of a question.
One thing I know is that if we don’t open the mail, we’ll get more. Not paying a bill on time may wind up costing more, it may damage your credit for several years, but it’s not really a permanent problem to avoid opening the mail. Stuff it all in sacks and shred it or burn it, and the important stuff will soon show up again in a different-colored envelope.
Same thing with any truly important phone call or email. Ignore it and the sender will try again, working harder to get our attention.
I’m sort of joking here. Personally, I’ll do almost anything to avoid getting extra mail or phone calls. I like to head that stuff off in advance. I love sleeping on crisp clean sheets as much as I loathe stacks of dirty dishes, drifts of unopened mail, and piles of smelly old laundry. The pleasures of doing a few small routine tasks everyday are many. This message is really for the rebels.
A secret root cause of procrastination is the simple desire for autonomy. I DO WHAT I WANT! NOBODY TELLS ME! I DON’T HAVE TO!
Right, of course! Of course you do what you want! Of course you don’t have to do anything! You can strip naked and go lie out in the road right now if you like. My dad always told me that I could do anything I want, as long as I’m prepared to accept the consequences, and it would be better if I knew what the consequences were in advance. For instance, cheat on your taxes, get audited. Don’t pay your bills, get collection notices and have bad credit. Be bad at your job, get laid off. We do, though, always have complete power and control over whether we choose to act in positive or negative ways.
Procrastination is default. It puts us among the majority. Through procrastination we become mediocre, or less than mediocre. We become predictable, boring, uninteresting. The drama that is created through chronic procrastination and disorganization is not beautiful or fascinating drama, it’s just traditional, ordinary, tawdry old regular drama.
What we really could be asking ourselves is, if not this, then what? If we were relieved of this responsibility, if this task was removed from our balance sheet, what would we then be doing? If we were free of these duties, where would we be putting our energy? What could we be doing that is better than the default?
Time debt is something I’m thinking about a lot lately. I’m trying to learn more about working in the time dimension, which probably means that my concept of time is different than most people’s. Well, okay, I know it is. What I’m developing right now is an idea that time debt is the same as financial debt, physical clutter, and excess adipose tissue, commonly known as body fat. They’re all alike because they all reflect something we’re doing on a daily basis that is not working for Future Self.
Spend too much in relation to income, and Future Self will be broke.
Buy too much stuff with nowhere to put it, and Future Self will be sitting in a pile of junk.
Eat more than you need, and Future Self is the one who will have to deal with it.
Put things off, and Future Self will be frantically fighting deadlines.
Whoa. Now that I lay it out like that, I think I’m onto something!
This is the sort of stuff that can happen when we think of Future Self as some kind of evil villain. Who does that? We wonder. What else would you call it, though, if you work steadily from day to day to make things harder for your own Future You?
Over the years, I’ve taught myself how to take Future Me seriously, how to see her as a close friend or dear relation. Sometimes I think of Future Me doing something funny, like wearing a lavender wig and a tiara at age eighty, and I just love her. Future Me is a hip granny!
Because of this affectionate relationship that I’ve visualized, I feel excited when I look forward. I think of all the ways that Future Me will have a better life than Today Me. For one thing, she’ll be a better cook! I like sending her money and trying to help her become a hip granny who can do the splits.
I also try to think of Future Me - Stardate: Next Year, and even Next Month Me.
This is where time debt comes in.
I’ve gotten pretty good over the years at following a radical budget, balancing my activity level with my nutrition, and keeping my physical space clear. Where I still struggle, and struggle mightily, is in understanding how long it takes to do things and when I’ll be done with a project.
Part of this is because I’m more attracted to endless projects than I am to projects with clearly defined boundaries. I’m more likely to run a blog or volunteer for something than I am to make a physical object or turn something in on a deadline.
I have a type of project that I call Do the Obvious. It’s part of my annual review and future planning. This year, my Do the Obvious is to schedule time blocks. What this means is that I try to set aside two to four hours a day for projects that need deep focus concentration and System II thinking, like writing and strategic planning. I want to limit other activities so they don’t accidentally eat my whole day. Key among those day-eaters are email and reading the news.
What I’ve found is that I have a backlog of fairly random things that I never fit into my daily routine. These things are relevant, things I can’t delegate, but also things that aren’t urgent and are thus easy to put off.
