1. It All Begins with a Mission . . . and a Schedule
Always begin your day with a schedule.
It’s important to be thoroughly scheduled and clear about your plans for your workday because, to a procrastinator, even a slight amount of confusion is like that first sip of beer to a recovering alcoholic: it opens the door to more trouble. Or, in this case, to being bumped off your path.
Ideally, you will have gone through the Mission Management and Time Management processes outlined in Parts I and II. If not, at least come up with a simple two-column schedule that says specifically what you are going to be doing at various times throughout the day:
Note that this is a “school day” for this particular activist, dedicated mainly to classes and homework. Other days, he’d focus more on activism or relationships. Transitioning between important goals or tasks is often hard, so allocating your time so that you spend entire days focusing on one particular Mission area is often a good idea. But don’t overdo it or get overly rigid—this activist does fit in some fitness and relationship time.
Always create your schedule the night before, so that the act of scheduling itself does not itself become a form of procrastination.
2. Be Prepared
The Boy Scouts got this one right. For the same reason as #1, above—to avoid confusion that can bump you off your path—you need to begin your day with all the information, tools and materials needed to accomplish your work right out there in front of you.
That means everything: books, paper files, computer files, telephone numbers, writing implements, even paper clips. It should all be available, organized and in perfect working order. (Cell phone charged? Pencils sharpened?)
Note: If, despite repeated attempts, you are unable to show up for work scheduled and prepared, that may be a sign that, fighting as hard as you are to solve your procrastination problem, on some level you’re fighting harder not to solve it—in other words, to remain at your current level of productivity. I’ll discuss why this may be the case in Chapter 11.
3. Approach Your Work Without Hesitation
Remember that Productivity Behavior #1 is showing up to work on time, and Productivity Behavior #2 is getting right to work on the right stuff. While practicing these behaviors, the goal is not to hesitate.
Hesitation is the enemy because, once you do it, you open the door to procrastination. Hesitation gives your thoughts time to wander, and they will often wander directly away from your work. (Now you understand the meaning of the proverb: he who hesitates is lost.)
Practice gliding over to your desk and starting work without any hesitation.
4. Stay Calm
Strong emotions, as you will learn in Chapter 13, can be obstacles that bump you off your path. They also make it harder for you to stay focused on the present so that you can practice the Three Productivity Behaviors.
Work, therefore, to remain calm as the clock ticks toward your start-time. Try not to let yourself experience even a moment of fear, anxiety or doubt. If necessary, put yourself in a little “trance” just long enough for you to glide over to your desk and start working. One model to emulate is that of a Zen warrior: alert and receptive, but calm.
5. Don’t Make Your Work More Difficult Than It Is
Don’t fall into the trap of assuming that procrastination is inevitable. Popular culture likes to portray activists and other creators as tormented because it makes good drama, but that’s the wrong model to follow.
The right model is this: you should approach your work with a light touch. Your work should be like play—safe, easy and fun.
This idea of work-as-play may be alien to us as serious activists. But your work should be play. Even your hardest work. Even your most serious activism. Play can, in fact, be an antidote to despair and burnout. To repeat Julia Butterfly Hill’s wonderful quote, “Activism is so much more than just a response to something that is wrong. Activism is a celebration of life itself. It is a manifestation of the miracle of being alive. And isn’t that something to celebrate!”
In his book, Letters to a Young Activist, Todd Gitlin says, “When you act politically, act playfully, too.”
Usually, when our work isn’t fun, it is because we are being blocked by stress, or a negative emotion such as fear, sadness or guilt. (These may be related to our activism, or to some other area or areas of our life.) If none of those are afflicting you and your work still isn’t fun, that could be a sign that you’re following the wrong vocation. Return to Part I of this book and work on Managing your Mission.
6. Focus on the Tasklet
Often, we procrastinate because we’re overwhelmed by the project we’re working on. If the scope of your project intimidates you, then try ignoring the big picture and focusing instead on the next small task that needs to be done. If that’s scary, break the task down into tasklets and focus on one of those. And, if that’s scary, break the tasklet down even further, and focus on a mini-tasklet.
Accomplish a mini-tasklet and you will be empowered to accomplish a tasklet. Accomplish a tasklet and you will be empowered to accomplish a task. Accomplish enough tasks and you will be able to finish even the biggest, scariest project.
Again, if your tasklet seems embarrassingly trivial, then you’re doing this exactly right. Solve your procrastination problem for little tasklets, and you’re well on your way to solving it for big tasks, and even bigger projects.
7. Practice the Three Productivity Behaviors in Your Non-Work Life
Don’t just practice your Productivity Behaviors while you’re working—practice them at other times, too. If you procrastinate around doing the dishes, paying the bills or exercising, then practice doing those activities on time and without hesitation. (Don’t do them for long periods, however—just however long is necessary!) After dinner, don’t dwell on how much you hate doing the dishes: just get up from the table and glide calmly over to the sink and get started.
The more you practice the Three Productivity Behaviors in any context, the better you’ll get at them.
Identify two small tasks, either from your professional or personal life, that you would like to stop procrastinating on. The simpler the better—in fact, doing the dishes or doing the laundry are ideal choices because we usually don’t bring any psychological “baggage” to them. In other words, they may be boring and tedious, but they are usually not stressful or anxiety-provoking.
Use the Behavioral Change Process and the tips described in this chapter to practice the Three Productivity Behaviors on these tasks until you stop procrastinating on them. Then, after you’ve succeeded, practice on two new tasks.
If you can’t stop procrastinating, it probably means you’ve chosen too difficult a task or are setting too ambitious a goal. Chose one really easy task that you can approach without fear or stress and try again.
If you absolutely cannot stop procrastinating, don’t worry—the rest of this section of The Lifelong Activist will help you.