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

Friday, April 30, 2010

Married to a Workaholic (Again!)

[Available from --the shirt, not the workaholic]

If I am becoming my mother, as so many of us fear, it may have something to do with the fact that I keep marrying my father.  

The workaholics in my life, past and present, are, or were, good men.  They are, or have been, absorbed in activity that I recognize as meaningful, and morally valuable.  

My father was a doctor, the kind who made house calls and got paid in rabbits and farm produce as well as in cash.  When he kept patients waiting, it was because he took the needed time to listen to each of them, and to relate to their lives and their true illnesses.  I was used to his absences from family outings and occasions, the skid marks he left arriving late for dinner and leaving afterwards for the hospital, the interrupting phone calls and even police dispatched to our home if our one family phone was tied up too long and an emergency call couldn't get through.  His work was important, and it came first.  And last.  

My first husband was, and is, a clinical psychologist.  Like my mother before me, I spent long evenings alone with our child, since he worked late, past her bedtime, several days a week.  Unlike my father, he didn't break for dinner.  We took two cars to parties when he was on call, which was almost always since he usually practiced solo.  My sleep was broken by patients' calls to discuss their insomnia, as well as more urgent problems.  His patients were important, and their needs came first.  And last.

My second husband is a university professor and committed change agent, who commutes to work in another city, in another state.  His students and the disenfranchised community groups he works with command his energy and attention, in between writing, preparing for classes and presentations, traveling internationally for meetings and research, and fulfilling other professional obligations.  In the last few years, he has begun to provide expertise, always for the defendant, in death penalty cases.  His iPhone accompanies us everywhere, even to bed and the dog park, and can be relied upon for late-breaking bulletins and late-night and weekend calls from graduate students and project participants.  These people are important.  I should have listened when he told me that, in his first marriage, work came first.  And last.  I thought we would be different.

But why am I writing this sad saga in my blog about procrastination?  Because, for whatever reason, this pattern in my relationships with men is part of how I got where I am today.  And part of how I didn't get where I thought I wanted to be.  My husbands would tell you that my choice to devote much of my time and energy to child-rearing necessitated their focus on work, and on providing.  In both marriages, I experienced it differently.  It seemed that their fevered work paces were unalterable, and after initial skirmishes, I gave up and worked (or didn't work) around them.  Having grown up with one mostly absent parent, I felt that my children needed to be someone's first priority while they were young.  And it was clear that person was going to have to be me.  Whatever other work I took on, for pay and as a volunteer, had to occupy the space that was left.

But in truth, I can admit now that there was an element of martyrdom in my compromising. And that motherhood, for all its challenges and importance, functioned partly to get me off the hook of dealing with fears of failure and even stronger fears of success.  An even more uncomfortable confession is the naming of my own inner workaholic.  Had I known how to manage the perfectionist mother and the unfocused but nevertheless perfectionist scholar/writer in me, I might have been able to give attention to more of the work I longed to do.  

I still live with a workaholic, and our routines at this point assign much of the family and household work to me.  But I aspire, as does my spouse, to effect some small but important changes in how we share time and responsibility and freedom for our own pursuits.  My blog writing has been partly fueled by his willingness to assume the dish-washing chores--mostly--for the last few months.  After years of wrangling about this domestic task, years which saw me trying to restyle dish-washing as a meditative practice, and trying to hold my male children accountable for a job their male parent escaped as much as possible, he somehow heard me, finally.  He says it was when I pointed out that washing the dishes took at least an hour an a half of my time each day.  He thought I could do something more important with that time.  And he was right.

So I defend to the death these days his right to do this work without criticism.  When my children complain about improperly stored items or food residue baked onto plates, spoons and bowls by the dishwasher, I invite them to do better.  

I have accepted that my partner's approach to work is a product of his own demons, and not a realm for my reform efforts.  But I am no longer going to use it as an excuse to give up on myself and the use of my talents.  If nothing else, his example is a cautionary tale in my face that can motivate my own more human-friendly work balance.  And who knows?  Maybe if I stop fighting it, he may eventually come less to defend it.  As I said before, he is a good man.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Of Student Loans (and Squirrels)

It’s been compared to a nightmare, a torture session and a root canal,
says the Newark Star-Ledger's Kelly Heyboer.

And according to Nancy Griesemer of the DC College Admissions Examiner 

Fear of FAFSA is a known, but treatable disease. Often it begins with math phobia or chronic avoidance of anything related to personal finances. 
And what does FAFSA stand for, anyway?  I've never been able to keep it in my head.  Probably because I wasn't paying attention in the first place.

Fearsome and Freaky Squirrel Abuse?  Oh, wait, no, that's my spouse's behavior as I'm trying to write this post.  Turns out he only wants to appreciate nature in the form of songbirds at his bird feeder.  Perfectly natural bushy-tailed rodents, on the other hand, inspire the old coot impersonation which interrupts my thought process every few minutes with window-pounding, slippered yard-charging and inventive swearing.  Yike!

