Tools for Procrastination

…I’ve been meaning to write this post for a while… but I’ve been putting it off. 😂

For me, procrastination comes from five sources:

  1. Ambiguity: confusion about how to move forward
  2. Conflict: disagreeing about next steps
  3. Perfectionism: doubting my ability with the task at hand
  4. Busyness: believing something will take a long time to do, and delaying until I can find a large enough block of time to do it.
  5. Lack of agency: focusing on what I’m being told to do, rather than the opportunity I have or the value I can create.

Before sharing some tools, it’s worth noting: procrastination often serves me well. It shortens the time to finish and eliminates unnecessary tasks. But – it also has caused me to miss out on a lot.

Here are the tools I’m using:

  • To help with clarity:
    • Short Assignments (or “the One-Inch Frame”) – If I find I’m delaying a task, I try to break it down into a set of absurdly small tasks I can start completing to build momentum. At work, I’m often synthesizing information–so it helps to make a list of each file I need to open to help me get started. A nice mental image for this comes Bird by Bird by Ann Lamott, where she talks about viewing something through a one-inch frame. What is the smallest possible bit of this big project I can tackle?
    • Absurdly detailed list – related to short assignments, it helps me to create a list from the short assignments. If it’s a long project, I’ll make a visual tracker where I can see my progress towards goal over a longer period.
  • To handle perfectionism:
    • Bad first drafts – another concept that helps: remembering that editing is much easier than writing. Even an incredibly terrible first draft, no matter how bad it is, brings me closer to the goal and makes starting the next time easier.
    • Breezy Emails – For complex projects, it can help to get feedback from trusted peers or mentors with a light, quick email. A single paragraph with a few bullets for an outline, then go do something else. This gives people a chance to weigh in with some feedback, suggestions, or affirmations, without creating the pressure of a larger assignment.
  • To help with busyness:
    • 10-minute Timer – Agree to work on the assignment for 10 minutes, and be okay with however far I get. Usually, the barrier for me is getting started–so if I can get through the first 10 minutes I’ll feel good about continuing. But – it’s also okay to stop. For me, this lowers the pressure of getting started.
    • Impossible deadline – I saw this idea on Twitter and thought it was brilliant. Try to get the task done in a completely unrealistically short amount of time. Hopefully this eliminates the pressure, causes you to get further than you expected, and maybe helps you be more creative about how you reach the finish line.
    • The Shelf – Maybe this isn’t the right time to do the project or worry about the thing I’m worried about. If that’s the case, have a list or file where I write down the progress and the reasoning and come back to it later. If it makes sense, set a time to circle back on this idea in the future. If it comes up again, you can add to your notes until it’s time to prioritize it.

One other thing I’ve noticed: when I am procrastinating, creating extra pressure doesn’t help. Procrastination happens when the cost feels immediate, but the benefits feel far off–so much of the online advice focuses on making those far-off consequences feel more real. Tools like making public commitments are an example of raising the pressure on oneself. That strategy may work well for others but doesn’t work for me. For me, lowering the pressure and starting through a familiar process work better.

I hope these help you tackle the big challenges in your day! Take care.

References & Further Reading:

  • Ann Lamott’s Bird by Bird has great advice, and includes the ideas of bad first drafts and short assignments
  • I appreciated this twitter thread, which included the idea of the Impossible Goal
  • Tim Urban has a hilarious TED Talk and articles on procrastination

Science of Well-being Notes

A few years ago I took a Coursera class on the “Science of Well-being“, created by Professor Laurie Santos from Yale. It was spectacular, and I keep coming back to the lessons from it–specifically, to the barriers and the practices.

“Miswanting”

Dr. Santos started the course by identifying the barriers to well-being in happiness. If everyone wants more happiness–why do we need to learn about it?

