Nothing is so fatiguing as the eternal hanging on of an uncompleted task. ~William James

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

If Service is the Rent We Pay, I Need a Rent Party

Marian Wright Edelman is most often cited as the source of the saying "Service is the rent we pay for living." In her book  The Measure of Our Success : Letter to My Children and Yours,  she credits her parents with teaching her this view.  Her parents may have been quoting Shirley Chisholm, or Harry Strunk whose paraphrase was engraved in stone on the front of his newspaper building, or Lord Halifax, contemporary of Churchill and Gandhi.  But the issue of provenance is less important than the compelling weight of the phrase.  Edelman goes on to say that service "is the very purpose of life and not something you do in your spare time."

Lately, my rent has been going up.  And spare time?  What's that?

In the form of volunteer leadership in the nonprofit community organization to which my church belongs, my "rent" has risen over the past two years to take up a good half of my working hours.  The meetings I bemoan are, for the most part, occasioned by my membership in no less than six task forces, collaboratives, teams, committees and subcommittees related to the work of this organization.  I am up late, and up again early most days, discharging one obligation or another incurred as a result of this affiliation.  And I have been mostly happy to be thus engaged.

When I joined a Unitarian church after spending all of my adult life "unchurched," I welcomed the opportunity to become more involved in social justice work.  Four of my church's seven principles underscore this value.  UUs (Unitarian Universalists) "affirm and promote"  

  • The inherent worth and dignity of every person;
  • Justice, equity and compassion in human relations;
  • The goal of world community with peace, liberty, and justice for all;
  • Respect for the interdependent web of all existence of which we are a part.
In the course "Building Your Own Theology," which I finally took after about six years in my church, I constructed a personal credo centered on service. Doing peace and justice work is the major way that I have experienced anything remotely resembling "the sacred" in my life.

But I'm beginning to think I may have gone too far.  And I am having trouble placing this major consumer of time in the context of procrastination.  Is all (or some) of this absorption in the needs of others a dodge, at least partly a way to avoid working on my own goals and dreams?  Does it balloon as a result of the difficulty I have in saying no, and in setting and maintaining sensible boundaries?  Am I (shudder) globally codependent?  How do I balance "the work of this church" with the work of this woman?  Have I become, as my children assert, a "church lady?"

The amount of grumbling and swearing I've been doing this week and last, as I slog through the final details of the huge annual fundraising project I've somehow been left in charge of, are probably telling me something.  Above and beyond is where I've been going for quite a while, and I recognize the need to tether myself a bit more securely to the ground of my limited self before I leave the stratosphere.  

The way this organization (and probably most others) works, there will be precious little respite between this now-routine crisis and the next.  So, in the words of Ron Weasley,  "she needs to sort out her priorities."

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

Procrastinating 101: "Low Impact" Postponement

What is it about "handbooks" and "workbooks?"  Like Chicken Man, that great 1960s radio hero, "They're everywhere!  They're everywhere!"  And the field of procrastination is not immune.  Last week's Procrastinating 101 drew from Rita Emmett's The Procrastinator's Handbook:  Mastering the Art of Doing it Now.   This week I cracked open The Procrastination Workbook:  Your Personalized Program for Breaking Free from the Patterns That Hold You Back, by William Knaus, Ed. D.  Dr. Knaus writes the Psychology Today blog "Science and Sensibility:  A Psychological Potpourri," listed in my Procrastination Resources, and frequently covers issues related to procrastination.  He was mentioned in a previous Procrastinating 101 post on the subject of functional procrastination and working better under pressure.

In Dr. Knaus's workbook,  I once again encountered two "patterns of procrastination,"--social and personal--and seven "procrastination styles"--1) mild-impact; 2) promissory-note; 3) behavioral; 4) fallback; 5) lateness; 6) hindrance; and 7) general.  As in most workbooks, many pages are devoted to giving the reader the opportunity to assess their own difficulties, and to "work" on them by filling out "worksheets."  I dutifully took the Procrastination Survey and discovered that I have significant but apparently not severe problems with both patterns and all seven styles of procrastination.  No wonder I can't get anything done!

In a chapter that explains the patterns and styles (which might sound like a fashion exhibit, but is not as much fun), Knaus inserts after each description a repetitious set of four questions that ask the reader:
1.  What is your most pressing [pattern or style] procrastination challenge?
2.  What do you typically do to avoid the challenge?
3.   What do you tell yourself to justify the delay?
4.  What actions will you take to follow through to meet the challenge? 
Of course, lines are provided on which to write one's answers.   But since I am using a library copy of the workbook, I refrained from scribbling my responses in the designated spaces.  In fact, I refrained from answering the questions at all.  Which is probably a symptom of both patterns and at least several, if not all, not-so-stylish types of procrastination.

