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

Monday, July 25, 2011

Done for the Week: Always Behind

Another week of activity, to-do items crossed off, milestones in the rear view.  And yet, a deep down feeling of being perpetually behind.  Something systemic, I believe.  Something unlikely to be resolved by making lists and writing about my inability to get through them.

I did, however, do these things.

Done for the Week:  July 18-24, 2011
  1. Completed Week 11 of 15-week triathlon training program; ran twice; swam twice; biked three times
  2. Swam twice, ran twice, biked once with my training partner
  3. Biked once with my husband
  4. Signed up for additional triathlon prep camp
  5. Replaced swim cap & goggles left at the pool
  6. Made appointment to get new contacts 
  7. Went with my husband to pick out his new glasses
  8. Finished The Apothecary Rose, by Candace Robb
  9. Continued to work my two part-time jobs 
  10. Published 2 blog posts 
  11. Shared Happy Hour dinner with my husband
  12. Watched Treme with my husband
  13. Returned to reading Elizabeth George's In Pursuit of the Proper Sinner aloud with my husband
  14. Saw Beginners with my husband
  15. Took my dog to the dog park, with my husband
  16. Attempted (prematurely aborted) game of Pictionary with my family
  17. Saw new Harry Potter movie with my husband and son
  18. Met with prospective web client
  19. Met with current web client; worked on project
  20. Drove with about-to-be licensed teenager several times 
  21. Participated in driving my not-quite-licensed-to-drive son to and from work
  22. Finally cracked the code for road test appointment; succeeded in moving appointment up six weeks, to this Wednesday (Yay!)
  23. Worked for recall candidate
  24. Made major progress on backyard reclamation
  25. Planted more flowers, started putting down mulch; got three bee stings
  26. Went to outdoor jobs prayer vigil (in 100+ degree heat!)
  27. Attended Issues Night
  28. Attended 1 yoga class; sustained hamstring injury
  29. Called my mom
  30. Picked up prize won in library reading program
  31. Listened to my son's amazing hip hop creations online
  32. Continued progress in cleaning/straightening/decluttering work room, bedroom & kitchen  

My most important accomplishment last week was squeezing in time with my family.  This, despite the fact that, to a man/woman, all of them would say that I was too busy, and barely available.  In part, they are right.  In part, they are reacting to the sea change over the past couple of years, as I take back some of my energy and time from absorption in family tasks and responsibilities.  They may not think so, but they are still first in my heart.   

Last week's focus goal, back by not-so-popular demand, was to declutter our house, involving my housemates in the excavation, and starting with the kitchen, my work room, and our bedroom.  I am embarrassed to admit that five straight weeks of "focusing" on this goal have not produced the desired results.  It is beginning to dawn on me that I have left no room in my crowded schedule for this project, depending on "working in" this effort to achieve the desired end.  And like the overflow patients "worked in" to a doctor's bulging appointment calendar, these rooms are still waiting.  And waiting.  Their time in the queue has produced little in the way of real attention.  

Our bedroom saw the most improvement, though it has yet to be completely rehabbed.  But it's close.  The other two rooms see the most daily use, the kitchen in particular.  So reclaiming them requires dealing with continuing accrual of detritus, and making a dent in the significant backlog.

Given the scope of the problem, and my tardy recognition of the real barriers to its solution, I have decided to shift my focus this week to creating a realistic schedule that reflects my many current commitments.  When I can be more strategic about my use of time, it should be easier to defend against additional incursions of responsibility (by using that two-letter word I have so much trouble with), and to prioritize projects in a way that will allow me to feel that I'm making progress. 

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Procrastinating 101: The Long and the Short of It

If Dr. Piers Steel is to be believed, we procrastinators may be about to run out of excuses.  (And God knows, we love our excuses!)  It's his persuasive argument, and his damned (good) practical advice that may prove their undoing.

Procrastinating 101 has been focusing these last nine weeks on Dr. Steel's book, The Procrastination Equation:  How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done.  If you have been following its exposition, you may remember Dr. Steel's assertion that poor impulse control is at the heart of most procrastination.  In Chapter Nine, "In Good Time:  Managing Short-term Impulses and Long-term Goals," he lays out the problem more fully, details some creative solutions, and throws in a little ancient Greek literature.  As we have come to expect, Dr. Steel is once again an eminently companionable and unassailably (I looked it up--it's really a word.) knowledgeable tour guide through these regions of Planet Procrastination.

