Wednesday, September 06, 2006

The Power of Planned Procrastination

So, a funny thing happened to me the other day.  For some reason, I don't mind working any more, either physically or mentally.  After my despair-ectomy, I started creating a reading nook in my house, which involved a lot of lift-and-carry work.  Then, a couple days later, tropical storm Ernesto was on its way, and I had to go carry aluminum shutters all over the place and twist wingnuts 'till my hands were bleeding, while dodging all the wasps that were trying to nest in the shutter tracks.  Two days after that, I went through the same thing again, taking the shutters back down.  Needless to say, I was not amused.

While I was doing all this, I was putting off a whole bunch of projects, mostly "have-to's" of one variety or another.  But by the time Friday rolled around, I felt I had to do something, so I tried an experiment.

I had recently read in the book The Now Habit that a major cause of procrastination is lack of adequate recreational or "me" time.  When you don't set aside time for the things you like and want to do, you're forced to steal time for them from your "have to"s -- and then you don't really enjoy them, due to feelings of guilt because you "should be working".

And these ideas fit well with the ones I described in The Opposite of Temptation, and the whole "drill sergeant in your head" thing.  But banishing my inner taskmaster hadn't actually stopped my procrastination, so I was really curious about the "unschedule" technique that Neil Fiore (the author of The Now Habit) described.

Creating a "Not To Do" List?

The basic idea of the unschedule is similar to the idea of your "hard landscape" in the Getting Things Done system.  That is, you record on your calendar only those things that are truly fixed: time to sleep, appointments with other people, etc.  But there's a twist... In the "unschedule", you also add personal "want-to-do" appointments to your "hard landscape".  That is, you make appointments with yourself for your "me" time, which must be inviolate.

So, you don't schedule time to work on your projects.  You schedule time when you will not work on your projects, and then try to squeeze your project work into whatever time is left over!

Now, Fiore's approach involved an actual physical schedule, and the idea of highlighting portions of the schedule to record how much work you'd actually done, so you could track the total time you spent.  However, my perception was that this was mainly a tool to help people realize that the technique was working, and thus to provide motivation to continue the process even when your "inner taskmaster" demands you stop making so much time for yourself.

And since I had already done away with my taskmaster, I didn't worry about this aspect, and just decided, "okay, at such-and-such a time today I'm going to knock off work and read a book or do something else I enjoy for 2 hours.  So now I have four hours left to do the rest of my work in."

Then I used the other half of Fiore's technique, which was a set of rules for when to start and stop work on individual projects.  These rules are very simple, although a bit too lengthy to delve into in this post.  I actually only used about half of the rules, but they were definitely effective at getting into "flow" states quickly, and I started knocking out tasks at an amazing rate.

I didn't accomplish everything I had hoped for in the four hours, but I accomplished far more than I would have expected to.  I actually ran a little bit late for my "appointment", which was an amusing twist: I was putting off enjoying myself because I was having so much fun working!

Is this what it means to be "Organized"?

I don't entirely remember how I spent my weekend after that, except that a blanket of almost unnatural calm settled over me.  I felt strangely satisfied, as if I didn't need to do anything in particular.  It felt like I didn't have to do anything, because I could spend as much time doing whatever I wanted, and it could always take precedence.  So the "have to"s had no sting: they couldn't take anything away from me, and so I was in control.

One of the things that I had decided on previously, but hadn't yet done, was finding a new desk.  I wanted to replace the desk I had because I was really tired of having to keep office supplies in other parts of my office.  I wanted drawers, and my computer desk only had one file drawer.  Plus, the desk had a raised platform that I wanted to reclaim with a flat surface for more work space.

Now, if you're a long time reader, or you've read You, Version 2.0, you'll have heard of what I call the "mmmm" test, which I wrote about in Smelling the Fear, Feeling the Future, and Being the Body.  The basic idea is that you visualize an end result with sufficient detail that you can feel the result.  Not how the thing would feel (e.g. to the touch), but how you would feel about having it, such that you go "mmmm" in response.  (Like Homer Simpson drooling over a donut!)

So in the case of my desk, I was imagining being able to spread things out, put things in the drawers, easily see to the entrance of my office, and how all those things would make me feel.  And I've been using it throughout the process of getting to today, where I am now sitting in front of that new desk.

