The article I linked to is an interesting explanation (albeit partial) about why we procrastinate, but also why we do the things we shouldn’t do while ignoring the things that need to be done. Unfortunately, it’s partial as I said, but I think I managed to figure out another part of the puzzle.
When we go through school, we are always presented with a limited number of choices. It’s all nicely packaged to make it easy for us to consider the choices. The rare occasions in which we are presented with more than 2-5 choices come in the form of things like fill-in-the-blank exercises with a box of choices, or even without, or writing sentences and essays. Even in those situations, we’re generally given such a narrow scope to write on that it really doesn’t amount to much more than the FIB questions. Other than that, it’s a pretty safe, easy to understand world – so utterly different from reality. Everything is highly structured because, of course, people like structure. It gives us the illusion of comfort and safety and, thus, prevents us from being prepared for, well, that which we’ve not been prepared for.
For some people who, through outside intervention (family, friends, etc.) or because of a personal tendency in the way they think normally, stepping into the chaos of real life (or even university) is no big deal. Those people can still handle the huge variety of choices. But, for the rest of us, such an apparently lawless range of choices is daunting or terrifying. We want to retreat back into the world of a small set of choices because one thing school did NOT prepare us for is LIFE and the myriad of choices we have to cope with. Filling out a 1040EZ (that’s a US personal tax form), at a whopping 2 pages, becomes more than we can handle and we wait until the deadline to do and post it!
Some studies say that the higher a person’s intelligence, the better their decisions will be in a stress-free environment. BUT, in a stressful situation (life) the reverse becomes true – the higher your intelligence and stress, the less likely you are to be able to make good decisions. It turns out that your intelligence tends to prevent you from making good decisions because you can’t handle the stress! Did your teachers teach you how to handle stress? Did they teach you about abdominal breathing to relax? Did they teach you coping techniques? They didn’t, but they SHOULD have. Now, don’t go lynching your teacher – many of them don’t know how to cope, either!
I know that when I go shopping for something like shoes (which I have to choose carefully or else I’ll walk in pain forever), or even computer parts, if I don’t come prepared to take down notes, I will end up in a confused state and frustrate everyone around me. Is that even a stressful situation? No, unless I don’t take notes! I’ll go to store A, look at selections and think “Well, maybe this one, but I’d better go to those other stores” and by the time I’ve returned to store A, I can’t even remember which shoes I liked best, let alone which I haven’t even tried on yet! Then it begins – the dithering: walking back and forth between choices without doing anything that is actually constructive, looking around in confusion and whining to my wife before asking to go to another store!! This is a combination of problems including procrastination – I didn’t come prepared. I did not research what I wanted to buy so I’d know exactly what to do, and how much it should cost. I didn’t consider the way I should take notes in order not to confuse myself midstream. I didn’t break down different points of importance regarding the purchase – what I would consider serious selling points. And so on. So it wasn’t just procrastinating – it was lack of preparation.
I used to look at the dirty dishes sitting next to the sink and I’d get such a feeling of dread at the idea of doing THAT MANY dishes that I’d procrastinate. Now, of course, I have tactics that overcome that. First, I separate the dishes by type, neatly stacking up the plates, the bowls and grouping glasses, while putting the pots and pans in the sink to be done first and soaking all eating utensils. I know, I know, it sounds really anal! This simultaneously makes the dishes appear to be fewer as well as more manageable. I have also learned that part of the problem is my MINDSET. If I go to the sink dreading what I’ll find, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. If there are just a few dishes, “Ah, I’ll wait til later – this isn’t enough, (I hate washing dishes)”, then “Almost enough, I’ll check back later, (I hate washing dishes)”, and then, “OMG! There are TOO MANY DISHES! (run away from the dreaded task!)”. It’s a never-ending problem and I can remember dishes stacking up for at least a couple of days on a few occasions and, even in childhood, I remember the dread of JUST having to wash ONE dirty thermos until it got so moldy my mom had to force me! So, this was a combination of procrastination, visual overload, excuse-making and a destructive (negative) mindset which combined together to make me feel overwhelmed.
