A new weapon in the fight against procrastination

A few months ago I caved in and bought Getting Things Done. Although I didn’t get it read, I did get as far as the bit about To Do lists, and closing mental loops: you keep thinking the same thing over and over again, until you either do it or write it down. So I started a master to do list and that seems to sort of help by getting all the stuff I have to do out of my head and on to paper.

But I’m still left at the end of each day wondering what I have accomplished. I reach a point, around 7 or 8pm… or 10 or 11pm, when I think that it’s about time I gave up for the evening, yet I rarely feel that my day is done, that I’m finished. There’s always more to do. The list just gets longer, never shorter.

Now, for some clients, I have to keep a record of my hours. I’ve been doing this in an Excel spreadsheet, because it’s easy to add things up in Excel. What’s not so easy, though, is jotting things down. I tried keeping multiple spreadsheets, with each project on a different sheet, but it didn’t work. I’d get confused as to exactly how much time I’d spent on different things – the only reason Excel worked for my client is because I was working on-site, so I knew the time I arrived, the time I left, and what breaks I’d had, so therefore I knew how much time to bill them for. When I am sitting at home with blog posts to write, email to answer and all the other bits and bobs that I need to do, it was harder to separate out how much time I spent doing what.

Then, my god! A flash of genius. (Here’s where the new weapon comes in.)

I bought a desk diary. Yup, that’s write, a book made of paper with dates printed on each page. I can jot things down in it. It’s great! Who’d’ve thought?

So I now have my three-pronged approach.

1. My master to-do list allows me to clear out my brain as much as possible, and hopefully helps me to remember to do stuff.

2. My ’45 mins’ rule – that I work solidly for 45 mins, then make myself have a break (often turns into 50 or 55, but the idea is to get up and move about at least once an hour).

3. My diary in which I write down how many hours I have worked on which project.

What this undeniably does is tell me where my time has gone. For example, yesterday I spent 4.5 hours replying to Open Rights Group email. I went through my inbox, replying only to ORG emails, and after 4.5 hours I had had enough. I hadn’t finished, but I had done about as much of that as I can cope with in one day.

I had never realised that I was spending so much time on email. Previously, I would have felt like that was a day wasted, that I’d achieved nothing. After all, no documents prepared, no campaigning done, no client meetings, nothing that you can pick up and show and say ‘This is what I did’.

I think knowing what you’ve done is a key part of battling procrastination. You put off doing things that are big, because you think “I need a clear 5 hour to do that”, or you interrupt yourself with email when working on something else, or you sit there answering endless streams of emails and wondering where the time has gone. Knowing what you’ve done, and how long it’s taken, puts a shape on your day. You can say “I’ve done one hour of my five hour task”, or “I’ve spent 4.5 hours answering emails”, and suddenly it doesn’t seem so much as if you’ve wasted your time. You realise that some of that stuff that felt like procrastination was, in fact, work.

The other thing it lets me do is say “OK, I’m gonna have one hour a day of ‘Suw’ time, where I blog, or work on my site, or do whatever the hell I need to do”. The thing about being a freelance is that admin and finding new clients may not be ‘billable’ time, but it’s still stuff that needs to be done. Yet it’s infinitely easy to put off. When you have a client who needs something, or you have a deadline, your own admin is the first thing to be put on the back burner.

I can’t count the number of times that I’ve spoken to other freelances and heard them say “Oh, I really need to update my website, but I just can’t find the time!”. But if you don’t make the time, you end up falling into that feast/famine cycle, where you spend your feast times working like a dog on your client’s stuff, only to discover when that contract ends that you have nothing to take its place and that famine is on the horizon. You just have to recognise that the tedious admin you don’t want to do is still work, and you still have to find time to do it during the working day.

The other thing I’m trying hard to fight is my over-developed work ethic which would, if I let it have its way, have me working every hour I am awake. I’ve done it in the past – and I don’t know many people who haven’t. Insane hours. Exhaustion. And a perverse sense of misplaced pride in it all.

I want to write a full post about that, but suffice to say, I’m becoming more and more jealous of my weekends, more and more jealous of my evenings. When you accept that your To Do list is more like a Mobius Strip than an actual list, you accept that it will never been finished. The question then becomes “At what point do I abandon my day as ‘finished’?”. Sometimes it’s dictated by deadlines, but more often than not it should be dictated by “When I have worked a full working day”, which I interpret to be between 7 and 8 hours.

With my old-fangled invention of a desk diary, I can at least now say “OK, time’s up!”. Emails which have not been replied to will have to wait. Documents that still need work will also have to wait. When my evening begins, that’s my time.

15 thoughts on “A new weapon in the fight against procrastination

  1. What kind of desk diary did you use?

  2. Dear Suw,
    I’m also using GTD, which has made a big difference for me. But I hadn’t implemented it in terms of incoming email and voicemail. I finally got to the point where I felt that other things were running well enough that tackling a new way to approach email was a good idea. I recommend taking a look at inboxzero.com, which is GTD blogger Merlin Mann’s writing on approaches to email.

    Good luck!

  3. If you use the Franklin Planner system correctly, it can do everything you are trying to accomplish, and provide you with an index to your year. I used the system for 12 years, and only quit because I didn’t need the detail. Sounds like you might…but you have to use it correctly, otherwise its a waste.

    Also, years ago, ACT! provided a timer that would start with each new contact or task…might be another thought to help automate your tracking of time spent on each project.

  4. It seems so silly. Isn’t it obvious that you don’t want to do those things? Why play cat and mouse game with yourself? Just do what you genuinely want to do. Stop pretending to be someone you are not.

