Friday, September 21, 2012

Grappling with Procrastination, or Letting the Inner Monkey Off Its Chain

Once, a long time ago, I had a crippling bout of procrastination.  I had just gotten a grant to work on my writing, the money was going to last for a year so all of a sudden I didn’t have to be anywhere, didn’t have to go to a job or try to get a job, and I somehow got into a vicious cycle where I couldn’t make myself do anything productive at all.  When I was right on the edge of it I put my dirty dishes in the sink and covered them with soapy water and there they sat, smelling worse and worse, for about three days, while I sat in a chair in my living room feeling crippled with ennui and guilt.  Two things helped me get out of it:  One was that I called a friend, a guy who worked as a “shovel bum” in the office of the State Archeologist where I’d had my most recent job, and told him about my problem.  “I’d do the dishes first,” he said, in a cheerful practical, non-judging way, and somehow the fact that he told me exactly what to do without judgment or any kind of controlling, gave me the energy to get up and do the dishes.  The other thing that helped was that as I was sitting in my chair, unable to do anything but sit there except eventually the dishes, I started reading The Shining by Steven King.  That book scared me so much it totally changed my mental landscape and by the time I had finished reading it I was in a completely different place -- maybe it’s not possible to hold boredom and terror in your mind at the same time.  All I know is that after I did my dishes and finished that book I was able to pick myself up, apply myself to my new life where I had all my time to write, and be energetic and productive again. 
I’m not sure how much of that story can be applied to someone else’s situation, except to say that maybe when you get into a place of procrastination, you should try calling a friend, someone practical and nonjudgmental, and ask them what to do first.  Or maybe you should just ask yourself:  Pick only one thing to do – the bare minimum that you can get by with on that day – and do that.  Then let yourself off the hook for the rest of the day.  I do believe that scaling back to the bare minimum and deciding to let yourself not do the rest – just for today -- is a good idea when you really don’t feel like doing anything.   I think that’s because guilt and negative self-talk – although it might seem like they’re helping you by trying to motivate you – may actually be the very thing that’s keeping you from being productive. 
 Consider (and maybe see my August 6, 2012 post, “The Power of Flexibility”):  If you tie a monkey to a tree it’ll try to get away, but if you leave the monkey alone near the tree, its own curiosity will propel it toward it.  Both the tree and the monkey are parts of you.  The tree is what you think you should be doing, what you think you must do in order to be a good, successful, whatever person, and the monkey is your will, the part of you that wants to do something or not do something.  If you keep tying the monkey to the tree – i.e., telling it over and over that it should be doing a certain list of things, if you keep beating the monkey with a figurative stick because it won’t do those things, it’ll just keep trying to get away.  So you need to find some way to make the monkey want to do what it needs to do.
When you’ve been stuck in ennui and inertia (what they call sloth in the Bible, one of the seven deadly sins – how’s that for monkey-beating language?), the first step in getting back your motivation is probably to let your inner monkey off its chain.  This might look like deciding that, just for today, you’re not going to do all those things you think you should do, ought to do, need to do, and pick one small thing that you do actually want to do.  (This may be surprisingly hard – sometimes our sense that we’re supposed to do some thing or things is so strong we can’t let go of the idea that we must make ourselves do it today – then we get stuck longer in the whole inertia cycle.)
And maybe – this is even harder – you could try doing absolutely nothing for a whole day. 
Someone I know once told me that she spent a whole Saturday lying around watching TV and not doing anything else, not because she wanted to, but because she couldn’t make herself do anything different.   She had a busy full-time job, a live-in partner, and no kids – if you have kids it’s a whole different story, I know, but maybe there are things those of us with kids can learn from her story too; we’ll talk about that another day.
My friend said she felt really bad and guilty doing nothing all day.  She kept worrying about what she needed to do, but somehow she couldn’t stop just sitting on her couch watching TV.  Then the next day, which was Sunday, she was almost supernaturally productive and energized:  She cleaned every single room in her house, cleaned out her refrigerator and a closet, caught up on some old emails, and did a whole bunch of other stuff she’d been putting off for a long time.  
Just hearing that story gave me a visceral feeling of relief – a good, happy, relaxed-inner-monkey kind of feeling.  And I knew there was something there for all of us to learn – something about the soil lying fallow for a while in order to produce a good crop, about renewal and regeneration and the fact that it really, really is okay – maybe even necessary – for us to take time to rest.  It might even help us get a whole lot more done.  And it might not cure every case of procrastination but it could be a good place to start.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

