All work and no play

 Overcoming procrastination  Comments Off on All work and no play
Jun 252013

You know what they say about all work and no play. Being totally absorbed by our work makes us boring boys and girls to those around us, in the sense that we’re unavailable to play – that’s true – but this doesn’t necessarily matter, as long as we’re fulfilled by what we’re doing. If these people are your friends, rather than your dependents, they have to accept you as you are and if you’re more excited by your work than you are by going out or whatever it is they want you to do, I say go with your passion and don’t feel you have to adapt to other people’s expectations of you.

But this is a relatively rare scenario and not what I want to discuss today. A more common situation is one in which someone pushes him/herself to work all hours out of duty or fear. We’ve touched on this before when talking about procrastination and I’d like to remind you that this way lies only exhaustion and misery.

If you’re working through a long project, you need regular breaks, not just for rest (which is vital) but also for recreation. Taking time out to change your ideas and focus on something else refreshes the part of your brain that’s working on the project, so that you will have more energy and be more creative. By stopping to play sometimes, you will actually achieve more work.

So why do some people insist on working themselves into the ground? It may be partly because the fact that all work and no play makes Jack a less productive boy is counter-intuitive, but it’s also for deeper psychological reasons. Perhaps they don’t want to be seen to be taking time off because they’re afraid people will think they’re skiving. If this is a worry for you, have the confidence to operate in the way that suits you best and let them judge you not by method but by results. Or perhaps you have internalised this injunction and become your own slave-driver. In this case, I implore you to look at the big picture: you’re punishing yourself twice over, once by forcing yourself to work on when you should be recharging your batteries and again by not allowing yourself to achieve your potential because you’re always stressed and worn out.

Even if you’re not ready to accept that life is for living now as well as in the future, do take on board the pragmatic argument for rest and recuperation, that far from slowing you down overall, it will increase and improve your productivity. All work and no play is a recipe for ill health, not success.

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Are you fighting on too many fronts?

 Overcoming procrastination, Setting and achieving goals  Comments Off on Are you fighting on too many fronts?
May 072013

When it comes to achieving goals, there is a great deal to be said for single-mindedness. Having just one priority, to which everything else is subordinated, is an efficient and effective way to accomplish whatever it is. But it’s not always practical and, in any case, we may not have a single objective that eclipses all others. I feel this issue goes to the heart of not only productivity but also fulfilment and is therefore worth examining.

It may be that you have several priorities at the same level of urgency and importance. Choosing to move forward in a variety of areas at the same time is a perfectly valid approach, which can be just as successful as the single-minded one, though it will produce a slightly different result. As long as you’re aware of what you’re doing and have adjusted your expectations accordingly, all is rosy. For example, if you’ve decided that this year you’re going to learn to play the saxophone, speak Portuguese and build websites, the odds are you won’t get as good at any of them as you would if you concentrated on only one of these skills. However, by pursuing all three at once, you’ll end the year with a grounding in all of them. There is no right or wrong to this; there are pros and cons to both broad-but-shallow and narrow-but-deep. All that matters is that you’re realistic in your expectations and don’t set yourself up for disappointment.

The main advantage of single-mindedness is that it carries a big and satisfying pay-off. The other huge benefit is that focusing our energy and resources along one channel keeps leakage to a minimum. I see this a bit like filling a bucket with water from a hose: point the hose into one bucket and it fills up quickly and efficiently. Try filling three buckets at the same time and inevitably some water is lost as you swing the hose from one to the other.

For me, the difficulty with juggling too many priorities is that I waste a lot of time deciding which one to pursue at any given moment, rather actually achieving anything. And, to exacerbate the problem, into this gap in my productivity rush all sorts of procrastinatory activities, such as checking my email, having a look on Facebook, wondering if I ought to clean the oven…

The solution, I suggest, for those of us who don’t have a single, overriding objective, is to allocate a period of time to each activity – a week or a month where that goal takes precedence and the others are left on hold until their turn comes. This way, the level in one bucket rises significantly before the hose moves away and far less water goes over the side.

