(last edited on August 5, 2014 at 4:21 pm)
It’s been a few days since establishing my Groundhog Day Resolutions for 2014, and I’m starting to get a feel for more first steps, less planning. While planning is easy for me, I started to think that it just makes the work seem that much more daunting and tedious. I had also gotten into the habit of suppressing epic creative impulses because I always had something “more important” to do.
So, for this month, I’m making first steps first and eschewing planning. If I feel the urge to explore an intriguing line of inquiry, I would gladly take “first steps” instead of burying it under mounds of guilt. Secondly, I think getting in the habit of just taking first steps will lead to a long-term improvement in my attitude. I’ll also start making progress on long-stalled epic projects that, until now, seemed just too big and distracting. These are projects like learning to write IOS applications and developing software, and also large complicated marketing projects that I’ve just not been able to get excited about.
First steps! Many of them! Over and over, until it becomes a habit. That’s the idea.
Whenever I find myself thinking stuff like, “I really would like a better logo” or “The living room could be less cluttered”, instead of stopping myself with grim thoughts of how long it would take, I just do something for a minute and see what happens. The most recent example of this is when I thought about a new personal logo, and instead of pushing this off as a very long drawn-out process (which it is), I got my notebook and scribbled three ideas. It took five minutes, and the project moved ahead.
I also speed-read the book The Now Habit: Overcoming Procrastination on the suggestion of commenter Matt. Initially I resisted the idea, because I thought I had already done quite enough inner work on this, but I take recommendations seriously enough that I will at least take another look. It turns out that all this time, I’d confused Neil Fiore’s The Now Habit with Eckhert Tolle’s The Power of Now, a book I had never been able to get through. Fiore’s book, by comparison, is a highly-readable breakdown of the elements of procrastination. Much of it was familiar to me, but several ideas really struck home:
- That I didn’t have to generate fun-denying guilt by thinking, “I should be working on X before enjoying myself”.
- That I didn’t have to schedule myself so stringently.
- That wanting to finish everything in one go was creating resistance to starting anything.
It was nice to actually read this in a book that was written 30 years ago. It made me feel that I was part of a universal tribe of procrastinators, and that being a procrastinator didn’t mean I was any less worthy as a human being. I recommend the book heartily. I think it would appeal to people seeking to understand root causes and are motivated to reprogram their expectations of themselves. It’s not heavy on practical tips or process, so people looking for a program of procrastination-busting exercises and tools may be disappointed. I owe it a more careful read.
So that’s how it’s going this week. I’m trying to just start things and not plan them out, which is the opposite of how I’ve usually worked in the past. A wrinkle is that I’m doing a lot of challenging client work this year, and it’s left me less time to work on my personal projects. More on that later.
I had a few weeks of allowing myself to start (or restart) anything on my list. It was a disaster, but with a few guidelines could have been much better.
Before starting something, ask yourself if it will leave you in a worse place than before if you don’t finish it. Often, a simple change will make a big difference. Empty and reload one drawer at a time, not the entire room. If you’re ready to quit before everything that doesn’t belong in the drawer has a new home, put it back in the drawer, or maybe a single basket that you never allow to overflow.
Also ask if it will be of any use to you if you don’t finish it. Rehoming half a drawer’s contents make that drawer easier to use, even if you don’t finish it. A programming project you don’t finish might teach you new skills. On the other hand, sketching some user interfaces and “wizard-of-ozing” the interface might tell you that there’s no sense working on other parts of the project.
Don’t let all the starts get in the way of middles and finishes of important things. Permission to start is very heady, especially when it’s a project you’ve wanted to do for a long time.
Enjoy your time of starts. It sounds like you need the freedom to recharge, and it’s likely you’ll find some projects, or new approaches to current projects, that are of more value than the ones you’re currently stuck in.
Thanks for the feedback, Cricket. What was the disaster part of your experience?
On a side note, I think it’s a little premature to diagnose how I am going to feel about this before I’ve really gotten going :-)
Dave: I hope it helps you as it has helped me.
cricketB: I don’t know if you meant what I thought you meant, but I thought I’d clear up the message of the book a little. I think that you are confusing the “start of a project” as an aspect of a project with the physical action of starting. “Start” is meant as a physical action, not the first steps of an entire project (e.g. start/beginnings, middles and ends). A project might be around 60% completed, but the intent is to ignore the amount of what is left, but to just start working on the project irrespective to the completion status of the project.