And a Little More Help from My Friend

In my last post, Harnessing Time with a Little Help from My Friend, I describe all the benefits I get from checking in with a buddy every day.  Now I going to mention a few things you might want to be aware of as you go about the check-in process. My check-in partner and I have wandered into some of these areas from time to time, and you can learn from our experience.  If you and your partner set a few ground rules when you first start out you can avoid these potential pitfalls and find what works best for you. 
It’s probably best to avoid both being too rigid and too loose about when you do your daily check-ins.  If you pick a fixed time to check in every day, it increases the probability that one of you won’t be able to do it during that time, and so on that day you won’t do it at all. My partner and I generally check in in the morning – I often call her when I’m eating breakfast.  But we like not having a set time when we call each other, because both of our schedules change from day to day. 
One little challenge that can come up with the daily check-ins is in the talking itself.   You and your friend may end up chatting so much the check-in itself ends up taking too much time, or one of you may want to chat more than the other.   You may find yourself chatting as a way to put off doing the rest of the stuff that’s on your plan, or your friend may want to talk about whatever problems she’s got going on and you may feel like you’ll hurt her feelings if you don’t listen and respond for as long as she wants to talk.  In general, it’s best to keep on task during the check-in and if there’s something else one or both of you wants to talk about to do that during a phone date later.  Otherwise, the check-in itself can start to feel like a burden, and you definitely don’t want that.  My friend and I usually spend ten minutes checking in at most and often less.
Another good rule of thumb you and your partner might want to agree on is to avoid giving each other advice or any kind of negative feedback about each other’s plans.  This is probably the most important ground rule you can have.  It can be tempting to make a suggestion or offer advice when it’s obvious to you that your partner’s plans are undoable or when you can see some other problem with the way she’s doing things, but in order for the daily check-ins to work – for your partner to feel safe and comfortable telling you what she needs to tell you and for you to feel the same way with her – you should both keep what you say strictly neutral and positive.  This is a good moment to practice your listening skills. You may also feel the urge to help or care-take your friend if she’s having problems, but I’d avoid that too.  Otherwise the check-in time can start feeling messy, time-consuming and entangling in a way that isn’t helpful for either one of you.   It’s probably best just to do a straightforward check-in, laugh at each others failures and celebrate each other’s successes from the day before – the small but huge daily successes of getting done what you planned to do or most of it – and then hang up and get on with the rest of your day.
Whatever it takes to make the daily check-ins work for you and your friend, it’ll be worth it.  Once you start checking in with a friend on a daily basis, you’ll never want to stop – believe me.  My friend and I have been checking in every day, five days a week (we generally don’t do it on the weekends) for about four years, and the longer we’ve been doing it the more we’ve come to rely on it. Checking in has helped us both stay on track and get an incredible amount accomplished during very busy lives.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Harnessing Time With a Little Help From My Friend

They were really onto something when they made you team up with a buddy at camp.  A number of recent studies have shown that doing things with friends reduces stress and helps people exercise, lose weight, live longer, survive cancer, recover more easily from negative experiences, and even see steep hills as less steep.  I’d like to add something to that list:  Teaming up with a friend helps you use your time better, and it makes you happier, less self-critical, and more present and mindful as you go about your day.
            For me, planning the day is a two-part process. Once I’ve come up with my plan, I call my friend – my time partner – and tell her what my plan is.  I tell her how my day went yesterday too – what I did and didn’t do, what kind of successes I had and glitches I ran into as I carried out yesterday’s plan.   Then she tells me the same about her day yesterday and her plan for today.   We give ourselves stars too, as in, “Yesterday I had a four-star day.”   The starred items are things we picked on any given day to give ourselves extra credit for if we did them.
This little exercise, which we call checking-in, has completely changed my life.
Checking in with my friend every morning motivates me to figure out what my plan actually is.  If it weren’t for the daily check-in, I might be tempted to let my planning slide.  The check-in also helps me think out loud about what I’m going to do.  And there are lots of other good things I get from doing it too.
There’s a kind of intimacy that comes with telling someone about my day and hearing about theirs that adds a sense of companionability to my life and deepens my friendship with my check-in partner.  And it makes me more mindful of what I’m doing because I know I’m going to be telling someone else about it; it activates what Eckhart Tolle calls the ‘observer’ part of me and gives me just a little bit of detachment from everything that goes on.  Even when hard things happen, I think about how I’m going to tell my friend about them and somehow that makes them not quite so hard.
  I read somewhere about the power of “bearing witness to your own life and to someone else’s life.”  When I use the checking-in process, my whole day becomes about bearing witness to my own life and to someone else’s life.  It becomes a kind of dialogue, with my friend, with myself, with life.  And because now I have a kind of witness, and in a way have become my own witness as well, I have a stronger, clearer, more definite sense of accomplishment.  When I tell my friend everything I did, I pay attention to it myself – I give myself credit instead of just focusing vaguely on what I perceive as the day’s failures.
Somehow telling my friend what I didn’t do on my previous day’s list is even more satisfying than telling her what I did.  When I say what I didn’t do my friend “forgives” me and I forgive myself, and then I forget about it.  And I love hearing what she didn’t get done, love seeing how someone else’s day can get out of control, how my friend’s best-laid plans could so easily go awry.  I learn from the whole process what’s a realistic amount of work to expect of myself, and that helps me stop beating myself up for not accomplishing goals that weren’t realistic to begin with.  And hearing how my friend decided to give herself a break and rest or do something fun instead of something “productive” that she’d planned, helps me see – truly see, instead of just giving it lip service – that resting and having fun are just as real as anything else and we deserve to spend as much time as we can engaging in them.  My friend and I laugh and joke about what went wrong or about being “bad girls,” congratulate each other on taking care of ourselves instead of working.  Not getting things done starts to feel like something fun and interesting instead of something to feel guilty and bad about.
Anyone can have a time partner – all you have to do is find a friend who feels chronically rushed, anxious, or bad about what she gets done on any given day, and ask her if she wants to try making things better by checking in every day with you.   There are a few things that can make your check-ins go more smoothly.  I’ll talk about those in another post.