But I digress.  Which is the problem with the whole squirrel saga this spring.  Anyway, FAFSA is really an acronym for Free Application for Federal Student Aid.  Sounds simple enough, yes?  So why do so many of us cower in the face of this new age rite of spring?  I thought it was just me, until I Googled FAFSA, and found legions of articles and posts documenting the fear and trembling that accompanies the obligatory process of filing the odious thing--"the proverbial FAFSA 'wall' ". 

Yesterday, after the combined multi-media nagging efforts of my offspring and the program that has admitted him, I finally completed one of the two FAFSA forms we are required to submit, since he will enter at the end of one academic year and continue into another.  One down and one to go.  I used the new, improved version, courtesy of Obama era changes intended to streamline the ordeal.  I was able to complete the application online, which bypassed my mailing block issues.  For some reason, my duly-applied-for PIN did not allow linking to our completed tax form for 2008--maybe because my husband amended our return, though neither of us remember anymore, or want to go to the trouble of checking.  

The worst part was assembling the necessary, and depressing information about the current net worth of our investments.  Ultimately, most of these were not counted, because they are retirement savings of one kind or another.  What contributed to my procrastination on this task was not math phobia--I love math, and ended up with enough credits for an undeclared minor in the subject, and at one time taught statistics to math-phobic female college students.  No, it was an end-product of previous procrastination, with a large dollop of avoidance of all things financial stemming from plans gone awry in the face of a new, and more impoverished world order.

Had I forced myself to continue opening and examining and filing financial reports, despite their grim messages, I could more easily have put my hands on the needed papers.  Had I done my homework years ago and addressed the question of educational savings products and mechanisms, I would have been better prepared to understand how to categorize the money we had managed to "squirrel" away for this child's continued schooling.  And had I made a bit more progress in becoming a financial grownup, I would be further along in accepting what is, and what it's going to cost.

Another element of my FAFSA avoidance, as I think about it, is fear of numbers, though not of manipulating them mathematically.  I fear the number that will be triggered by applying for aid, the number that represents the amount of additional debt the government will determine we should assume to launch this child in the direction of self-supporting adulthood.  And I fear, too, the risk involved, which in our financial circumstances seems tantamount to a trip to Vegas.  I believe in my kid, but having to put so much money where my mouth is is scary.  

But having analyzed my FAFSA affliction, and bested the monster once again (I filled out and mailed paper FAFSA forms years ago for my eldest, in the even more complicated situation of a divorced parent), I intend to finish the second one today.  One full day before our deadline!  Of course, the online form for this year is different.  And I have to locate the numbers from a different tax file. 

If we're lucky, and this child stays in school, and his sibling joins him in a couple of years, we will be filing FAFSA forms into the foreseeable future.  So I'm going to try to get used to it.  My yearly root canal.  Oh, joy!

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Getting on With Writing

On Monday, I announced that "doing more writing" was my focus goal for this week.  Not very specific, you say.  And you are right, and I am, that I need to describe something that I can recognize when it does, or doesn't happen.  What would "more writing" look like?

Having carried the idea of being a writer with me from childhood, I have a plethora of romanticized notions of what that means.  I first externalized my writing persona by creating a warm-weather garret above my family's garage, separated from my bedroom by a small second-story sunporch.  I dragged a worn armchair, a rough table and a wooden chair into the barren space.  For light, I had the single bulb on a pull string.  I was Jo, in Little Women--without the hardship of a Civil War, and the single-minded effort that produced her serial stories, the "art" she traded for money.  I wrote mostly poetry, to some notice.  The only serious character I created was myself.

When I was in graduate school, and engaged, more or less, in writing a dissertation, I drifted back to writing poetry.  I submitted poems, and published a few.  I savored the "personal" rejections that encouraged me to send more.  I hit the Poetry Slam scene, with some "success."  I was accepted to my state's Fellowship of Poets, and began to make time for writing workshops and groups and conferences.  I dreamed of writing a novel, but disciplined myself not to begin until I had finished my Ph.D.  

Not finishing was something that took years.  It wasn't over easily, or clearly.  And when it was done, finally, there was a mourning period for my doctoral self, and then immersion in the drama of my expanded and extended families.  I wrote sporadically, and submitted only a couple of commentaries intended for public radio.  Eventually, I completed drafts of two children's books, some decent poems, several essays, a song, and the beginning chapters of a novel.  When my husband would identify me as a writer, I would resist, saying that a writer writes.  I was instead, like my father before me, someone who wanted to write.

My shelves are filled with books that belong to such a person, a would-be writer.  I have spent many years preparing myself to write.  And only in these last months, since beginning to write this blog, do I begin to feel entitled to the name.  I am a writer, because writing is something I do.  Regularly.  And with conviction.

I have surprised myself by the tenacity with which I have kept this new commitment.  All the usual roadblocks have shown up over the life of Put it to Bed, but I have clambered over them, driven around, and even blown up a few.  I want to do this, and for once, I am allowing myself to put something I want first.