It strikes me that my ceaseless reading about procrastination is a bit like trying on hundreds of pairs of not-so-different glasses frames at the optician's, searching for the perfect look.  But occasionally I run into a way of thinking about procrastination that moves me forward a bit in my effort to tame this wild proclivity.  

In Knaus's framework, I found his notion of "mild-impact procrastination" most applicable at this point in my rehabilitation process.
In mild-impact procrastination, important but lower-priority actions get put off.  These activities appear to have flexible deadlines where you feel confident that you can stretch the time a bit to do them. . . .In the world of mild-impact procrastination, low priorities can eventually rise to high-priority status to compete with normal daily priorities and challenges.  Your closets, drawers, garage, and basement fill with clutter, and you feel a nagging sense of frustration when you think about the random collection of junk you've kept.  When mild-impact procrastination spreads, people often believe their lives are disorderly and stressful.

Here, Knaus is writing about me, walking over unsorted laundry on my basement floor, eating ramen noodles for the second night in a row because I haven't had/made time to grocery shop, carrying around a headful of nagging minutiae I haven't gotten around to addressing.  And this "style," Knaus warns, can lead to "malaise [and]. . .a pervasive sense of uneasiness," and to feeling overwhelmed.  Sounds about right.  

The tool he offers for dealing with this depressing behavior is our old friend the to do list, which he calls "cross-off sheets,"  and this parting shot, appropriately framed in a "black box" at the end of the section:
Mild-impact procrastination can spread like a fungus.  Vigilance is important to keep this process in check.

Knaus holds out the hope that consciousness of the problem, the intention to deal with it, and an externalized--written--process will move us forward.  But this is Chapter 3 in a fifteen-chapter volume.  He concludes this early chapter with these words:
We procrastinate when we do something else that is less important.  The simple solution is first to do what you are tempted to delay.  But since we rarely can oppose an oppressive procrastination habit pattern with a simple declaration, you are wise to go to the next simplest level, which we'll take up next when we look into procrastination complications.  

I have a feeling my "case" will require such further efforts.  In the meantime, I will try today to do what I am tempted to delay.  Maybe I can squeeze in a trip to the grocery story, and run a load of towels.

Monday, March 29, 2010

Done for the Week: Here We Go Again

This morning I awoke in my own bed, next to my own husband--after three weeks of sleeping in my study due to night time coughing and concerns of contagion. I awoke unsummoned by the alarm I had diligently set last night, almost a full hour later than I planned to--and needed to--get up. I think I've found the last clock in the house still on standard time. 

So now I'm late before I've even started.  A frustrating way to begin the week.  Lately, the number of days that I have to become conscious and (somewhat) literate at the crack of dawn in order to squeeze this blog in before scheduled meetings and appointments has been growing.  This won't be the last time this week, nor the second last, nor the third, that I am "on the clock" as soon as my feet hit the floor.

In a related move, I've decided to tweak this "done list" post this morning, by adding the identification of a goal for the coming week.  And this week's goal is to meditate 5 times.  By going public with this intention, I hope to ratchet up my attention to this need, and to make finding/taking time to sit on my cushion a higher priority.

Last week, all my rushing around resulted in the following.

Done List--Week of Mar. 22-Mar. 28
  1. Finished The Procrastinator's Handbook:  Mastering the Art of Doing It Now, by Rita Emmett; The Big Squeeze:  Tough Times for the American Worker, by Steven Greenhouse
  2. Took my blood pressure daily
  3. Investigated a new, and ultimately unsatisfactory dog exercise area with my dog
  4. Attended 4 meetings; scheduled 2 more
  5. Published 5 blog posts
  6. Meditated 1 time
  7. Celebrated happy hour with my not-so-happy spouse
  8. Was treated to dinner and the ballet by a friend; had a wonderful time
  9. Spent an inordinate number of volunteer hours on major work project for nonprofit 
  10. Participated in national conversation with Big Squeeze author Steven Greenhouse, sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist Service Committee
  11. Parented one teenager through another post-midnight mini-crisis
  12. Helped heroic husband assemble data to complete our tax filing
  13. Provided 15 hours of child care to two-year-old grandson
  14. Spent time I could have spent meditating on Bejeweled Blitz; had highest score of my friend group
  15. Slogged through the house I didn't have time to clean to accomplish the above
Next week, I hope to grow item 6, and shrink 14. For now, I'm off to an interview and two meetings.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Friday--Time for a Pop Quiz

Never Too Late crossword puzzle game » crossword maker

After three months of this blog, it's time to assess what we've learned thus far about procrastination.  This little test promises to be every bit as valid as those measures we loved so well in grade school.  But it has the merit of providing an alternative to getting started on whatever we're really supposed to be doing today.