"Impulsiveness," says Steel, "multiplies the effect of delay, making it a major determinant of the Procrastination Equation's outcome."  For those who have not yet seen Steel's formulation, and those who have but have not committed it to memory, the mathematical expression he has devised to represent his theory of procrastination looks like this:

Here low Motivation predicts the big P, Procrastination.  The other elements have been teased out in previous posts (see, particularly, Procrastinating 101: 12-year-olds Get It, So Can We ).

Impulsiveness contributes to the divisor in the equation, so that the more impulsive among us will experience lower motivation, and thus be more inclined to procrastinate.  And, as Dr. Steel warns, "you can't escape your fate.  Impulsiveness is not something you have, but something you are."  Yikes!

But there is hope, and it begins with Odysseus.  Dr. Steel recounts the preparations urged upon Odysseus by the goddess Circe, who knew that he would face, on his return trip from Troy, the temptress Sirens.  Circe advised him to plug his men's ears with wax, and to lash himself to the mast of his ship, so that he would be able to pass through the district of these irresistible creatures and continue his journey.  Thus, Odysseus employed the technique of precommitment.

Dr. Steel recommends we face the fact that temptations too often get the better of us, leading us off task and into putting off what we need to get done.  We would do well to identify our Sirens, and to invest in precommitment.

He offers three contemporary strategies (no ear wax or ship masts required) for precommitting, intriguingly categorized under the heading "Bonding, Satiation and Poison."  For the sake of brevity, and my sanity (it has been a looonnnnnngggggggg week!), I will just hit the highlights here:  

  • Throw Away the Key--The idea here is to devise a way, technological or analog, to block off the exits while focusing on work.  Steel mentions, e.g., a program for Apple users called Freedom, which blocks internet access; Clocky, an alarm clock on wheels that goes berserk when you hit Snooze; and Google's "Take a break" button, which gives the user fifteen minutes of email-free work time.
  • Satiation--This approach addresses our urges and impulses by having us "tank up," scheduling in a modicum of pleasure and relaxation, and then slotting in work around these "appointments."  Dr. Neil Fiore popularized this Unschedule in his book The Now Habit:  A Strategic Program for Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-Free Play.
  • Try Poison--This strategy features penalties & scare tactics.  One example was employed by my ex-husband in his dissertation research on behavior change.  Participants put up $100, which was forfeited to their least favorite cause or charity if they resumed smoking during the study period.  Alternatively, Dr. Steel recommends visualizing in horrifying detail the dire consequences that could result from putting off a dreaded task.

Then there's "Making Attention Pay," Steel's two-pronged advice for diminishing the pull of distractions/temptations.

  • Inside Out:  Pay Attention Please!--We can minimize the appeal of those objects and activities that would keep us from work by altering our perceptions, and thus the level of attention these things command.  Using abstraction and symbolic representation--e.g., focusing on attributes of a desired food, and thus recruiting the prefrontal cortex to compete with the limbic system response of "yum," "gimme"--is one way of doing this.  Another is to run a "smear campaign" on the desired object, attending to its negative qualities and consequences--e.g., weight gain and high cholesterol from junk food; STDs, unwanted pregnancy and a ruined marriage from infidelity; or public disgrace and firing from failure to complete work.
  • Outside In:  Now You See It, Now You Don't (stimulus control)--This approach attempts to limit the environmental cues which distract us.  For example, a dieter might stock the fridge with only healthy food choices.  Those of us who struggle to stay on task might limit the number of windows open on our computer desktops; remove troublesome bookmarks; arrange our work spaces to cue work and not entertainment; incorporate work triggers; and--addressing two of my personal pet peeves--declutter our work space, and maintain "pristine" boundaries between "clashing life domains, typically family and work."  Hard to do for the increasing number of us who work from home, and whose laptops accompany us from one messy and distracting space and location to another.

And finally, Scoring Goals.

Dr. Steel has this to say about goals:
We have already touched on some of what makes a goal good.  In chapter 7, we mentioned that making goals challenging is more inspiring than making them attainable.  Easy goals are attainable. . . .In chapter 8, we focused on making goals meaningful by linking them to personally relevant aspirations.  If you see how present tasks lead to future rewards, you will value them more highly.  In this chapter, we will put the finishing touches on goal setting by putting time back on your side.

  • The Finish Line is Just Ahead--Dr. Steel's suggestion in this section is to proceed toward "concrete, exact" goals by stages, using subgoals.  In this way, we can take advantage of our tendency to work more intensely closer to deadline; a series of intermediate "deadlines" will result in spreading out effort, and a better quality product.  He discusses the issue of "motivational surface tension," and using a technique I first learned from Alan Lakein (in How to Get Control of Your Time and Your Life)--setting a mini-goal that gets us started, and more often than not, ultimately engaged in the work we're avoiding.
  • Full Auto--This advice builds on the predictability that flows from build routines and habits of work.  He also urges us to plan for distraction, as in "'If I lose focus, then I will move my attention back to the task.'"

