Each Sunday, The Simple Dollar reviews a personal productivity or personal development book.
During my college years, procrastination was an incredibly large problem for me, and more than once my procrastinating nature really hurt me badly. Once, in fact, it lowered a course grade from an A to a C, which was a real wake-up call for me. I spent a lot of time thinking about why I procrastinate, and it was largely from there that I started to really look into personal productivity and time management philosophies. Eventually, I came to really reject procrastination, but for me it was more of a subtle thing – it came around slowly, over time.
I hadn’t heard of The Now Habit until fairly recently, when it was mentioned to me over conversation by a friend of mine. We were joking about all of the stupid things we’d done in college to postpone working on projects when he mentioned that reading the book and thinking about it a bit had really helped him get around the procrastination problem. He loaned me his dog-eared hardback copy of the book and when I read it, I realized that many of the things inside were things that seemed natural to me now, but they took a very long time for me to pick up on through my own experience.
The Now Habit by Dr. Neil Fiore is basically a collection of simple strategies to eliminate procrastination in your life, which is a definite stress reducer and also eliminates the guilt that I remember feeling when I would be playing frisbee on the college green instead of working on a project. Almost all of it works hand in hand with whatever you’re doing now – it’s not really so much a time and task management program (a la Getting Things Done) as it is a philosophy about choosing priorities. Let’s dig in and see what’s inside that we can directly apply to our lives.
Digging Into The Now Habit
Right off the bat, Fiore dissolves the entire premise of the book down into one paragraph:
Procrastination is a habit you develop to cope with anxiety about starting or completing a task. It is your attempted solution to cope with tasks that are boring or overwhelming. When you use the Now Habit strategies to lower your anxiety, fears, and self-doubts, you can stop using procrastination as an escape and can double your productivity and, often, double your income. When you learn to work efficiently – in the Flow State or Zone, using more of your brain-cell power – you have less reason to avoid important, top-priority tasks.
In other words, this book is full of tricks to break the procrastination habit, which is mostly a psychological roadblock. But how do we do that?
Chapter 1: Why We Procrastinate
The book starts off by going through the litany of reasons why people procrastinate – in a nutshell, they all boil down to negativity. For me, if I procrastinate on anything today, it’s primarily because I buy into the idea that my “only reward will be continually higher and more difficult goals to achieve, with no rest and no time to savor your achievements.” What do I procrastinate on? Housework. I often feel as though there’s a theoretical 50/50 split in housework, but there’s little evidence of that, and I begin to think that if I do more housework, even though it’s bothering me, the split will become 60/40 or 70/30 or worse on a permanent basis. So I procrastinate on it because (a) I let myself think this and (b) I don’t really face the root of the problem, which is communication.
One aspect of this chapter that particularly resonated with me is the idea that procrastination can sometimes be rewarding. Sometimes the problem will go away, or sometimes someone else will solve the problem for you. In either case, though, the “reward” isn’t really a reward at all: it’s someone stepping up to cover for your lack of effort or it’s a missed opportunity that you could have capitalized on.
Chapter 2: How We Procrastinate
So what mechanisms do we actually use to procrastinate? Fiore suggests first doing this by keeping a truly honest time diary about how you spend your day. He gives an example of such a diary in the chapter. In the not-too-distant past, I actually tried this for a week and what I really learned from it is that I would often turn to mindless activities such as watching television in order to put off doing the things I should be doing, like housework. The example from the book indicated that many people often take an hour or so to “settle in” at work before getting started, so his recommendation is to immediately start on a high priority task as soon as you get there and see where the day leads you from there. I can basically use that same philosophy by taking on the most pressing household tasks for a period of time as soon as I get home. Why do this? It creates an immediate sense of good accomplishment within you, a positive feeling to combat the negative feelings that swirl around procrastination.
After this, Fiore discusses a procrastination log, where you write down what you procrastinated on and when, how you felt about the task, why you justified procrastinating on it, your attempted solution (i.e., what you did instead), and how that solution made you feel. Most of the time, that solution, in hindsight, doesn’t really lead to you feeling better at all, even if it was something you might enjoy. The log lets you see patterns in your procrastination: which kinds of tasks most often trigger your procrastination spells and the common feelings that they inspire. Then, as you begin trying different approaches, you can see which ones work for you.
Chapter 3: How To Talk To Yourself
Most of the language of procrastination is inherently negative: “I have to” do this, “I must finish” this, “This project is too big,” and so on. Thinking of tasks from that perspective makes them seem more difficult and insurmountable than they really are. The idea here is that when you are facing a task you don’t want to do, break it down into small chunks that you can get started on immediately so that you can quickly feel some sort of forward progress on the task.
Another major roadblock towards eliminating procrastination from your life is eliminating the idea that it has to be absolutely perfect – and using that as an excuse not to start yet. By breaking these tasks down into smaller pieces, you can find pieces that you feel much better about in terms of success, and thus you can do those first, much like putting the border pieces together first when doing a jigsaw puzzle. Then, when you’ve started putting the pieces together, you’ll either find the smaller elements you find hard (which you can ask for help on) or they might just end up being easier than you expect.
