The Now Habit
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A guide to procrastination: why we do it, how we do it, and a number of tips and strategies to help overcome it. Overall a dry read, but there are a few bits I found useful. (Fun fact: This book sat on my shelf for two years before I started reading it. The irony is not lost on me.)
“The typical procrastinator completes most assignments on time, but the pressure of doing work at the last minute causes unnecessary anxiety and diminishes the quality of the end result.”
The vicious cycle of procrastination: get overwhelmed, feel pressured, fear failure, try harder, work longer, feel resentful, lose motivation, and then procrastinate.
As long as you’re in the cycle, there’s no escape. We can’t enjoy guilt-free play, because we feel it keeps us from what we should be doing. Yet this way, we lose motivation, negatively affecting our chances of success, and procrastination becomes part of our identity.
When caught in the procrastination cycle, obvious advice (break it into small pieces, set priorities…) is useless. You already know this, and you’d do those things if you could, but it’s just not that simple.
Procrastination is a mechanism for coping with anxiety associated with starting or completing a task or a decision — it’s a ineffective attempt to solve other underlying problems.
Why we do it
- Delaying can often be rewarding
- Perfectionism (leading to fear of failure)
- Expressing resentment (“I have to…”)
- A crutch against fear of failure (“I must do it right… but I can’t…”)
- Fear of success (advancement leads to more demands, and ultimately fear of failure; success creates disincentives like pain of moving and getting a new job; the conflict between doing more work and spending time with people in our lives)
How we procrastinate
Know how you spend your time: simply procrastinate at a normal level for a week, and observe yourself without judging.
Keeping a procrastination log can be useful by making us aware of which events trigger procrastination.
A good metaphor to how we procrastinate:
- Imagine a board, 10m long, half a meter wide, 10cm thick. You’re to walk across it. Easy, right?
- Then imagine you take the same board and hold it 30m above ground. It’s the same, but now you’re scared to death. You stand frozen.
- Now imagine the building just behind you is on fire and about to collapse. Now you don’t care. You do what needs to be done, and walk across it. Crawl if you have to.
When you procrastinate, it’s as if you were raising the board 30m off the ground, getting yourself frozen, and then lighting a fire behind you to force yourself to get it done. (That doesn’t seem healthy.)
But imagine how you’d feel standing on the board, still 30m off the ground, but just a meter beneath it was a strong, supportive net. It’s not that scary anymore. Could even be fun. We need this kind of psychological safety net, so that failing no longer feels like death.
How to talk to yourself
Self-statements procrastinators make:
- I don’t want to do it
- I have to do it (or else…)
- “should”s: should be different, should be done, should be like him…
Self-statements producers make:
- I have to → I choose to
- I must finish → When can I start?
- This is big and important → I can take one small step
- I must be perfect → I can be perfectly human
- I don’t have time to play → I must take time to play
Enjoying guilt-free play is necessary for quality work.
This is a pattern I’ve been seeing with my own mild procrastination. During times when I feel particularly overwhelmed, I won’t tend to plan for play (won’t go out, spend time with friends, otherwise have fun), because I feel like I have too much to do to be able to do it. But that’s precisely what causes me to feel more overwhelmed, reinforcing my procrastination.
Overcoming blocks to action
Work of worrying: worrying is fine as long it’s the positive, productive, calm “work of worrying” — developing an action plan:
- What’s the worst that could happen?
- What would I do if the worst really did happen?
- How would I lessen the pain if the worst occured?
- What alternatives would I have?
- What can I do now to lessen the probability of the worst occuring?
- What can I do now to increase my chances of achieving the goal?
Most people wish for an illusory certainty that they will always succeed. This leaves them at a severe disadvantage compared to those who actually considered what happens if something goes wrong.
(This very much reminds me of defensive pessimism in Originals)
It takes work to procrastinate and it takes work to face your fear of finishing. There’s really no escape from some kind of work. So you might as well tackle the kind of work that’s going to be most useful long-term.
Be alert to when preparation becomes procrastination.
A clever system for organizing your schedule, built to encourage healthy relationship with work and play, and making use of reverse psychology.
Here are the rules:
- Don’t work on a project for more than 20 hours a week
- Don’t work on a project for more than 5 hours a day
- You must exercise or play for at least one hour a day
- You must take at least one day a week off from any work
- Aim for starting on just 30 minutes of quality work
- Work for an imperfect (perfectly human) first effort
- Start small
Then, schedule only:
- free time, recreation, leisure
- socializing, time with friends
- excercise and other health activities
- previously committed meetings, appointments, etc.
Don’t schedule work on projects. Schedule everything other than work on projects.
Fill in work on projects only after you’ve done it. Take credit only for periods where you spent at least half an hour of uninterrupted time on a project.
Before deciding to go to a recreational activity or social commitment, take time for just 30 minutes of work on your project.
Focus on starting. And keep starting.
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