Um, there’s a name for that. We call it procrastination.
Is it, though? Is it procrastinating to put off doing something that isn’t urgent?
That depends on your individual judgment. It’s legit to delay something less important in favor of something urgent or more important. Not only is it legit, it’s the only rational way to behave!
I don’t want to reach a point where I’m polishing the inside of my medicine cabinet, alphabetizing my socks, and other entirely trivial tasks that feel lovely but accomplish nothing.
For myself, I want all of my powers of focus and attention directed the same way. I want my concentration to be 100% available for the projects that matter to me. That means I want to finish everything that can be finished. I want to close every loop that can be closed. I want to feel satisfied that I am entirely DONE with anything that can be considered done.
I know I need to dedicate time every day to work, meals, personal hygiene, taking care of my pets, cleaning house, checking my mail, flagging spam, blocking robo-calls, and going to the gym. I’m okay with that. When else am I going to listen to my audio book?
Where I tend to struggle is with the non-routine stuff and with the nice-to-have “round tuit” kind of stuff. “When I get around to it.”
Now that I’m working on time blocks, I’ve realized that I can use a calendar month as its own type of time block. I’m thinking of my backlog of weird, non-urgent tasks as a list of bills that need to be paid. They could also be thought of as bags of trash to be carried out. How many “bags of trash” do I really need cluttering up my mental living room??
When I consider my backlog list, I tell myself, don’t carry it forward another month. How much of this stuff that I knew I wanted to do at the beginning of January do I still want to have on my list in February?
February is the shortest month. In the northern hemisphere, at least, the weather tends to be cruddy. How much is on your list that you don’t want to carry forward as a time debt?
Don’t carry it forward another month. Set yourself up for a relaxing spring and a fun summer.
The 5-Second Rule is the sort of book that makes people pop up and exclaim, “LOVE IT!!” (That’s an actual quote from one of my mentees). It’s fair to say that this book changes lives, and the reason is that it includes dozens of real-life examples. The format includes screenshots of comments, text messages, and emails from people who have used the 5-second rule to transform their most difficult problems.
These problems include everything from basic procrastination and hitting the snooze button too many times, to battling addiction and suicidal ideation. No matter what’s weighing on your mind, there’s someone in this book who has confronted a similar type of trouble.
There are so many great things to love about this book. One is that it’s research-based, and Mel Robbins introduces techniques and terminology that are not just helpful, but also fresh and hard to find mentioned elsewhere. An example is anxiety reappraisal, such as explaining to yourself that you’re not scared, you’re excited! I’ve been teaching that in Toastmasters without realizing that there was a formal name for it in psychology.
Another great feature of The 5-Second Rule is that its design allows for dipping in and out. Even one page of this book could provide an emotional lift for someone who was feeling stuck. I’d go so far as to say that even the cover would make a good touchstone, a reminder to apply the 5-second rule to any situation.
This book feels like the missing piece to so much of what I teach. I work with chronic disorganization and hoarding, and I wish I had known about The 5-Second Rule much sooner. I absolutely know that it would be so helpful to so many people. I started using it myself before I had even finished reading the book. Pick it up for yourself and see if it works the same way for you.
“Change comes down to the courage you need every day to make five second decisions.”
“You are one decision away from a completely different life.”
“Procrastination is not a form of laziness at all. It’s a coping mechanism for stress.”
Steven Pressfield has done it again. The Artist’s Journey is another touchstone so condensed and powerful that simply looking at the cover can reignite the inspiration it originally sparked.
I got chills as I read this book. Yes, nod, I agree, yeah, OH WAIT, that changes everything! Unable to dispute any of his assertions, I find myself led along by Pressfield until suddenly confronted with some seriously mind-altering concepts about what it means to be a working artist.
If you haven’t read The War of Art yet, what is stopping you? Artist, non-artist, it doesn’t matter. Pressfield does a phenomenal job of describing the Resistance, that inner feeling that stops us from doing anything interesting or important. I find it highly relevant that he breaks through his own lifetime of procrastination and irrelevance by washing a sink full of dirty dishes. Recognizing that feeling when it comes up makes it much easier to take action and break free.
