When I was in elementary school, my mother referred to me as the ‘absent minded professor’. I lost jackets and umbrellas, couldn’t keep track of school projects, and was generally an organizational mess.
Over time, I built up elaborate systems and anal retentive habits to counter my natural state. And, in the last few years, with the help of Getting Things Done and an endless array of trivial hacks, I’ve gotten to the point where I finally have a good sense, at any given moment, of exactly what I should be doing.
Unfortunately, at any given moment, I’m usually doing something else entirely. Even with a list of next actions in front of me, I have an awfully hard time sitting down and forcing myself to work my way through that list.
In part, I blame my job, which is enormously amorphous. There’s very little in the way of procrastination that I can’t somehow rationalize away as at least vaguely productive. Reading an old Malcolm Gladwell article on marketing khakis? Why, a deeper understanding of buyers’ psychology certainly will come in handy selling Cyan and Long Tail’s films!
In other words, the problem isn’t that the procrastination expeditions I talk myself into are necessarily bad; it’s simply that they’re less good than what I should be doing instead. Still, knowing that, rationally, doesn’t seem to help. For me, at least, ‘integrity in the moment of choice’ is tough stuff.
For the past year or so, I’ve tried to push my way through with logic and brute force:
“Listen,” the smarter part of my brain says. “You’d be much better off if you put down that article and went back to drafting the script option term sheet.”
“Absolutely,” the less smart part agrees. “As soon as I finish this khakis article, I’ll get right on it.”
Very recently, however, I’ve discovered a way that I can trick myself into listening to the smarter part: I schedule, on the half hour, tiny little increments of work, then let myself go back to ‘productively’ goofing off as soon as I’ve done each little increment, at least until the next half hour mark chimes.
Let’s say, as I did earlier today, that I have thirty theaters I need to call to check their base screen rental rates. I’ll sit down and break the list into chunks of three or four theaters, and list them out over the afternoon. These four at 1:00, these three at 1:30, etc. I’ve found it works the best to set the first chunk about ten, fifteen minutes in the future.
So, 1:00 rolls around, I bang out the first four, and then get back to whatever I’ve stupidly escaped into doing, like rearranging a shelf of DVDs. Ding! 1:30. I make the three calls, then do another one or two to lighten the encroaching 2:00 load. Ding! Back to calling, so I crank through the remainder of the 2:00 list, then, with momentum building, hit the lists for 2:30, 3:00 and 3:30.
My brain spent, I go back to DVD re-arranging, until the 2:30 ding, when I get back to calling, and decide to just make the last eight or nine calls to be done with it. And now, thrilled to have finished the calling I’d been avoiding all weekend, I crank out a few pressing emails for good measure, and build effortlessly from there.
Holy reclaimed afternoon, Batman! Somehow I’ve gone from a day where my brain seemed permanently out to lunch to one where I’m startlingly productive.
The secret, for me, seems to be the safety of the worst case scenario: even if I’m not picked up by the surge of forward motion, I know I’ll at least manage to slog through each of the small, on-the-half-hour actions. Which, for whatever reason, seems to take off enough of the pressure to perform that, about 95% percent of the time, I do get picked up by the productivity surge, pushing towards the best case scenario instead.
For the first time, I seem to have discovered my subconscious resistance to getting started: the inherent internal commitment to keep going past that first step. Take away that commitment, and the getting started seems far less terrifying. After which, apparently, the keeping going sort of takes care of itself.