I have been a procrastinator all of my life. During school years, this wasn’t really a problem. I would avoid starting work until the last minutem, and then I would get decent grades. Most of the time.
But, as Tim Urban, the creator of the funny and insightful Wait But Why website and himself a Master Procrastinator, said in a recent Ted Talk – the real problem with procrastination relates to the important things you want to do but don’t really have a deadline attached to them. Important matters that relate to your personal aspirations, and not to what your boss tells you to do.
[I]t’s this long-term kind of procrastination that’s much less visible and much less talked about than the funnier, short-term deadline-based kind. It’s usually suffered quietly and privately. […] The frustration is not that they couldn’t achieve their dreams; it’s that they weren’t even able to start chasing them.Tim UrbanI had never formulated this in such an elegant – and simple – way. It’s painfully true.
I remember deciding I wanted to write a book in my early twenties, right after I was encouraged by getting the best grade in a Creative Writing class in college. ‘I really want to do this’, I thought. ‘I just have to start writing something’. But, without any kind of outside pressure, I never did.
If instant gratification, where you exchange work for things that give you pleasure on the short-term (watching TV, playing video games), is the biggest fuel to immediate procrastination, when you are dealing with the long-term kind you have to account for another emotion – fear. Fear of failure. Fear of finding out that we don’t live to our potential. Fear that we will suck. Or fear that you will just be ignored.
The first way to overcome fear is to embrace the light side. Just kidding. Actually, I found out it helps to analyze it, try to understand where it comes from, put into some sorte of intelectual perspective. This is where finding out about other good examples might come handy. Learning about people who have faced the beast, and won. Or meeting regular people who continue to face it everyday.
Steven Pressfield is one of those people. Pressfield is a published author, he has wrote fiction, non-fiction and also for movies. He actually waited 42 years to sell something he had written, so he has impeccable procrastination and there is hope for every one of us credentials.
He wrote The War of Art about procrastination and the will to overcome it, based on his thoughts and experiences. The subtitle of the book reads: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, which is a very elegant way of saying “for the aspiring or frustrated artist that would rather watch Hardcore Pawn than face a white canvas”.
The book is roughly divided in two different parts. The first one deals with Resistance, which Pressfield characterizes as the force that all procrastinators must go against. The second one focuses on the act of creation, and – for me – goes a little off rails, with descriptions of guardian angels and overcoming sickness by creating. Still, I mentally skipped all of the pseudo-metaphysical stuff and still came across with some great insights. Like this one:
[…] the more fear we feel about a specific enterprise, the more certain we can be that that enterprise is important to us and to the growth of our soul. That’s why we feel so much Resistance. If it meant nothing to us, there’d be no Resistance.Steven PressfieldThe other important thing that you must accept is that you will fail. Fail, fail, fail. There is no such thing as the “I got it on the first try” genius. Creating is really messy and ugly, and there is only one way to get better at it: doing (and failing).
Only by doing it, there will be any chance of making it. And even if you don’t get fame and fortune, you might get that self-satisfaction of having created something, which can be just as enough. I can easily see this on my activity as a blogger. The return that I get from a post with a couple of dozen likes and a handful of ‘great job!’ comments from strangers can really make my day (as opposed to playing FIFA).
Still, I would rather play FIFA every night than facing the dreaded blank box of the Add New Post section. That’s why I need a system.
Finding a system
One of the reasons fad diets like paleo, dr. Atkins or something beach (kinda) work, besides big marketing budgets, is because they rely on a combination of shaky science and very simple rules. The former provides security, but it is the latter that delivers results. No gluten! No carbs! No fat! Etc. They are simple, clear and easy to follow. Much easier than tracking and counting calories or accounting for glycemic loads, which is really the only thing you should be doing to control your weight.
Apart from scientific considerations, systems are very useful. As far as “doing” systems go, there is none more simpler and elegant that Seinfeld’s Calendar, as told by the famous comedian to Brad Isaac:
He told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker. He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day. “After a few days you’ll have a chain.[…] Your only job next is to not break the chain.”Brad IsaacIt’s a great system, as it appeals to our completist instincts, and very easy to implement. Unfortunately it’s not really suited to someone like me, with different interests and objectives.