    Convention is just a ball of self-deceptions and dishonesty. All this is done to appease a conventional ideal of a “good person” and nothing more. If people really wanted to do all those things, they would — no doubt about it. But they don’t, yet they still linger after some conventional ideal of a “good person” and so feel guilty, thus labeling themselves “procrastinator”.

    The desire to “be good” puts one straight in hell with all the silly cat and mouse games. If you take it further, you might actually end up with a split personality disorder, where you have one authoritarian personality that knows what you should be doing and one rebel personality that never does what the authoritarian personality says. That’s just silly. Integrate! Be honest. Stop pretending.

    Open your eyes. Life is passing. You could die at any moment. Instead of a big todo list, why not just smell the roses? Look at the sky before it’s too late. Play with your kids (if it applies to you). Take a walk. Read something you really wanted to but been putting off because you had “more important things to do”. Take a nap. Relax. BReathe. Feel. This is life. This is not a contest about who will become the most accomplished person. No one cares. No one is competing except you against you. This is not a speed test to see how many “TODO” items you can accomplish per week. It’s LIFE. Live it, don’t performance it. Just live.

  5. I agree, that book “Getting Things Done” by David Allen is outstanding. My favorite strategy from that book is the ‘2 minute’ rule. If it can get done it two minutes, DO IT and get it out of the way. That’s been a big help to me.

    It’s a strategy I teach the members of the Business Achievement Gym (www.BusinessAchievementGym.com) and in my End Procrastination NOW! workshops.

  6. I also purchased David Allan’s “Getting Things Done,” and agree it was a great book. It wasn’t life altering (though I’m sure it is for some) but it did containe useful ideas that were very easy to implement.

    To those unfamiliar with it, at the core of the book (in my opinion) are a collection of useful filing techniques to organize your daily/weekly/monthly tasks. The ideas in the book are obvious, yet they are the kinds of things that nobody really has time to sit down and figure out.
    It’s a good buy, you can probably pick up a cheap used copy on Amazon.

  7. Leo: Load of garbage. I don’t want to do my laundry, but that doesn’t mean that what I REALLY want is to wear the same jeans for 8 weeks straight with no washing, does it? To progress at all you need to plan. Otherwise your life never changes and you never grow. having aspirations and goals is entirely independent of the expectations of others. Planning, even in the most casual way, gives more than it takes. Try it some day. You’ll find you have more time to smell the roses afterwards.

  8. Lex ly: Just a cheap, A5, week-to-view diary.

    Lisa: Thanks for the tip. Merlin’s stuff is gold dust.

    Mike: Haven’t heard of the Franklin Planner system, but I think the system I have is working out for me… at least for now! I’m really bad at doing anything ‘correctly’, so prefer things that I can sort of fudge together.

    Leo: There’s two things at work here: a career I rather like, and a commitment to an organisation that I value. Every aspect of life has chores, like it or not. They are what let me go smell the roses afterwards. It’s a case of minimising chores and maximising rose-smelling.

    And, for the record, you’re interpreting this post as if I’m complaining about my quality of life. I’m not. I love my life, and I’m living it just fine. However, I could use a little improvement in the efficiency with which I deal with my work. And frankly, couldn’t we all?

    Everyone who mentioned GTD: Yeah, I ought to finish reading it. Meantime, it’s a great way to get lots of hits on a blog post… Oopsie, I didn’t just say that did I? 😉

  9. A planner I recommend is PLANiT OrganiZer- paper based and beautifully creative! Its like your personal assistant prompting you to plan according to your energy levels(that way you dont do the hard things when you feeling dozy). And there are little boxes to plan for YOU -your career,health and family Check it out at http://www.planitorganizer.com
    At the end of each day you havev the option to summarise how you fared.

  10. My s.o. and I had a Moleskine-fest on Saturday; she bought an A5 diary, me three mini notebooks. I’m jealous she has the diary – whilst they’re lovely, an online calendaring “solution” is best for me. Yet my mobile phone situation (with which the calendars would sync) is in a state of flux at the moment.

  11. I’ve worked from home for over 15 years, and relate direcly to all you’re saying. This thought sums it up for me:

    “When you accept that your To Do list is more like a Mobius Strip than an actual list, you accept that it will never be[en] finished. The question then becomes “At what point do I abandon my day as ‘finished’?”. Sometimes it’s dictated by deadlines, but more often than not it should be dictated by “When I have worked a full working day”, which I interpret to be between 7 and 8 hours.”


  12. You’re right, the ability to look back at your day and see what you accomplished is an enormous help in overcoming procrastination. Neil Fiore, in his book “The Now Habit,” recommends scheduling everything EXCEPT work into your calendar, including time to play and relax. Then you record the work you’ve done after the fact. He calls it the Unschedule. I just started using it this week, and I see the genius in it for a procrastinator like me.

  13. Mad William: is any thought you don´t agree a load of garbage? Even 100% unacceptable (for you) thoughts deserve some respect, at least in the form of silence. If everyone on this planet would take your position on other people´s “wrong” ideas, I hardly believe that we´d even have the freedom to simply speak without a written permission. Just a thought… please dont´t ban me if you desagree.

  14. Very good. But then you get folks like me – I have a to do list, and the heavier the load, the stronger the drive to avoid the list – and get carried away in emails, etc. So that 4.5 hours on email is fine, but it doesn’t pay the bills, or finish the thesis, or whatever.

    I recommend also Flylady: http://www.flylady.net. What she’s great at is the emotional side – I just want to stay at home under the covers, and Flylady knows that, she sympathizes, but that’s no reason to have a sinkful of dishes – or a messy desk, or whatever. Just don’t subscribe to her list other than digest – talk about inbox overload! and on US Eastern time…

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