But now it's time to grow this part of my life.  I acknowledged in reading what I wrote yesterday about procrastinating that I don't procrastinate about everything, and that, in fact, I might seem quite productive to others.  But what makes me a procrastinator, in my own view, is having spent a lifetime not getting down to writing--not giving this dream, and my talent, its due.  

As I try to "operationalize" my focus goal this week, I am torn between plunging back into my novel; sending off my children's book manuscript; making a regular time to write poetry; and resurrecting my abandoned practice of "morning pages," Julia Cameron's (The Artist's Way) recommendation for dealing with writer's block.  

In the past, morning pages have sometimes been the only thing I was writing in my long dry periods.  While I kept to the practice religiously, sometimes for a year or more, the unpublishable tablets and notebooks filling and accumulating, it was not very satisfying as my only outlet.  And my perfectionistic demons dominated.  Julia said three pages, and by God, I was going to do three pages, even if the pages I'd provided myself were outsized, even if it took 45 minutes or so to fill them (instead of the prescribed 15 minutes), even if carpal tunnel syndrome made my writing hand numb before I was finished.  

But I have decided, for the rest of this week anyway, to try again with morning pages.  It seems like a good routine to add to my established blogging schedule, and a practice that might have some benefits in dealing with the grief, depression and anxiety that are probably not going to enhance any other writing.  I am due for a major change in my paid work schedule at the end of the school year, and am anticipating having one less needful household member in the near future.  Those changes should better accommodate more "productive" writing.  

So morning pages it is.  And a smaller notebook.

(My husband goes on record as objecting.  He never liked morning pages, and considers my blog a glorified form of the same.  According to him, it's just another dodge.  I persist, nonetheless.  This is my train, and he is not the engineer!)

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Procrastinating 101: More "Warning Signs" and a New Approach

In The Now Habit:  A Strategic Program for Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-free Play, Neil Fiore offers this "new" definition of procrastination:
Procrastination is a mechanism for coping with the anxiety associated with starting or completing any task or decision.
In Fiore's logic, 
it follows that those most vulnerable to procrastination are those who feel the most threatened by difficulty in starting a project, criticism, failure, and the loss of other opportunities that may result from committing to one project. 
Friends, family and therapists have been consistently pointing out to me lately (and to be honest, for much of my life) how hard I am on myself.  Fiore asserts that "old" definitions of procrastination are rooted in negativity and self-criticism--not what I need.  Because Fiore promises a more positive approach to this difficulty--and because he has thrown in that "guilt-free play" bait--I am planning to  systematically consider his ideas in these Procrastinating 101 posts over the next few weeks.  This week:  Why We Procrastinate, according to Dr. Fiore.

Fiore does not exactly break new ground in beginning with his six "warning signs of procrastination," but the warning signs he focuses on reflect his more wholistic view of the problem, which encompasses difficulties with "procrastination, goal achievement, [and] inefficient work habits."  I am reproducing in totality his schema of ill-boding indications, because his detailed probes are particularly rich, and likely to be weakened by paraphrasing.  Feel free to read closely only what applies.
1. Does life feel like a long series of obligations that cannot be met? Do you
  • keep an impossibly long "to do" list?
  • talk to yourself in "have to's" and "shoulds"?
  • feel powerless, with no sense of choice?
  • feel agitated, pressured, continually fearful of being caught procrastinating?
  • suffer from insomnia and have difficulty unwinding at night, on weekends, and on vacations (if in fact you take vacations)?
2. Are you unrealistic about time? Do you
  • talk about starting on projects in vague terms such as "sometime next week" or "in the fall"?
  • lose track of how you spend your time?
  • have an empty schedule without a clear sense of commitments, plans, subgoals, and deadlines?
  • chronically arrive late at meetings and dinners?
  • fail to take into account the actual time it takes to drive across town during rush hour?
3. Are you vague about your goals and values? Do you
  • find it difficult to stay committed to any one person or project?
  • have difficulty knowing what you really want for yourself, but are clear about what you should want?
  • get easily distracted from a goal by another plan that seems to be free of problems and obstacles?
  • lack the ability to distinguish between what's the most important use of your time and what's not?
4. Are you unfulfilled, frustrated, depressed? Do you
  • have life goals that you've never completed or even attempted?
  • fear always being a procrastinator?
  • find that you're never satisfied with what you accomplish?
  • feel deprived--always working or feeling guilty about not working?
  • continually wonder "Why did I do that?" or "What's wrong with me?"
5. Are you indecisive and afraid of being criticized for making a mistake? Do you
  • delay completing projects because you try to make them perfect?
  • fear taking responsibility for decisions because you're afraid of being blamed if something goes wrong?
  • demand perfection even on low-priority work?
  • expect to be above mistakes and criticism?
  • worry endlessly about "what if something goes wrong"?
6. Are low self-esteem and lack of assertiveness holding you back from becoming productive? Do You
  • blame outside events for your failures because you're afraid to admit to any deficiencies?
  • believe "I am what I do" or "I am my net worth"?
  • feel ineffective in controlling your life?
  • fear being judged and found wanting?
Having answered "yes" to most, if not all, of the above, it seems I might have a problem, Houston.   (For some reason, the questions reminded me of the classic "I Love Lucy" episode where Lucy is making a commercial for Vita-meata-vege-min.  Her spiel, too, begins with questions: "Do you poop out at parties? Are you unpopular? Well, the answer to all your troubles is in this little bottle!. . . . And, it's so tasty too!"   Of course, Fiore's "product" is nonalcoholic, unlike Lucy's, so we are unlikely to mangle the questions in amusing but nonproductive ways upon reexamination, like she did.  "Do you pop out at parties?  Are you unpoopular?") 

