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Posts tagged ‘procrastination’

I’ll Get Around To It…Later…Maybe Tomorrow…

Do I know people who are worse procrastinators than me?  Yes, but only a handful.  I’m pretty extreme.  Example?  I started writing this post more than a week ago, and had to absolutely FORCE myself to sit down and finish it today (and who knows – I still may not get it done).

The April issue of Real Simple magazine has a terrific article on procrastination, written by Amy Spencer (FYI – it’s accompanied in print by the best illustration on the topic I’ve ever seen, by Paula Scher).  This article wasn’t the usual blame game.  You know – those articles that basically make you feel like a lazy schlub who wouldn’t be a procrastinator if only you tried harder.  Write a list, break big jobs into little jobs, reward small accomplishments….yeah, yeah, yeah – I’ve heard it all before.

Spencer’s article focuses on the science behind procrastination, and explains that those of us who wait are not just being lazy.  Our brains are actually wired for procrastination.  It turns out everyone’s brain has two main sections. 

The limbic system works without us really being aware.  It makes us pull our hand away from a hot stove, sidestep a big patch of ice in front of us, come indoors from the rain.  The limbic system protects us from pain and turns us toward something pleasurable.  Like a puppy determined to please you, it directs you away from the “pain” of doing a boring or difficult task because it knows you might be unhappy, and will distract you with pleasurable alternatives. 

The prefrontal cortex is the taskmaster – it figures out how to do things and keeps us on track.  It measures a situation and helps us make decisions.  But it is not automatic or intuitive like the limbic system.  It turns out the prefrontal cortex is a relatively new part of the brain, and is even considered by some to be what separates us from other animals.  It’s not as strong as other parts of the brain.  It needs direction.  I’d sum it up this way – the prefrontal cortex plans, while the limbic system reacts.   

Our prefrontal cortex says “you should clean the kitchen,” and the limbic responds by saying “Wouldn’t you rather read that new magazine?”  “Fix a sandwich?”  “Check your Facebook page?”  “Watch a movie?”  “Oh, look! A squirrel!”

My limbic system and prefrontal cortex have apparently developed a close partnership over the years, so I use my whole brain to procrastinate.  My limbic system pulls me off task, and when I realize what’s happening, I put my prefrontal cortex to work thinking up excuses of why it’s a good thing to do.  “I won’t be so tired tomorrow.”  “I’ll dive into it tomorrow right after work, and that still gives me plenty of time (if nothing goes wrong).”  “I really do need to do some more research/preparation/practicing first.”  “I work better under pressure anyway.”  “What could possibly go wrong?”

The hopeful part of the Real Simple article is that our prefrontal cortex can be strengthened.  It will never become an unconscious response to situations (at least not for me), but we can control when to put it to work.  We can force our mental planner to take charge for a while and help us get things done. 

And that brings us back to those tricks and tips that I hate.  My prefrontal cortex is very, very good at making excuses (it’s had plenty of practice), and it is also very good at seeing through a to-do list and “rewards”.  I think rewards are the funniest approach to procrastination.  Gee, I’m going to let myself have an ice cream after I get this blog done.  Really?  There’s ice cream in the ‘fridge?  Why don’t you just take a little break right now and enjoy it, and then you can finish the blog as soon as you’re done…

The article suggests doing the worst thing first.  Well, duh.  That’s way too logical.  If I decide to do the worst thing first, I’m dooming myself to an entire day of excuse-making and time-wasting.  A related tip is to make the job smaller.  Yeah, it works, but my limbic system is on to me.  It will allow me to get three of four little jobs done, and then it lies in wait for the fourth.  And the battle is on – one hour to get three tasks accomplished, and a day and a half to get through the last one. 

But there were a couple of good tips mentioned that I’ve tried with some success in the past.  The tried and true is to make a commitment to a third party.  Ask a friend to hold your feet to the fire because you have a job that needs to get done this weekend.  Ask them to call and check in to make sure you’re staying on task.  Give your boss a due date for a project, even if he/she didn’t set one.  Guilt is a powerful motivator, and you won’t want to let your friend or boss down, or have them think poorly of you.

Another good tip is timing yourself.  I used to do this, and I’ve gotten out of the habit. Instead of telling myself “I’m going to organize my closet today” (a monumental and painful task that will surely keep my limbic system busy), I can set my cell phone alarm to go off in 30 minutes, and tell myself “when the alarm goes off, I’m done.”  The idea is that the concept of perpetual motion will keep you going forward after the alarm rings, and even if it doesn’t, at least you got 30 minutes of work done.  It works.

And the primary suggestion is to avoid interruptions.  When you have a limbic system as strong as mine (have you noticed how proud I am of my procrastination skills?), avoiding interruptions is nearly impossible.  But the article does suggest a few intriguing online tools to help control web surfing, or at least track it and get a realistic perspective on how much time we’re truly wasting.  I think I’ll give them a try.  I should probably do that right now. 

But first I have to proofread this post and publish it.  And then I should reward myself with some raspberries and yogurt.  And I have to finish the laundry.  And then I might watch my favorite TV shows.   And I should call Mom.  I can check out the sites tomorrow night.  But I’m meeting a friend for dinner tomorrow and won’t be home until late, so it will probably be Tuesday.  I have a church meeting Tuesday night, but I should be home in time to go online.  And if not, there’s always Wednesday………….right?