She highlights three ideas:

  1. We are bad judges of what will make us happy & well
  2. We forget that we are bad judges of what will make us happy & well
  3. We get used to things–so what worked today doesn’t work as well tomorrow

The Practices

The class highlights practices that are proven to make us happy and well. If you’re skimming the course material, these are mostly in week 5.

  • Savoring – taking the time to step outside your experiences and appreciate them. Smell the flowers, enjoy the sunrise, appreciate your morning coffee. Tell a friend how could this moment was, and be absorbed in it. Don’t rush through or compare to other moments.
  • Gratitude – be thankful for your life and what you’re experiencing–for the way things are turning out and the people who are a part of it. It would be so easy to have missed out on the good you love, and we never know when the seasons will change and this time will be our last. Be grateful.
  • Sleep – Makes us happier, smarter, more pleasant, and healthier. Almost everything we trade for less sleep–more work, cramming for a test, completing an assignment–is less effective than sleeping.
  • Exercise – For mental health, it’s better than medication. Keeps you happier and healthier.
  • Kindness to others – brings us joy.
  • Time Affluence – that is, having a wealth of time to spend in ways we want. Always underappreciated, and allows space for many of the other practices, which fall to the wayside because of busyness.
  • Social Connection – Being with and connected to other people. We often underestimate how happy community makes us, how happy it makes others, and overestimate how awkward we will feel while connecting.
  • Flow State & Using your strengths – For work, the practices for happiness were about doing work that absorbs you and plays to your strengths. That is, do things you’re good at that you can lose yourself in.
  • Calm & Focused Mind – Happy minds don’t often wander. Use meditation or mindfulness practices to help.
  • Visualization & Planning – Take a few moments time to think through what you want and why you want it–for the future, or simply for the day ahead. Then consider the obstacles in the way and make plans to address them.

Simple, powerful ideas.

Meta-Practices: Writing & Counting

While Professor Santos doesn’t address these specifically, the behavior change in the course is built around two ideas for change: writing and counting.

Take the time to consider your happiness and how often you are doing these practices. Keep a spreadsheet so you have data on what happened.

Then reflect and write about what you noticed. If you don’t write, you won’t be able to remember what happened.

I think these meta practices also help, and tend to be tools for achieving any goal–though they’re tough to practice.

I hope these ideas help you be happier and well today!

Gmail Inbox 0

I’ve been meaning to clean out my email for a while. Today I succeeded! Inbox 0 on my Gmail account.

What I learned

I’ve had my Gmail account for over 15 years, since when I graduated from college. I attempted this last year and didn’t make much progress… but this year it went pretty quickly. A few minutes of effort over a week’s time.

I’ve told a few people about this project: in general, the response is a deep groan. Sounds like a lot of work, and I know my email account is a mess.

I’d recommend it though. Your email is like the journal you didn’t have the time to keep. You might be amazed at what you were worried about and focused on a few years back, or how the things you were predicting turned out. Or the things your friends were trying to tell you that you missed. Or the messages from friends who have since passed away.

I really small example: I had forgotten that I owned a block of Amazon stock and sold it when it dropped by 10% in 2007. Ouch!

Plus – it can be fun to respond to emails from a previous decade 🙂

How to do it

Here’s what helped me:

  • Use Gmail’s Categories – I’d been trying to unsubscribe from emails for a few months unsuccessfully. Instead, I started to just use Gmail’s “Categories”–which are “Promotions”, “Social”, and “Inbox”. Anything that was a marketing email I dragged to promotions–generally these are emails that I don’t want to refer back to in the future. Any blog or article I moved to “Social”–since these are not high priority, but I’m generally interested in reading them. This allowed me to bulk delete the “Promotions” emails quickly, which was the majority of the emails I was receiving.
  • Make folders, change folders – For emails I wanted to keep, I use folders. For the first 100 or so emails in my inbox, I created a folder anytime I needed a new place to put something. I also created an “_Archive” folder, and moved any folders I didn’t find myself using into it. In general, any group of people or new project got its own folder.
  • Sort by received for new emails, sender for old emails – If you’re stuck cleaning out your inbox, start by sorting by sender. It gives you a fresh look at what’s there. If you have multiple emails from the same person, generally only the most recent is relevant.
  • Landing place for future projects – The biggest source of inbox clutter was things I’ve been meaning to get to, but haven’t gotten to yet. Blogs I like, but haven’t had the time to read–so they stay in my inbox. For those, I created topic folders so I have them filed and can come back to them easily. It was startling how much attention space was taken up by things I’ve been meaning to get to, but haven’t had time for yet.