Carrying on from there, what do you do after you’ve learned how to dispel the Resistance most of the time?
The Artist’s Journey carries on from that point, explaining in practical terms how someone can find and draw down that steady stream of creative inspiration. Pressfield assures us that no work is too inconsequential, that everything we make matters, because it is the work itself that makes us.
I’m still very much under the spell of this book and I can’t stop flipping back and forth through it. Like a couple of his others, I know I’ll read it again and refer to it often. This one is a keeper.
We have wasted enough years avoiding our calling.
“I don’t have a spirit raccoon.”
Choose a resolution you can finish in one day, and you automatically get the same bragging rights as the people who choose something more complicated. If you never make resolutions because you “know” you’ll let yourself down, change the rules! You are invited to look over this list of one-day resolutions. Pick one if you think it could make your life better, easier, more fun, or more interesting.
Apply for a passport.
If you already have a passport, get it out and check the expiration date.
Change all your passwords and find out where you can use dual authentication.
Go around and set all your clocks, including the microwave and the dashboard in your vehicle.
Throw out everything in your kitchen that is past its expiration date.
Throw out any expired medications.
Throw out worn-out socks and underwear.
Cash in your change jar.
Make an appointment to get your teeth cleaned if it’s been more than 6 months.
Make sure you’ve had a tetanus shot booster within the last 10 years.
Pull out your driver’s license and check to see when it expires. Is it this year? Oh snap.
Give back anything you borrowed from someone else.
If you have overdue library books, return them.
If you quit reading a book because you lost interest, let it go. Give it away or trade it in.
Match up the lids with all your pots, pans, travel mugs, and plastic containers.
Make a “dump run” and get rid of the broken junk from your garage, yard, or anywhere else it’s piled up.
If you have a mending pile, look it over right now and decide to fix it or throw it away.
Increase your retirement contribution 1%.
Get a free copy of your credit report and check it for errors.
Fill out a living will and have it witnessed.
Sign up for a first aid/CPR certification class.
Set a timer for one hour and spend it cleaning or filing.
Go through your email inbox and unsubscribe to as much as possible.
Look through your queue of movies and TV episodes and delete anything that no longer interests you.
Look at your keys. Are there any you don’t need any more that you can get rid of? Mystery keys you don’t even recognize?
Think of any task you’ve been procrastinating for longer than a year. Make the decision to do it this month or let it go.
Read The War of Art by Stephen Pressfield.
Make a vow not to make negative comments about other people’s resolutions.
It wasn’t until I nearly missed my flight home for Thanksgiving that I realized something important, something deep in my character. “You call yourself organized,” I lectured myself, looking at my textbook-sized day planner, “and you almost missed your flight.” My desire to feel “organized” often leads me to do things that actually CAUSE the problems that make me feel DISorganized. I was missing something fundamental and obvious, something that other people seemed to do effortlessly. This is when I had my bright idea.
The very next day, I pulled out my return tickets and my calendar, and I told myself a story.
The story itself doesn’t matter so much as the format. “You’re going to [DO THIS] because [OF THIS REASON] and then [THIS IS GOING TO HAPPEN].”
I walked myself backward, step by step, through my upcoming Monday morning. Vivid in my mind was the major ramification of being late: MISSING MY FLIGHT! Pain! Sorrow! Long lines! Wasted money! I needed to estimate the time each segment of my trip would take: to the gate from security, through security from drop-off, to drop-off from my parents’ house. How long would it take me to get ready?
Hang on, this is relevant to tasks as well as event planning. Do you see why yet? Because you shouldn’t be doing tasks unless they are useful to you in some way. If something is useful for you to do for yourself, then you’ll want to do it by a specific time. If it isn’t time-bound, then you’ll want to do it in relation to some result that matters to you. This is why we work backward. We want the intended result to happen and we want to do the things that lead to that result. Often, when we start with an “organized” “to-do list,” we wind up doing things efficiently that have nothing to do with our intended results.
That’s why I was able to feel so “organized” even as I arrived at the airport forty minutes late and nearly missed my flight.
My careful one-bag packing, checking the weather report, coordinating my clothes and footwear, selecting books to read, menu-planning with four other people, doing laundry, clearing my desk, and cleaning house were all great things to do. They all tragically missed the real point, which was to GET ON THE PLANE ON TIME.