But again, Dr. Steel says all this better than I.  You might want to just read the book yourself.

Next Week:  Chapter Ten--Making it Work.  We're in the home stretch now!

Monday, July 18, 2011

Done for the Week: Slip Sliding Away

A busy day today, finishing up yesterday's overly ambitious to-do list.  And a too-busy week last week, with too little to show for my efforts.

As with my efforts to remodel my swim stroke, my struggle to bring order to my life is proving strenuous.  The results of both campaigns to date urge refining my approach.

In any case, last week was not without its achievements.

Done for the Week:  July 11-17, 2011
  1. Completed Week 10 of 15-week triathlon training program; ran twice; swam three times; biked twice
  2. Swam twice, ran twice, biked once with my training partner 
  3. Got bike computer installed, new water cage mounted
  4. Watched series of YouTube videos on Total Immersion swimming
  5. Finished Hamlet's Blackberry, by William Powers
  6. Continued to work my two part-time jobs 
  7. Published 2 blog posts 
  8. Shared Happy Hour dinner with my husband
  9. Began watching new anime series with my son
  10. Designed and printed new business cards
  11. Went out driving with learning teenager several times 
  12. Participated in driving my not-quite-licensed-to-drive son to his job
  13. Continued to work on cracking the code for road test appointment; succeeded in moving appointment up 2 weeks
  14. Worked on getting out the vote for recall primary
  15. Made major progress on backyard reclamation
  16. Picked up mower in for repair
  17. Planted more flowers, two tomato plants
  18. Went to jobs rally
  19. Meditated once 
  20. Saw my therapist
  21. Bought new tent
  22. Had first backyard campout with my grandson
  23. Attended board meeting
  24. Continued progress in cleaning/straightening/decluttering work room, bedroom & kitchen  

Finishing Hamlet's Blackberry:  A Practical Philosophy for Building a Good Life in the Digital Age, by William Powers, was last week's most important accomplishment.  The book made me rethink how much time I'm spending online these days.  Powers argues, and I am beginning to believe, that much of the anxiety and confusion many of us are experiencing in our lives, as well as a great deal of our difficulty with focusing and getting things done, represent side effects of our absorption in screens.  I plan to continue reflecting on how I can use the technology that surrounds me to accomplish more of what I care about, while avoiding more of its distractions.

Last week, for the fourth week running, my focus goal was to declutter our house, involving my housemates in the excavation, and starting with the kitchen, my work room, and our bedroom.  Unfortunately, my virus returned for an encore performance; my pregnant daughter spent a night in the emergency room, requiring me to give a day to watching my overtired grandson; the recall primary election demanded more volunteer hours; and "life happened" in other ways too numerous and dreary to mention.  I made a bit more progress, but I'm not "there" yet.  I'm giving it at least another week.

Yoga and meditation were among the things that didn't happen last week.  Symptomatic, I suppose, of my general difficulty with self-discipline in this period.  I intend to do better this week.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Procrastinating 101: Winning at the Job Game*


My favorite lines in Tom Meny's song, Job, are these:
I don't dig ditches or bang on doors
But I don't end hunger and I don't end wars
And I don't do anything that'll ever make a change
although I must confess that his refrain
I hate my job
I hate my job
I hate my job
I hate my job
I hate my job
Lord knows, I hate my f-in job
also holds a certain resonance for me.  (Of course, as with Meny's disclaimer, this has no relationship to my current, much-loved jobsss.)

Piers Steel deals with the subject of jobs in The Procrastination Equation's eighth chapter--"Love It or Leave It:  Finding Relevance in Work."  My brief YouTube survey, in search of a link, musical or otherwise, to use for this post's image turned up a host of material that supports Steel's opening point about the nature of work in the modern world.  A raft of funny, brilliant, disturbing, and in many cases explicit videos express the alienation many of us experience, whether in cubicles or warehouses, as fast food pushers, shelf stockers, telemarketers (who apparently hate themselves as much as we hate them), fry cooks, sales personnel or domestic workers.  Even children are making videos about how much they expect to hate their jobs when they grow up!