This last point was the biggest lesson for me. For 2022, I’m working on simplifying my life, so it’s organized and I can get things. Inbox 0 was a good first step.

One other piece of encouragement. I’d attempted this last year and failed. (The biggest change this year was using the automated categories, so I could get rid of junk faster). I kept a record of how I was doing–so here’s what my path to Inbox 0 looks like. So – if you find yourself in the middle space where things aren’t getting better yet, keep experimenting (or set it aside to attempt next year)–you might have a breakthrough in your future.

Stay encouraged, and take care!

The Holiday Gifts

Merry Christmas to all who celebrate!

I am reminding myself this year:

On the first Christmas, 100% of the those celebrating didn’t have their act together. They were making stressful trips, their plans didn’t work out, the destination was crowded, and surprises (labor!) came at inopportune moments.

So focus on learning to enjoy the unexpected gifts not whether everything perfectly arranged.

…and the unexpected gifts, of course, are so much bigger than anything we could have asked or imagined.

Enjoy the season!

Tools for Managing [digital or physical] Clutter

I was re-reading Algorithms To Live By by Brian Christian this week–which is a book that draws analogies between computer algorithms and human problems. The chapter on memory caching has great advice for personal organization.

Here are the tools:

  • Least-recently-used is the best guide for what goes where
  • Use the left-side insertion method when storing anything
  • Create a system with with multiple levels of caches
  • Use geographic proximity to manage your storage

Sorting vs. Searching

The author makes a straightforward point before sharing the tools: you should never spend more time sorting that you will save by being organized in the future. The easier it is to search, the less you should sort. So – start by putting your mind at ease: it can be optimal not to organize, depending on the items you’re dealing with.

Least-Recently-Used (LRU) as a Guide

The best method for knowing when you will need something in the future is when you used it in the past. The things you’ve used most recently are the one’s you’ll need again most quickly. Unless we have reason to think otherwise, we should expect the future to mirror the past.

Left-Side Insertion Rule

Because least-recently-used is the best estimate of the future, you can use the left-side insertion rule to manage your filing system.

  • You can use this method for files in a filing cabinet, books on a shelf, clothes in a closet, or anything else you keep track of
  • Whenever you use a object put it back on the left-side of the storage space
  • When you run out of space, evict from the right-side to longer term storage

The best part: you don’t need a big effort to get started. Instead, implement this rule, and you’ll gradually sort your items optimally with this principle, simply by putting them back into place.

Multiple Levels Caches

It’s best to have several different types of storage based on how easy you need access to be for the objects you’re using.

Instead of having one large closet for all your clothes, consider having a closet and a storage area in the basement. Instead of one large filing cabinet, have an inbox on your desk, a small filing cabinet in your office, and an area for papers in a storage room.

This allows you faster access to the things you need, while still keeping track of all the things you want.

One interesting take-away: no matter how you use it, having a cache makes memory systems more efficient. So – no matter how you choose to move things between short and longer term storage (even randomly), having both makes the system more efficient.

Use Geographic Proximity

Design your shortest-term storage so items are placed near where they’ll be used. We keep our coats and shoes by the door. But also keep the books we’re reading by our office (if that’s where we read), our correspondence by where we write, etc.

I thought these were helpful tools–and will be implementing the left-side rule right away. Hopefully they help you stay organized with less effort as well!

