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

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Procrastinating 101: Just Start, to Finish

Okay.  It's Tuesday.  I don't know about you, but I'm still a procrastinator, in some form or another.  So it's time, once again, for Procrastinating 101--our (mostly) weekly survey class-type discussion of the findings and writings of experts in the field.

At present, we are making our way through Dr. Timothy Pychyl's blessedly boiled-down treatment, The Procrastinator's Digest:  A Concise Guide to Solving the Procrastination Puzzle.  We are up to Chapter 6:  "The Power of Getting Started."

And the mantra for this chapter?  "Just get started."

So, let's begin.  

Pychyl tells us that "getting started changes our perceptions of a task," according to research he has conducted.  Specifically, once we have gotten our feet wet with respect to a dreaded task, we see that task as significantly less unpleasant, onerous, daunting, etc.  And we feel differently about ourselves, too, once we get started--"more in control and more optimistic."  So if we
'prime the pump' by making some progress on our goals, the resulting increase in our subjective well-being enhances further action and progress.
(And now that I am a few paragraphs into writing this post that I couldn't get to earlier today--thanks to a barfing grandson, a moody spouse, and the usual unanticipated work obligations and other interruptions--I feel more positive than when I began.  The post seems more "writeable" and I feel more capable of finishing it.  Dr. Pychyl and his academic crew seem to have gotten this one right.)

At this point, Dr. Pychyl returns to his advice, set out more generally earlier in the book, that we use the device of an implementation intention as a cornerstone of our strategy for change.   This time around, he provides a bit more detail:

As defined in the well-developed psychology of action created by Peter Gollwitzer (University of New York) [mentioned in an earlier post drawing on the book Switch:  How to Change Things When Change is Hard, by Chip Heath and Dan Heath], an implementation intention supports a goal intention by setting out in advance when, where and how we will achieve this goal (or at least a sub-goal within the larger goal or task).
 An implementation intention that aims to interrupt our procrastinating behavior pattern could look like this:

IF I say to myself things like, "I'll feel more like doing this later" or "I don't feel like doing this now," THEN I will just get started on some aspect of the task.

Pychyl cautions us against going all Nike--"Just do it!"--lest we get overwhelmed.  We are "pre-deciding" only to start, after which "the 'doing it' will take care of itself."

I was particularly taken with Dr. Pychyl's reference to meditation as an example of something that takes continual "re-starting," as we return our wandering attention to the breath.  He uses this as an analogy for the process of starting on a task, not just once, but again and again throughout the day.

He goes on to provide research-based advice that we need to think concretely about a project, and to begin with a small, tangible action.  For example, we might begin a writing task by typing a title, or assembling references.  I might begin a blog by finding an image, or choosing labels.  

Tucked ever-so-subtly under this positive section describing writing, sculpting, farming, and carpentry as beginning with  "roughing" in, is this bit of "tough love" from the man whose students have dubbed him "Dr. Procrastination:"

Honestly, if you are not ready to make this first step, to just get started, on a day-to-day, moment-to-moment basis, then put this book down now.  You are not committed to change yet, and nothing else I have to say will matter in your self-change.  Don't get me wrong, I am not trying to discourage you.  I am just being honest.

If we are still hanging in after that "talking-to," Dr. Pychyl directs us to begin concretizing a project on which we have been procrastinating, using the following table:

Goal or Task

Priority or Order of Completion
List of Sub-tasks


And now that I've reached the end of this post, please excuse me while I proceed to fill in the cells with every trivial thing I can think of which might move me closer to the completion of my novel.  Of course, sharpening pencils is not only the most tired of cliches, but also anachronistic.  But what about cutting out pictures for a story board?  Or replacing the lamp in my work room?  Or . . . .

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