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

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Procrastinating 101: No More Pyrotechnics

Chapter 2 in Neil Fiore's The Now Habit:  A Strategic Program for Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-Free Play is entitled "How We Procrastinate."  (Note, it is not "How To Procrastinate," which I would not have needed to read.)

What I took away from reading this chapter consists of two main ideas.  First, it is important to learn about how we delay acting.  In Fiore's words, "Knowing how you procrastinate is even more important than knowing why." [p.36]  And second, "Creating safety [is] the first major step out of procrastination."

In order to discover what we're doing and not doing, which, in Fiore's view, is largely a problem of time management, he would have us begin by doing something that "is easier than anything a book on procrastination has ever asked of you before:  simply procrastinate at your normal level for another week."  I can do that!

Ah, but the rub is that we are instructed to keep an inventory of every activity during our waking time for three days.  He suggests breaking the day into three or four periods--morning, afternoon, and evening, for example--and documenting what we are doing, and for how long.  Within reason, of course.  Not every bathroom trip, sneeze, and momentary mental lapse.  Just the main stuff.  Like "commute, 30 min.;" "lunch and socializing, 75 min.;" "clearing desk, looking for folders, 20 min.;" "breakfast in front of TV, 30 min.;""WORK, LOW PRIORITY--Cs."  He also recommends that we use Alan Lakein's categories (from How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life) of A (most important), B (important), and C (least important) to characterize our work efforts.  At the end of this three-day observation, we can total the amount of time spent in various types of activity, and divide by three to get a sense of our daily time allocations.  Fiore then directs us to study these "results," and to look for ways to "find" more time for priority activities, by eliminating time-wasters, and combining and rearranging activities to take advantage of higher energy periods.

I am going to try out this method for the next three days--beginning with tomorrow, of course.  (I am, after all, a procrastinator, or I wouldn't be writing this.)  My husband uses a similar approach to weight control--I call it his iPhone diet--in which he records every morsel that goes into his mouth, as well as every period of exercise.  Of course, he has an "app" which calculates calorie intake and expenditure, and tracks his adherence to a prescribed daily ration.  It has helped him to lose ten pounds since I started this blog.  I will be going low-tech, and using a chart created on Dr. Fiore's model, writing in my entries by hand.  And battling my inner child, who dreads this detailed assignment, every step of the way.

Following this truly lark-ish undertaking, I will advance to the next stage, which is a Procrastination Log.  In this jolly little exercise, we are to record (with or without iPhones) each instance of task-avoidance, noting date and time; activity and priority; thoughts and feelings; justification; attempted solution; and resultant thoughts and feelings.  One sample entry he gives is 
2/7 10:00 A.M.| Screen door, B| Can't I rest on Saturday?| Overburdened| Watched TV| Guilty; blamed self for laziness; fear wife's anger
After a few days of keeping this log, the next step is to look for patterns.  This appeals to the unemployed qualitative researcher in me, and should reward my nose-to-the-grindstone log-keeping.  I can't wait to see what I'm up to!

Finally, Fiore spends several pages describing the mechanism by which many of us employ procrastination to manage anxiety--thereby, ironically, increasing anxiety.  Using the metaphor of being asked to walk across a 30 ft. long, 4 in. thick, 1 ft. wide board, he shows how the perception of safety--in response to changing stakes--affects our ability to perform. In the first scenario, the board is placed on the ground.  In the second, it is suspended between two buildings 100 feet off the ground.  In the third, the building on the end of the board that we are clinging to is engulfed in flames.  And in the fourth, a safety net is provided, three feet below the board.

Fiore tells us that our perfectionism and "performance is worth" belief raise the board.  By procrastinating, we light the fire behind us, and lower expectations for our performance.  (It's okay to crawl across on your belly, or do whatever degrading thing you need to, to escape the fire and reach the goal of the other building.)  And he suggests that we can create the safety net by chipping away at the mistaken belief that perfect performance of the task is a matter of life and death, and represents our value as a human being.  

I agree that safety and self-worth are at the heart of procrastination recovery for me.  And I probably won't miss the adrenaline that has fueled so many races to the finish line, pursued by one impending disaster after another.  If I can just figure out how to tame my inner arsonist.  Stay tuned.

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