I caught my flight (read: made my cherished goal) by accident, unfairly and undeservedly. This was a negative result because it had the potential to teach incorrect lessons and reinforce destructive behaviors. Namely: being a derpy derp.
A flaw is a flaw everywhere. My tendency to space out and ignore important details, losing track of the main point, is a flaw in everything I do. That’s why this matters. It hurts me, myself. It also usually ripples out and annoys other people, damaging their trust and staining my reputation. Ultimately, though, why would I annoy my own self? Why would I keep doing things to myself that I hate?
This, then, is the bedrock, the foundation of the problem. Being “disorganized” means perpetually annoying myself. “Getting organized” means doing the relentless root cause analysis and taking the corrective action. Find the flaw and shake it until all its withered little poison fruits shake loose.
When I look at a clock time, say: 10:10, it means nothing to me. It’s just a series of numbers and punctuation marks. I can’t possibly care less. I’ve tried both analog and digital clocks with the same effects. I don’t work well in the time dimension. Those symbols are not real to me.
When I arrange it as a story problem, suddenly it clicks into place. “Once upon a time there was a charming young derpy derp who got to the airport late and missed her flight. Because it was a busy holiday weekend, she was not able to get another seat until Saturday. She missed Thanksgiving dinner. It was her only chance all year to see her nephew, and by the time she arrived, he had already gone home. Instead of the nine-person dinner party she’d anticipated for months, her favorite people in all the world, only three were still free to get together. And all the pie was gone.”
Now, when I do my planning, I see the face of my sweet nephew, surrounded by my family, arranged at the table one by one. This is my motivation. My reason for spending an extra ten minutes making my schedule is a human reason. I want to be with someone who is important to me, and I don’t want to let him down. Or any of the others. Or let myself down.
This is how to turn an ordinary to-do list into a story problem. Who will be affected by my inaction or procrastination? Who will be disappointed if I don’t follow through? Who will have to cover for me, even with everything else that’s going on in their life right now? Conversely, how will they feel if I pull through? How will everyone react if I do everything I said I would do, on time or early?
My next-level planning revolves around a more familiar face, derpy though it is, and that face is my own. What expression will I have when I realize that, despite my planning, I’m still so late that I won’t get any breakfast? That I’ll have to wait four hours to have anything to eat? SAD FACE! I estimate how long it will take me to order food and plug that into my story.
That’s the personal level of the story problem. How will I myself feel if I screw this up? What will I miss out on if I skate through with only the vaguest of intentions and no specifics? How embarrassed will I be if I put in a significant amount of effort on something, only to blow it at the last minute because I forgot a major detail?
I wrote a story to myself and put it in my reminders. First, I set an alarm with the label: “Order a Lyft by 8:00 or you won’t get any breakfast!” Bone-chilling. Then, I set an alert for my reminder story. It went like this: “This morning you’re going to go to PDX and get breakfast. You’ll land in Sacramento and have about an hour to get a burrito. Then you’ll fly to LAX and head home.” Following were two more sentences about what I had to do after I got home, reminding me of some preparations I could take during my flight and while I hung around at the airport.
It worked! I ordered the Lyft on time, I got to the airport on time, I had quite a nice breakfast, and three hours later I also had quite a nice lunch. I didn’t have to sprint, not even once. Not only that, I helped two different people by noticing something they had dropped and picking it up for them. My attention was where it needed to be.
There’s a productivity technique called “interstitial journaling.” It involves pausing between tasks and meetings to write notes about what you are thinking, what decisions you need to make, and why you are doing what you are doing. Something like “I need to eat dinner early tonight if I want to make it to class on time” or “I’m going to get a nagging email if I don’t submit this report by Tuesday.” This is similar to the narrative to-do list that I’m describing. If clock times and schedules don’t work well for you, as they don’t for me, then maybe this will help. If to-do lists never seem to get you anywhere, again, maybe this will work better for you.
“Once upon a time there was a faithful reader who saw a great blog post. A big lightbulb went on. Suddenly it was so obvious that a bunch of things on that musty, dusty old to-do list could just be removed and never thought of again! Suddenly it was so clear and simple: what to do next and why.”
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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