The Now Habbit suggests that you should just start on something for 30 minutes and work however long you want to work on it provided that there are not temporal constraints involved at that moment. I would say that if you keep starting on the same thing over a long peroids of time, then perhaps the thing that is being worked on is too big or perhaps you are thinking that you “should” do it rather than something you choose to do.
If you use the word “choose” instead of “should” then it something that become optional and you don’t have to do it if you do not want to and are willing the face the consequences of not doing the task (e.g. you choose to pay your credit card bill on time, but you don’t have to if you are willing to pay interest.).
If facing the consequences of not doing the task is not acceptable, then you choose to do the work because the cost of not doing the work is not acceptable. The word “choose” can reveal and make it more obvious why the work is being done whereas, “should” typically is used in self-talk statements that are negative and self-admonishing. As Fiore puts it:
“As you begin to speak to yourself in a language that focuses on results rather than blame, on choice rather than have to, one what is rather than what you think it should be, you will find that your body and mind cooperate by providing a level of positive energy free from unnecessary struggles of the past and negative comparisons with the future”
The disaster was I worked on projects that were less important at the time than other projects, and the more-important projects suffered. (I met deadline, but wasn’t happy with my work.) Also, my work environment was less comfortable because I had things from too many “get organized” projects spread out.
I was experimenting with a new system, and hoped that it would help me stop wasting time, so I would have enough time to do everything I wanted. I did work more hours each day, but fewer of those hours were on important projects. I had permission to work on long-neglected projects.
It was a heady few weeks. I took another step towards my novel, and two towards my shorthand dictation program (plus learn Python), and one towards learning shorthand, and one towards a complete set of dictation recordings for the text (useful to others), and one towards tidying my storytelling archives (beginning with moving all non-storytelling stuff from the shelf to the floor and all non-storytelling stuff from that shelf to that corner), and one towards purging old email (beginning with putting all from 2007 in the same folder, losing the structure it used to have), and one towards that ancient pile of papers that needs filing (spread it over the dining room table), and…
Of course, once I broke the inertia on each project, I was even more excited about it, and worked on it even more.
Unfortunately, I didn’t take enough steps towards advertising the next season of storytelling (including asking the group to confirm the format and the venue to confirm the dates), submitting medical receipts on time, monitoring the kids’ homework, and meal-planning. (Five minutes with the calendar each week before shopping saves a second trip and about $100 in fast-food.)
Yes, it’s premature to diagnose how you’re going to feel. I hope, though, that you’ll feel good about it.
You’re right, my examples were of the start of a project, but the same caution applies to middle steps. If the step you take leaves the rest of your life in a worse position, you’ll regret it. A small bit of planning can help. Not planning the entire project, just enough that this step will leave you in a good place, and just enough looking at the rest of your life to know that you’re making comfortable progress on anything that’s more important.
From your description, “Start” sounds like breaking inertia. Projects that keep accumulating inertia are hard to do. And, yes, looking at it as a choice to not face the consequences of not finishing can help with that.
However, it’s not a choice between doing and not doing. It’s a choice between doing this over doing that. Choosing to finish the novel over being a quitter is different from choosing to finish the novel over submitting medical receipts.
CricketB: Thanks for elaborating! The stage I’m at in my experiment is to try reprogramming myself to start more often (breaking inertia) rather than analyze cost versus benefit. Also, it’s an effort to become satisfied with partial progress, rather than feeling irked that I can’t get everything done and out of the way. I’m not sure what will happen! Maybe some of the stuff you mention will be a factor…we shall see!
Then thought has energy that wants to fly out into the world and live. When we procrastinate and leave the thought locked in his one room cell, he gets feisty. And his feistiness spread into our own irritation.
We wind up with rows of cells in our minds each filled with a single thought that wanted to be free but couldn’t. And we wind up with a huge amount of irritation at ourselves for NEVER GETTING OF OUR (umm) CHAIRS in the first place.
Even a single step toward letting that thought go free by acting on it, will help us feel better and make our lives less complex.