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.”
This is a book about how to bring ideas into reality. Those of us who are great at coming up with inspired new ideas aren’t always quite so great at doing anything with them. We’re hooked on the fun part. Everything after ideation feels like work! Then we look up and find that we’re surrounded by unfinished projects, maybe with piles of notecards or materials or art supplies, and little else to show for the incredible gift of creativity. We need to ask ourselves, Good Idea. Now What?
Charles T. Lee is an entrepreneur, so this comes across as a business book. This might be off-putting to some artistic types, until we realize that once we start finishing larger-scale projects, they do start to intersect with the world of business. How do you show or publish your work? How do you get your projects into the hands of their natural audience? I happen to think that it is the duty of any artist to channel the work in a form that reaches people. It is selfish and unfair to hog our talents to ourselves. We don’t have to do it for money (although why is that wrong?), but what good is the work if it remains hidden and locked away?
Good Idea. Now What? covers everything. It covers everything from how to collaborate and handle criticism to how to structure your schedule and make time for your family. The book includes examples of people who have built businesses and philanthropic organizations; it could easily have included musicians, sculptors, writers, actors, cartoonists, and all the rest of us. Even poets. I’d love to see what happens when more artists and creatives start reading it and putting its ideas into practice.
Destiny is found in the collective result of the small, intentional decisions you make in life.
Too much is at stake to exert energy toward criticism.
If you’re going to fail, fail forward!
Don’t just settle for being a lover of inspirational ideas.
Our world needs you and will be a better place when your ideas come to life!
I kept meaning to read this book, because I like the subtitle: An Overdue History of Procrastination, from Leonardo and Darwin to You and Me. Somehow, though, my stack kept getting longer and this title kept getting pushed farther down. It wasn’t until I had an urgent need for a book I knew I’d want to review that I dug around and found it. I read it in one sitting. That’s probably because I am procrastinating on a major project. What an ideal situation for reading a book like Soon! Paradoxically, it celebrates the motives behind procrastination, while also offering insight and inspiration for completing projects.
This book is tricky. It profiles some very famous procrastinators, people whose work has stood the test of time for centuries. On the one hand, we’re treated to descriptions of all the many ways they procrastinated and how they explained themselves. On the other hand, we see how they have become legends and how important their work was. What we don’t see are any profiles of garden-variety procrastinators who never did anything important or valuable. Those of us who recognize ourselves in these tales of dithering will be forced to wonder, do we have this level of legendary work buried somewhere inside ourselves?
Darwin had his great insight about evolution all the way back in 1838. He put off writing it up for over twenty years, and only got to work when he heard that someone else was closing in on similar research. This makes me wonder about two things. First, would Charles Darwin have published more work if he’d had more external pressure? Second, how different would the modern world be if the theory of evolution had entered pop culture two decades sooner?
Would Jonathan Franzen have written less if he hadn’t worn earplugs, earmuffs, and an actual blindfold while typing?
It’s easy to wonder whether modern technology causes more procrastination. Is it just the existence of clocks and calendars and to-do lists and the Puritan work ethic? But then Santella makes a convincing case that The Odyssey is all about procrastination. This is just part of how humans get through life.
Why do people procrastinate? Santella spends almost all of Soon referring to his own delays in researching and writing the very book that we are reading. Yet he methodically gets through it all, with the existence of the book somehow both proving and refuting his hypotheses. Is procrastination due to perfectionism, rebellion, overwhelm, mood regulation, or lack of identification with Future Self? Procrastination, how much does it overlap with free will?
I enjoyed reading this book. It helped me to put my procrastinated project into new context. In the face of all these legendary historical figures, who completed major, influential projects despite their habits, who am I to resist my own creative force? Let’s all think of our efforts in the context of our life story and legacy, or especially let’s do that when we’re putting off doing something else.
Procrastinators can keep admirably busy even while they’re avoiding their work.
Are we ethically required to make the most of the time allotted to us?
Optimism is the quality most often overlooked in procrastinators.
Can I really afford to spend my day doing mere work?
When you are free to set your own schedule, you are also free to disregard it completely.
