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

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.

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