This month's tips include two insights into how to cure procrastination, why being different can often pay off, how realistic (not positive) thinking is what we need in times of crisis and why you should never let your past dictate your future.
1: A cure for procrastination caused by over-planning
Some people procrastinate by spending so much time planning that sometimes they don't have time to actually do the things on their lists. I'm one of those - are you?
Looking at how people who don't have this affliction do their work, I've noticed three things they do differently:
1. They have a starting point, a completion goal, and the next step or two. They don't worry too much about the intermediate steps until they get to each one.
2. They defer judgment on whether or not what they are doing is effective. Stopping too often is like uprooting a plant to see whether it's growing well.
3. Because they don't have a plan for every step, they don't agonize over whether they should stick to that plan. This makes them more flexible and quicker to respond to new opportunities.
ACTION: If you're an over-planning procrastinator, choose one project to do using the three guidelines above. Notice what difference it makes. If it helps, use it for your other projects, too.
2: A cure for procrastination caused by under-planning
Some people have a hard time getting things done because they don't know where to start or because they find the first step too daunting. I must be very versatile, because I manage to do this at times, while over-planning at others. Anyway, here are three things people who don't have this issue do differently:
1. They are specific about the outcome they want and they work backwards from there to figure out the major steps that probably will be required (without worrying now about exactly how they will accomplish each one).
2. They break the initial step down into smaller chunks until the first action is small enough not to be intimidating. They continue this all the way through to completion. They don't consider any chunk too small.
3. When a new idea or project occurs to them, they pause to consider how this will impact commitments they've made already. If it doesn't fit, they put it aside and stick with the task at hand.
ACTION: If you suffer from procrastination through under-planning, choose one project to do using the three guidelines above. Notice what difference it makes. If it works better than what you've been doing, apply it to your other projects as well.
3: Could you be doing something that everybody else isn't?
Recently I watched an interview with songwriter Randy Newman in which he pointed out that 95% of the songs written are love songs. He said he got bored with that early on, and wondered why songwriters shouldn't have the same latitude that short story writers have. Most of what he's written have not been love songs, and generally have been third-person songs, in character. By what the character says and how he says it, the audience knows what the character is like.
Newman has forged a great career writing songs like "Short People" and composing film music. He's been nominated for 20 Academy Awards and won twice, and was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame and the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Sometimes being different pays off!
ACTION: Newman didn't do something different for the sake of it, he was following his feelings. Is there anything you're doing now you wish you could do differently? It might be worth brainstorming some ways to do that.
4: When the going gets tough: not positive thinking, realistic thinking
Chris Johnston, founder of the Centre for Resilience, Happiness and Positive Change suggests that when you face a challenge that is causing you stress, stop to identify the realistic best-case and worst-case scenarios.
In some cases, the worst part of a worst-case scenario is your assumption about how you'll feel if that happens. Research has shown that we are very bad at predicting how we will respond emotionally to things that haven't happened yet - and most of the time we overestimate the negative feelings.
To counter this, come up with at least three ways you might respond to the worst case. For instance, if a middle-aged person thinks the worst case is that they would lose their job, three possible consequences might be: (1) "I will never find another job because I'm over 40, so I won't even try." (2) "I will use my experience and contacts to organize a job search." (3) "I will seriously consider starting my own business."
Seeing that you have options will help you to respond more realistically.
ACTION: If you're stressed about something that might happen, take a moment to generate at least three possible outcomes instead of automatically assuming the worst one.
5: Three things not to do
On the Inc.com site, Jeff Haden suggests some things you should not do. The three that I thought were especially good:
(1) Don't check your phone while you're talking to someone. Would you pull out a book and read it while having a conversation? If not, don't do it with the phone, either. And if somebody does it to you, ask them whether they need a break from the conversation in order to devote time to their phone. This may embarrass them enough to stop (but it may not!).
(2) Don't waste time thinking about people who don't make a difference in your life. Haden used the example of the Kardashians, who seem to be the celebrities de jour for no particular reason, following in the footsteps of Paris Hilton and many others. By the same token, if you spend a lot of time consuming news that has no impact on your life, that time might be better spent paying attention to your friends, family, and colleagues. Especially, do we really need to keep on top of the latest crimes and (often manufactured) celebrity scandals?
(3) Don't let your past dictate your future. I'm struggling with this in a very specific way at the moment: I'm doing a clear-out of my flat and sometimes finding it difficult to let go of things that meant something to me or were useful in the past but are not so relevant now. This is the "sunk costs" fallacy - the idea that if you have invested time and money in something in the past you should hang on to it even if it's not serving you any more. Overcoming that requires attention and a making a conscious decision.
ACTION: Do you do any of these three? If so and you'd like to change, first just note the behaviour when it pops up. Then change it for a day a week, then two days, etc. until you're consistent.
6: And a quote to consider:
"Don't think. Thinking is the enemy of creativity. It's self-conscious, and anything self-conscious is lousy. You can't try to do things. You must simply do things." --Ray Bradbury