The Hamilton Project Scope Framework

It’s the time of year when we’re all planning our next set of projects. What shall we tackle in 2022? So many exciting things to do!

Here’s a handy framework to prevent yourself from making your projects too big, inspired by a successful project from the 18th century.

  • Estimate the amount of work you will personally get done
  • Cut what you will do in half: make that the scope for the entire project
  • Recruit several friends to help, each committing to an equal share in the total work. Ideally, at least one would be willing to do the whole project themselves.
  • If you have exceptionally productive friends–think future presidents or Supreme Court justices–expect one that one won’t finish and one’s work won’t be good enough to include
  • Do the work you originally planned–and overdeliver.

If you need catchy music for inspiration, feel free to refer to the source document.

“Non-Stop” from the Hamilton Soundtrack

Happy planning!

Belated Happy Thanksgiving

We often spend Thanksgiving in Omaha, Nebraska, which has one of the largest zoos in the country. Our family loves animals, so we went to visit. This year we had 18 people in our party, ranging in age from 2 to 86.

At the far end of the zoo, near the new elephant and zebra exhibit, things started to fall apart. Everyone was walking at different paces, so the group got spread out. People were getting tired and grouchy. Some wanted to see giraffes, kids wanted to see the train, some adults had to take work phone calls that somehow couldn’t wait, we weren’t sure where to go next. And the restaurant, where we planned to eat and regroup, was closed for the season.

In the midst of the grumpiness, our nanny, who is from South Africa, stopped and seemed a little distant. They’re playing my national anthem, she said.

We’d barely noticed the background music in the exhibit. But it was the South African national anthem–which includes verses in five languages: Xhosa, Zulu, Sesotho, Afrikaans, and English. And it was a really fun thing to notice, listen to, and learn a little about at the far end of the zoo as we regrouped from the hangry-ness of a long day.

May we all have moments of noticing and being thankful for the little important things in our lives.

For our family, Thanksgiving is a beautiful holiday, but also a busy one. This moment was a good reminder to not be so hurried or grumpy that we miss out. Slow down enough to be grateful.

Gratitude unlocks the fullness of life.
It turns what we have into enough, and more.
It turns denial into acceptance, chaos to order, confusion to clarity.
It can turn a meal into a feast, a house into a home, a stranger into
a friend. It turns problems into gifts, failures into successes, the
unexpected into perfect timing, and mistakes into important events.
It can turn an existence into a real life, and disconnected situations
into important and beneficial lessons. Gratitude makes sense of our
past, brings peace for today, and creates a vision for tomorrow.
• Melody Beattie •

Have a great week!

Enjoy the seasons

I’ve been writing on this blog for over 5 years! The time flies.

I had some time yesterday to take a quiet walk in my neighborhood. It’s fall and the leaves are changing colors. There’s one path a few miles from our house where the trees form a tunnel over the path beside a small lake, and it’s beautiful this time of year.

It reminded me of the biggest lesson I’ve taken from the writing I’ve done here: Appreciate the seasons in life. They come and go quicker than you think, and each has its highlights. Enjoy them 🙂

Fall Path

I went back and re-read that post today. So much has changed… and much is still the same.

I wrote that 3 days before starting my first job after business school. At that time I hadn’t met anyone I work with now, heard of the company I’m currently with, or know about any of the topics I’m currently working on. While the seeds of my current long-term goals were there, my perspective on them has shifted quite a bit. And the life logistics have changed: different house in a different state. Less debt and more income. Three kids now, and our home is even more full of excitement.

That’s the gift of writing: it’s a free time machine. It gives you perspective. You can hear the advice you would give yourself 5 years ago, or listen to the self-talk from another phase of life. You can notice how much you’ve learned and grown–what has changed and what has stayed the same.

May we all take the time to notice and enjoy the seasons as they come, remembering that they pass.

Take care!