Steel tells us that about a game he uses "to warm up my students for a class on motivation . . . called My Job Is Worse Than Your Job, " and the conclusion they draw from it:  that the "worst" jobs "aren't the physically demanding ones . . . [but rather] the mind-numbingly boring ones."  Ever been bored at work?  (Of course, if you're a brain surgeon, I hope you're going to answer "No.")

Steel traces the influence of Frederick Taylor, whose efficiency studies in the late 19th and early 20th centuries led to a growing fragmentation of work--"simple routine tasks lacking autonomy."  Enter boredom, alienation, and a lack of motivation.  Enter procrastination.  (Remembering that the lower our motivation, the more we delay, according to the Procrastination Equation.)  Of course, lollygagging on an assembly line may be physically dangerous.  Think Charlie Chaplin's character's entanglement in the machinery in Modern Times.

Steel's discussion of games and tricks we might employ on the job to keep boredom at bay reminded me of a book I read many years ago called Manufacturing Consent, by Michael Burawoy.  Burawoy's Marxist analysis argued that the "gaming" used by workers in which they competed with each other to "make out" in a piece rate pay structure, "playing all the angles," gave them the illusion of choice.  
Playing the game eliminated much of the drudgery and boredom associated with industrial work.   (Manufacturing Consent, p. 89)
 Thus, in Burawoy's view, workers were diverted from concerns with labor-management conflict, their participation was co-opted--and consent was thus manufactured. 

But Dr. Steel is not addressing the workings of capitalism and labor relations.  He is looking, as psychologists do, at the experience of the individual--of us work-inured, bored procrastinators.  And his recommendation is that we game the system as a way of making work tolerable, and of shoring up motivation.  He also advocates the use of goals, and particularly positive or approach goals to enhance the relevance of our jobs, and further buttress motivation.  And he points out the usefulness of framing, or viewing tasks so as to increase the value we assign to them.

Steel goes on to discuss the matter of  available energy for tasks we dislike--physical energy as well as emotional energy.  And like Chip and Dan Heath, in Switch, he notes that willpower is depleted by the many efforts we make at self-control.  He echoes Marshall Cook, author of Slow Down. . . and Get More Done, in this statement:

To some extent, we should accept that we don't have infinite mental energy and acknowledge our motivational limitations along with our physical ones.  Everyone understands why you can't run back-to-back marathons but it's not so obvious that equivalent internal struggles can be just as onerous.  Perhaps we have trouble with procrastination because we demand too much of ourselves in a day, and it's possible that pursuing a less stressful, slower paced life would help us get energized.

But given that we "don't always have a choice," Dr. Steel offers these suggestions for managing our energy:
1.  Eliminating distractions from our work environment, so that we don't exhaust ourselves fighting constant temptation;
2.  Working with circadian rhythms to schedule tasks when our energy for them is optimal;
3.  Using short naps and/or walks to revive energy levels; and
4.  Maintaining energy with exercise and proper diet and sleep, rather than relying on junk food and stimulants to stay alert.  

He shares this fascinating tidbit:
Committing to a regular schedule of exercise has been shown to decrease procrastination
and advises learning about sleep hygiene.

Dr. Steel is also a proponent of structured procrastination, an idea advanced by John Perry, and one that I have written about previously.  This strategy, which Steel calls "productive procrastination," would have us do something worthwhile while avoiding a less palatable task, thereby reducing but not eliminating the cost of procrastinating.  Eventually, so the theory goes, this approach 
does clear your plate and puts you in a much better position to dig in when you're ready.
Before concluding this chapter about this scariest of all four-lettered words, Dr. Steel puts forth two notions to which I especially warm.  The first of these he calls "Double or Nothing," encouraging us to pair something pleasant with a hated task.  Over time, this should result in "learned industriousness."  And in the meantime, it means I can look forward to more chocolate, more meditation time, and more movies.  (Dr. Steel does not take up the recent debate about what some experts claim is the harm done to children's intrinsic motivation by the use of extrinsic rewards.  And, by extension, to our own "love" for "the work itself."  See, for example, Rewards and Praise:  The Poisoned Carrot. )

The second of these two warm and fuzzy suggestions is to "Let Your Passion Be Your Vocation."  He says that "finding work you want to do is a major step toward avoiding procrastination," and that "This combination can make work almost addictive; motivation shoots upward stratospherically, souping up creativity, learning, and persistence."  Just ask my husband, who is frequently caught in bed, late at night, highlighting the more salient sentences in books such as Histories of the Hanged:  The Dirty War in Kenya and the End of Empire.  Not my cup of tea, but then I myself can get lost for hours following Facebook links to arcane discussions of Wisconsin state politics.  My "work," as I define it, but not my "job."

