Shaking Myself Out of Procrastination

Shaking Myself Out of Procrastination

I woke up this Sunday morning feeling chock full of vim and vigor, but after checking email, showering, and feeding the cats I was struck by a wave of lethargy that robbed me of my initiative. Now, this wouldn’t ordinarily be an issue, as I would heartily say that everyone is entitled to as many naps as they can squeeze in on a Sunday, but I also realized that this productivity stall was a recurring pattern during the rest of the week as well. Just as I start to formulate a plan of action, I’m struck by a kind of fuzzy-headed feeling and I lose my focus. Hours later, I regain mental focus while browsing some website on the Internet I’ve never seen before, dressed only in the bathrobe I had on in the morning.

I ticked off the usual suspects: eating bad, not working out, not drinking enough water, depression over lack of clear mission, etc. Yep, these are all possibilities, nothing that a bit of discipline and good habits can’t fix. But since I’ve been over this ground before, I decided to consider alternative explanations and decided to self-monitor my stream of consciousness. When I am steeling myself to take action I listen to a monologue in my head that essentially tries to persuade me into action. These appear as fully-formed sentences, and my writing is essentially the process of writing it all down with a bit of on-the-fly restructuring. This is the means by which I focus my thoughts into a single line of reasoning, which then becomes the basis for a plan of action. The process of polishing up–when I have the patience–is to “listen” to what I wrote and correct words and phrases that are not in the spirit of my intent. But I digress…I wanted to find out where this foggy feeling is coming from, so I plopped myself into a convenient sunbeam and closed my eyes.

I found that I was feeling quite irritated with myself, and that there were several layers of irksomeness to deal with:

  • I felt physically restless. I can recognize this now as the “jittery energy” feeling that comes from not doing enough physical activity to tire out the muscles, one of the mysteries of the gym I had encountered when I started going a couple years ago. I’ve been a slacker for the last six months, though, being too pre-occupied with work and having fallen out of my daily routine. The solution: I can go to sleep at a regular time every night. This is harder that it sounds, because my mind tends to race and seek new stimuli until it is exhausted.

  • A little more relaxed, I then started to formulate a plan for the day. I soon experienced the “fog of inaction” sensation that had so pissed me off this morning. I put a shape to the fog: I felt the need to write down my plan somewhere where I wouldn’t forget it or lose it. Ah…my lack of trust in my memory is an anxiety that stems back to early childhood. I have come to believe that I can’t remember any kind of arbitrary process, and subjects in school that required such memorization were much hated. This ruled out a lot of math, chemistry, history, and language courses. I’m not sure if I even have some kind of memory deficit, but at an early age I gave up on trying to remember arbitrary things and focus on learning principles. In fact, the way I look at the world is probably shaped by my anxiety about remembering things; I use principle as a knowledge compression scheme that allows me to re-synthesize from root concepts what I need to know. Freshman-level courses where reasoning is at the root of the process–Computer Science, Computer Engineering, and Physics come to mind–worked well with my particular learning strategy. Anyway, I don’t know if my lack of faith in my own memory is even justified, but I had told myself this story a long time ago and I have believed it. It is time to test that belief and replace it with a better one. The solution: A simple list is enough to jog my memory, because my associative memory works just fine. Keeping the list handy, though, is the challenge that my anxiety about forgetting things keeps raising. I can try to create the optimal solution, but that is a form of procrastination in itself. It’s probably easier to just accept forgetfulness as a part of the process, but that also bothers me because I’m a freelancer; forgetfulness is not a virtue. There are so many ways I can go with this that this problem deserves several blog posts, so for now I’m sticking with “use one list”. I think I’ll use the new bright green Moleskine Volant I bought yesterday.

  • The last issue was the desire for optimal execution. I almost didn’t write this blog post because I didn’t think I had the “optimal place to put it”. I’ve been displeased with the organization of my website for some time, perceiving the need for several topical content streams, and this has prevented me from posting anything at all that didn’t seem mandatory. I haven’t even started because it is such a daunting endeavor technically. Additionally, the desire to have an optimal plan of attack becomes a preoccupation in itself, and it seems worthwhile because this theoretically will make things “easier”. That may be true in very expensive and resource-intensive projects, but for personal projects at the scale I’m thinking? It’s probably no more than a 10-20% penalty, and even that is probably wrong-thinking. I’ve already blown the time allotment anyway through excessive non-productive optimization-before-implementation, which is a fundamental sin. It’s a lot easier to optimize once you have the complete process in place, when actual problems (as opposed to imagined “might be” problems) manifest. There is probably some anxiety about not messing up somewhere in here too, which is another deep-seated childhood fear. The reluctance is just an instinctual reaction, like learning to shy away from something that hurts you. As an adult, however, I know “messing up” is quite recoverable, and it’s even a sign of character if you’re the entrepreneurial type. The solution: MESS UP A LOT, and trust that the reassessment phase that follows swiftly will orient myself in the right direction. From experience, I know this is the case.