The reason there aren’t more chronic procrastinators is that we tend to fall into one of three categories when it comes to projects. Finishers, maintainers, and initiators, we tend to fit in one of these groups the majority of the time. The Finishing Game is aimed at initiators because we’re the fun ones.
Finishers like to get things done. They chase the feeling of accomplishment. Finishers will add an item to a to-do list just to feel the satisfaction of crossing it off, even if the item was extremely minor and inconsequential. Finishers also like to boss other people around, trying to get them to finish their projects, even if those projects are nowhere near the circle of influence of the finisher. A finisher may feel organized and in control - because that’s the central goal, after all - while never really moving forward in life or doing anything cool. Finish alphabetizing your socks, and then what?
Maintainers like to get through the day on autopilot. There’s a comfort in routine. I have a friend who has turned down opportunities for promotions at work (read: tens of thousands of dollars of extra income) because his current position allows him to listen to podcasts while he works. I have also had coworkers who would get marked down every year in their annual review because they had no goals for advancement. One wailed, “I don’t want a promotion! I just want to come in, work, and go home for the day.” It’s pretty common, and smart, for someone to realize that a promotion would result in a lifestyle downgrade. When you’re salaried, you usually don’t qualify for overtime. Is it worth giving up your weekends? That’s a question of overall life philosophy. A maintainer at home is likely to be more interested in the process of a hobby than in the finished product. Not so much “I want a knit cap” as “I love to knit.”
My own knitting languished at the same level for several years, until I forced myself to learn to understand knitting diagrams and teach myself at least one new stitch for every project. Suddenly I vaulted from basic k1 scarves to hats, socks, and pose-able toy animals.
Initiators like three things: planning projects, shopping for materials, and learning new things. As soon as we see a path to completion, we tend to lose interest. The vast scale of our daydreams quickly turns into the harsh realization that we’ll be working on this darn thing for months, maybe years! Actually finishing one of our grand creative edifices also eats into the time we’d set aside for our other 87 projects. Finishing all of them? ALL of them?? Why, that would take up years! Years I fully intend to spend dreaming up yet grander, wilder, fancier projects!
The truth is that we’re not obligated to finish past projects. We’re not obligated to finish every book we’ve started or purchased. We’re not obligated to pick out stitches for hours and re-do our work. We’re not obligated to finish projects, even when we’d earmarked them as gifts, especially when those gifts are ages past the occasion for which we’d planned them.
I bought materials for a dollhouse once. I relocated with those materials SIX TIMES before leaning on my husband to help me build it. The kids who were supposed to get it were near college-age at that point. It went to a child who had not even been born when I first saw the plans. (Fortunately, I never told the other kids, or their parents, that I was planning this awesome gift for them).
As dreamers, we’re most into the process of exploration. We’re planners and designers more than we are artisans or producers. The architect, not the carpenter; the engineer, not the mechanic. We’re never going to stop learning new skills, improving our abilities, refining our aesthetic. Because of this, guess what?
A lot of our earlier project “commitments” aren’t worth finishing.
Just because we once decided that something would be a good idea to make, does not mean that this is still true.
Just because we’ve put hours of work into something, does not mean that it would be worth finishing.
Just because an idea once popped into existence somewhere in the ether, does not mean it’s worth bringing it into physical form.
An example of this would be a wedding sampler I began for a dear old friend. I made a mistake on it and put it aside, planning to pick out those stitches on another day. Years later, it still hadn’t gotten done. But guess what? That marriage didn’t survive. When I was culling my old projects, I realized that that $1 piece of aida cloth had about 50 stitches on it, and the design was seriously dated. I threw it in the trash.
Yep. I really did. I threw an unfinished craft project IN THE GARBAGE.
It was biodegradable. It turns out we can do this. There are no project police. Nobody comes for you and hauls you to a dungeon if you quit working on something. You don’t even have to declare bankruptcy if you trash $5 worth of materials.