And I have to say, that as a motivational technique, it definitely works.  Because before I could even begin the arduous process of assembling this new desk, I had to first:

  • Find the desk I wanted, drive all over town to find a store that had it, wait for it to be pulled, and then load it...  in the rain.
  • Carry the humongous heavy box into the house... in the rain.
  • Take everything off my old desk, disconnect all the computer cables, disassemble the desk and haul the parts and computer bits to another part of the house
  • Move all the furniture out of my office, including the chair mat
  • Shampoo the carpet and wait for it to dry
  • Find hole saw bits so I could cut cable holes, and figure out how to get the $&(%!#%$ drill to hold onto the bits long enough to do the job 

And this isn't even counting all the furniture reorganization I've been doing in the process, or the various trials with lost screws, falling boxes from the "closet of doom", etc.

Because You're Worth It

In the past, I haven't much been in the habit of volunteering for hard work like this.  But, I had decided I wanted the new desk arrangement, and I stayed focused on the feeling of having it.  And when you stay focused on the "mmmm" feeling, you don't really notice the obstacles that much.  They're just noise, a blip on the radar screen.  A minor distraction or annoyance.

I'm reminded of that saying, "Obstacles are those frightful things you see when you take your eyes off the goal."  Except that the critical thing isn't your eyes or even your visualization per se.  If the visualization isn't linked to an in-body feeling, it's not enough.

And even that isn't enough by itself.  If I hadn't already managed to stop withholding good things from myself, and learned to apply The Now Habit's concept of "constantly starting", I wouldn't have been able to do all this.  Because there were actually some points at which the project just seemed like too much work.

I got to points where I was ready to say, "ah, the heck with it, I'll just go with how I've got it".  Points where I was ready to just do the most convenient or expedient thing, instead of doing the extra work to get exactly the result I wanted.  But by now, I know better.  When my mind proposes that I give up something I want in order to reduce the amount of work, it's just my old habit of withholding good things from myself.

And now, I know that I'm worthy of good things -- but not because I work hard!  I don't deserve to have this nice desk and office layout because I did the hard work.  Instead, I did the hard work, because I deserved the result.  (Think hard about that one!  Your inner taskmaster doesn't want you to know this, because his leverage comes from making you believe you don't deserve the result until you do the work.  But you'll only do the work if you first feel you deserve the result!)

And of course, this desk is not the only result I deserve.  I also deserve time to myself, to reflect or create or just plain waste time, if I want.  And the simple idea that I can schedule that time for myself, and allow it to override anything else, gives me a tremendous sense of comfort and control.  Indeed, yesterday I called a halt at one point to all my furniture-moving and box-shuffling activities, to go stare at the TV for an hour or so.  And I did it without the slightest twinge of guilt.

Go and Do Ye Likewise

So to sum up, here are the principles involved:

  • Get a despair-ectomy (e.g., by giving yourself one at my free "Banish Unwanted Feelings Forever" workshop next weekend for You, Version 2.0 readers)
  • Do whatever else it takes to stop withholding good things from yourself
  • Use the "mmmm" test from You, Version 2.0
  • Make "your time" your absolute number one priority, with work being the thing that has to be squeezed in -- sort of like the "pay yourself first" principle, only with time instead of money
  • If, like me, you've spent so little time on your own enjoyment that you don't know what you'd do with "your time", then sit down and brainstorm a list of things that you think you might enjoy.  (That's something I had to do last week before I could even try the "unschedule" concept.) 
  • Apply the "sprinting" techniques from The Now Habit to get into the flow and knock out those "have-to's" quickly.

By the way, please sign up for the workshop promptly, as I need to select and reserve the appropriate venue.  I've not yet decided if it will be via telephone or Skypecast, and the number of people will make a difference.  So far, only a few people have actually faxed in their release forms, although several more people have bought copies of You, Version 2.0 in response to my posts about the workshop.  (I'm guessing they'll be signing up once they get their books, most of which went out in the mail today.)

Anyway, if you don't already have a copy of You, Version 2.0, you'll need to make sure you order it in the next few days to have a chance to get it before the workshop.  So please order it right away if you're planning to participate.