If the embed of this puzzle I created at a free online site works the way I think it will, it should offer a fresh puzzle upon completion of the first.  There is a clue set of 25 words and hints which form the basis for the various combinations.  Click here to see the set.

Or try this alternative word search game, if crosswords aren't your cup of tea.  
A PROCRASTINATOR\S ESSENTIAL VOCABULARY word search game » word search

You, too, could earn this cool virtual trophy.  
Game Score Certificate
A PROCRASTINATOR\S ESSENTIAL VOCABULARY word search game » make word search

I apologize in advance for the ultra-simplicity of these gimmicks.  Chalk it up to my novice status in employing these technological toys.  Or refer to Gretchen Rubin's Happiness Project maxim, "Anything worth doing is worth doing badly."

The Happiness Project: Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun
Enjoy the weekend.  Monday starts another week, a fresh start on putting things to bed.

Today's Clue Set--You're on Your Honor Not to Peak Before Attempting Pop Quiz

Word                        Hint

Clutter                        Unsightly, unproductive accumulation
Perfect                       “Done is better than ______”
Tasks                          Things to accomplish
Tomorrow                 Scarlett’s favorite day
Late                            “A day ____ and a dollar short”
Excuse                        Lame ____
Putoff                         “Never _____ until tomorrow what can be done today
Deadline                    When something is due
Postpone                    Defer
Dawdle                       Fool around
Solitaire                     Time-honored time waster
Stall                            Drag one’s feet
Dillydally                   Delay
Lax                              Dilatory
Time                           “Procrastination is the thief of _____”
To do list                    Itemization of tasks
Calendar                     Appointment minder
Present                       “There’s no time like the ____”
Plan                             Course of action
Overdue                      Not completed on time
Started                        Procrastinators often have trouble getting _____
Carpe                           ______ Diem
Failure                        Fear of ______ plagues many procrastinators
Someday                     “______ is not a day of the week.”
Assassin                     “Procrastination is opportunity’s ______”

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Freedom--It's Gaining on Me!

I never really got around to reading Erich Fromm's 1941 classic Escape from Freedom--which was interestingly published in England under the title Fear of Freedom.  But I do own the book, and I have read several synopses, so that should count for. . .not so much, probably.  

In any case, I find his premise compelling.  Powell's Books sums it up this way:
If humanity cannot live with the dangers and responsibilities inherent in freedom, it will probably turn to authoritarianism. 
Fromm, according to people who have read the book, wrote of the anxiety and emptiness many of us experience in the absence of imposed controls.  Been there, felt that.   And he distinguished between "freedom from" (bad) and "freedom to" (good), which are, in essence, the horns of the dilemma I have been straddling for a good chunk of my adult life.

For many reasons, some profound and most serendipitous, I have existed largely outside the formal labor market for most of my "working" life.  This is not to say that I haven't worked, and even held jobs from time to time.  But in and out of formal paid employment, I have "enjoyed" a great deal of freedom.  I have had jobs that involved setting my own schedule, determining my own assignments, and traveling over fairly large geographic areas.  Jobs with night and weekend hours which were "comped" into hours off.   And this explains why I was reading Alan Lakein's How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life all those years ago.

The latitude to decide what I'm going to do, and when I'm going to do it, has been a benediction and a scourge.  Rita Emmett, in The Procrastinator's Handbook, writes of the dangers of drift, the subject of Gretchen Rubin's Happiness Project video this week, and particularly troublesome for those of us in relatively unstructured work situations.  Researchers tell us that our overtaxed brains are buckling under the weight of too many choices and "decision fatigue." Pursued by freedom, I am tempted, as Erich Fromm warned, to flee into the waiting arms of authoritarianism. Maybe I should "get a job." Or maybe I should approach my life like a job. Create routine. Generate lists. Boss myself around.

Of course, Erich Fromm would have me brave the storms of cowardice.  Turn and face the opportunities in my freedom.  Use that "freedom to" connect with the world I find myself in, and join my creative effort to the project of improvement.  Theoretically, this way of experiencing freedom would assuage my anxiety, replace the emptiness with purpose, and avoid the need for arbitrary structure.  