Steel observes that achieving this state of work/passion, or "job/calling" congruence can be a long-term project.  Indeed, 
If we all went with or first impulse, the working world would be primarily composed of firefighters and ballerinas. [Or where I grew up, nuns.]
He counsels us to martial available resources, and make the effort to, as Marshall Cook (and the Buddha) advised, "find right work" and "make work right." 

Next week--Dr. Steel tackles impulsiveness.

*Note:  I should mention that I began the day at a protest rally, calling attention to the unacceptably high level of joblessness in my city, parts of which register 60% unemployment among African American males.  While some of us procrastinate on our jobs, others are in desperate need of decent, family-sustaining jobs--no matter how boring, tedious, or strenuous.

## Apropos of today's subject:  on the Red Stapler Chronicles, this list of the top 6 movies about hating your job.  Yet another procrastination resource.  Check it out.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Done for the Week: Inching Forward

Eek!  Look over there, to the right.  See what it says?  No, not all that subscribe, search, quote, About Me blah blah.  Just under all that.  Yeah, that's it.  "2011 is 52% complete!"  Which means . . . . Well, we all know what it means.  
We're into the second half of this year.  Are we any closer to where we're going--besides the eventual "unto dust" return?
I don't know about you, but here's what I got done last week.  In the Grand Scheme of things, which I try to avoid thinking about most days, it doesn't seem like so much. 

Done for the Week:  July 4 - 10, 2011
  1. Completed Week 9 of 15-week triathlon training program; ran twice; swam twice; biked twice
  2. Swam twice, ran twice, biked once with my training partner 
  3. Visited the bike shop for training and race purchases
  4. Continued nutrition education; tweaked my hydration approach
  5. Finished Three Stages of Amazement, by Carol Edgarian; 
  6. Continued to work my two part-time jobs 
  7. Published 3 blog posts 
  8. Began family Harry Potter Film Festival with Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone
  9. Took dog and family to the dog park
  10. Met again with major new website client; launched his blog; made progress on site redesign
  11. Visited Apple Genius Bar to discuss computer problems, strategize solution
  12. Went out driving with learning teenager several times 
  13. Participated in driving my not-quite-licensed-to-drive son to his job
  14. Worked on cracking the code for road test appointment; minor success so far
  15. Volunteered with recall campaign 
  16. Made major progress on backyard reclamation
  17. Completed sandbox
  18. Took mower in for repair
  19. Bought new plants for yard
  20. Repaired several months old dishwasher, with my son (Apparently, it's not a garbage disposal.  I'm beginning to wonder if it's a dishwasher!)
  21. Put away the last of our Christmas decorations (blush!)
  22. Supported my dyslexic 20-year-old son in navigating his first 8-hr.-long solo road trip
  23. Continued progress in cleaning/straightening/decluttering work room, bedroom & kitchen 

Last week's most important accomplishment, I believe, was moving forward on my new client's website.  I can only give a half day a week to working on this account, given my other commitments.  But my client's work is very important, in my opinion, and I am excited to be contributing to it.  He just accepted an invitation to speak at a UN-sponsored international venue in a few weeks.  I will be stealing what time I can find between now and then to finalize the first stage of the new design.

Last week's focus goal was a third-week continuation of my intention to declutter our house, involving my housemates in the excavation, and starting with the kitchen, my work room, and our bedroom.  Somewhat disappointingly, I am not there yet.  I plan to keep working at it, in my "spare" moments.  As to my housemates, they keep leaving town.  My husband was gone for work from early Monday morning (yes, the 4th of July) through late Thursday last week.  My most available son will be 8 hours away for most of this week.  The other son spends what time he is not at work with the friends who will be leaving for college in a few weeks; he is deeply engaged in his own Last Hurrah project.  And the dog doesn't have opposable thumbs.  

At least I finally left the worst of my summer virus behind, and am now at about 90%--still coughing, but having more energy.  For this week, then, I will continue the focus on our cluttered environs, and I will make an effort to get back to yoga and meditation.  I don't especially like splitting my "focus," such as it is, in this way.  But I am reluctant to abandon the house-straightening goal only about a third of the way through.  And yoga and meditation keep me sane.  More or less.  It is time to attend to reviving my practice.

This morning, though, I have to add gutter-cleaning to my list.  A brief torrent, followed by an ominous basement trickle, brought that little item to my attention.  "Life is what happens. . ." and all.

Thursday, July 7, 2011

When All Else Fails, Baby Steps . . .