So I’ve been trying to come up with a system that optimizes the use of my free time to create stuff and develop myself – doing and learning. I am now on the third iteration of such a system, and seem to be getting closer to something that works and feels right.
My first try, a couple of years ago, involved having set days for doing stuff. I would schedule Mondays and Tuesdays for working on my parenting blog, Wednesdays for e-learning, Thursdays for the other blog, and so on. This didn’t really work very well, because it the time slots were “vague” (does reading count as ‘working’? sometimes it did, others it didn’t) and it was easy to skip days.
Then I took the insane route, and I decided that what I really had to do was detail specific activities on a daily basis. So I had tight schedules telling me that I had to blog from 9 to 11 pm, then I had half hour to walk the dog, then 1 more hour of reading a book, etc. This kind of worked for two months, but it eventually proved too much and I started ignoring the multiple notifications.
After some months of no system and just “doing stuff” whenever, I thought that I could try again. This time I decided that the system should have some flexibility in it, because in the rigid systems it’s easy to “miss” one task and just go “aw, fuck it”. It had to be a system that accounts for missing, but still gives me a chance to catch up.
I think I may have found it.
My current anti-procrastination system
My current system for doing stuff is based on monthly goals, which are then broke down to daily and weekly tasks.
I start by keeping an Evernote notebook where I write down stuff I want to do. These are just the basic macro goals that I want to achieve every month. They roughly look like this:
- read a fiction book
- read a non-fiction book
- learn something work related (either reading a book or doing some e-learning)
- listen to an audiobook
- write at least one blog post per week
- write at leat one work related blog post per week
- have lunch with someone (do some networking)
- learn to cook a new dish
After that, when preparing an individual month, I starting by filling out the categories (e.g. in March I will read “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance”). I use Todoist to write those down. Of course the categories will also be changing to accommodate specific stuff that I might have planned or realize I want to accomplish. The important part here is to have an ambitious agenda but with a little of wiggle room. If I can get to the 28th of the month with everything crossed out I might get three nights to play a videogame or binge on some tv show – and feel like I earned those.
Regarding deadlines, some of the accomplishments I specifically divide by week, others I just leave hanging until the end of the month (and cross them when they are done).
I also have a daily rule: each day I have to do “active” stuff for at least 1,5 hours. Active stuff means something like writing, editing or learning. To ensure productivity and avoid temptations like Facebook or Reddit, I use the Pomodoro Technique: 25 minutes of work, followed by 5 minute breaks. Before that I was using the StayFocusd extension, to automatically block out procrastination causing websites, but I found myself disabling the extension often (and sometimes for work).
At the end of that one and a half hour (or 75 minutes to be more precise), I then can continue doing whatever I was doing, or go read a book, go to bed or watch some tv (depending on the monthly goals status).
For daily orientation, I try to break down the macro goals into a series of micro tasks that I put into the Dayboard extension on Chrome. Dayboard is a very simple variation of a to-do list app (there are dozens around), but I love the way it always displays the tasks everytime you open a new broswer tab. That’s perfect for me, since I tend to open a lot of new browser tabs.
Of course not all of the tasks I have there are related to the month’s goals. That turns out to be a practical way of tracking time spent on unavoidable and important stuff like “doing taxes” and doing the important work. Dayboard then puts a green circle over days with completed tasks, which evokes the famous Seinfeld system, and also allows you to look at some stats.
In a nutshell:
1. Establish what you want to achieve regularly (read a book, build a website, learn to cook a new dish, etc.)
2. Translate those achievement into monthly goals (read “The Elements of User Experience”, learn to cook Dim Sum)
3. Establish working schedules and routines (e.g. every morning from 7 to 8, every evening for 1,5 hours, whatever works for you)
4. Break the goals into daily tasks that you can mark with an X.
5. Be rigorous but don’t obsess over thing, roll with failures and don’t lose momentum.
So, you ask snarkily (or nicely, I just assume everyone is mean on the Internet), what have you really achieved with all of this? Well, since my goals aren’t really world fame or becoming an Instagram superstar, I am happy with the feeling that I am challenging myself and trying to do meaningful work, while creating, growing or learning. That’s enough for now.