It’s only been two weeks, and the results are indisputable. I made a minor tweak on my phone, it led to a pretty major behavior change, and now I’m sleeping almost two hours more per night on average.
I can’t believe it worked that well and that fast.
It’s actually a little embarrassing.
Not everyone feels this way, but for me, I feel like, if I was able to sleep then I obviously needed it. Not only will I refuse to apologize to anyone for sleeping, but if another person is actively interfering with my sleep, I will put them on blast and deal with it.
You! Have you ever woken someone else up because you were annoyed that they were sleeping? And they weren’t behind the wheel of a moving vehicle? Then you should probably reconsider what the heck is wrong with you.
Sleep is free and healthy. When other people are sleeping, you are then free to read or enjoy your alone time. So make the most of it.
Anyway. I sleep a lot because I’m a COVID survivor and I also have a parasomnia disorder. Sometimes I have issues sleeping, even with various OTC sleep aids, and I can struggle for weeks or months in this way. Being chronically sleep-deprived is bad for my productivity at work. So it’s quite a pleasant surprise when I’m able to sleep a lot.
This year I started to notice that I was sleep-procrastinating, which is staying up too late even when you’re tired because you’re so desperate for downtime. It’s a way for Night-Me to “get revenge” on Daytime-Me. You know, for having a job and responsibilities and stuff.
Sleep-procrastinating is a pernicious habit because the rewards are immediate. Look at me! Reading late at night! In my pajamas in my bed where I am so cozy! This is my favorite activity of all time!
Then there is Daytime-Me, crabby and irritable and tired, oh-so-tired, until it’s bedtime again and Night-Me gets this big ear-to-ear grin and starts the whole cycle over again.
I had a solid idea of what was behind this. My news queue. I knew without having to track metrics that my default mode was skimming my news app. I also knew that I was most likely to get myself into trouble with this after I was already in bed.
I made three tweaks, all of which work together.
First, I set up a bedtime routine in my Morning Routine app. It turns out that it takes me forty minutes to get ready for bed, partly because I see a periodontist now and I may have some of the most elaborate oral hygiene practices on the planet. So whenever I start that app, add at least forty minutes before my head hits the pillow.
To me, a bedtime routine is the number one keystone habit. It determines whether the household is always on time, early, or late. It determines quite a lot of health results. And it definitely determines whether everyone is fighting or basically getting along.
My bedtime routine is elaborate because I like to sleep until 7:30 am for an 8:00 am start at work. The more I do before bed, the less I have to do in the morning. Basically throw on clothes, straighten my hair, and make my tea.
Anyway, I had been using the bedtime routine app with some success, but then when I was finished, I would flop down and start skimming the news again. This practice was indeed streamlining my morning and making sure I remembered to start the dishwasher. But it wasn’t really helping me fight the bad habits and self-destructive tomfoolery of Night-Me.
Don’t feel the mogwai after midnight
I happened to stumble across an article that indicated I could customize my access to specific apps on my phone. As soon as I knew it was possible, I knew I wanted to do it.
This sort of thing only works if you trust yourself to be your own advocate. My superego is pretty good at driving the bus around here. I am not particularly vulnerable to psychological reactance, where we get mad at ourselves for setting limits. I just shrug and say to myself, Ah yes, I remember that I decided that was the best idea. Questioner Power.
Tweak One was setting up a bedtime routine that is gamified with a timer.
Tweak Two was setting a bedtime on my phone. Almost all apps are unusable between 10pm and 7am, which is a moot point since I’m still asleep at that time. I had to go back and add in a few apps, like the Morning Routine, that I use after 10.
Tweak Three was to set a one-hour time limit on my News app.
It turns out the third tweak was the biggest deal. I am now quite aware that every minute I skim through the news queue takes away one minute from reading that app during my workout.
There are a lot of ways to cheat; for instance, I can open an article in my browser instead and read it outside of the one-hour limit. This is perfectly fine by my standards. In fact, most of the news that I consume is through my speed-reading audio app anyway.