Teachers who get unexpected (but correct) answers from creative students who think outside the box that the teacher has tried to create may find themselves frustrated or having to deal with more than they had intended to – or, more often, ignoring it or making the student feel wrong (malignantly, benignly or negligently). It turns the teacher’s nicely boxed world into shreds when we answer with some other correct answer than the desired one – which may well be because the teacher wasn’t careful enough to define the parameters, or because there’s an exceptionally creative student in class – and the teacher is just as accustomed to structure and safety as the students. Many educational systems just aren’t designed to promote free-association and creativity because the makers feel that it’s just too difficult!
Also, teachers, you may find it helpful to remember that if the task you assigned is boring, the materials you use are boring, your methods are boring, (you get the idea), you should definitely stop being boring. You are creating all sorts of problems, including poor attention, understanding, comprehension, retention and procrastination (people don’t like to do boring things). I share with you this anecdote from Tom Layton:
“Many years ago a colleague came to me in frustration. She had a student who ‘simply cannot acquire vocabulary.’ Bring him in after school.
The first thing I noticed was a rolled up beat up copy of Hot Rod magazine in his back pocket. I opened it to a page that showed a hot rod engine. I pointed to one part of the engine and asked him what it was called and what it did. He told me, without hesitation, every part and its function.
Then I asked the teacher to name the same parts and tell me what they did. She could not name a single part nor did she know what it did despite just having every part identified for her.
‘One of you has difficulty learning new words, but it is not the young man.'”
From this simple example, we can see that the teacher had completely failed to engage the student, had made no effort to identify the student’s interests and, as a result, had mistakenly decided that the student had an inability to learn vocabulary.
So, our educational system doesn’t prepare us for all the myriad choices life will present us with, and that results in anxiety in people. The world is not neat and tidy, not simple, and definitely not what we were trained to face (which is to say, it’s not like school). Lack of choices in school makes us decision-averse in life. We cower behind the ABCD choices in the hopes that it will somehow make the big ABCDEFGHIJKLMNOPQRSTUVWXYZ1234567890 choices easier. Of course, that’s a recipe for disaster.
In the article I’ve linked to, the writer (a major procrastinator) talks about how he delays doing task after task in university until he ends up in a hypoglycemic state (ie: low blood sugar). This guy’s problem is not only did his educators not prepare him for life, or even university, but they also didn’t teach him the proper way to study, handle assignments, prioritize and, most importantly, break down a large and intimidating task into smaller ones that feel manageable and can have plans made to complete them.
So, the problem of being overwhelmed is because schools tend not to teach us how to break down a large task (such as, for example, a term paper or a big project) into smaller, easy-to-cope-with tasks, and they also tend not to teach us how to prioritize tasks, plan, problem-solve, and do other things that help make big things doable. Each teacher assumes a previous one has taught those skills when, in fact, a great number of life skills may never be explicitly taught in school, or are taught in such isolation from reality that students neither appreciate nor understand them.
If you want to read that author’s solutions for dealing with procrastination, click on his link at the bottom of his article.
Part of the reason we procrastinate is because we feel overwhelmed by the challenge – like my anecdote about washing dishes. When that happens, you need to stop looking at the thing you need to do as one task; most things are rarely just one task. Break it down into major sub-tasks and figure out what order to do them in. If it’s still too much for you to face, divide the sub-tasks into smaller ones, and/or schedule things so you don’t do all of them in one go.
So, what can we do to help stop procrastinating? For some people, to-do lists, prioritized and then broken down into sub-tasks that you then define a schedule for is the way to go. In NLP, this is called WAW (“What do you want?” aka your goal, “Are you ready?” aka detailed plan, and “When will you start?” aka scheduling). If you feel driven when you have every task you must do clearly written down for you, this is a good idea.
It doesn’t appeal to everyone. Some of us just aren’t interested in making lists. And some people are driven mad by lists, or avoid looking at them. You don’t actually need lists for everything. I didn’t make a single list to overcome my procrastination with dishes – I just broke what seemed to be a very big task into smaller ones by organizing the dishes into groups and prioritizing them. For you folks, I suggest you just start learning how to break down large projects into lots of small, easy-to-complete tasks, doing it in little allotments of time, or organizing it so it doesn’t look like a giant, slimy, tentacled mess of headaches!
W.A.W. aka G.P.S.