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Jan 222013

We’ve talked on a big scale about identifying where we want to be and how to get there. It’s important to have a grand vision and to have an inspiring destination to aim at, but of course we also have to consider how we cope with the day-to-day demands and mundanities of life. While on the big scale it’s all about our heart’s desire, we’ll never attain this if we don’t apply ourselves to ploughing through a pile of chores that have to be done, whether we like it or not.

How do we motivate ourselves to get the work done? Well, let’s start by looking at a method that is not only ineffectual but also destructive – and yet for so many of us it’s the default strategy. It’s what psychotherapists call intrapsychic struggle and it consists of an internal dialogue along the lines of the following:

– Get on and write this report/wash the car/do the ironing, you useless oaf.

– In a minute. I just want to check my email/look up the racing results/finish looking at this magazine.

– Do some work, you lazy git! What’s the matter with you?

– That’s not fair! I work very hard. I’m tired and I deserve some time off. If you ever let me have any fun, I might be more productive, but it’s always work, work, work.

– Well, if you ever did any work, you might be able to have some fun afterwards as a reward, but you never do. You just sit around making excuses.

And so on.

This type of exchange, between the Parent and the Child inside ourselves, is a terrible waste of time and energy. It does nothing but make us miserable. As a spur to action, it fails completely and it also does insidious, long-term damage by reinforcing the message that we are a useless, lazy git. The way we talk to ourselves is crucial to success and we’ll go into it in more detail another time, but for now we’re focusing specifically on overcoming procrastination.

Seeing the intrapsychic struggle for what it is is a huge step forward in itself; the next is to find effective strategies to replace it. Here are a few ideas that I find helpful.

The Child part of you that wants to have fun has got a point. It is absolutely essential to health and happiness to take regular time off for recreation. If you never allow yourself off the leash, your productivity will suffer.

Distinguish between what’s important and what’s urgent. If something is urgent, do it now. You know you’ve got to do it and putting it off for a few hours will only add to the burden. What works for me in these circumstances is to tune in carefully to how I’m feeling and to weigh the guilt of procrastination against the virtuous uplift of having achieved. Accomplishing this task is going to bring me a rush of wellbeing and, when I really think about that, it’s enough to get me moving.

Items on the list that are important but not urgent are the ones that tend to slide. This is the reason for attaching deadlines to your goals, so they don’t just drift indefinitely. If you’re having trouble taking your self-imposed deadlines seriously, you can ask someone else to hold you accountable – online, if it suits you. The website stickK, for example, undertakes to coerce you into achieving your goals by various means, including facilitating your donation to a charity you loathe, should you fail to do what you’ve committed to. As I’ve said before, I personally prefer the carrot to the stick, but if having sanctions threatened gives you the impetus you need, put them in place. Whatever it takes – although I encourage you to think of this as a positive mission, to achieve X, rather than a punitive exercise.

Something writers about procrastination often mention is that procrastinators talk about leaving things till they’re ‘in the mood’ to do them. Well, I don’t know about you but I do have phases when I’m inspired to invest a great deal of energy in one or other of my interests and activities. When I’m feeling strong and confident, I tend to be more creative; when I’m feeling a bit scared of the world and wanting to hide, the urge is to study and learn, to take in quietly rather than to give out more extrovertly. Accepting this has actually been quite a liberation to me: I go with my energy flow and achieve on the front that’s calling me at that particular moment.

A vital factor in all of this is to be brutally honest with ourselves. We are the ones who decide how to spend our time and we need to be aware of what we’re choosing to do, minute by minute, hour by hour. In an article called Oops, Where Did the Day Go? in Psychology Today, Timothy Pychyl says “Self-deception is the handmaiden of procrastination”. Especially with all the technology we have today, it’s easier than ever to allow ourselves to be distracted, to pretend we’re doing something that has to be done, when actually we’re just frittering our lives away.

Procrastination is notorious as a stealer of dreams. Don’t let it steal yours.

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