Because I also have the 10:00 pm shutoff, most of the time that I would have idly been reading news articles would be in the time between 10 pm and, on weekends, 1:00 am. As long as I’m not browsing in that three-hour window, any amount is probably fine.
My new setup started working the very first night. I picked up my phone, saw that it was shut down for the night, shrugged, and started getting ready for bed. I’m “allowed” to read books on my phone after 10, just not the news or email, and it turned out that I was asleep before midnight.
As time has gone by, I seem to be falling asleep a few minutes earlier each night.
Part of my higher weekly average is that I take three-hour naps on the weekend, but then, I was doing that before I set up these time boundaries on my phone. Almost all the increase in my average sleep time has just been going to bed earlier and falling asleep earlier during the week.
I have the power to change what I’m doing any time. I can turn off these settings on my phone. I can also start getting ready for bed even earlier and see what happens. It is pretty interesting to be able to track my metrics at a glance.
How do I feel? I feel great. I also feel like I could easily take a second nap each day on the weekend, but I haven’t yet. Daytime-Me keeps thinking there are “things I should be doing.”
But... are there?
I would have written this earlier, but honestly I was too busy.
About 1/5 of people have tendencies toward chronic procrastination, and I am one of them. This is an issue that has haunted me almost my entire life. It probably started when I was 7 and occasionally had to miss recess or sit in the hallway during a movie because my homework wasn’t done.
Isn’t that nuts? To take a tiny little kid who barely weighs 50 pounds and put that kind of pressure on those bitty little shoulders? Rather than *teach* a child whose brain is not fully developed, who can’t yet write in cursive or do long division, to *punish* and *withhold* and publicly shame and pelt with sarcastic remarks?
Of course, I’m 45 now, and I could easily have a grandchild that age. Can’t use it as an excuse today.
Last year I made it a resolution to work on my procrastination issues with one specific thing, which was responding to text messages. I also made it a ten-year plan to stop procrastinating entirely, or at least to quit feeling like it was an issue.
Lately I’ve been feeling like maybe I’m actually... there. Maybe I’m on top of it after all?
I took a new job last year, right after my... call it “transformative”... near-death experience with COVID-19. The pace has been referred to, more than once, as “frenetic” and as “hair on fire.”
We work long days in exchange for long weekends, a schedule that is known as 9/80. It means we work 80 hours in nine days instead of ten. It’s great, and more people should probably be allowed to do it. It also means, effectively, ten-hour days.
What I’ve found is that I have to run a pretty tight ship to be able to do the things I want to do, as well as work at this job.
My job itself is wildly fascinating. I work with really cool people and I learn new things every day. I recently got a great performance review and an unexpectedly satisfying merit increase, all things that are nice for morale. My boss literally said, “I’m behind you 100%, keep doing what you’re doing.”
It is tricky to get all my stuff done in between meetings, though.
When I first started, I admit, I probably wasn’t really recovered enough from coronavirus to be working a full schedule at such a busy place. It was hard. Then it got worse when I got bacterial pneumonia for my birthday and took a month to really get better.
I often felt low-energy and overwhelmed and like I was messing up.
Gradually, as I really started to get well again, I started to realize that my feelings of despair and dread were... symptoms! I was just anxious because I had been so ill, and that is one of the lasting effects of the virus. I read an article about post-viral syndrome, and as soon as I had that in my head, something clicked into place.
I was doing fine - I had direct testimony to that effect from the people whose opinions matter - and I was freaking myself out because my biology insisted on it.
This is the kind of thing I can talk myself out of.
Suddenly it felt as though I really had plenty of time to do everything at work, as long as I used a planner. I started doing a separate bullet journal for my job, and it was like rainbows started shooting out of my desk.
