Hi, I'm Dewi, I'm new. Here's what's helped me so far.
Hi, I'm Dewi. I'm not anonymous, as I've been posting publicly about my fights with procrastination for the last couple of decades.
I reckon I've come a long way, in that time. but I also know I'm probably always going to be working on being more productive, reducing positively-reinforced avoidance, and so on.
But I've accomplished a lot. I got married, moved to a new country, fighting my way through the endless paperwork of the visa struggle, held down a steady job as a games programmer, fixed lots of bugs and wrote lots good code, and have stayed financially in the black the whole time, without using any forms of credit. I started my own business, which can't support me, but chunters along.
On the downside... I remain a chronic procrastinator, so I have to constantly work to prevent myself from backsliding.
In my darkest time, I was trying to save the money to afford to file for bankruptcy. I had masses of unopened mail. I had a to-do list so long and scary that even when I read it at 7-point text on a high-res monitor at one item per line, I couldn't see it all.
I never did file for bankruptcy, and for the most part, I have things under control now. I am currently doing really great at work, coding up a storm; but I notice that I am procrastinating about finding a better job, and about updating my visa, which needs to be done in the next 90 days or so.
Here are some techniques that have worked to get me out of that black pit of my worst times, and keep me going. None of them are magic bullets, most are probably old news, some may work for some of you, and hopefully, some of you will have even better ideas. That's why I joined: to steal all your coping techniques like a bandit! Mwahahaha!
Sorry this is so long. I did try to edit it down! I've titled these coping strategies as negative traits: partly for fun, partly to encourage skepticism and debate. But please do read the explanations!
I don't want to fix my procrastination.
I have long said that if there was one part of me that, if I could, I'd change, excise, burn out, hack and claw out of my brain, it would be my procrastinatory habits. I despise them.
I will never be "cured" of procrastination: it's part of human nature. I was barking up the wrong tree. It's sometimes even possible to procrastinate productively!
I find that if I slice my time up into slices, then I will often put all my energy into one slice: the other slices feel "procrastinated", but if the one I'm focusing on is the most important, then that is not always a bad thing.
Joining these forums and writing this post was a fairly large thing, and has taken three days of scheduled "fun time". But in the meantime, I've been coding like a demon during "work time". To me, this feels like a net win.
Before sitting down to write this, I got home from work, put a frozen pizza in the oven, and in the 16 minutes while that was cooking, I cleaned the cat litter, emptied the trash, did the washing up, and hugged my wife and cats. Net win! And now we have pizza.
I want to be free of failed-responsibility-guilt.
I want to be productive with the stuff that's important.
I blame my ancestors.
I find it important to know why I procrastinate. This one's tricky. I don't know the full answer, I don't know enough about enough things.
What I don't believe, not for a moment, is that it's because I am a bad, flawed person. I used to feel that: procrastination led to self-hatred. That just added depression ontop of the panic and stress of not having things done. Understanding some of the reasons behind it, helped me realise that my behavior was normal, rational, and best of all, changeable.
Wroking from home I had two choices:
- work, and eventually feel the pleasure of completed work, though I knew my work's large enough, and enough tasks are repeat tasks, that I'll complete it all, so I'll get at best an incremental improvement, but most likely just frustration as I notice further complexities and my to-do list grows.
- play a computer game, or surf the net: instant endorphin reinforcement for that choice.
I am being positively-reinforced by the unproductive activities, and negatively-reinforced by the productive ones!
To a hunter/gatherer, that makes sense. Short term comfort and happiness is worth more than longterm scheming. A bird in the hand, and all that. It was just "laze back, eat, make sweet luvvins". Having something that needed doing proactively, before it was necessary, was rare for us. Procrastinatory messing-about was enough to cover us for future stuff, at least until we migrated northward to areas where winter happened. Procrastination is often undirected creativity, and a good thing.
Being directed, driven, and goal-oriented, would be rare, and potentially expensive in resources, and damaging if the goal was a hard one with less payoff than the invested time and effort required, or was not reached at all. By knowing that, by knowing the mechanism, I can fight it, by gaming my own system.
To-do lists can kill!
To-do lists are the most essential tool for productivity... done right!