My first husband was a clinical psychologist.  Still is, actually.  (A clinical psychologist, not my husband.)  One of the movies I remember particularly enjoying with him was What About Bob? with Bill Murray and Richard Dreyfuss.  In the movie, Drefuss's character, Dr. Leo Marvin, is promoting his new book, Baby Steps.  Murray's Bob is in desperate need of its guidance.

While Bob's multiphobic state is beyond anything I have experienced to date in my history of anxieties and mild mood swings, I find the advice--to break the overwhelming down into small, doable steps, and to take those steps one at a time--useful.  In fact, I believe it can be helpful to all of us, from time to time.

And now is one of those times for me. 

I predictably approach life challenges from the library side of things.  When in doubt, I read about the thing that's troubling me.  Thus, this blog and the study that has fueled it. 

My family members frequently chide me to "quit reading about it, and just do it."  Just get on the plane, cry out my grief, clean up the kitchen . . . . And in this case, STOP PROCRASTINATING and DO STUFF.

When I reach the state, as now, where I am floundering, no wind fills my sails, and the task of life looms large, I try to remember baby steps--an antidote to over-delving. 

Today, this translates into:
1) making a to-do list.  I have a love/hate relationship with to-do lists.  I make them too big.  I spend too much time crafting them.  I lose them.  They send me into labor.  But they help anchor me.  And when I have been to-do-less for too long, it helps to go back to the practice of making the list, and referring to it. 

2) employing something I think of as down and up.  This practice consists of making room for frittering and malaise, but interspersing such moments with practical activity.  So I sit down on my backyard swing, reading, dreaming, playing solitaire, for a specified period--a chapter, or 15 minutes, or 5 digital "hands"--and then I get up and load the dishwasher, or fold laundry, or pay the bills, weed the garden, walk the dog, run an errand. . . .  And then repeat as necessary, until the small achievements snag my will and pull me forward.

The challenge with this method is that much of my "productive" stuff happens sitting down, like writing, work-related reading, web design, communicating with clients, working on campaigns, etc.  But when I reach the mental and physical state that harbingers hibernation, physical activity--actual movement, however brief--is required to prevent rusting. 

These are the days for restoring "outer order"--the thing that Gretchen Rubin's maxim promises "contributes to inner calm."

"Baby step, make a to-do list."

"Baby step, sit down and play."

"Baby step, get up and do something."

"Baby step, keep going. . . "

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Procrastinating 101: The Right Shade of Rose

Chapter 7 of Piers Steel's The Procrastination Equation:  How to Stop Putting Things Off and Start Getting Stuff Done bears the rosy title "Optimizing Optimism."  In this chapter, Dr. Steel moves from his dark portrait of our pesky bad habit and its costly fallout, to providing us some bread crumbs to follow on our way out of the forest.

As I begin this post, I am hemmed in by modern-day folk references, clamoring to make their way onto the virtual page.  Yellow brick roads, hobbits in Middle-earth, portkeys in mazes of TriWizarding tournaments, and snatches of theme music vie for attention.  (Can you tell I'm excited to be on the threshold of release?)  Even the superbly credentialed Dr. Steel throws in a Tortoise and a Hare and their fabled run for the roses near the outset.

But I digress.  And isn't that why I'm reading this book?

Not just nifty wordplay (for which I'm always a sucker), "optimizing optimism" refers to a set of strategies for correcting the tint on those famously pinkish-hued spectacles.  Some need to turn it down a notch or two.  Dr. Steel, quoting psychologists Michael Scheier and Charles Carver, "who have spent their lives studying optimism" (should they be called "optimologists"?  Sorry, couldn't resist.), tells us that
It may be possible to be too optimistic, or to be optimistic in unproductive ways.  For example, unbridled optimism may cause people to sit and wait for good things to happen, thereby decreasing the chance of success.
At the other end of the spectrum are those of us who expect failure, whose lack of optimism, and of self-confidence, sap motivation.  Our lenses could stand a bit more pigmentation.

This is probably a good place to feature once more, for the sake of those who haven't seen it, as well as those who haven't retained it, Dr. Steel's Procrastination Equation, for which the book is named.

Motivation, here, is the dependent variable--and inversely related to Procrastination.  I.e., the lower our motivation for a task, the greater our propensity to put it off. 

Expectancy--perceived likelihood of success--is the optimism variable.  Dr. Steel's "formula" is really a theoretical model which takes into account the vast compendium of research he has considered and/or conducted over the course of his career as a scholar of procrastination.  Because it is not possible to assign actual numerical values to the component concepts, we are not meant to use it to calculate an "amount" of motivation, or to plug in different values for, say, expectancy (optimism).