But Fiore's question is why?  He rejects the notion that we procrastinate because we are lazy, or have a character defect, observing that 
. . . even the worst procrastinators have motivation and energy for some areas of their lives--sports, hobbies, reading, taking care of others, music, dancing, political debate, investments, surfing the Internet, or gardening.  So-called procrastinators can be found in every walk of life, accomplishing much in those arenas where they have chosen to devote themselves, but totally unable to get started in others.
He offers instead Denis Waitley's belief, expressed in his books The Psychology of Winning and The Joy of Workingthat we procrastinate "to temporarily relieve deep inner fears." Ah, now we're getting somewhere. But what "deep inner fears?" I have so many. Fiore relies on Theodore Rubin's Compassion and Self-Hate in identifying three key terrors--fear of failure, fear of being imperfect, and fear of impossible expectations that "prevent us from acting on and attaining humanly possible goals and relationships."  Check, check and check.  Underlying all three is the key fear--of judgment.  Checkmate.

Fiore goes on to describe the ways in which many of us sit in judgment on ourselves, and thus thwart our healthy impulses toward work and improvement.  And he recommends compassion as the foundation of changing our procrastinating ways.  It's beginning to look like all roads lead to the cushion.  

Next week:  The Rewards of Procrastination

Monday, April 26, 2010

Done for the Week: My Race is Run (Literally)

Time for taking stock again.  

Gretchen Rubin, author of The Happiness Project blog, and the bestselling book by the same name, works from her insight that "The days are long, but the years are short."  As the weeks whiz by, I know what she means.

I continue to struggle with my nervous nature, and my crowded life.  I continue to try to grow, and to learn, and to figure out what matters in the short and long runs.  Here's what I got done last week.

Done List--Week of Apr. 19-25
  1. Completed 4.6K
  2. Finished Opal on Dry Ground:  A Novel, by Sandra Scofield; Awakening from Grief:  Finding the Way Back to Joy, by John E. Welshons; Sarah Conley:  A Novel, by Ellen Gilchrist; Mortal Acts Mortal Words, by Galway Kinnell 
  3. Took my blood pressure daily
  4. Attended one meeting
  5. Published 5 blog posts
  6. Meditated 5 times
  7. Succeeded in napping resistant 2 year-old twice
  8. Helped say goodbye to failing grand-dog
  9. Helped celebrate son-in-law's beleaguered birthday
  10. Posted essay contest entry, 1 day before deadline
  11. Rooted for my two winning teams in the NBA playoffs
  12. Walked my dog daily
  13. Mothered daughter through child's concerning illness, and putting dog down
  14. Mothered one teenager through job crisis, another through illness and major decision process
  15. Spent two afternoons relaxing and reading in the (chilly) sun
Last week's focus goal, for the third straight week, was to meditate five times.  Number six above, highlighted in green, is the goal met, once again.  Time to move on, I think, to a new emphasis.  But not to move on from meditating.  I am committed to making this practice routine, like showering for my mind.  

In red, at the top of the list, is what I consider my most important accomplishment of the week--completing my first ever race outside of gym class.  Not because running, or entering events that reward me with cool shirts and bags and after-race refreshments, is the highest value of all those that moved my actions this past week.  Several of the things I spent my time and energy on were more meaningful to me overall.  But accomplishing the run brought the satisfaction of having met a goal I had set months ago and worked toward faithfully, resurrecting my training after a several-week illness.  It was something my daughter inspired and encouraged and supported, to the extent that she ran with me yesterday at a pace far slower than she would have run alone.  We crossed the finish line together, with smiles on our faces.  

The late April weather added a challenge, with threatened rain becoming a sprinkle before the finish line, and the temperature just under 50 degrees.  The course was beautiful, even under a gray sky, but wet, and muddy, and fraught with uphill segments and tree roots I had not encountered on my gym's manufactured oval.  We began with a long uphill stint which leveled briefly and then was followed by a steeper climb.  My chest was bursting at the start and I huffed and sweated through the conversation my daughter kept going with no observable strain.  But what I thought was the halfway mark turned out to be closer to two-thirds.  When we were close enough to hear the yelling as runners came in, I knew I would make my goal of running the whole way.  