At the end of all this reflecting, I am left with my choices.  I still have to figure out what to do today, and where to begin.  (My dog just volunteered to take this decision from me.  He knows what I should do first.)

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Opportunity Costs: Doing as Not Doing

I learned about opportunity costs in one of the several degree programs which combined to keep me off the streets for years.  Basically, the term represents what we forego in making a choice between options--like choosing "what lies behind Door 2" on "Let's Make a Deal," and thereby losing out on whatever was behind Doors 1 and 3.  I haven't seen the show since long before Monty left, but I still remember the audience's unison "Awwww!" which attended the revelations of what the contestant could have had, had she or he chosen differently.  Of course, sometimes the contestant lucked out, and chose the best of the available prizes.  

In life, things are seldom so clear cut.  For one thing, there are way too many freakin' doors.  And we don't usually get to see right away, or ever, what we missed out on.  And there are costs as well as benefits that accompany each alternative.  And the various consequences are not, as I learned to say in planning school *commensurate.  Unlike Monty's offerings, we can't easily put a price tag on the value of our outcomes.  It would therefore be difficult to evaluate, even if we had all the information about the end results, whether we had won or lost.

But still the concept is intriguing.  You might say I have been haunted by potential opportunity costs since learning to consider them.  That's a fairly classy way to explain my trouble with decision-making and with moving ahead.

And still, it's true in more than the abstract that doing something means not doing something else.  Elementary, yes, but track-stopping nonetheless.  And fairly overwhelming in retrospect.

My two-year-old grandson and his mom are working on this.  My wise daughter will attempt to gain his "buy-in" by presenting him with simple, dichotomous choices, like "Do you want to walk to the house or be carried?"  When he is not moved to articulate his choice, or to begin walking, she will say "You are choosing to be carried.  Is that what you want?"

It could be a useful tape to have in one's head, if not overplayed.  Where was the voice when I needed it, the one that would have calmly confronted me on many distracted occasions, that I was "choosing not to do my dissertation," or to work on my novel, or to get a life?

While it's important, I believe, not to mistake ourselves for mostly rational beings, it doesn't hurt to attempt rationality from time to time.  It's good to keep opportunity costs in mind, though this rational tool won't play a lead role in our "decisions"--some made at other than a conscious level anyway--of what to do.  But it's good, too, to keep this tool on a leash, or it just might lead to paralysis.  Imagine trying to think about the universe of what we aren't doing in initiating a single act, let alone every act!

* I know, I know.  Yes, I really went to a highly regarded planning program, and got a master's degree in urban and regional planning, for all the good it did my personal organization style.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Procrastinating 101: Life's Little Late Fees

Several hours ago, I was awakened yet again by one of those creatures of the electronic age--an American teenager with a deranged sleep-phase-cycle.  Rita Emmet's The Procrastinator's Handbook: Mastering the Art of Doing It Now had sent me to sleep the previous evening, so I picked it up and started reading.   I should say, in Emmett's defense, that I almost always read myself to sleep.  Her insights are no more soporific than, say, War and Peace, or your average murder mystery.  A little less sleep-inducing than books on money management, I imagine, though I can't recall trying to read one at bedtime.

I spent the rest of my wakeful hours finishing this encouraging volume.  Emmett's presentation was light, well-organized, and conversational.  I didn't encounter much I hadn't read before, nor did I expect to.  These kinds of books serve as cheerleaders to me, underscoring my good intentions and urging me to "Fight!  Fight!  Fight!"  They remind me to use what I know.

I was, however, in this season of anxious tax preparation and fiscal dread, particularly struck by something Emmett said about the monetary cost of procrastinating.  She begins a chapter on "Dollars and Sense" with this sentence:
It may surprise you to know that procrastination can have a tremendous impact on your wallet.
Again, not rocket science, but probably something I don't think about enough when looking for ways to stanch the budgetary hemorrhaging.  Maybe I can't afford to procrastinate!  Literally.

Off the top of my sleep-deprived head this morning, I can think of several financial fines and penalties I have generated by being late off the dime.  Here is my hastily assembled preliminary list:

  • Library fines - I once left the circulation desk at my local library and found myself in the midst of a reception for donors who had helped underwrite completion of the building's new wing. I learned that the fine I had just paid was more than some of these individuals had given. I helped myself to a slice of cake and a cup of punch, and vowed to reform. I'm still working on it.
  • Overdraft fees - How are these related to procrastination?  As Emmett points out, our failures to keep up with the check register, and in my case, to transfer funds even when I know I'm on the verge, result in overdrafts.  One particular overdraft saga, for which I unsuccessfully claimed extenuating circumstances*, involved charges upon charges as the charges themselves repeatedly put me in the red.  The eventual tab for this unfortunate incident was over $600, leading me to break up permanently with that bank.