Culling old projects that have become irrelevant or have lost their luster is the only way to reclaim the energy to finish the good ones. Beyond this, it turns out that waking up to a clean slate with no unfinished projects unleashes an astonishing wave of creative energy and power. No guilt, no boredom, no nagging reminders, nothing. We don’t owe any of our free time to anyone. To ourselves we owe the ability to live in the present moment, without bits of our attention snagged on obsolete past choices.
At some point in the year 2000, I decided to use up all of my accumulated materials and try to finish my existing projects before starting anything new. I wasn’t perfect in implementing this, but I did stop buying attractive yarn or fabric or kits without a very specific project in mind. I went through my stockpile several times, giving away bags of stuff, throwing away bits and scraps, questioning whether I still wanted to make stuff that had appealed to me years earlier. I chose to finish many of the projects in my burgeoning work basket.
IT TOOK TEN YEARS.
Now I’m still crafty. I still have all the skills I ever had. If I wanted to make a pair of baby booties, I could do it this week. I just don’t have any yarn or knitting stuff in my home anymore, not so much as a pair of straights or a set of DPs. As a writer, I can go through my folder of notes and start on anything in there at any time, in the full knowledge that I already have too many ideas to complete in one lifetime. Inspiration is not obligation. This one lifetime is for me to live and enjoy, not to thrash myself because I am more likely to invent new ideas than to carve them into reality.
The Finishing Game works like this:
What will you do when you’ve finished everything? What will you do when you no longer have a towering pile of incompletion in your life? What I did was to run a marathon and learn enough of a foreign language to travel around, buying train tickets and getting directions. What would be more interesting, more challenging, and more fun than the never-ending to-do list?
You should have done it already. You know you should have. It’s lurking there, like a swamp thing at the bottom of a murky lake. Waiting for you. It will never let you have a moment’s peace until you deal with it, but you just can’t seem to make yourself. You can’t seem to make yourself open that envelope, listen to that voicemail, make that phone call, schedule that appointment, get that thing repaired, fill out that application, have that awkward conversation, turn in that assignment. WHY? Why do you keep doing this to yourself?
You’re not alone. Everyone procrastinates. Sure, some people claim they don’t, but the two most commonly procrastinated tasks are planning for retirement and dealing with health issues. Mention that if anyone tries to grief you about this.
Procrastination is a secret shame. There are a lot of different kinds. Don’t stress out about it. Imagine being a hit and run driver who never told anyone. (If that’s you, well, heck. Tell someone). Procrastination is really pretty mild in the grand scheme of things.
Whenever you have a secret shame, it’s the shame and the secrecy that are the real problems. Everything else is generally a simple matter of routine work.
An unpaid bill is just cash.
Something broken is just a repair.
A stain is just a stain.
An incomplete task is just something that could be finished.
It’s never the thing itself. It’s always the feelings of shame, guilt, incompetence, dread, anxiety, confusion, and What If that are the real problems.
Most of the time, it isn’t too late. Whatever is being procrastinated, the deadline hasn’t passed yet. There’s still time. Even knowing that, it can still feel impossible to just get started. Just start. Just start. Why aren’t you starting?
All it takes is to tell someone. Tell someone you know and trust. Tell someone you don’t know, like a stranger in line behind you at the post office. Tell someone anonymously on the internet. Tell a crow in the parking lot. Tell the Great Pumpkin. Just tell someone.
Give a name to what’s bothering you. Describe it. This helps to put some boundaries around the nameless ick that is destroying your peace of mind.
“I never sent those thank-you notes.”
“I’ve had this overdue library book for eight years.”
“The floor is ruined and I’m afraid to tell my landlord.”
“I’ve been getting calls from collections agents and I’m not even sure how much I owe.”
“The quarterly report is due and I haven’t even started yet.”
“I’m supposed to get a biopsy and it’s been over a year and I still haven’t made the appointment.”
(That last one was me BTW).
If you’ve picked the right person, you’ll probably hear a similar story in return. Everyone but everyone has done something like this. I accidentally melted a chocolate Rollo candy into my roommate’s couch. (So that’s where that went!). People procrastinate and make foolish mistakes and do embarrassing stuff all the time. That’s why it’s so funny and such a huge relief to hear that someone else is doing it, too.
