This week I had the distinct pleasure of being interviewed by Amanda Mull, staff writer for The Atlantic, a publication I greatly admire. She was writing a piece on procrastination, a subject on which I have lifelong expertise. Not all of my nuggets of wisdom made it into the finished article so I thought I’d share them here.
Amanda posed the concept, Why People Wait 10 Days to Do Something That Takes 10 Minutes: Chores Are The Worst. When she pitched her request for an interview she gave examples like “taking out the recycling or changing the sheets.”
Chain of Tasks
The first reason I thought of is that we– those of us who don’t Just Do It– tend to chain tasks together– If I did X then I’d have to do Y and I’m not ready to do Y so I put off X. For example my thought process might go like this– I can’t take out the metal recycling because I haven’t found out about getting rid of that old sewing machine and I can’t call the recycling center to find out because they’re only open on Tuesday and Thursday afternoons. I conclude that since I can’t do it all I don’t do any of it.
The solution is to recognize that they are separate steps that are NOT tied together. I don’t have to wait complete Y before doing X. Perhaps my sense of order would like it all done at once but to paraphrase the proverb “Half done is well begun.” It could give you momentum to take action on the related steps.
Change Your Story
Another frequent roadblock is our tendency to give false meaning to our actions and then resist that story, for example, I should change my sheets. That’s my mother’s voice in my head, nagging me. If I change my sheets I’m turning into my mother. So in order to resist the slippery slope of becoming something or someone I don’t want to be I don’t change my sheets. So there!
Not very practical.
The solution is again to notice what you’re doing– telling yourself a story about the action. It has only the meaning that you give it. Take a look around you at the chores you’re resisting and ask yourself what it means about you to do them? Are there any hidden messages contributing to your difficulty taking action? See what you come up with and how you might get energized by looking at it in a new way.
Notice The Impulse
The most effective change I’ve made to combat my tendency to procrastinate is to turn up my sensitivity to doing things the moment I think of them. For years I ignored those quiet signals– maybe I thought them too controlling and I wanted to prove that you can’t make me. When you squelch those subtle urges you waste energy and it’s that much harder to do it later. Therefore I’ve set a conscious intention to notice the impulse and act on it.
Here’s an example– I live in an 800-year-old apartment. When we moved in there was no source of hot water in the kitchen. We installed a hot water heater but it only stores 10 liters at a time. That equates to a very small amount of time in which to wash dishes. If I don’t do the dishes and let them pile up I have to do them in 10-liter shifts. That’s a pain in the neck and makes the chore quadruply annoying. Now if the thought crosses my mind, “oh I have a few minutes I can do these dishes while I’m waiting for X (my toast, the client call, Michael to get ready)” I take action and have glorious hot water.
Here’s another– I don’t keep to a firm schedule with my newsletters. I used to aim for every two weeks but sometimes I go a month or longer without writing to you. But today I had the notion to follow on the heels of the Atlantic article and write this addendum. I rode the energy of the initial idea. It came easily.
Maybe there’s a window of right timing that makes a task easier. As much as I hate to admit that the Just-Do-It-ers are right, there is some benefit to taking action the moment you are first inclined.