But even as a theoretical model, it begins to break down a little, in the nondoctoral opinion of this reader, with the nuanced discussion of the somewhat paradoxical effects of too much, and too little optimism.  If we read the equation as linear, greater expectancy of success (optimism) should always result in a greater degree of motivation, all else remaining constant.  I'm not really sure what Dr. Steel has in mind mathematically in his treatment of optimism, as it affects his elegant expression.

But niggling about algebraic fine points is beside the point, really.  The chapter's contribution is in helping us to right our perceptions.

Steel takes as a jumping off place the work of psychologist Jeffrey Vancouver, whose work on motivation has "succeeded in locating optimism's sweet spot"--that point where a task is seen as easy enough to be doable, but not so easy as to invite postponement.  Steel graphs Vancouver's depiction of this relationship between optimism and motivation:

Of course, optimism is something akin to a mood state, and may or may not reflect reality.  One can be overly pessimistic (kind of like an Eeyore, in Gretchen Rubin's terms--see her Happiness Project post on the distinction she draws between Tiggers and Eeyores), or falsely optimistic.  And errors of perception, resulting in flawed Expectation, can pertain to the intrinsic difficulty of a task, as well as to our own ability to accomplish it.

We begin to get down to brass tacks (Is it just me, or am I up to my neck in metaphors about now?) as Dr. Steel provides two sets of research-supported strategies, aimed, respectively, at the majority of procrastinators--who struggle with self-confidence, and are likely to have low optimism/expectation of success; and at those who live in a location he deems "Fantasy Land."  I suspect I am not the only procrastinator who suffers from both distortions, depending on the circumstances.  I suggest we all pay careful attention to all of Steel's optimizing recommendations.

For those of us whose glasses are not sufficiently rose-colored, Steel prescribes three corrective approaches:  Success Spirals, Vicarious Victories, and Wish Fulfillment.  The description of each is followed, in the book, by a set of Action Points--"pointers about how to put what you have read directly into action, easily and without delay."

A thumbnail of each:
  • Success Spirals--basically, an approach that builds on successive successes.  A little like the child rearing method that would have us "catch them being good," and reward that good behavior as a foundation for increasingly virtuous actions.  Or "lowering the bar" initially, to build mounting achievement.  Or like Skinner's "shaping."  This is an approach I tried, with little success, to get my dyslexic son's teachers to adopt in dealing with his educational performance.  (Perhaps I should have tried dispensing M & M's.)
  • Vicarious Victories--a strategy that relies on motivational stories, whether true or literary, and the inspiration available from membership in a group who share our challenges, and a positive focus.  Hearing about others' efforts and successes makes things seem more doable, and thus increases optimism.
  • Wish Fulfillment--creative visualization, with the crucial added element of mental contrasting.  The latter 
doesn't create optimism but it maximizes optimism's motivational benefits, creating energy and effort as well as jump starting planning.  People who practice mental contrasting almost immediately start pursuing their dreams, putting a crimp in procrastination.
Space prohibits detailing Steel's useful Action Points here.  For these, I send you to the source, to THE BOOK itself.

For those in need of toning down their happy view of things, and thereby assessing more realistically their own abilities, a task's level of difficulty, and the amount of time it will take, Steel advises these two methods.  Both are intended to help us
activate the reality principle:  to confront the reality of the situation when we are seeking the best way to achieve our goals.  Invoking the reality principle is a sign that we have outgrown our childish and impulsive ways and can acknowledge the price we must realistically pay for our dreams.
  • Plan for the Worst, Hope for the Best--The gist of this advice is that we acknowledge that most of us will fail along the way to achieving what we want.  This recognition can inoculate us against the disappointment and discouragement that can cause us to give up before we get where we are headed.  Expecting and planning for setbacks helps us focus on incremental achievements, using that positive energy to keep going.
  • Accept that You're Addicted to Delay--Like Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs, this approach would have us take very seriously the daunting severity of our procrastination habit.  In doing so, we "improve self-control by embracing [our] pessimism."  In other words, if we up the ante on procrastination behaviors, like game-playing, for example, we force ourselves to see each small instance for the slippery slope that it truly is.  We are thus more motivated to avoid procrastinating.  Steel recommends we 
[f]ollow the Victorian era's greatest maxim:  "Never suffer an exception to occur.". . . You buttress your commitment to early starts by believing that any slip will be catastrophic, that the initial step toward procrastinating is merely the first link in an endless chain.  The specifics of tomorrow will be much the same as today:  you will be tempted to incur a small but cumulative cost to gain a moderate immediate pleasure.  If you decide to delay even once, your decision will be replicated daily and the consequences will grow.
    And now I confess that false optimism led me to underestimate the amount of time this post would require to write.  However, this resulted, not in delaying the task, but in giving more of the day to it than I had planned.  Some unsung variety of planning fallacy, all my own?  The kind where all my other plans for the day have gone awry?  Oh, well.  That's why we are advised to tackle first things first, yes?

