The Value of Organizing Your Procrastination

Does it count as procrastinating when you’re just too busy to do something?  I had lunch with my friend Leon yesterday and he is always surprised at how much I seem to get done with work and with writing poetry or blog posts for my own pleasures. However, I always think that I am not accomplishing enough, or at least I’m not accomplishing enough of the “important” things.

I am so easily distracted. It is so much easier and more pleasant to walk in the woods, work in the garden, go out for coffee or watch a film than it is to call a lawyer about setting up an estate plan or finishing some webpages for work.

It might even be procrastination to write a  post about procrastination.

You won’t be motivated to do something that doesn’t have much value to you. Of course, “value” is relative. I have friends that do not understand what value I find in writing on blogs. (I have six that I use.) Certainly, there is no money in it. There are only a few comments that make you feel good about the writing. But there is the writing itself. I have been more disciplined about my writing by doing blogging than at any point in my life. I set myself deadlines – like writing something here on the weekend when I supposedly have the time.

Researchers call this malleability of value psychophysics and they say that there are ways to put value into tasks.

The best increase in the value of a task is when you have a passion for what you do. I like to work in my garden in the summer and I enjoy weeding and cutting the lawn. I’m know others see that as work or chores, but I find weeding relaxing and feel very satisfied when my garden is all clear of weeds. I will do it and  avoid doing other tasks outside like  powerwashing the fence.

But you are unlikely to be able to go through life only doing things you love to do. A technique I saw online to add value to a task that seems counter-intuitive is to take a boring task and make it more difficult. We sometimes do this with kids by turning a task into a game. Picking up the toys all over the floor becomes a race or a contest with time limits. As an English teacher, I have always dreaded grading papers. I often set myself parameters. If I grade 5 papers in 10 minutes (with a timer on the table), then I can take a break and have my coffee. If not, I have to do 5 more papers. This technique is known as adding “flow” (not a great term for it).

We also try to add meaning to the task by considering how doing it ultimately lead to something more pleasurable later.  Finishing grading student papers means having Sunday free from schoolwork. Finishing painting the hallway will make my wife happy. happy wife, happy life, it is said.

It’s hard to take on a job if you are physically or mentally tired Timing when you start something can be critical to completing it. The research I have read says that this depends upon your own circadian rhythm, but most people have the most energy during a period starting a few hours after they wake up and lasting about four hours. It’s 11 am as I type this and I woke up at 7:30 am this morning. However, I am a night owl and, for me, from 8 pm until the early hours of the morning are often my most productive in tasks that require writing, reading, organizing and being online. (It’s not a good time to be cleaning the garage, mowing the lawn or painting the fence.)

Some people work better when there is a routine to doing something. I know that sounds boring, but the person who jogs or uses their elliptical or heads out to the gym at 7 am every morning finds some stability in that.  If that sounds boring, then you may need to deliberately set up a routine that has variety built into it.

There are some other quick tips for energy that I have seen listed that you can sample as you wish and decide for yourself whether they work: drink lots of water, don’t eat things that contain wheat and other grains, use stimulants (from caffeine, to energy drinks to drugs) include short but intense exercise sessions (including stopping for a walk or a jumping jacks break), cold water on your face or a brisk (not warm) shower.

Of course, tasks that have actual rewards are less likely to be put off. There are the big rewards, like money and fame, and there are the smaller but still motivating ones, like my coffee break, a dinner out, or allowing myself to buy a totally frivolous thing. I cleaned out a bunch of junk in the basement last weekend and rewarded myself with some art supplies that I had wanted.Of course, I could have just bought those supplies, but seeing it as a gift to myself felt better.

I was working on a presentation about writing goals versus objectives for a presentation this past week. It’s not as easy as it sounds. One approach that is used in teaching, training and self-help courses is the idea of SMART goals. The SMART acronym is for goals that are Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic, and Time-Anchored. The research on this is not super solid, but some ideas are worth considering.

For example, a goal of “cleaning out the garage” might be better set for Sunday afternoon as “sort through the old books in the garage and recycle or donate 75% of them.”  That’s more specific and therefore is also actually attainable in an afternoon. You could literally measure your success if you went from 8 boxes to 2 in that afternoon session. Last summer, I set my own garage-cleaning goal at filling one garbage can per weekend with stuff that I would just throw away, and I did it for 7 of 8 weekends. (I did get sidetracked looking through some boxes of old magazines which I am still convinced have some real monetary resale value. On this my wife disagrees.)

Just breaking up larger goals into smaller objectives with realistic deadlines can be very helpful.

I find that checking something off my To Do list is very satisfying. Unfortunately, I spend too much time making those lists. I also find it important and satisfying to keep track of things that got crossed off these lists as a a reminder of what did not get done.

Procrastination is normal. We all do it. Setting a goal to defeat it is doable. Get to it. Two more posts for this weekend and I can check that off the list.

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A lifelong educator on and off the Internet. Random by design and predictably irrational. It's turtles all the way down. Dolce far niente.

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