Many people who have trouble working alone will push through for hours without a break if they have someone to sit with them. It’s a well-known phenomenon. The companion is called a “body double” or “shadow.” I think the lack of a buddy is the root cause of procrastination for a lot of people. (Probably most of them are Obligers). This is part of why it helps to tell someone when you feel like you’re in trouble and unable to face a problem by yourself. If all you need is someone to keep you company, that’s really a very minor favor to ask of someone.
Who could you get to sit with you?
A business partner? Your neighbor? Your kid? Your spouse?
A fellow procrastinator?
There are all kinds of book clubs, right? (I used to belong to three at one point). Lots of people play racquetball or tennis together. Bowling leagues. Choirs. You get where I’m going here? Why shouldn’t you have a partner or a club to help you focus and get stuff done? It’s entirely possible that someone among your friends or acquaintances is in just such a situation as you are. That person would probably be thrilled to have some help. You both just sit down together and make a pact that you’ll work on your secret shame until it’s done.
The backlog of unbalanced bank statements (which someone at your bank will do with you). The 30,000 unopened emails. The grocery sack full of unopened envelopes, which I guarantee are almost entirely junk mail. The incomplete expense reports. The blank thank-you notes. Whatever it is, it’s not exactly movie-of-the-week material, now, is it?
The funny thing is, it’s possible that you and your friend have non-overlapping projects, as well as non-overlapping skill sets. For instance, I absolutely hate driving, but I’m really quite good at organizing and I don’t mind disgusting cleaning tasks. I would totally trade someone a job like mending or scrubbing out a gross fridge for driving me around on some errands. Other jobs I hate that might make a good trade are wrapping gifts or giving my dog a bath.
It’s also not morally wrong to just hire someone. Hire a local high school kid. Hire someone through Craigslist or something similar. Calculate a subjective estimate of the cost of this looming dread that’s constantly hanging over your head, and then how much you’d be willing to pay to be rid of it. Is this a $25 stress? A $200 stress? A $20,000,000 stress? For instance, I can wash a pretty vast pile of laundry at the laundromat for about $8, but when it’s piled up that much, it feels like at least a hundred-dollar annoyance. (Would it cost $100 to buy a top-to-toe outfit if I ran out of clean clothes?). For a lot of people, putting a price on something can help to rank it and compare it to other problems. It can also be a motivator for getting it done rather than spending that kind of money.
Dread and procrastination and secret shame will destroy your peace of mind like nothing else. Life is too short to feel that way another day. Tell someone and don’t suffer alone.
If there’s one thing we’re good at, it’s imagining bad outcomes. We get spun up over this all the time. For every conversation, there are probably twelve sad, scary, or alarming versions that never happened. Every job interview really lasts for eighty hours, seventy-nine of them imaginary. Anxiety and pessimism are survival traits. Worry and dread have gotten us through fire, flood, famine, siege, animal attack, and all the rest. This is probably why avoidance goals work slightly better than approach goals.
An avoidance goal is phrased in a way that anticipates a negative outcome. “Don’t forget your glasses.”
An approach goal is phrased in a way that anticipates a positive outcome. “Remember to wear your glasses.”
It’s possible that certain personality types lean more toward one goal type or the other. An optimist will naturally prefer an approach goal. It’s also possible that certain types of goals are better suited for one format or the other. A personal experiment should make this clear. Are we getting the results we want in the areas that are important to us?
I’m an extreme optimist, an enthusiast by nature. I love working on annual, quarterly, monthly, and sometimes even hourly goals. My plans tend to be both broad and specific. I would have thought I made almost entirely approach-oriented goals. Then I read a blog post by a guy who made two goals and then compared his adherence to them based on whether he focused on approach or avoidance. He did better with avoidance. It made me realize that I follow a lot of avoidance-based goals throughout the day, almost automatically. I think of it as “common sense,” although of course “common sense” is never all that common.
Every single time I use a knife, I think, “Okay, now don’t cut yourself.”