When I clocked out for the day, everything that lay before me in the evening was something I wanted to do. Eat dinner, obviously. Order groceries, same. Take care of my little parrot, who has been ludicrously well behaved during the pandemic and deserves so many smooches. Lay out clothes for the next day, a nice favor for Morning Me. Italian lesson, a reward.
But what about the aversive stuff? The annoying tasks that nobody wants to do?
There are still things I don’t really want to do, such as fill out forms or schedule appointments. I’ve learned to do two things about those.
I still have as many chores as anyone else who lives in a dinky apartment. Still have to put away laundry, which I still despise and probably always will. Still have to unpack groceries and scrub the bathtub and dust the ceiling fan and scrape pulped fruit off the window.
(What, don’t you have to scrape fruit off the windows at your house?)
The secret there was to choose. Would I rather cram these tasks into the day during the week, or put them off for the weekend?
Because I know that if I work with focus and strategy, I can lounge around on the weekend and do nothing, I choose to fit the housework into my busy, busy weekdays. A little in the morning while making breakfast. A little during my lunch break. A little while making dinner. Perhaps something while I’m dialed in to a long meeting that I don’t have to transcribe. Somehow, it all seems to get done.
Living in a small apartment makes it stand out if anything is not done. A single dish out on the stove or the counter really looks terrible and gets in the way. With a dusty, fluffy parrot and dark floorboards, the floors can look absolutely shambolic the very day after mopping. The punishment for skimping on something is to have to live with the aftereffects.
How quickly we forget, when we commute to a workplace, that somebody else is probably cleaning it! Polishing the tiles, washing the windows, hauling out the trash. It’s a curiously orderly environment that seems to put itself to rights, every night, by magic.
Not so much how it happens when you work from home.
What I’ve been finding is that when I am doing something that I might formerly have put off, I am thinking, “Good, I finally have time to get this out of the way.”
The truth is that procrastinating feels emotionally horrible. It is not rewarding in any way.
Finishing stuff and no longer having it weigh on your conscience, that’s a huge improvement.
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.
Get your flu shot.
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.
If you haven’t already, find out if you can open an IRA account at your bank.
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. A lot of libraries no longer charge overdue fines!
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.
Set a reminder to sign up for a first aid/CPR certification class (maybe this fall).
Set a timer for one hour and spend it cleaning or filing.
Go through your email inbox and unsubscribe to as much as possible.
Delete some apps.
Reconsider your social media engagement.
Call an old friend and say hello.
Apologize to someone.
If you have your own URLs, look them over and decide whether you still want them all.
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.
I’m tossing around a concept presented by Barry Davret that is really blowing my mind right now. Never get ready.
What does this mean?
The idea is that most of us spend a lot of time doing a lot of stuff that doesn’t actually help our situation. We burn energy “getting ready” to do whatever the thing is, energy that would better be used for doing that actual thing.
I think this is both true and untrue, depending on how the point is taken. As a poster or a slogan on a coffee mug, it might be very helpful for some and for others, it might simply make a great excuse.
Let’s look at some examples.
Someone who is trying to start a business, who puts tons of effort into building a social media presence, choosing logos, fussing over a website - and does not actually make any sales.
Someone who is “getting ready” to go out, who puts on and takes off several outfits, throwing them on the bed and the floor, and then leaves various bottles and jars strewn all over the bathroom counter. This person may feel nervous and self-conscious throughout the event, tugging garments into place and forgetting to actually have fun. (“This person” is probably every single middle-school student).
Someone who is getting ready to make a craft project, who shops for materials and buys books and chooses patterns, who has a half a dozen projects in progress, but then never actually finishes anything. (Me 1997-2009)
Someone who is getting ready to start dating, who signs up for an app, looks at tons of profiles, maybe even starts talking to people, but then never actually meets anyone in person.
One of the classics that I see in my work with chronically disorganized people is the sheer quantity of little tasks they will do before they walk out the door to go anywhere. Take the date-night “getting ready” aesthetic jitters, and add half a mile of pacing back and forth looking for objects or finishing little chores. It’s exponentially harder with small kids.