NLP practitioners are pretty clever about using words, so I don’t know why they didn’t decide to call WAW GPS (Goal, Plan, Schedule), instead. It sure fits like a glove and gives a clear sense of direction (pun intended)!
Goal! a.k.a. “What do you want?”
You should start by writing down what you want (thing, action, result, etc.) in as much detail and with as much specificity as possible. NLP practitioners call it the outcome, and each task needed to make it real is called a goal, but I think you’ll survive if you just use goal and tasks, instead.
Bad: A convertible car.
Better: An aquamarine 2015 Mercedes Benz B-Class Electric Drive, with an all-leather and stainless steel convertible top.
The more details you can put into it, the better. Research it, find out all the possibilities that are available, and write down what you want – you can always add more later. Use words that are objective (meaning that, no matter what your mood, or who reads them, they mean the same thing, such as colors, materials, size, shape, etc.) instead of subjective (beautiful, cool, interesting, motivating, etc.). More is better!
Planning a.k.a. “Are you ready?”
Make a detailed plan. Go ahead, dig into it and figure out every aspect of what you need to do in order to make it yours. Again, details, specificity and completeness are key. Each task may need to be drilled down even further until there is absolute clarity – until you can have anyone do it for you! Yes, it’ll take time, but success only comes before work in the dictionary!
Choose just one significant (ie: genuinely important) task at a time and then breaking that large task (which may look like a mountain to you) into a series of smaller tasks that don’t make you feel overwhelmed and aching to run to your video games, blog, your mommy’s hug or favorite mind-numbing chemical comfort (eg: chocolate, ice cream, alcohol, narcotics…).
If you can, find pictures that represent your goals. Write things you can look at repeatedly throughout the day and look at them when you wake up, when you are eating, when you are ready for bed and, well, any other time you need to focus.
I’m going to be a little repetitive here.
You should be very careful to write down your outcome, and each goal (milestone), and do so in a very detailed, specific and complete way. It is absolutely critical that you choose your words carefully because if what goes in (to your mind) is wrong, then your milestone and, ultimately, your outcome isn’t going to be exactly what you wanted. This rule also applies to writing down your plans.
Why do I say this? Well, whether you think with words or pictures, if they aren’t absolutely right, then what results (your outcome/goal) isn’t going to be absolutely right. If you don’t believe me, then try this experiment on how to screw up achieving your goal.
Decide on something that you want to buy, but you’ll need a couple of years to save up money first. Write down a description of it exactly as you’d like it to be. Don’t forget ANY details! Now, once you’ve got that description, go out and find a photograph of it but make sure that SOMETHING in the photo (it could be the color, or the model) isn’t exactly what you want. Every day, be sure to stare often at that photograph so that you can see it as clearly with your eyes closed as opened. Memorize every little detail while imagining finally possessing it and how great that’s going to be! Build up a massive desire for it. Then, after you’ve done that for a couple of years and have the money to buy it, go out and buy it.
Do you know what will most likely happen? Instead of buying what you wrote in your description, you’ll buy what you saw in the picture.
No matter which way you decide to break down monster tasks into small ones, you’ll find it’ll help a lot in getting rid of procrastination. Oh, BTW, you may want to practice slow abdominal breathing in case you start having an anxiety attack! PERSEVERE and SUCCEED!
I almost forgot to mention something. The outcome you achieve. There’s another word for it: DESTINY. Don’t screw it up. 🙂
Scheduling a.k.a. “When will you start?”
Once you’ve defined all the main tasks and each sub-task in great detail, figure out the order they need to be done in. If there’s something you don’t know how to do, you’ll need to spend a little time finding out about it.
When you’ve got the tasks prioritized (yep, that’s what you just did!), you can then figure out when you need to do each of them. Deadlines and scheduling are important! I suggest that, like the second article suggests, you should tackle each task in manageable chunks. If it’s something that’s going to take a long time, make a commitment to work on it X minutes or hours per day at a specific time.
Eliminate all distractions before you start.
After prioritizing your tasks, you need to do something hard – schedule them. Estimate how long each task will take and which tasks can be done within the same time period. Then what date you will start and finish need to be written on your plan. Yes, I know, scheduling seems like a pain but, once you’ve got it all down in writing, then you have deadlines and everything is just so much following the dotted line. It’s easy!