Every single time I go down a flight of stairs, I think, with every single step, “Okay, now don’t slip.”
When I pack a suitcase, I bustle around my apartment, talking to myself. “Don’t forget your tickets. Don’t forget your back-up battery. Don’t forget your” endlessly, all the way up to the jetway.
There’s a distinct, gear-shifting feeling between this constant internal nattering and the aerial view, grand strategic plans that I normally think of as goal-setting.
Maybe one of the reasons that avoidance goals work better is that we can only plan them when we actually believe that the negative outcome is a firm possibility. I think that is very much not the case for a lot of common “goals.” Further, I think it’s common to “choose” a mainstream “goal” as a smokescreen, a pretend Potemkin intention, to protect our tendency to do what we want without criticism. Hey, I tried, what more do you want from me??
Research shows that we’re really poor at thinking of future versions of ourselves. We think of Old Me as a total stranger. Hey, Future Me, have fun paying off all this debt and picking up my socks! Ha, Future Me is such a sucker. We can’t really believe in a universe in which “I” am an elderly person. Surely I have better taste than to age and grow old! I’m much too smart for that! If we can’t believe in a frail, elderly, poor, and ill version of ourselves, then we have no intrinsic motivation to save money, eat healthy foods, and be more active. We do, however, believe in such things as cutting a finger or falling down the stairs. “Don’t cut yourself” is a much more believable imperative than “don’t get osteoporosis.”
My major fitness motivation is “Avoid getting Alzheimer’s.” This is a truly terrifying outcome. Why simply sit around and be afraid of something, though? That would be sacrificing all the good years for what may or may not turn out to be the bad years. It’s a logical fallacy. How can undirected anxiety possibly do me any good? That just means I suffer Alzheimer’s PLUS decades of dread. If I’m right, if my thesis is correct that Alzheimer’s is at least a little bit susceptible to lifestyle inputs, then I must do every last single thing in my power to avoid it. If I’m wrong, and I’ve done all of these actions over the years for no reason, if my efforts have been futile, I still benefit in three ways.
I could use an approach-oriented framework and tell myself “Eat healthy food” and “Get plenty of exercise.” Arguably, I do both of these things. They’re extremely vague, though, so vague as to be almost meaningless. That’s another reason that avoidance goals work a little better, because they’re unfailingly very specific.
It’s easier to “stop drinking soda” or “stop eating bagels” or “don’t eat high-fructose corn syrup.” Those are specific and simple to understand, and any of them could result in an easy ten-pound weight loss over a year.
I’m always going to make wildly positive, outlandishly optimistic goals and resolutions. It’s fun and it works much better than pop culture would lead us to believe. Past Me would have had a lot of trouble believing in my future ability to run a marathon, manage an investment portfolio, cook Thanksgiving dinner for two dozen people, buy train tickets in Spain, or lots of other things I’ve done. How would a negative version of those goals even be phrased? “Don’t screw up”? I will, however, continue to use avoidance goals when they seem helpful.
Here are some avoidance goals that I use, by category:
Don’t be in debt
Don’t carry a credit card balance
Don’t pay finance charges
Don’t buy on impulse
Don’t buy anything unless you know where you’ll put it and how you’ll clean it
Don’t outgrow your clothes, they’re expensive
Avoid getting a migraine - (body weight, dehydration, poor sleep quality)
Don’t get Alzheimer’s
Don’t trigger your night terrors - (eating after 8 PM)
Don’t run out of clean underwear
Don’t make extra work for yourself
Don’t leave crusty dishes
That needs to get eaten up before it gets wasted
Don’t criticize unless you’re open to being criticized
Don’t be a caricature
No double standards
Don’t be like his ex
Don’t do his pet peeves
Don’t be a pushover or a victim
Don’t be a flake
Don’t be a freeloader
Don’t associate with gossips
Don’t stand by and let other people be bullied
“Don’t do anything illegal, immoral, or just plain stupid.” - My Dad
“Never go viral for the wrong reasons.” - Anonymous
“Do things that are a good idea, and don’t do things that are a bad idea.” - Me
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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