I had jokingly said that my race day aim was to finish before dark, and without paramedics.  I was thrilled with my 13 minute mile pace, and not at all embarrassed to finish 103rd out of 130 in the "fun run"--even though most of those who finished after us--many minutes later--were walkers.  The event, which included a 20K race, was a memorial fundraiser in honor of an accomplished endurance athlete, a 48-year-old woman who was killed three years ago by a drunk driver while biking.  Proceeds fund bicycle safety and anti-drunk driving efforts.  

My focus goal for the coming week is to do more writing.  Longer blogs don't count. 

Friday, April 23, 2010

Big Time Procrastinators

I was clicking my way around the web this morning, looking for an alternative to the scheduled topic I had decided I didn't want to write about, when I happened upon this gem.  It is an article written by David Leonhardt --"The Happy Guy,"--entitled "Hurry Up and Procrastinate."  Leonhardt refers to a contest to find "America's Biggest Procrastinator," and offers "tips to becoming a champion procrastinator" and examples of heroic level procrastinating.  Be sure to read it if you need to lighten up about your imperfect work habits on this day that used to be the end of the work week, in a bygone era.  Which makes me wonder, now that Friday is just another day in our super-connected endless tail-chasing lives, T.G.I. what?

After chuckling my way through Leonhardt's clever piece, I tried to find out more about the contest he spoke of.  I found a link to a contest sponsored by Weisman Success Resources, a success coaching company based in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., which ran from January 15 through March 14 in 2004.  Though many top drawer procrastinators might just now be getting around to submitting applications, unfortunately the application link is no longer live.  I could not find any announcement of a winner.

So, like all good web surfers, I decided to follow a thread I did turn up.  Which led to this fascinating list of famous procrastinators, culled from a number of sites.  Like many such lists, the criteria are not well-defined, and many would quarrel with the inclusion of some on the roster.  But as an antidote to shame, and in the interests of further insight into the problem, I present the following collection, grouped by source, with links to further documentation, anecdotes, and other such "credentials."

Famous Procrastinators:  A Partial List

Bill Clinton
Naomi Campbell
Robert Redford

[According to Diana DeLonzor, author of Never Be Late Again, 7 Cures for the Punctually Challenged]

Neville Chamberlein
Agatha Christie
John Huston
St. Augustine
Leonardo da Vinci
Samuel Coleridge
Douglas Adams

[from Piers Steel's Procrastination Central site: under Case Studies]

Scarlet O’Hara

Albert Einstein
Isaac Asimov
Jerry Yang and David Filo (founders of Yahoo)
Sergey Brin and Larry Page (founders of Google)

[From Jorge Cham, (creator of the Comic Strip Piled High and Deeper (PHD)]

Bill Clinton (again)
Duke Ellington
Wong Kar-wai
the Messiah
[From Jessica Winter's Village Voice article, "Procrastination 101: The Science of Putting it Off"]

Tristam Shandy
Ken Livingstone
Guns N’ Roses

[from London Times article, "Formula for overcoming procrastination ... what are the chances?" by John Harlow]

So you see, those of us who battle this dreaded affliction are in good, and even Godly company.  We, too, could be great, or at least well-known--eventually.  

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Happy Earth Day, Green Procrastinators!

On the first Earth Day I can remember--which was, in fact, the first Earth Day ever--we were already running behind.  Waayyyy behind.   If the experts are right, and Al Gore deserved his Nobel prize, we just might save the planet if all of us started making radical changes in our habits yesterday.  

So why do I have trouble making room on my to do lists for this oh-so-important concern?  Why is the earth itself just one more ball to juggle, in my clumsy circus act?

One problem is that I often feel I am losing ground in the short-run.  When it comes down to choosing what I will concentrate on, on any given day, I have trouble thinking out far enough to take my celestial home into account. 

Another issue for me has been the disconnect between those of us focused on social justice work and the green movement.  Van Jones, author of The Green Collar Economy:  How One Solution Can Fix Our Two Biggest Problems and founder of Green for Alldedicated to "building an inclusive green economy strong enough to lift people out of poverty," recognized this divide and has been working to bridge it.  He was the featured speaker at the annual banquet of my social justice organization--before the book, and before his short-lived appointment as Obama's Special Advisor for Green Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation.  He inspired us to begin to work for green jobs as part of the solution to our city's crisis of black male joblessness.  This large-scale green concern made my agenda.

But at home, I am not fully "walking the talk" that has been part of my discourse for decades.  More like crawling, or limping the talk.  I do recycle pretty religiously, and have stepped up my efforts in the last year to include discarded mail.  I keep my thermostat set low in the winter and high in the summer.  I have switched almost all our light bulbs to eco-friendly CFLs, and I energetically fulfill my family role as the light police.  I try to bike to nearby locations, though my increasingly manic schedule has crowded out much of the time I used to give to biking.  I combine errands whenever possible.  I supply my household and wardrobe extensively from resale stores, rummage sales, and the occasional curbside discards.  

