On Storytelling & Procrastination

Yesterday, I made a point of finishing a task I had been putting off before I did anything else – I set aside the bulk of my morning for it – and then was surprised it only took me half an hour to complete. Go figure. Already feeling guilty for not having completed it when promised, I then began beating myself up for unnecessarily making such a big deal of the thing…

Except that I don’t have the patience or stamina anymore for this sort of exercise on the mental hamster wheel. My goal is to stay off the hamster wheel of my worried mind and devote that energy elsewhere. Rather than reinforce the guilt, I did what I could to reinforce what I already know to be true: things are rarely as bad as they might seem.

I firmly believe the stories we tell ourselves about our work have a huge impact on our ability to carry it out. When it comes to procrastination, it’s our stories that keep us stuck. Solving procrastination requires us to shift that internal narrative in two ways.

First, our stories are often completely inaccurate.

They say we underestimate the time it takes to finish tasks we like and overestimate the time it takes to finish tasks we don’t like. So, every time I approach a task with a sigh of, “Okay, let’s just get this over with,” I know it’s time to pay attention to what’s really happening, rather than listen to my story about it. I must test my story if I want to change my story.

For example, even if the kitchen seems a disaster, I’ve learned I can unload and load the dishwasher in almost the time it takes a kettle of water to boil. I don’t know how long that is, but it’s not very long. In a very short time, I get the reward of a clean kitchen and a delicious beverage. The more times I do that task with attention, the more my thinking comes into right relationship with it and the less I am inclined to put it off because it seems like such a big job.

Second, our stories are often needlessly elaborate.

Can you hear the distinction between this mental approach to a task:
– I need to clean up a couple old client binders sitting on top of the file cabinet by my desk – they’ve been there for months and months, I should have put them away a long time ago, they’re really in the way. They are stuffed beyond capacity with papers I never use anymore and I have no idea what’s in them, so I have to sort through everything and figure out what I need and what I can throw out, then shred and recycle what I’m not keeping and organize the rest and put it in the file cabinet in the basement where I keep my archives.

And this one?
– There are a couple old client binders on my filing cabinet that I want to get out of the way, so I’m going to sort through them and purge what I don’t need and archive the rest.

The first is exhausting, like a whining child. Makes me tired just to read it. The second is a simple statement of a straightforward and completely do-able task. None of the precious energy needed for the task is lost in thinking about it. If your story isn’t false, then just shorten and simplify it as much as possible.

Or do away with your story altogether. As Anna Deavere Smith says, “The main fuel for procrastination is thought.” So don’t think about your story at all, just do what needs doing. Work quickly and distract you mind with with something motivational like great music turned up loud. As Ms. Smith goes on to say, “There is no way out of procrastination…but to move.”

When you are finished, first congratulate yourself for a job well done. Then take a moment to be mindful of what just happened, pay attention, make a note of it (literally on paper if that’s what it takes to make it stick) – reinforce what you learned so when faced with a similar situation in future you will be less tempted to put off taking care of it.

If you want to get more done, rewrite your story.

* * * * * * * * * *

Need a little nudge to help you finish something you’ve been putting off? Join Get-in-Gear Fridays where we practice these techniques and more. Have some fun tackling the bottom of your to-do list!


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Third Hand Works

from overwhelmed to ready for anything | organization and time management for people in their "right" minds | administrative guidance for independent creative professionals [more info]



© 2008 Cairene MacDonald, Third Hand Works. All Rights Reserved.

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