Done wrong, I found they are about the worst possible thing I could do.
The huge to-do list I described above - that was done wrong. That's just daunting and scary and evil. I never got a sense of achievement from working on that, as any item I crossed off was replaced by two more.
Segregation is good! Dismemberment is better!
To combat the big-to-do-list problem, I hacked it up.
- Do at work (stuff I have to remember to do in the office);
- Town things (things that require stores to be open, me to leave the house, and such like);
- Constants and recurring: stuff that will never get crossed off no matter how often I do it. From chores to anniversaries. I set alarms for these on my phone, calendar alerts, and so on. When an alert or alarm came up, I'd either tackle it right then, or add that one instance to my to-do lists.
- Other tasks I can't do now (because they depend on some other task, or someone else to do something).
- 1-off tasks I can do anytime.
The only important list there is the last one! I had hacked my to-do list down to about the quarter of the size, by omitting all the dross!
And now, anywhere I was in my normal routine (town, work, home), I could open a file and see the list of things I needed to do there, and could.
Fancy-schmancy to-do apps suck.
Getting too complex, for me, just isn't worth the hassle and pain and lock-in. A spreadsheet would, I feel, be overkill, for my needs. It would be daunting. Text files are minimally scary, for me. And that's important.
So, for me, it seemed to help to keep these as a simple text file (or several), one item per line. I could then easily edit it, and share it between my home, work and phone using DropBox.
My shopping to-do list is shared with my wife, so we can both check it, add things, and buy things on it when we're out and about.
My to-do list for work is instead posted to the work forums, so my manager and co-workers can see it and track it and post comments.
I'm fine with OCD.
...at least when it comes to to-do lists.
Every time I complete a task, I update the to-do list. It's a little endorphin reward!
I avoid responsibility!
One of the best things for my morale is to look at the items I've deleted from my to-do list. Once an item is done, I remove it and paste it into my to-done.txt file. It was disappointingly small at first, but time has a habit of passing. Now, it's HUGE.
But until something is in to-done, it's NOT done. Putting something on my to-do list used to be my way of "dealing" with it. I'd note an issue, I'd put it on my list, and then it would rot there until it was no longer an issue in some way (sometimes by getting done, admittedly: but not always, not by a long chalk!)
Putting something on the to-do list is adding another stone to my burden of responsibility. So it's important for me to resist adding items (the easiest way is to just do the thing when I'm first told about it, so I do this a lot), and also important for me to check the lists regularly for obsolete items,
I NEVER take the easy route!
Another to-do list habit I found myself guilty of, was searching through the list to see which item I wanted to do next. This is a terrible idea! On so many levels.
For a start, once I do all the tasks I want to do... what's left? The tasks I don't want to do. I've used up all the "reward" tasks, first thing!
I avoid making decisions.
More than that I was using up all the good items, though... it meant I had to make a choice. We only get so many choices a day, so much use out of our executive decision making parts of our brain. I'd rather mine went on important things. So once an item is on my to-do list, it now gets done in the order listed. When I add items, I add them roughly in order of their importance or urgency.
I suspect, as we age, we get fewer decisions, but we get more rules of thumb. So, I use rules of thumb wherever I can, but I choose THOSE wisely. So: "topmost item on to-do list" rather than "easiest".
I let people down.
This is my worst fear.
But below a certain cutoff point in a to-do list ordered by priority, it becomes obvious that a task will never be reached: most items are being added above it, and it keeps getting pushed lower and lower.
Those tasks still need to be dealt with, and addressed, but they do not need to be completed. Well, they might need to be, but since they physically cannot be completed by me, then someone else must do them. They need to be triaged. Perhaps I delegate. Or I just up and pay someone to come fix something, or I buy a new one instead of fixing it. Perhaps I call up the person who gave me the task: I let them know that there's no immediate or foreseeable chance of me reaching that point on my to-do list. I manage their expectations. I do, of course, try to give them a chance to argue the item up the to-do list: but I also try to be firm. I arrange to refund, return materials, help with a handover of the work, or whatever.
I give up.
It feels important to let things go, sometimes.