But I haven't gotten around to re-establishing the composting effort abandoned when my first husband moved out, a couple of children and several step-children ago.  I still print and collect too much "hard copy."  I am lagging in the default mode of paper bills from too many creditors and service providers.  I bought reusable cloth bags for shopping, but almost always forget to bring them along to the stores.   I leave my computer plugged in and drawing power for a large part of most days.  Ditto my cell phone charger.  I am often too cheap to buy reusable batteries and too disorganized to use the ones I have purchased.  (Why does it feel suddenly like I'm kneeling in a dark curtained space, waiting for absolution and a hefty penance?)

I could go on.  But the point is not self-congratulation, or confession.  I can do better.  At least a little better.  And if incrementalism is all we are capable of, it is preferable to doing nothing, in my opinion.  So today, after 40 years of Earth Day, I am going to commit myself to getting my bags to the store.  Storing them in the car, in plain sight, should help.  When that change is consolidated, I will move on.  There are some decent lists of things we can all do, small and large, available at Planet Green and SimpleMom

I'm pretty sure I won't go so far as one green-zealot I read about on a list I was sent.  This passionate planet-saver, in company with claimants to diminished shampooing and shared bathwater, touted his/her reclamation of food particles from dental floss for reconsumption as a green achievement.  In retrospect, maybe it was meant to be humorous, but sometimes we people with a cause can be awfully grim in its pursuit, so I've never really been sure. . .

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Raising Recovering Procrastinators

Procrastinating does not seem to be a particularly high order talent.  Even monkeys do it! Nor are we likely to run short on practitioners, human or otherwise.  Experts appear to be divided on whether or not goofing off in the face of deadlines and commitments is an inherited trait.  But nature or nurture, by hook or by crook, I find myself surrounded by time-challenged individuals.

I don't remember my parents having major issues with delay when I was growing up.  But then I wasn't paying that much attention to them.  Housekeeping standards were somewhat lax, about what you might expect with a perpetually absent physician father and five children.  But sometime after I left home, I began to notice some organizational issues.  No one in my family of origin seems to be able to keep track of keys.  Most of us can't seem to mail packages.  And now that we depend on the mail to bridge the distances that separate us, annual holiday gifts and greetings routinely arrive embarrassingly close to the next occasions--Christmas gifts by Mother's Day, birthday greetings by Thanksgiving, etc.  "Manana" would be an apt motto for our family crest, if we had one.

In the family I am still bringing up, I am genetically related to two of my three children.  Two of my children are serious procrastinators--and I gave birth to only one of them.  They are also my two youngest, and still in a life stage at special risk for displaying such behavior.  Perhaps they will "mature out" of this unfortunate group.  But both foot-dragging siblings have grown up in the shadow of my most desultory performances.  And both seem firmly committed at present to living out this bequest. 

My eldest could be called an anti-procrastinator.  She is currently finishing her thesis while juggling family, work and a failing dog.  Her ubiquitous lists are not elegant--they litter her dining room table, written on every available scrap of paper--but they keep her on target.  Her thesis supervisor recently sent out a revised deadline which alarmed her, but she was told on inquiring that this prod was for "the other students"--the procrastinators--and not for her.  Over the years as a responsible and conscientious worker I have found myself in many "good" groupings--but not, in my memory, in the on-time, on-schedule category.  I am in awe of my daughter's capability in this foreign arena.

With all of my children, I attempted to teach what I knew (in my head, anyway) about how projects and deadlines should be handled.  When they were young, this teaching was at a nitty gritty level which required me to keep to the schedule with them, shaping long-term work in stages.  But when it was time for them to take on more and more ownership of their processes and products, when the scaffolding of my supervision was removed, the inner tarriers emerged.  Even my daughter, who would go on to timeliness glory, had to learn the hard way that self-created last-minute pressure hurts!

I suspect that at the heart of my family's difficulties with keeping on task is the contradiction between our free spirit personalities and immersion in modern enterprises and institutions which are better suited to automatons.  But calling ourselves dreamers, artists, or Bohemians doesn't really get us off the hook.  Because the habit of procrastinating doesn't just annoy the IRS and aggravate academic bodies--it kills dreams.  

So as with virtually everything we do after we have children, we have the responsibility to get it right, not just for ourselves, but for them too.  I keep on trying to learn what I can about getting the stuff I care about done, because I need to, and because they are watching.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Procrastinating 101: My Laptop Made Me (Not) Do It!

Remember Piers Steel?  Associate professor of industrial psychology at the University of Calgary who brought us a formula to explain procrastination?  Well, Professor Steel's research warns that procrastination is increasing in our society:
In 1978, only about 5% of the American public thought of themselves as chronic procrastinators. Now it's 26%. . .
in the past quarter century the average self-score for procrastination (using a 1-to-5 scale with 1 being no delaying) has increased by 39%. 
At least 95 percent of people say they procrastinate occasionally.

Several media sources that reported on Steel's research in January of 2007 passed on the admonition that procrastinating would make us "poorer, fatter and unhappier."  Other procrastination experts who commented on the five-year-late release of Steel's mega-study agreed about the seriousness of the problem, and its entrenchment in our culture.  Dr. William Knaus said that his work with procrastinators was more challenging than getting alcoholics to give up booze.  And Dr. Joseph Ferrari of DePaul University in Chicago said
The subject is seen as a joke.  But the social and economic implications are huge. These people need therapy. They need to change the way they act and think.