I used to be this way myself, until I acknowledged that I didn’t want to leave at all and I was coming up with reasons to stay in my apartment as long as I could.
This is what Davret is driving at with the exhortation to “never get ready.” Just jump in and do the thing, whatever it is.
I agree with him 99%.
The 1% of hesitation is that a certain amount of preparation is necessary in order to get straight to the target action. This is what we mean by Getting Organized.
For instance, I keep a shower kit packed at all times. When I want(ed) to go on a trip (before COVID), I would simply grab it and put it in my suitcase. I have another little pouch with a charging hub, backup batteries, adapters, and extra cables, including one for my Apple Watch. I have recorded myself packing for a trip in under five minutes. I put four changes of clothes, pajamas, and a pair of shoes in a suitcase that fits under an airplane seat. This is how I have managed to be a one-bag traveler for many years, even overseas.
In this sense, I can do what I want and “never get ready,” because I am always ready!
In another sense, there is a sort of carefree interpretation of “never getting ready” that would not benefit from my system. Sure, it’s possible to get on a plane with nothing but a passport and a credit card, and why not? I’ve thought about it quite a bit, in fact. It’s through the experience of nearly 40 years of travel that I’ve chosen to bring a certain amount of excess, like a blister stick and some headache tablets, because it makes my life easier and it saves time.
Let’s do another example. I took up public speaking several years ago, because it made me miserable and I was terrible at it. All you can do is improve, right? When I started out, I would spend a week working on a five-minute speech, and an entire day memorizing it. The good news is that I learned I am really good at memorization. The bad news was, whenever I would lose my spot, I would vapor-lock and have no idea what to say.
My friends in the club finally convinced me to start winging it and quit trying to memorize my stuff. “It’s your own story and you know what’s going to happen,” they said.
It didn’t take long before I started winning Best Speaker ribbons for impromptu speaking. Now I rarely do any preparation for a speech at all. I might read a couple of articles, but usually my material arises naturally out of whatever I’ve been reading and thinking about that week. I never get ready any more because I’ve reached a state of constant readiness.
What the desire for getting ready and feeling prepared comes from is anxiety. Perhaps there’s a mix of impostor syndrome in there, along with an intolerance for being in the Place of Uncertainty.
The question is: Can I handle this?
The answer, most of the time, is: Of course I can.
Of course you can.
There are a bunch of specific skills that tend to give someone a feeling of being better prepared for the weirder events of life. They should be advertised this way.
Basically it feels like this: I have a go bag, I can talk my way out of most situations and maybe buy my way out of others, if it all starts to go sideways I can fight melee, and after that I can patch myself up and maybe hide out in the woods for a while. Anything that doesn’t fit these parameters shouldn’t affect my self-esteem too much anyway.
In one sense, it’s true, we should probably never get ready. We should just focus on doing whatever it is that is truly important to us. In another sense, maybe we should focus more on being ready for anything.
I’m playing around with a bit of reverse psychology right now. The idea is that I can’t have a backlog of anything anymore. If anything has been hanging around in my backlog for longer than, say, three days, I need to either deal with it or decide that I never will, and
This is something I have tested over and over again on my clients, and it makes steam come out of their ears. There’s a glinting ember of something in here that really has my attention. Why are we so bad at letting things go even when they drive us crazy?
My case is unusual in that I thought I was dying only a few months ago. I spent days in bed, too ill to sit up, too weak to hold my phone to my head. All I could think about was all the things I’d never said, the things I’d never done, and the stupid remnants of my life that my poor husband would have to sort when I was gone.
It was sad, but it was also embarrassing and annoying. I got really frustrated with myself.
This? This was going to be my dying epiphany? That I should have enjoyed life more and lived in the moment and not procrastinated so much?