It's easy for me to get stuck on a single thing. If there's something I'm having a really hard time with, that's taking way longer than expected, I need to look at it, and ask myself "is this really important? If it really does need to be done, is there an easier way?"
As an example, working on ThudGame (an online boardgame), I spend months writing a "rich text" component, because I was using Java 1.1, and that version of Java doesn't have a textarea that can display things like smileys and links and bold/italic/underline and unicode characters and different font sizes and faces and colors and right-to-left text and... so forth. As a co-worker once said to me "Rich text will drive you mad". After months of being almost there, apart from a few niggling cases where it didn't work quite as needed (and every time I fixed one, I'd find two more), I sat down to make a choice. Did I need this? Yes: without it, the game could not work. Was there an easier way? Well, I could remove the restriction on version 1.1, and go to 1.2, or at least 1.1+Swing. And pow. In less than a day, by changing my "win" criteria, I had completed a task that had been blocking me for months. Which meant, suddenly, I was productive again! I felt on top of the world.
So I now apply this to any task that takes longer than expected. In fact, I often have "escape clauses" in my plans: "try this first method. If it doesn't work by such-n-such time, then drop it and move to this second method".
Big brother is good!
I have worked at home, in offices, cubicles, open-plan offices with everyone's screens facing away from eachother, and open-plan with everyone's screens facing each other.
In every case, I have found that the less privacy there is, the less chance for distraction there is.
If my boss is watching over my shoulder, then I can't, when searching for the answer to something, get distracted into a wikipedia random walk.
If my boss is watching my to-do list, then I can't claim I was working if I got nothing done.
If my logbook is posted on the company intranet, then everyone can see how much work I've been doing. Or failing to do.
On days when I am the only person in the office, my wife has kindly agreed to log remotely into my screen without notice at any point during the work day that she feels like, using TeamViewer. The fact that I am conscious of this
If you believe in any gods or deities, this approach might also help, if you think they are the type who would watch over you, know what you are doing at your work, and would judge you poorly if you procrastinated.
I'm a clock-watcher, and I don't care.
I schedule my day strictly.
Partly, this is because routine is known to help with procrastination: habit is a very strong behavioral conditioner.
I allow a little leeway for overworking, sometimes, if it's fun. If I'm kicking ass at work, I might stay a few minutes late, rather than down tools in the middle of something great. If I'm not having fun, though, I cut it right there.
And something magical happens. I stop caring. I'm done for the day. I might have wasted X hours, but I don't need to make them up. They are gone, done with, history.
When I started doing this, the relief from guilt I felt was incredible! Stuff that had been hanging over me all day every day, now only hung over me when I was scheduled to be doing those things!
I gleefully waste valuable time.
Having a rigorous schedule means I can schedule time to enjoy myself.
Until I started explicitly scheduling fun-time, it had been years since I had guilt-free fun-time. I had always known that there was something I should be doing! I literally could not remember the feeling of not avoiding something, of not having something hanging over me. It was a new experience.
Not completely new. I remembered it from my childhood. Once again, I can take the time to watch an ant-hill, laze in the sun and pet my cat... useless things. Things that weren't accomplishing anything, that weren't even pretending to accomplish something, so that I could avoid something else.
And it had a second good effect.
I don't have to stop procrastinating!
The moment I realise that I am procrastinating, I bookmark the web page, save the game, put the newspaper down, and tell myself I'll do it in the scheduled fun time. I haven't stopped the procrastination - I've just postponed it.
This is why scheduled fun time is so critical for me. As well as being the whole reason that life is worth living, of course. But it also gives the procrastination somewhere to go. It's so much easier to stop procrastinating when I can tell myself "Eh, it's 3:47. I can load that bookmark again in barely over four hours."
This is why I schedule my fun in two 2-hr slices, morning and evening: then there's always at most ten hours until the next.
And you know what? Many times, when fun-time rolls around, I blow off that procrastination as uninteresting, and do something else instead.
And you know what else? Some days, now I've got this far, I have genuinely nothing to do! So I get to schedule even more fun time!
None of these are magic bullets, as I said. They need refinement, even for me, and I'm sure they will be a very bad fit for many. But they're the best I've been able to come up with in 20 years, and I'm really quite excited to hear how you all can think of improving on them.