    Next week, Chapter 8, "Love it or Leave It."  No, not our country, or my state, but WORK, in which we are admonished to find relevance.

    ## Looking for a way to make procrastination pay?  Check out this photo contest for procrastinators--Entry deadline is July 13. 

    Monday, July 4, 2011

    Done for the Week: Time to Power Up

    Over the year and a half that I have been writing this blog, I have reported several colds, viruses and injuries that have served to interrupt my productivity on various fronts.  Last week I was visited by yet another bug.  One that has felled several friends and family members, and apparently borders on the interminable.  

    Was I always so frequently plagued with minor physical difficulties?  Is this just some of that rain that, "into each life . . . must fall," according to Ella Fitzgerald and the Inkspots?  

    Should I be 
    • eating better?  (Yup.)  
    • worried that I've contracted some immune-system compromising condition/illness?  (Probably not.)
    • sucking it up a bit more?  (Yeah.  I admit it.) 
    Despite my virus-caused general malaise this past week, I got a fair amount done.  And undone.

    Done for the Week:  June 27-July 3, 2011
    1. Completed Week 8 of 15-week triathlon training program, modified to accommodate virus I caught; ran once; swam twice;
    2. Swam twice, ran once with my training partner 
    3. Registered for Danskin Triathlon
    4. Registered for Open Water Swim clinic
    5. Made hotel reservation for tri weekend
    6. Finished The Film Club: A Memoir, by David Gilmour; Thursdays at Eight, by Debbie Macomber
    7. Continued to work my two part-time jobs 
    8. Spent some couch time suffering from a virus being passed through my family
    9. Welcomed my grandson back from his vacation
    10. Resigned from Search Committee
    11. Blew off a couple more meetings
    12. Resigned as volunteer backup secretary for nonprofit organization
    13. Saw my therapist
    14. Published 3 blog posts 
    15. Meditated 2 times
    16. Had lunch date with my husband
    17. Went to Happy Hour with my husband
    18. Watched one episode of Treme with my husband
    19. Finished caring for my out-of-town daughter's dog and house, days 10 and 11
    20. Got various family members, including our dog, to walk temporary foster dog with me
    21. Met again with major new website client
    22. Went out driving with learning teenager several times 
    23. Participated in driving my not-quite-licensed-to-drive son to his job
    24. Volunteered with recall campaign
    25. Continued supporting my 20-year-old in his return to the academic environment; lent moral support to completion of final project and online final
    26. Went to Summerfest with my husband, and couple friends of his
    27. Attended 50th wedding anniversary
    28. Attended wake
    29. Watched Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I, with my sons and husband, in preparation for Part II's upcoming debut
    30. Made progress in cleaning/straightening/decluttering work room, bedroom & kitchen 
    31. Bought new bedding to celebrate our newly unearthed bedroom 

    In my view, my most important accomplishment last week was finally signing up for the triathlon I am training for.  My delay was partly a matter of securing the necessary monetary outlay; partly related to procrastination of an intended action, due to residual feelings of inadequacy and fear; and partly the result of an unwillingness to put my own needs (to sign up in, and thus be measured against, my own age group) ahead of the imagined needs of my first-timer partner for companionship in the mixed age-group category.  It turned out to be no big deal, when I finally brought it up with her.  All that remained was to pull the trigger.  Which I did.

    Last week I continued to focus on the goal of decluttering our house, and involving my housemates in the excavation, starting with the kitchen, my work room, and our bedroom.  As you can see, in green above, I continued to chip away at this goal.  Housemate involvement?  Not so much, though my husband joined me in uncovering (and re "cover"-ing) our bedroom.  At the moment, I can see more of the floor of my work room, and occupy most sitting surfaces, but I still have a ways to go in there.  The kitchen?  I find some of it, I lose some of it, I find some of it, I lose more of it. . . .  It's a perennially moving target.  The whole project needs at least another week.  Hopefully, I can be healthy soon, and bring a bit more energy to it.

    As I head into the coming week, I'm going to be thinking about just that--energy

    ## Today makes me think of my poem, Independence Day, posted on ReVersing Course.