In college, the last hours before a large assignment deadline always gave me a huge creativity boost; my head would flood with inspiration, and I’d suddenly be up for anything – to tackle becoming Michelangelo! – anything but homework. Over the years I’ve improved in time management; but my apartment is still the cleanest whenever some daunting task taunts from the horizon.
What is your biggest roadblock to systemic productivity? I’m convinced that mine is the fear of starting – aka, procrastination. As impending parenthood nears and my energy levels steadily decline, many of the things I used to see as enjoyable, manageable commitments have become arduous. I anticipate their discomfort, so I put them off. But they remain on my list of “shoulds” and “needs to do”. As a result, I stress more but do less.
To be fair, partly I’m just struggling with lagging expectations. I’m 36 weeks pregnant today, but still stubbornly resisting the full effects of my state. Some changes in my activity level come naturally and are easier to accept. For instance, sitting in a Starbucks wood chair for an hour exhausts my back, so I’ve made close friends with the Pillowsac in our living room. Yet home is full of distractions; there are chores, there is cooking. Focusing on work requires additional structure, which requires a predictable energy supply, which I don’t have. Whoops! I’m greedy – I still want to do it all. I’m sad that for now, I can’t.
Mostly though, I catch myself fearing, delaying and avoiding. I’ve made such good progress over the past year in becoming self-driven, in constructing my environment to encourage focus and creativity, in making the most of my days – that relapsing into habitual procrastination would just. suck. So. My goal for the next month is to dissect my penchant for procrastination until I surmount it!
As a start: I tend toward a self-reinforcing cycle of “all or nothing”. I don’t know how this tendency developed (or why it was ever useful for me), but at this point in my life I’m actively working to neutralize it. I suppose it boils down to:
- I do not trust myself to finish challenging projects. Once I start a task, I push to complete it in a single go, afraid that I will abandon it if I take a break. With tasks that are long and hard, this means working relentlessly into a mindless exhaustion.
- Mindless exhaustion is not a pleasant experience. It leads to burn out, and typically results in poor decision-making and more errors in the final product. All around, it’s not something I’d consciously want to put myself through.
- To top it off, scope creep: typically, in the process of working on a project, I become aware of additional ways to make the result more comprehensive, better. But I do not notice that my internal measure for the success of the project automatically rises to encompass this new vision. Reaching merely the original goal becomes falling short. Moreover, I forget to grant myself additional time to strive for the new goal – I try to squeeze it into the original time frame.
- Consequently, I often run over my estimates for time and effort needed per project. Anxious to complete it, I rush. Rushing, I stress. My memory from the resulting experience focuses on fatigue, and performing worse than I wanted, and a sense of failure.
- Feeling like I failed regardless of the actual project outcome is not a great motivator to try on more projects. It makes me really reluctant to start anything that might take more than a couple of hours. So I delay, and avoid. And the more I delay, the bigger the fear grows. The harder it becomes to start.
My plan of tackling procrastination involves some techniques that have worked for me in the past, and some that I’ve yet to try:
- For every new project, especially the bigger ones – outline it in great detail to get the best concept of scope possible.
- Break the outline into a myriad of small components, the more basic the better. Aim for a duration of 30-90 minutes for each.
- Think of the very first step (for example: with a blog post, this would be creating a file for the copy, or gathering sources) – and just do the first 5 minutes of it. There – that was the start.
- Give yourself a specific time every day to work on the project – trust that you will always have that time set aside to make progress.
- Set timers. Give yourself 45 minutes of focus, then force yourself to get up and recharge or switch tasks. That way, you cannot overwork yourself. After several iterations, you will trust that you can pause midway and come back to the task successfully.
- Set your definition of “success” at the bare bones of the project. Work towards getting the minimum done. Feel good about your work. Then, if there is time and you are still inspired, let yourself increase the scope – and remind yourself that you have gone above and beyond.