* My Katrina-evacuee elderly parents were staying with me, and in the course of the crucial five days, at the end of our pay period, I transported my mother twice to the far suburbs for two-stage oral surgery, nursed her through the aftermath, and then accompanied her to the emergency room twice within 24 hours, once by ambulance.  The bank was not impressed, even though real tears were shed in the telling of my sad story.
  • Late payment fees on regular bills I nearly always have the money to pay our monthly bills, though my husband's public employer sometimes misses the payroll date--without penalty, I might add.  But I have trouble facing this task, and have only recently eliminated the regular payment of late fees.  
  • Late payment surcharges on license renewal - For some reason, I am surprised each year by our state's insistence that we renew our car licenses.  The fees keep increasing, which is annoying.  But the real kicker is the requirement that we take one or both cars to distant emissions testing sites; wait in interminable lines (while running our engines, wasting gas, and polluting the atmosphere); submit to testing while we wait in grubby plastic chairs with no reading material; occasionally fail, as last year, which requires costly repairs and retesting; and then fork over an amount which feels like highway robbery.  I almost always put this disagreeable task off, and wind up paying even more for the privilege.
  • Late registration costs - As actress Sarah Bernhardt was paid to say in a TV ad campaign for our state fair a few years ago, "You know you're gonna go."  So when I know I'm gonna go, why do I wait to sign up, and end up paying more as a late registrant to conferences?  
  • Tax filing penalties - I no longer incur these assessments, now that I am married to someone who mans up annually and fires up his beloved TurboTax in the pursuit of the tax return he usually manages to wrest from our government.  Partly by virtue of using his payroll deduction as an enforced savings plan, and partly by hours spent poring over checkbook registers and receipts.  But back in the day, when I was a single mom, a good year found my daughter and I, wearing our designated "tax hats" and joining the throngs at the post office at midnight on April 15th, in full view of the media who never seemed to have anything better to do.  A bad year, or two, saw me leaving the job too late, and ponying up eventually. One of my favorite perks of marriage is leaving the filing to my spouse.

These are just a few of the financial drains that come to mind resulting from my previous habits of procrastination.  I'll think about this some more. . .tomorrow.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Done for the Week: Ch-ch-ch-changes

I have begun to question the wisdom of publishing this weekly done list.  My stats tell me these posts are not my "most popular."  And week to week, they are pretty repetitive.

On the plus side, the done list eases me into the blogging week. Making this regular accounting for all to see (whether anyone wants to see it or not) keeps me honest.  It tracks my progress, or lack thereof.  It reveals patterns.  And so, for now, I have decided to keep it going.  

It may be that my disinclination is related to the four-week siege of illness that I hope has almost ended.  As often happens in this all-too-real world, its energy drain and incapacity has coincided with a period I saw coming, when external commitments would eat into the time available to tackle my own projects. 

Here's my story, sad but true:

Done List--Week of Mar. 15 - Mar. 21

  1. Finished Death in Holy Orders, by P.D. James; halfway through several other books
  2. Took my blood pressure daily
  3. Survived two part-time jobs for another week
  4. Attended 1 meeting; scheduled 1 more
  5. Published 5 blog posts
  6. Meditated 2 times
  7. Spent 37 hours caring for two-year-old, and enjoyed almost all of it
  8. Spent 3-1/2 hours in college interview with son, and completed admissions application
  9. Finally recovered 90% from virus-from-hell (4 weeks and counting!)
  10. Refrained from 5K training--regretfully but therapeutically--while retaining the ghost of my self-image as a runner
  11. Resumed walking
  12. Put in many volunteer hours on fundraising project for nonprofit organization; committed to more
  13. Disciplined myself to get extra rest for second weekend in a row; asked for and accepted extra help from family members; put in couch time with my underexercised dog
Some lessons are being learned in all of this.  I'm not sure yet what they are.  But I do know that getting up to do this blog--even when, as twice last week, I have to set my alarm for 5 a.m. (and this during the first week of daylight savings time!) to accommodate other scheduled responsibilities--is changing how I operate.  And that is changing how I see myself.