When it was starting to look like I was going to make it (before the next lung infection that challenged that idea), I understood that I had a chance to use this suffering for something. I did two things. I decided to treat myself as Version 2 and act as though I had physically died and started over as a new person. I let go of anything from my “previous life.” I gave myself permission to shrug off any residual feelings about that stuff.
(Confession: I never finished reading The Aeneid in my summer Latin class, even in English, so that happened).
The second thing was that I mulled over what I wanted to do with my new chance, my second bite at the apple. That was that I wanted to get a day job again and then go to grad school.
Spirit acts fast sometimes. The opening for the job that I have now showed up in my husband’s email that same week. Everyone who has heard about my desire to get a fellowship and work on my PhD has been encouraging.
I’m very lucky in this new job. Most of the people in my department are morning people; quite a lot of them clock in at 6:30 AM. We’re on 9/80s so we work long days. I worked it out with my partner that she does mornings and I do afternoons, so I work 8-6, and then we alternate Fridays. The two of us can cover nearly twelve hours a day, five days a week. This has built in at least an hour a day, and a full day every two weeks, when almost nobody is around. I can tie up any loose ends from the day, and then from the week. I’m almost always able to start Monday with a clean slate.
It’s a nice feeling, something I’d like to get used to.
Now that I’m gradually recovering and approaching my baseline energy level, I’m steadily working on things that didn’t get done while I was ill. This is where the reset comes in.
The world shut down quite suddenly, as I’m sure you recall. Probably like most people, I had various things in progress that simply stayed that way, on hold. It’s a bit like those mystery stories where the people leave with half-eaten meals still on the table.
A bag of stuff to take to the donation center, pictures to hang, that sort of thing.
While I made a magical decision on what I thought was my deathbed, it didn’t magically whisk anything away. Everything I had thought about was still in the same condition as it had been in March. The major difference was that my email and DMs had continued to accumulate.
This is where we get to the technicalities of this whole “Do it or dump it” idea.
We start with two rough personality sorts.
There are three main phases of action: initiation, maintenance, and completion. Most people tend to prefer one of these phases and dislike another one.
There are two main moods of clutter: looking forward and looking backward. Some people prefer to anticipate the future and others cling to the past.
Put these together in various combinations and see if they remind you of anyone you know.
Are they stuck in a rut because they can’t get started, or because they don’t want something to end? (Not launching a business vs. not finishing their degree).
Do they have a thousand projects because they like starting something new, but then get bored? Or are they surrounded by heirlooms and unsorted boxes because they can’t let go of the past?
“Do it or dump it” applies to clutter like this. If you haven’t used it in the last year, ask for help and get rid of it. End of story. This applies equally to unfinished craft projects, unread books, clothes that don’t fit, broken stuff that you haven’t fixed yet, workout equipment, untested recipes, and supplies for remodeling or baking or whatever.
I sorted my physical clutter long ago. Now I’m down to digital clutter - mainly email newsletters and [checking] 45 GB of podcast episodes - and pending projects.
Here, “do it or dump it” means deleting anything over a certain age (or size, or from a certain source, or whatever works), or canceling something. I will never finish that illustrated “Bride of Godzilla” story I wanted to do because after I started the sketches, I learned about aggressive copyright protection.
What is it that makes some of us cling to old, outdated stuff for so long, even after we’ve already demonstrated that we aren’t interested enough to engage with it? What are we thinking? Why do we do this to ourselves?
I’ll share my motivations, which may or may not overlap with yours. I get attached to the potential of various future versions of myself - a version of me who can, for some reason, speak several languages while playing ukulele on a unicycle - and I don’t like admitting that some of it will never happen. Also, I have serious FOMO about anything I haven’t read but wanted to. Whenever I think about not having time to read every book in the world, my eyelid starts twitching.
There are people who are quite good at the “do it or dump it” philosophy. For instance, I once worked with a young woman who had an empty email inbox 99% of the time. She said that she found having even a single message sitting in her inbox annoying. My husband is the same way with having a packed closet. When he gets a new shirt, he - I am not making this up - immediately gets rid of an old shirt.