And here's the kicker. Many of the scientists studying the kind of behavior they associate with such dire personal and societal consequences blame technology for its increase. They point out that we have more and more access to gadgets and toys, including cell phones and computers--and now the alluring iPad--that seduce us away from the odious tasks at hand. Professor Steel refers to one popular cell phone/PDA as "crackberry," and says
That stupid game Minesweeper— that probably has cost billions of dollars for the whole society.
(As Steel is a self-professed mostly recovered procrastinator, this statement may reflect some personal experience.)   A 2008 article in the Guardian makes the claim that  
Even the beeps notifying the arrival of email are said to be causing a 0.5 per cent drop in gross domestic product in the United States, costing the economy $70bn a year.

Professor Paul Spector of the University of South Florida has categorized three ways we stray from the path of righteous task completion.  The first, which he calls classic procrastination, involves difficulty getting started.  The second, the province of the perfectionist, is one I know all too well--getting bogged down in details and failing to finish what we've started.  Spector's third group of procrastinators he calls "distractible"--and it is here that technology's increasing temptation-value rears its ugly head.

Steel again:
The internet and gadgets. . .give people a constant source of putting things off, and they create motivationally toxic environments.  Imagine trying to diet with a magic floating spoon of ice cream following you around.

The gist of all this, as I see it, is "Procrastinators of the world, unplug!" Go offline. Create a toy-free zone for work. Not the whole solution, but for some of us, probably a necessary step. And a conundrum for this procrastination blogger.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Done for the Week: Into the Breach

This past week, I struggled.  Part of it was probably reentry, since I had been away the previous week.  Part of it, I imagine, was the emotional aftermath of visiting my mother in the home she shared with my father, whose death I am only now beginning to deal with.  And a significant part of it is living with three males who are themselves floundering in various masculine versions of angst.  

Whatever the cause, it was a keep-putting-one-foot-in-front-of-the-other kind of week.  But not without its blessings.

Done List--Week of Apr. 12-Apr. 18

  1. Completed 9th and final week of Couch Potato to 5K training 
  2. Finished  The Day My Father Died:  Women Share Their Stories of Love, Loss, and Life, ed. by Diana Ajjan; Swann, by Carol Shields; A Fatal Grace, by Louise Penny 
  3. Took my blood pressure daily
  4. Attended three meetings; scheduled none
  5. Reconnected with four friends
  6. Published 5 blog posts
  7. Meditated 5 times
  8. Spent two afternoons relaxing in sunshine with a book
  9. Called my mother
  10. Walked my dog daily
  11. Made coffee for church services and meeting
  12. Nursed sick pre-launch teenager, with a light hand
  13. Put in extra hours at two part-time jobs
  14. Began to recover my house from the chaos of several weeks of being sick and overcommitted
Last week's focus goal was to meditate 5 times.  Item 7 on my Done List, highlighted in green, shows that I met this goal, for the second week.  At the risk of boring myself and readers following this saga, I have decided to repeat this focus goal for at least one more week.  The stress in my life at present requires all the equanimity I can muster, and I believe that meditation can help.  And I have observed that I have difficulty giving it the priority it needs.  For whatever reason, I am motivated to achieve my focus goal.  So meditating 5 times this week it is.

I have identified in red text above what seems to me to be the most important thing I did last week--finishing The Day My Father Died.  I have been looking at the book for the several weeks that I have had it out of the library, through two renewals and into the grace period.  Planning to read it, but never making the time.  Retrieving it from under the chair I most often sit in to write these blog posts.  Replacing it in my current stack.  On Friday, it was time.

Since completing the book Saturday afternoon, I have felt particularly wretched.  Sad, and drained, and edgy.  In grief circles, this kind of bad is good--the "going through it" which will, theoretically, get me to the other side.  All I can do right now is trust.  And keep on going.  

Friday, April 16, 2010

To Do, Endlessly

I've been feeling like Sisyphus lately.  You know, in Greek mythology, the
king punished . . .  by being cursed to roll a huge boulder up a hill, only to watch it roll back down, and to repeat this throughout eternity
My to do lists are repetitive, my days too often like Bill Murray's in "Groundhog Day."  And now that I'm getting more done, I'm more keenly aware that nothing really stays done.    

Of course, Sisyphus was working harder than I am, generally.  A truly Sisyphean task is "endlessly laborious or futile."  

My activities probably more closely resemble Tibetan sand painting, or Zen sand gardening.  In these practices, great care is taken to achieve an aesthetic effect.  The endeavor concludes with a "dispersion ritual," in which the product is destroyed and its energy released.  The point of the exercise is sacred effort and recognition of impermanence.  

