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

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Procrastinating 101: Negotiating Roadblocks

In this week's effort to learn about why and how we procrastinate, and how we can change our ways, I am again relying on Dr. Neil Fiore's book, The Now Habit: A Strategic Program for Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-Free Play.  And this seems like a good time to say that I am not attempting to provide a free digest of this work.  Those of my readers who follow the above link and purchase Fiore's book will be well rewarded by a much more systematic and detailed explication of his promising program.  In this group of Procrastination 101 posts, I am examining some of Fiore's major ideas, and considering their relevance to my own problems with procrastination.  I am not a poor woman's Dr. Neil Fiore!

Having said that, I am concerned today with his chapter on "Overcoming Blocks to Action."  Fiore begins the chapter with this insightful redo of the Serenity Prayer, a familiar 12-step program staple, which he entitles the "Stress Prayer:"

Grant me the stubbornness to struggle against things I cannot change; the inertia to avoid work on my own behaviors and attitudes which I can change; and the foolishness to ignore the differences between external events beyond my control and my own controllable reactions.  But most of all, grant me a contempt for my own human imperfection and the limits of human control. [p. 95]
Following this tip-off that Fiore has been eavesdropping on my supplications, he frames the discussion on overcoming blocks to action by identifying three major blocks and pairing each with a "Now Habit tool:"
  • three-dimensional thinking and the reverse calendar, to combat the terror of being overwhelmed
  • the work of worrying, to tackle the fear of failure and the fear of being imperfect
  • persistent starting, to tackle fear of not finishing [p. 97]
Of these three combos, the first two speak especially loudly to me.  I know all too well the terror of being overwhelmed, as I have frequently had this excruciating experience and have observed its impact on productivity.  And the thought that all the worrying I do might be an asset--rather than a curse--is irresistibly appealing.  Having so long surrounded myself with unfinished work, the third strategy should lure me, too, but I may have compromised my natural resistance to this sorry state by habituation.

In speaking of the first tool, Fiore explains that two-dimensional thinking leads us to feel overwhelmed at the beginning of a project.
It's as if you have your nose up against a skyscraper with the expectation that you have to get to the top in one exhausting leap.  You've created a two-dimensional picture of your project--all work, all at once, with no time to catch your breath.  This picture collapses the steps involved so that your body responds with energy to work on all the parts--beginning, middle, and finish--simultaneously. [p. 97]
And not in a good way.

The reverse calendar, which is beginning to crop up as a planning tool in everyday usage, provides, in Fiore's view, an antidote to this anxiety-provoking perspective.  (For those not familiar with this tactic, a reverse calendar begins with the end-product deadline and works backward through a sequence of smaller tasks and their intermediate deadlines.)  While I have had some experience in attempting to use this tool, I confess that it has not proved helpful.

Fiore's examples of individual's reverse calendars give me a clue to my difficulty.  The lists are short.  In my case, the perfectionism that has led to procrastination has also plagued the process of creating a reverse calendar.  I put off constructing the things in the first place, feeling overwhelmed by my desire to do so perfectly; my resulting lists, when I have finally faced up to creating them, are imposingly detailed.  And each mini-deadline then becomes its own boogeyman.  The resulting schema more clearly illustrates the negative consequences of failing to meet each preliminary objective.  It is as if some hologram of the terror I feel about the project as a whole has thus attached itself to each task.   I may not soon turn again to this device, but if and when I do attempt to do so, I will try to curtail my elaboration of the schedule of tasks, and abbreviate my list.

As I think about it, another aspect of the reverse calendar which makes it hard for me to use is its inherent linearity.  I am much more likely to make progress on a project if I can work on a sub-task that fits my current mood, energy level and circumstances.  Can't figure out how to end Chapter 2?  No problem.  Jump into writing Chapter 5, or material that is part of the story and belongs in some as-yet undetermined place.  Don't feel like working on a report's introduction?  Skip to the conclusion.

Of course, some projects don't easily lend themselves to my leap-frog mode.  It would be foolish, for example, to buy food for an event before determining likely attendance.  Or to order flooring for a room whose dimensions have not been drawn.  Sometimes, first things have to come first.  And here the reverse calendar can be valuable, provided one doesn't use it to heighten anxiety.  At present, the runaway train of my reflexive perfectionism requires some curbing before I can derive real benefit from its use.

Now worrying, that is something I am very good at--though Fiore tells us, essentially, that there is worrying, and worrying productively.   It seems to me that he is distinguishing stewing from problem-solving.  And though I am fairly adept at problem-solving, I wish I could say that more of my ruminating graduated to that level.

According to Fiore, the work of worrying involves asking ourselves these six questions when fear of failure or the fear of being imperfect stop our progress:
  1. What is the worst that could happen?
  2. What would I do if the worst really happened?
  3. How would I lessen the pain and get on with as much happiness as possible if the worst did occur?
  4. What alternatives would I have?
  5. What can I do now to lessen the probability of this dreaded event occurring?
  6. Is there anything I can do now to increase my chances of achieving my goal? 
In putting worry to work for us, we domesticate failure and diminish our attachment to the goal of perfection.  The resulting increase in self-confidence allows us to get to work; paradoxically, to improve the performance we are so worried about; and to be prepared whatever the eventual outcome.

In presenting Tool #3, persistent starting, Fiore encourages us to anticipate the negative statements and attitudes that "creep into" our minds and prevent us from finishing the work we've started.  He gives the following examples, and advises that we "prepare challenges" to each, in order to limit their influence on our thought processes and on our productivity.

  1. "I need to do more preparation before I can start." 
  2. "At this rate I'll never finish."
  3. "I should have started earlier."
  4. "There's only more work after this."
  5. "It's not working."
  6. "I only need a little more time."
I have had more than my share of experience getting caught in these and other completion-hobbling mind-traps, and can attest to their power to stop us in our tracks if left unchecked.  

In concluding this section, Dr. Fiore admonishes us to "Keep on starting, and finishing will take care of itself."  Good advice, to my mind.

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