If you know someone like this, or even someone who has a different pattern of attachment than you do, there’s a simple solution. Go to this person and tell them about your predicament. “I can’t stop saving old receipts because I keep thinking I’m going to categorize them in my finance app one day.” The incredulous gaze of this unattached person should be very helpful in giving you the motivation to go ahead and either do it, or dump it.
Or ask them to do it for you. They’ll probably think it’s funny. Then you’ll be free to do whatever you want - as free as, in fact, you already are.
Start Now. Get Perfect Later. This is such an effective book that the title alone is its own philosophy. The cover could be posted on the wall above a lot of desks. While the rest of us are contemplating our personal struggles with productivity, Rob Moore has probably already submitted the outline for his next book.
What differentiates SNGPL from other books on procrastination is that it focuses a great deal on how to become more decisive and how to think strategically. This is a very intriguing take. Procrastination research in the academic world right now is revolving around mood repair and recognizing the emotional roots of resistance. Moore is sharing his approach, what worked for him, and I think it would also be an improvement for many of us fellow procrastinators.
Rethink what you are doing and why you are doing it. Teach yourself to be more confident in your decisions.
I’m with him on this, and I think I have a similar mindset. There is a stripe of person, the natural entrepreneur, who is full of ideas and drive but needs a certain amount of structure in order to get anything done. Not just building systems, but learning what is involved in creating an effective system in the first place, that’s the missing piece.
This book has the ring of truth. Bias toward action is the premise behind the exhortation to Start Now, Get Perfect Later. I can attest to much of this material from experience, which is motivating me to pay close attention and try the rest. Peek into the mind of someone who is doing things a bit differently, and ask yourself, wouldn’t it be better just to start now?
Delaying general admin and jobs with no financial or residual benefit, in favour of the most important or highest-value task, is just plain smart.
Even procrastinating is a step into the unknown, as you don’t know what will happen when you put off a decision.
As you make faster, better and harder decisions, you get better at making faster, better and harder decisions.
Problem solvers rule the world.
I still haven’t done anything so far this January! I’m proud of this because sometimes it’s a difficult commitment to keep. It’s more important to me to work my goals ten months of the year than it is to try to maintain some kind of “””perfect””” “””streak””” starting on Day One. Because January is a basically impossible time of year to do anything, other than maybe sleep more or spend less money.
The one thing I have done is to reframe one habit by thinking of it as something else entirely. That’s where the News Machine comes in.
I have a terrible habit - actually many of them - and I also have a good habit, or at least one that I can invoke from time to time. This is part of my secret of habit change and personal transformation, the discovery that a good habit can be harnessed to flip over a bad one.
It’s called “anchoring.”
Peanut butter and... jelly.
Socks and... shoes.
Floss and... brush your teeth.
Trampolines and... ice cream cones. (Ooh, messy).
There is a reverse of this, as there is of most things, and that is when two bad habits are anchored together, or when a good habit triggers a bad one. If a pattern like this is recognized, then it’s time to brainstorm and figure out how to separate the two things. Like, every time I walk into the craft store I spend $40, or, every time I get a coffee I also get an ooey gooey pastry.
Usually the “bad” habit is the thing that we feel is an intrinsic part of our very personality. I quite literally AM an ooey gooey pastry! On the molecular level! I don’t ever want to be the kind of person who is not that!
This is why I usually refer to them as cute habits. Not “bad.” We weren’t born bad, we were born interesting!
Okay, so, confession: my cute habit is that I’d rather be reading than doing basically anything else. And the bad version of that habit is that the more I read, the more I bookmark, and the longer my “to read” list gets. The reason this is bad is that it interferes with my enjoyment. I start to think of my favorite thing as a must-do. Rather than having 100% fun, I start to feel like I “need” to get “caught up.”