On New Year’s Resolutions…

We all know how successful most New Year’s resolutions are.  According to Wikipedia, 52% of people who make resolutions believe they’ll succeed, but only 12% of them really do.  That’s supported by another study that says 78% of resolutions fail.  The odds are not with us.

And yet, we keep making them.  I loved hearing Ellen Degeneres’ resolution suggestions – lose weight, start exercising, and drink more – then you know you’ll at least succeed at one out of three.  Gyms are wall-to-wall people in January.  You can barely make a turn in Zumba class without stepping on someone, and forget about getting on a treadmill without a 45 minute wait.  All the stores are selling exercise equipment and organizers (another big resolution goal – get more organized).  Weight Watchers is running ads every ten minutes on television.

And yet, by February…the lines are gone at the gym, and Zumba class is safe again.  The organizers and elliptical machines are on sale, and we’ve all just moved on with our lives, with those lofty resolutions left in the dust.

That’s why I’ve stopped making specific resolutions.  When I make specific resolutions, I’m a failure within weeks, and then what’s the sense of continuing?  “I’ll get up at 5AM three times a week to exercise before work!”  Yeah, right.  By week two, I’m feeling nothing but guilt because I don’t have the willpower to keep my resolution.  “I’m going to clean up my desk and organize all my books and papers and keep them that way from now on!”  Uh-huh.  It will take me half the year to organize the clutter I already have, and then I’ll be six months behind on organizing anything that comes in between now and then. 

So, for the past few years, I’ve avoided specifics and gone with themes.  I highly recommend it.  A theme, especially one that can be drilled down to one word, is easy to remember, and actions can be measured against it throughout the year.  But without the specific “I’m going to lose 30 lbs by April”, the pressure, fear, guilt and angst are gone.  Two years ago, my theme was “de-stuff”, as in reduce the amount of “stuff” in my house and my life.  I never vowed to eliminate all of it, but just to work at it all year, and I did, with some success.  Last year, it was “focus”.  I had varying degrees of success with that one, but it was a good mantra to keep in my head.  And I did focus long enough to start this blog and stick with it, and to take steps toward a new career. 

Yup, I started some good things last year.  I went through a self-examination period and started being far more authentic in my approach to life and the people in it.  I started a blog that had over 1300 viewings in eight months (thank you!).  I started Weight Watchers (twice).  I established a business and registered it a corporation.  I got my first paycheck for writing. 

That’s all well and good, but it’s really not remarkable.  After all, I’m a “starter”.  I’m fabulous at starting things.  Give me a great idea and I’ll run with it.  Put me in charge of a project, and I’ll own that puppy right up to the grand roll-out.  I’ll organize the workers, I’ll create the agendas and have fun icebreakers at the meetings and give everyone chocolate and throw a celebratory party after we’ve reached our goal.  But then I’m done.  The thrill is gone, and I’m looking for the next bright, shiny thing to catch my attention.  I have at least five half-read books sitting around the house (and one on my new Kindle).  I have half-finished blog ideas, half-finished drawings, half-finished photo albums (but all those old snapshots are brilliantly organized and labeled in a box somewhere!), a half-finished college degree, a half-organized desk (don’t look in the right hand drawer…), a barely-started novel, a barely-started business.  Seriously, I could go on and on.  I’m a starter.  I’m a brilliant starter.  Truly gifted at it.  I’m a planner.  I love buying supplies for the “big start”.  Special colored folders and highlighters will help my desk.  New clothes hangers will help the closet.  A new book will tell me how to succeed.  Yup.  I’m damned good at starting – I have raised it to an art form.

But I think it’s time for me to develop some finishing skills.  And that’s my theme for 2011.  Finish.  Carry through.  Avoid distractions.  Keep plowing forward, even after the thrill of starting had gone.  Ignore that bright shiny project on the horizon and finish what’s before me NOW. 

I tell myself I don’t procrastinate, because I really don’t.  Not on purpose.  I intend to do things.  I just get sidetracked.  This is one of the few blog posts I’ve written without stopping at some point to check Facebook or my email, check the news, or going to the kitchen for a cookie (which then leads to “I should make tea”, then “oh, look, Hubby’s watching my favorite movie – I’ll just watch this last hour of it with him”, etc.).  Why haven’t I stopped today?  Because my theme/resolution is “Finish.” 

Finishing is incredibly satisfying.  I don’t know why I avoid it so.  But this is the year that I face my fear and deal with it.  I’m not going to finish everything (nor should I – some things just aren’t a good idea from the start), but I’m going to think about my theme before starting anything.  Can I finish it?  Is it even worth starting?  Can I follow through and move past the fun part to the nitty gritty daily grind?  Can I meet a deadline without stressing out?  The answer is yes, of course.  But from now on, for every “start” I make, I will envision what “finish” looks like, and I’ll carry through.  I know my Hubby is smiling with delight at the thought (he’s a “Finisher” extraordinaire).

My theme for the year is Finish.  What’s yours?

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