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p>At the very least, I got a blog post out of this morning’s crankiness. Now to fire up the new Moleskine! :-)

7 Comments

  1. Tormod Haugen 13 years ago

    Congrats on the moleskine. They’re nice to jot down lists in. I use mine a lot; not to remember, but mainly to tell my mind that I have written it down; stop thinking about it. Makes space for other tasks.

    I’ve adopted your “Groundhog Day Resolution” methodology, and will be working out focuses and goals throughout the year. Thanks for writing; it is inspiring.

  2. Jeni 13 years ago

    Regular bedtime is a fantastic idea.  I might just start that this week (aided by the fact that my bf is out of the country, so I have a little more control over when I tuck in!). 

    Have you noticed that there are any specific actions or activities that make it tough for you to “gear down” for sleep?  I (slowly) learned that I can’t read music or study another language after 10:00 p.m. because it keeps me keyed up for hours.  Or is it more a case of “sleep won’t come until brain gets bored”?

    —Jeni

  3. Lynn O'Connor 13 years ago

    Yikes what a great post, and so close to home. You have courage Dave. I wouldn’t dare to write something so honest, and so may have a harder time getting to work, figuring out what the problem is. Right now I work well when I have something I have to do (like huge class starting on Wednesday afternoon.) But when it is just for me, eg working on the book I’m working on, I stall and stall and stall. I guess there are reasons, fears, technical problems, etc. But really why do I stall? Whatever the answer, your writing reminded me that I am not alone.

    Lynn

  4. Raghuveer 13 years ago

    Hi Dave,

    A lot of your posts do read like a conversation with myself.

    I agree with Lynn that it takes courage to be so honest. I can imagine the feeling of freedom that comes from putting your thoughts out in the open.

    Hope your “fog of inaction” clears soon, and your flights of creativity get back on schedule :)

    – Raghuveer

  5. Karen 13 years ago

    Going to bed and waking up at the same time every day makes a HUGE difference in my energy levels and focus, so I’d say you’re definitely on the right track if you’re thinking about increasing your own sleep consistency.

    Before we had a kid, we’d stay up late regularly, and sleep late every weekend, and feel exhausted most of the time, even though we actually got more hours of sleep each week than we do now.  Once our little boy started with a 7 pm bedtime 2 years ago, we really stabilized our own sleep patterns.  We go to bed around 10 each night, and he wakes us up between 6 and 7 every morning.  Sleeping in is a thing of the past.  Now I understand why so many parents continue getting up early even when their kids are old enough to sleep in….  it’s just so much more energizing to have a consistent sleep schedule!!

    Love the site – and am really glad that the ETT 2009 version was ready to print off for the new year!

  6. Chris Porter 13 years ago

    Wow, this was a very good post. This also hit close to home, and I’m having that same problem. I procrastinate and get distracted a lot on the internet with Facebook and blogs like Lifehacker to SmashingMagazine.com.

    Since I’m a web designer, it’s much harder to stay away from the computer. It’s much MUCH harder to stay away from the computer when I have a 9-5 job, school, and freelance.

    I go to sleep regularly from 11pm to 7am, but I still always feel tired.

    Right now, my therapist and most people who also have the same problem I have or worst (mostly from David Allen’s GTD forum) say that I may have ADD.

    So I hope I can get this straight. My freelance life is like so down the drain right now, its hard to complete school work, and I’m always getting in trouble for being on facebook at work… (i can get on facebook, but I always get on at the wrong times…)

  7. Dave Seah 13 years ago

    Tormod: glad to hear that you found the GHDR methodology interesting. Good luck!

    Jeni: That’s a good question…I think if I am struck by any curious thought, that reawakens the brain. If it seems like a very novel thought, then I’m wide awake because I want to chase it down. Or, if it seems like something I can immediately investigate, then I may do something about it. I seem to fall asleep easiest when I have some ordinary design work to do :-)

    Lynn: Nope, you are not alone! I really do need to visit you out in San Francisco…I’m hoping mid spring or summer to take an actual vacation in the bay area, so we’ll see.

    Raghuveer: You’re right, it is good to get things out. I try to keep from getting too whiny, but it’s a fine line :) What keeps me putting the thoughts out there is knowing that there might be someone who really does need to hear that they’re not alone. I certainly have benefited myself from bloggers who dared post their innermost demons in an act of sharing, people who are just a few steps ahead of us on the same road.

    Karen: That’s an interesting parental observation! Have you discovered what helps establish that regular sleeping schedule?

    Chris: That sounds like me :-) At a certain point I got fed up with myself and stopped looking at those sites because they stopped giving me the distracting boost I craved. On the other hand, it took me until I was 40 to start feeling that…I hope you find your solution quicker :-)