Do you ever feel that way?
Crafty people often start to feel like they “need” to “finish” projects, like they’re “behind” on scrapbooking or “finishing” a quilt. What is supposed to be nothing at all other than a relaxing hobby somehow transmogrifies into a guilt machine. I promised! I owe! It’s late! Those emotions come from anchoring the hobby to something else, like giving gifts, showing affection to friends and family, trying to save money, or earning approval. The pressure also comes from shopping for materials, where the more focus there is on the hobby, the more accumulation of materials, and the more space they take up in the home. We think the only ways to relieve those practical and social pressures are to craft faster, rather than to stop buying supplies and stop trying to create 100% handmade gifts. Get back to making it about relaxation!
That’s turning into an entire separate piece, but I’m not going to claim that I’ll ever write it because I’m trying to reframe my personal concept of procrastination.
Why do I feel like I’m procrastinating on personal projects? Why do I sometimes feel this way even when there’s no deadline, nobody is asking for anything from me, and literally nobody cares but me?
Is this true for you, for anything in your life?
As with a lot of things, it’s easier to just go with it than it is to try to change the emotion. I recognize that I feel “behind” on my reading, and I figure out what I can do with that feeling that will lead directly to a positive action.
In my case, I use it to work out on the elliptical.
There! I said it!
I lied, I cheated! I’ve actually been crushing it this month down in the workout room!
I just didn’t want to admit it while talking about New Year’s Resolutions, because it makes other people feel bad. Like my weird little goals have anything to do with anyone but me...
I’ve found that I seem to read faster when I’m on the elliptical for some reason. It makes the time pass quickly.
I’ve tried other types of habits to keep me working out. I tried running on the treadmill, and it makes me feel like my brain is slowly dying. (Current gym does not have a treadmill). I tried the exercise bike but it makes me sore and I don’t think it gives me any results. I tried watching TV shows on the elliptical, but it makes me feel like every minute is really 18 minutes. The thing I’ve settled on is that I can read through news articles.
I can’t emphasize this enough. If you think in terms of “supposed to” and “because” and “everyone else” and “not doing it right” and “fail,” you’re stopping yourself before you start. Try thinking in terms of “works for me” and “not sure why, but” and “for some reason.” You like what you like and you’re allowed to like it.
This is why I’m not thinking about my workout as a workout. I’m thinking about it as the News Machine. When I change clothes, I’m thinking about how many articles I’m going to read, and *that* is my personal burn rate. My metric is that I started out with nearly 400 articles in my news queue, and now I’m down to 120. Yay!
After that, there’s my *other* news queue, and then my “read at leisure” email folder, and then my open tabs...
According to my phone, I’m burning 18% more calories per workout after only two weeks. That comes from the feeling that I call “getting the lead out.” Like I threw off some lead weights. If my starting goal had been to “burn calories” or “move faster” I’m sure I would have been discouraged and I would already be feeling like I aimed too high.
Instead, I’m really just excited about finally feeling that elusive satisfaction of being “all caught up.” I can see it, a month or two from now. If I can keep reading this fast, if I can keep getting a spot on the News Machine...
I’ll probably just keep adding more stuff and making my list longer. Because who would I be without a to-do list or a never-ending stack of things to read?
I’m working on my procrastination tendencies, and something struck me. There are basically two types of procrastination: letting yourself down or letting other people down.
The most commonly procrastinated tasks are financial planning and dealing with health issues. Those come from a lack of urgency, because we can’t imagine Future Self. When we think of an older version of ourselves, the one who will be suffering the consequences of our delays, it lights up in our brains as “a stranger.” Old Me? I don’t know her.
Other than these Future Self types of problems, most of the things we procrastinate affect other people. In this light, suddenly procrastination is less about our to-do lists and more about how we show up for others.
It’s one thing to put off making a dentist appointment. It’s my mouth, after all. It’s another thing to put off doing something when someone else is counting on it.