Now that you’ve got it all written out, get some R&R, or stage a little party for having completed the task of preparing to achieve your desired destiny. You will start when your schedule says to start.
BTW, delay gratification until later. Whatever it is that you love doing, use it as your reward for accomplishing an individual task by allowing yourself to do it only after you’ve accomplished a goal, but don’t overdo it! Gratification is another motivation for you – so don’t waste it by doing it any time you want.
When you complete a major task on your list, it’s time to have a little celebration but, again, don’t go crazy. Save the big party for when the whole thing is done.
Don’t forget that a realistic timeline is important. Also, when you start feeling tired, take a breather. Come back at it in a few minutes. In fact, take a fiver every hour or so.
But, hey, if you’re really enjoying (you’re “in the zone” or “in flow”) what you’re doing, it’s okay to keep on doing it. In fact, it’ll improve the results and make it easier for you. But, be sure to differentiate “zone” from “workaholism”, which will wear you down.
Another thing you can do is change how you FEEL about what you must do. Remove any thoughts and words that are negative, and focus on how happy you’ll feel when it’s done (and you can go back to vegetating). Instead of approaching something with a sense of displeasure, resentment or distress, turn your mind around and look forward to it. Cheer yourself up and on! It’s amazing how much power a constructive frame of mind has!
Eliminate distractions. Set aside specific times of day when you just aren’t going to let anything short of a natural disaster pull you away from your scheduled tasks. This may mean that you have to lock yourself in a room, go to the library to escape people, turn off your phone, disconnect Skype, IRC and YM! You may have to tell your family that, during that time, you are in a different world and they should pretend that they can’t see or hear you, and they shouldn’t even TRY to bother you.
Anything that’s going to pull you away from what you need to do should be put away in a different area or room. If it’s just too tempting, lock it up or ask someone to hold onto it for you until you’re done.
One great way to deal with stress is to relax. Everyone has different ways of doing it, but you need to choose a method that isn’t going to leave you unable to carry on. That means no alcohol, no drugs, and no high-speed driving! Instead, read a book, watch a movie that makes you happy, make love, take a nap, listen to music that calms you, meditate, pray, exercise or whatever else calm you down.
Try abdominal breathing, a.k.a. Qi Gong. You can do it anywhere (although I don’t recommend the full program when you’re driving). It’s simple, effective (the more you do it, the easier it becomes and can eventually work so quickly that only one or two breaths is enough) and can, quite literally, save your life or help you get a job. When you’re stressed, your brain doesn’t work right. This affects your higher-level cognitive abilities, especially concentration, memory, logic and creativity. These are things you always need (even if it’s just a video game).
Some people say you need to breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth, or the reverse, but the point is to breathe. Don’t breath into your rib cage, because it’ll limit how much you can take in – breathe down to below your navel. Imagine your stomach is a balloon and use your diaphragm muscle to expand your lungs downward so you can take in more air.
Now, slow it down. Eventually, you should be able to breathe in for 4 seconds, and out for 4 seconds, but don’t worry if it doesn’t seem possible, especially if you smoke or have asthma…or both.
The goal is to distract your attention so you can stop thinking and, as a result, relax. Continue to control the speed of your breathing, but now you need to also focus on the feeling of your body breathing. Notice each muscle involved and how your body moves.
Once you’ve got that, add in the sound of the air whooshing in and out.
Now add to your list of focuses the temperature of the air as it goes in, and as it comes out.
Not quite enough – add to that the humidity of the air. Does your throat feel dry? How about your nostrils?
If you’re into internal energy, imagine your “chi” moving in a circle, up your spine, into your brain, down your sternum to a point about 1″ below your navel, then to your rear and up again.
Repeated practice – I suggest at least 2-3 times a day – will yield a fast relaxation time, even under high-stress conditions eventually. It can even help an insomniac get to sleep (insomniacs usually think too much at bed time).
Remember, you’re doing this to achieve your destiny. Your future is in your hands! If that makes you break into a cold sweat and shake in your boots, you’d better do some breathing right now.
The world is not your oyster. It is your oyster with a giant pearl!