Chapter 4: Guilt-Free Play, Quality Work
Here, the focus is on the need for play, particularly guilt-free play. When you procrastinate, you’re trading true free time (that which doesn’t have an uncompleted task hanging over it) for false, guilty “free time” (procrastination). One major way to open yourself up to true guilt-free fun is by simply getting started on that task that hangs over you by breaking it down into littler pieces.
I know this from experience. If there’s a household task to do and I sit down and read instead, I usually feel worse about it than if I had just done the household task and then read. This phenomenon is true in pretty much any avenue of life, from the workplace to personal life.
Chapter 5: Overcoming Blocks To Action
The three major fears that procrastination is based on are the fear of being overwhelmed, the fear of failure and imperfection, and the fear of not finishing. Each one of these fears has a particular trick that can dislodge the fear.
The fear of being overwhelmed can be defeated by three-dimensional thinking and the reverse calendar. If you have a monstrous goal and a deadline, you can whittle it down by making up a timeline for it. Start by going in reverse and defining the smaller and smaller sections of it that need to be complete by a certain date. So, if you need a report by June 30, have a near-final draft done by June 25, a rough draft done by June 20, a structured outline by June 18, primary research done by June 13, and so on until you’ve got a short-term task that you can wrap your arms around.
The fear of failure and imperfection can be defeated by the work of worrying. Define what exactly is the worst case scenario if you take a good stab at the problem. Do you turn in a poor report? Well, couldn’t you just have peers review it with you before you turn it in? So then what’s the worst scenario excluding that one? If you really look at the nightmares you have and look at what you can do to stop them, you can often eliminate all or most of the bad outcomes, leaving you with nothing but success if you take an earnest stab at the problem and follow your contingencies that you just defined.
The fear of not finishing can be defeated by persistent starting. Whenever you come up with an excuse not to get started on a task, close your eyes and just dive in. This section is pretty useful because it deals with excuses that people use not to get started and completely dissects them.
Chapter 6: The Unschedule
An “unschedule” is basically a schedule that encourages you to get started on tasks by defining small, focused, and clearly defined periods to get stuff done. As a reward for these periods of work focus, you also schedule in defined periods of uninterrupted leisure that are yours as a reward for being on task for those focused periods.
Much of this chapter really borrows from basic time management. I generally feel that this chapter is a somewhat awkward compresson of Getting Things Done with a scheduled structure formed around it. In general, once you’re able to get past the concept of procrastination and learn how to really break tasks down into graspable pieces, Getting Things Done can really take over in terms of time management. I heavily agree with the idea of planning for leisure, however, as a reward for your focus.
Chapter 7: Working In The Flow State
The “flow state,” as defined by this book, is when you are completely focused on tasks without interruptions and distractions from the outside world. Turn off your email and your phone, close your office door, and get down to business.
The book does realize that it isn’t easy to get into this state, so it offers some interesting basic meditation techniques to get yourself into an appropriate psyche. It’s straightforward stuff: close your eyes, imagine every muscle relaxing one by one, think positive thoughts and block out all else, and repeat those key thoughts for a period of time. But it works – I often meditate myself when I need to be firing on all cylinders to get a task done.
Chapter 8: Fine-Tuning Your Progress
This chapter largely just cleans up odds and ends that can crop up from using the techniques in earlier chapters. For example, if you’re concerned about being distracted while in the middle of work in the flow state, just keep a blank pad and pen nearby to toss down any thought you might have, knowing that you’ll look at them later. Also, if you have a hard time figuring out if you’ve actually achieved something of note, try to find tangible and clear milestones so that it is clear. Instead of saying “I’ll carry out the findings of this report,” set a goal of “I’ll identify every goal in the entire report and make a list of them,” then turn each of those into a goal with a clear deliverable at the end.
Chapter 9: The Procrastinator In Your Life
Now that you’ve got your own procrastination licked, how can you deal with other procrastinators in your life? The central key here is to try to see things from their perspective and request things from them that have that in mind. For example, instead of saying, “You’d better have this to me by Friday,” say something like “This report needs to be done by Friday. Could you get a really rough draft of this together by Tuesday morning? We can meet and look at it together then and decide where it needs to go to get it finished by Friday.” In other words, voice the request while using some of the techniques in the book within the request itself to make it palatable. This example sets up a much simpler goal with a shorter timeframe, plus frames it as something that’s a cooperative venture, meaning the worker doesn’t feel alone. In short, this chapter is about how to manage people who procrastinate without consistently butting heads with them.
Buy or Don’t Buy?
If procrastination is a major problem in your life – or even a minor problem – this book is well worth a reading. The techniques in this book are mostly psychological, but that does not mean they’re not incredibly powerful if used appropriately. Plus, the techniques here dovetail well with many other personal development philosophies, so you don’t have to toss out what you already know and what already works for you in order to adopt The Now Habit.