Monday, 13 August 2012

How To: Stop Procrastinating

We've all been there.  You have a essay due, a meeting to prepare for, even just an appointment to make.  It could be a three week long task or a five minute phone call, but for some reason you're watching a repeat of E.R. and have a sudden, unprecedented urge to clean the bathroom.

This is not a peppy post of semi-chastisement over how much use-able time there is in a day or making lists will give you a sense of achievement.  Those articles always seem to be written by people who have never experienced the frustration and self-hatred that waits at the end of a day you really didn't have the luxury of wasting.  Also, there is a slight misnomer in the title.  I remain unconvinced you can 'cure' procrastination, much like any heavily ingrained responses to stress, but you can learn to manage the symptoms, so it seems like you're cured.
I struggled with procrastination all throughout university, during my time teaching and only really begun to get on top of it during my Masters, so I speak from bitter experience.  These are just some of the strategies that I have amassed over the years, the first and most helpful of which I created during a stress strategy session with my lovely friend Jamie.  I can't say I'm 100% cured, but I can say I'm managing it well enough no-one who's met me in the last few years knows my little problem.

False starts and fake deadlines

Most applicable to essays and anyone who works from home, this is time planning 2.0.   I found that normal timetables didn't work for me.  I would make my little table, plot the deadline and work backwards planning what I needed to do each day to complete on time.  Then pin it on my wall and proceed to spend day one and sometime two, three and four in my pyjamas, making cakes or on the PS3 suffering from stage fright.  If by some miracle I got to work, I would never finish on time, but find myself sprinting to the faculty office at 5 minutes to 5pm with the ink on my essay barely dry.

Now I make a plan, but I pretend to start 2-3 days in advance of when I actually need to start and give myself a deadline another 3 days previous to the real deadline.  I don't write that they are pretend on the plan, because they aren't really.  They need to be real to act as buffer zones.  

Now I know on that first day when I get up with the best of intentions that dissipate before midday, it's okay.  Not great, but not cataclysmic.  I still feel that sense of guilt and shame that annoyingly can be the only thing to motivate me sometimes, but I don't hit the panic spiral of doom.

The earlier deadline allows time to finish all the extra little bits that net you the highest marks and, more importantly, compensates for my perennially over ambitious planning.

I know it sounds a little crazy and you would think that my own knowledge of the falsity of the plan would make it not work, but trust me, it gives you all the kick up the ass of a tight timetable, with padded edges to keep you calm enough to work. 

Talking to yourself and timers

Not in a properly mental, Gollum way, but taking stock of what's happening in your head when you just can't seem to start.  Pay attention to your triggers.  It took me a long time to notice how many times I would physically leave my desk when I was panicking about the work.  It seemed entirely reasonable to check for the postman, make a cup of tea, call my nan.  These were all things that needed doing, so it wasn't a problem, non?  Except when I stopped and looked at my behaviour I was like a jack-in-the-box desperately trying to avoid the blinking cursor of anxiety.

Now I can catch myself before I lose a whole morning to trivialities.  If I do find myself waiting for the kettle to boil I have a little chat with myself about what's scaring me, why I felt the need to physically remove myself from my workspace.  Invariably it's that I felt overwhelmed or stuck for how to proceed.  A better plan is to sit back down and look, really look, at your task, then find something small to do just to get over the hump.  I like to make a list of my research articles and their main points to remind myself what my focus is, but it could be as simple as picking your sub-headings, or re-reading your brief.

This is where using a timer is really handy.  I set mine for 45 minutes and don't allow myself to leave my desk for anything not directly related to the task until it pings.  On a bad day, start with 20 minutes; it's less intimidating.  

When your time's up have a break (15 minutes for 45, 5 for 20).  If you're really struggling make sure you time your breaks, too, so they don't dribble into a half hour or worse.

Keep track of the pings, too.  I tally each 45 minute segment of work on my whiteboard and have a target for the day, usually 5 or 6 strikes.  It's good to have visual evidence of how much you've worked each day to build confidence that you can accomplish what's necessary.

Or any other net blocking programme.  This one worked for me when I had to do internet research as part of an assignment.  Usually I leave my laptop in another room when I'm working (from textbooks) or disable the wireless when I'm typing.  Somehow the fact I would have to take a positive actual step towards wasting time stops me 9 times out of ten, but when I'm all hooked up and it's just a click away I can't resist the lure of the internets.

Cold Turkey is a free download that blocks all major timewasters (facebook, twitter, ebay) and allows you to add your own nemeses if need be (pinterest, blogger, amazon).  You specify a time limit (works perfectly with the 45 minute segments) and it prevents the pages from loading.  Any attempt to get around it results in a sarcastic rebuff and attempts to hack cause a week long block to be put in place.  It was clearly written by someone who understands the procrastination mentality! 

Lower the stakes

Don't try to write as though it's your final draft of perfection each time.  Start small.  Tell yourself, 'I'm just going to give it a go and see where I am now.'  If you've planned well, you have time to redraft and hash out any teething issues later once the bulk of the work is done.  

That sounds like one of the glib pieces of advice I referred to earlier, I think a lot of procrastination does come from a perfectionist outlook, so being kind enough to yourself to allow imperfection safe in the knowledge it's unnecessary at this stage, is pretty darn important to learn.

I like to write some of my first draft by hand and simply pick whatever section I feel comfortable tackling.  It's true that the starting is the toughest challenge, once you've got something, anything, to go on, the rest flows easier.

So those are my tips, do you have any strategies for dealing with procrastination or writer's block?

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