Giving Intent

A leadership tool from the military I appreciate is “commander’s intent.” It’s a way to explain to a team the heart of what they need to accomplish to be successful.

Military leadership is focused on the idea that when a leader asks their team to do something complex, they should explain what and why, but not how. This method helps organizations harness the initiative and ingenuity of their people.

Intent is a way to provide more depth on the what and why. Here’s a simple format for it.

PURPOSE: Expanded explanation of why we are doing what we are doing

KEY TASKS: Elements of a successful outcome that must happen in order to accomplish the mission or goal

END STATE: The situation we want to have at the end of this project, with respect to what our team has accomplished, our relationship to key partners, and obstacles we’re facing.

Taking a few minutes to think through this framework can help teams take initiative and get more done.

Direction vs Balance Problems

An idea I’ve been thinking about a lot lately is balance. We need balance with issues that can go wrong in multiple directions.

Some problems are one-sided problems–direction problems. Right vs. Wrong is a good example. More of “right” and less of “wrong” is always a good thing. More good, less evil. Though the execution might be tough, the idea is simple. If we move in the direction of more good, more right, and we’ll always be improving.

But many problems in life aren’t like that. For many topics, we can go wrong in multiple directions. So we need a different strategy to navigate it. We need balance.

“Work-life balance” is a good example. If we focused 100% on life, we’d be missing out on a lot of the joy of work. We wouldn’t be using our skills or providing value to others, or have a sense of purpose in our lives. But if we focused 100% on work, we’d also likely miss out on a lot. We wouldn’t enjoy our time outside of work. We wouldn’t have the family or travel experiences we’d like to have. So that’s far from ideal also. If where we can be lies on a spectrum, and both ends of the spectrum are wrong, then the ideal must be somewhere in the middle.

But where? Well…. it depends. On who we are. On what we think is important and what we’d be willing to settle for. On what’s possible. And on where we are right now, in this season.

Here are a few things I’ve noticed about Balance Problems.

Many of the big topics in life are balance problems. For problems that are difficult and long-standing, they’re typically about balance. Work and life balance. Money and happiness. Buy a house or rent. Pay down debt or invest for the future. How much companies or people should pay in taxes. How we should make our medical decisions. There are multiple ways to go wrong on all of these questions–so they require balance.

If everyone agrees where we are, balance problems seem like direction problems. When a group is homogenous in their views of the current state–when they have a shared understanding of reality–it’s easier to agree on the right direction. So balance problems begin to seem like direction problems.

Many teachers don’t include caveats with their point of view. If you read enough, you’ll see intelligent experts on both sides of big questions. Often the disagreements aren’t about the logic, but about the current state of the world. Where we are on the curve we’re trying to balance–or where our intended audience is. And the speakers rarely share those details: for us, right now, with what I think about our current state, I believe…

And here are a few strategies for dealing with Balance Problems.

Comfort with contradiction. A famous economist is credited as saying “When events change, I change my mind. What do you do?” This seems simple, but most of us resist updating our opinion when circumstances shift. We could also remember Walt Whitman’s words:

Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself,
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)

Recognize the temporary. Often we look at the present situation, form an opinion, and think things will always be the way they are now–forgetting that change is constant. For balance problems, consider: can I use “right now” or “in this season” instead of “always” in thinking about this issue?

Conditional Habits. I came across Eli Finer’s blog, where he shares the idea of Conditional Habits. If things are going smoothly, I’ll execute the plan. If not, I’ll make an adjustment. We don’t have to press ahead through the resistance. We can change when things aren’t working.

Mostly Reasonable over Coldly Rational. Morgan Housel includes this idea in his book The Psychology of Money, explaining why investment researchers don’t follow their own advice, or why people diversify their investments when the math doesn’t make sense. We’re human: when we’re dealing with difficult problems, we might prefer to be reasonable, and that’s okay.

I hope this encourages you today.