There’s a huge distance between the physical energy it takes to run on a treadmill—the muscles, calories, and breath—and the often larger emotional energy it takes to head to the gym after a stressful day. Just ask a guy who gained 40 pounds during graduate school.
Rory Vaden is now much more trim, and quite focused on evangelizing the power of self-discipline in books like Take the Stairs: 7 Steps to Achieving True Success. But back in graduate school, it wasn’t really laziness that kept Vaden him from the gym, but self-criticism.
“The number one reason we procrastinate is, we don’t believe we have what it takes to pull it off,” Vaden said in an interview. “You think, ‘I probably don’t have the willpower to see this all the way through.’” You don’t necessarily say this exact line to yourself, though—you create a bunch of things in your head to do instead, even if, in the end, you don’t really do them.
Knowing and acknowledging when you’re actually procrastinating, and knowing what’s likely to trigger it, is probably your best defense against the monster that makes you feel busy without feeling productive. Here’s a few thoughts on acknowledging your misspent moments and not letting it bring you down, from Vaden and other brutally honest sources.
Clutter is procrastination, so deal with it
Your inbox can be empty, your to-do list entirely reasonable, but clutter gives away your latent procrastination. Whether it’s actual papers and books everywhere you look around your workspace, or a browser stuffed with check-this-out bookmarks, clutter accumulates because “you’ve deferred making a decision about what to do with it,” writes Maura Nevel Thomas in Personal Productivity Secrets, due out May 1. “Maybe you think making a decision is going to take more time than you have to devote, or you’re afraid you might need it later, or perhaps you just don’t feel like dealing with it.”
Thomas’ book recommends some techniques that should be familiar to anyone who’s looked into the Getting Things Done system, including the “two-minute rule”: whatever you can process or deal with in two minutes, do it as soon as it pops up. But the real solution to procrastinating your cleanliness comes from actually wanting to deal with all that useless paper and unwanted emails and the like.
Messing with your tools is slick self-delusion
“It’s easy to always be getting ready to get ready.” That’s how Vaden summarizes one of his key concepts around procrastination, “Creative Avoidance.” Rather than do the things that seem far more emotionally draining than they are actually, physically demanding, we talk about projects with people, or mess with the tools we have to do them—find the right add-on, tweak the settings, add more contacts to LinkedIn. In other words, we avoid necessary, intimidating things, and busywork rushes in, like that lesson you still remember about gases from high school chemistry.
“The amount of busywork always expands to fill whatever attention we allow to be available,” Vaden said. “You have to cultivate the habit of action … by demanding to yourself that you make progress, but freeing yourself from the demand for perfection. People wait to start until they have the perfect amount of time, the perfect set of resources, the perfect timing, but it never comes. You have to want to make progress.”
Do the heavy stuff earlier
If procrastination is the art of avoiding decisions in favor of something, anything else, then you should know how decision after decision saps your willpower. So if you need to clear out a whole bunch of messages, items on your desk, or other nuggets requiring your snap judgement, do them early in the morning, or after you’ve had a good bit of rest from the other pressures of your work.
Be honest with yourself about the actual effort involved in doing your tasks, but be realistic about needing to space them out.
“Priority Dilution” is something even the boss’ favorite suffers from
Why do email inboxes always sort themselves in reverse chronological order? And why do you answer your emails that way? It’s because it’s easy to fall victim to the latest and loudest stuff, and because it feels great to dash off responses and knock messages down. It’s “incredible work, but that doesn’t mean it’s effective,” Vaden said.
That’s the easiest example of what Vaden calls “Priority Dilution,” a kind of unconscious procrastination (as opposed to conscious procrastination, which is, basically, choosing what you want to do). It’s why even after you label something as a High Priority, put a flag on it, and color it red, you don’t get it done, because you keep waiting for the right time to do it.
“Managers and high-performing employees suffer from this a lot, almost more than anyone,” Vaden said. “We know which things are important, but we feel they need to rise to a level of convenience.”
“But on any day, you can schedule things, move things so you’ve got 30 minutes available. Now that you’ve got those 30 minutes, you can ignore the small stuff while you work on the big stuff. Just as important, capture the small stuff that comes in while you’re working on the big stuff.”
[Image: Flickr user Andres Rodriguez]