The only parts I have trouble with are the sacred aspect, and that impermanence thing.  Oh, and accepting the spread of tiny particles of sand throughout my house.  Really, since one of my daily rounds lately involves visiting a series of sandboxes with my two-year-old charge.  He, actually, totally gets both the sacred and the impermanent nature of sand play.  His small face transforms with joy and reverence as he constructs his castles and bakes his "cakes."  He is equally delighted to stomp on the results.

What I take from this reflection today is that my focus needs to be on doing, and even getting done, but not on being done.  Which I will be, when I'm dead.  I need to join the ritual of everyday, and accept the routine and the repetitive along with the occasional punctuations of the unexpected.  I need to lean into the rhythms of my days.  And to pay attention to each moment, which is never precisely the same as the one before it.  

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Happy Tax Day, Procrastinators of the World!

Mail handler John Mayo has worked for the United States Postal Service for 21 years and has worked tax day the past five. Mayo, along with three other mail handlers, walk up and down the streets surrounding the Fort Point Station Post Office collecting stamped returns ready to be mailed. 'I see some of the same people in their cars dropping off returns every year,' he said. 'People are happy to see us out here doing this job for them.'

What's wrong with this picture?  I'm not in it!  Thanks to my Turbo-Taxing second husband, I no longer join the throng of cars snaking past the post office at midnight on April 15th.  Of course, this image is from the Boston Globe's tax day gallery, and it's unlikely I ever would have driven across the country to file my taxes in Boston.  But still, these last-minute desperadoes are my fiscal brothers and sisters.

Don't get me wrong.  I'm no TEA party sympathizer.  I'm relatively okay with paying my taxes.  I'd be a lot happier if my money weren't being spent to maim and kill other citizens of the world.  I would gladly ante up at a higher rate to support more pro-social programs.  And I'd feel better about the whole thing if the IRS didn't expect me to put in all the work up front to figure out how much I owe.  It feels like being visited by a burglar who expects me to show him where all the good stuff is, to pack it neatly and load it into his truck, and give him gas money to drive it away.

And then there's the deadline, the bane of procrastinators everywhere.  The imperviousness with which they blithely delay, knowing there's plenty of time.  Continuing to find better things to do.  Then that cold gripping sensation on or about April 13th, when they finally realize how little time they have left, how much there is still to do.  The desperate searching for misplaced forms, "documentation," fugitive receipts and renegade numbers.  The calls to the IRS "tax help" line, crucial minutes ticking by on hold.  The dash to completion.  The breathless race to the post office.  The long line of revelers, some tired and relieved, some high on the thrill of having made it.  I was one of them.  But no more.  

According to Joseph Cox from Liberty Tax (the folks who brought us the green clad Statues of Liberty waving tirelessly to us wretched refuse from teeming street corners), more people are taking matters into their own hands in this recession year, unable to afford professional tax preparation.  And many of them will not file, either because they just can't get it done, or because they decide not to file because they owe money they can't pay.  Of course, they are leaving themselves open to deeper gouging down the road, what with penalties and all.

Apparently, even Canadians, so much better than we on so many levels, also procrastinate when it comes to paying taxes.  Their deadline is different--April 30--and they write their checks to the "Receiver General."  But H&R Block Canada Inc., in an attempt to admonish Canadians to do their duty--oh, and yes, to drum up business--identifies these "Top Five Reasons for Procrastinating on Your Taxes:"

- You know you owe: 
Just because you will be writing a cheque to the Receiver General on April 30th does not mean you should wait to prepare your return. Getting the documents together and your T1 Form completed early means no pressure when it comes to the deadline. You can even file your return early and then send payment later.
- Outstanding debt means no refund: 
If you fall behind on your student loan payments or child support payments, the debt can be registered with theCanada Revenue Agency. It means that any tax refund or benefits like the GST/HST payment are designated to pay off the loan. Just because you don't get the money doesn't mean you shouldn't file. You have to pay off your student debt eventually.
- Dog ate my slips: 
You moved two times during 2009 so your T4s slips and other information receipts have gone astray or you haven't found them in your new place. Or your employer did not send a T4. You can track down replacement slips or get duplicates from other sources. Under Canada's self assessment system, you are required to provide an accurate estimate of the income you earned in 2009. You need to find your paperwork.
- Don't owe money: 
Your tax refund is money you have already paid in taxes so not filing means you are letting the government keep your money interest free. If you want your money to work for you, it should be invested where it earns some interest at least at a better rate than the CRA offers...which is zero.
- Weather is too nice: 
For many parts of the country, it has been a beautiful spring but the deadline for filing remains April 30. Though taxes and rainy days seem to go well together, you still have to file when the weather is nice.
Kind of lecture-y for my taste.  But solid advice, I suppose.  

I feel a little guilty as I contemplate my fellow North American procrastinators struggling with this onerous annual task.  I have had this cup taken from me.  There but for the grace of the partner I appreciate especially on this day. . .

I plan to celebrate my good fortune today at Starbuck's Make a Difference event.  Bring in your reusable mug and get free coffee!  I'm going to treat my husband.  And without spending a penny of his hard-earned tax return.