Not returning calls, texts, voicemail, emails, skywriting, singing telegrams, or whatever is not a task, not in the way that filing taxes is a task. It’s a refusal to engage. It’s a missed connection, a ringing phone that is never picked up, to put things in 1980’s terms.
Maybe that’s the difference?
In the Eighties, most of our missed connections would literally be a ringing phone or a knock on the door. We spent time together face to face. This is hard to imagine, but kids would walk over to each other’s apartments, knock on the door, and ask whoever answered, “Can So-and-So come out to play?” We’d call each other’s homes and literally anyone in the family might answer, because the phone was an object that sat in the kitchen or living room.
Now, a huge amount of our communication is textual. Social media, text messages, email. It feels much colder and more removed. The expectation may be that we do *not* reach the other person directly, that the response will be time-delayed.
While this may work well for most people, for others (including me) I think it makes it feel more abstract. Just a few letters of the alphabet, probably on a piece of glass, rather than another human face and voice.
When we think of a task in the abstract, it’s easy to forget that our participation matters to someone. The act of setting a bowl in the kitchen sink, wandering away, and leaving it there feels like something other than “I hereby choose to proactively annoy my coworkers/roommates/spouse who have already told me that they hate having dirty dishes in the sink.”
Maybe sometimes that act is done specifically because it bothers other people? Maybe we don’t feel so much like “putting this in the dishwasher takes five seconds, I can do it faster than I can actually make the decision” but rather “I DO WHAT I WANT.”
Is what we do, or avoid doing, built around asserting our autonomy?
Personally I feel that my autonomy is a resolved state of affairs. There is no debate around whether I do what I want all the time or not. Putting my bowl in the dishwasher is a way of marking my territory, and it’s the same if I wash up after someone else. This is *my* kitchen and *I* make the rules in this room. Or, I clean up after myself in other people’s homes because I affirmatively build my reputation as a do-er and person of action. If people are going to gossip about me, I want it to be about something far more interesting than whether I am a lazy dish-leaver.
For me, physical tasks are the easiest.
I like mindless chores because I can knock them off while listening to a book. I am good at practical things like sewing buttons, assembling furniture kits, or adjusting the brakes on my bike. I do these things because they make good puzzles and I’m a physically restless person. Whether I’ve made someone else happy by doing these small jobs is mostly beside the point.
There, I fixed it!
Where I have more trouble is in communication chores. I tend to convince myself that I need to choose the perfect time to have a conversation with someone. I’m going to write that response when I can really concentrate and get the details right. The longer I delay, the more it turns into a big deal, which makes it feel like it needs even more bells and whistles.
If you are my friend and you haven’t heard from me in a year, it probably means I really like you!
It seems like maybe there are two sides to this coin. Maybe there are people who would have an easier time doing abstract chores, like taking out the trash, if they realized that it really matters to someone else. It could be a gift. Not “I am doing this annoying chore” but “So-and-So will be pleased if I do what I said I would do.”
On the other side of that same coin, maybe people like me (and are there any?) would have an easier time following through on communication if we saw it more as a task to get done. Maybe thinking of a pending call or message as a loose button or a dirty dish would make that crucial difference.
Usually when I finally get back to someone, all they wanted was to touch base and say Hi. It didn’t need to be a huge emotional breakthrough, just a one-minute “thinking of you.”
How weird would it be if my various casual friends and acquaintances knew it’s easier for me to do something like, I dunno, cleaning out a drain than it is to just say HI back?
All of this probably comes back to our tendencies, to how likely we are to meet internal vs external expectations. In my case, I know that I will do anything if I’ve decided it’s a good idea. What is it that I’m telling myself when I put off responding to text messages? How can I convince myself to see this type of communication as a simple, straightforward social task?
How about you? What type of procrastination are you prone to? Would it be easier for you to get it done with someone else to keep you company? Or are you more of a lone wolf?
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?
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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