by Asim Jalis
I read Neil Fiore's "The Now Habit: A Strategic Program for
Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-Free Play". It's
very good. Highly recommended.
Most time management thinking is useless. It either tells you as
Covey does that you need more discipline (the stick approach). Or
it tries as Anthony Robbins does to get you fired up and excited
about getting a grip on your life (the carrot approach). Neither
approach is sustainable.
Fiore's book (and it's the only one I've seen so far that is like
this) takes a different approach. First he explains why
procrastination makes sense; he explains the reward cycle that
reinforces it. Then he gives you tools to use the same mechanisms
to get things done. So you are not fighting against your nature
but rather leveraging it. I found it persuasive because a lot of
the patterns and mechanisms he describes really hit home for me.
Here are my notes from reading the book. This will give you a
flavor of the contents. I recommend the book for more details,
and for the illuminating case studies.
Neil's ideas are based on techniques that helped his clients,
which included underperforming knowledge workers and ABD (all but
dissertation) PhD students. He also describes fighting these
behaviors in getting his own life organized, and in getting the
book published. So it's a book on procrastination written by a
LOWER THE BAR
I found it reassuring that several of the tips that he mentions
are ideas we've discussed and used for some time. E.g. lower the
bar; take one tiny imperfect step at a time; understand that with
each step you explore more of the search space.
I started doing this after I learned XP: Create something flimsy
and pathetically imperfect and then improve it over time.
Neil's concrete suggestions for lowering the bar: write with a
pencil on paper, or write with a crayon, instead of on a
computer. Be deliberately sloppy to kill the perfectionism
Procrastination is hard to break because it is reinforced by
reward mechanisms. Here are some of them.
1. Fear of Failure: Jim is afraid of failure. Contemplating the
task becomes painful because it brings up images of the impending
failure. Jim avoids the pain by distracting himself with other
tasks (many of which are not even pleasant; but at least they are
2. Fear of Sucess: Jim is afraid of success. He worries that by
succeeding he will be forced to do more of the same work. Then
the usual avaoidance mechanisms kick in.
3. Procrastination Worked Once. Jim remembers not studying for an
exam and then miraculously the exam got cancelled. Or he
postponed a task and then the project was cancelled. He expects
this to happen again. He assumes these incidents have a much
higher probability in real life than they really do.
4. Passive-aggressive rebellion. Jim hates his job and his boss
and feel like a victim. He hates the system for making him spend
40 hours on a desk. So he gets even by being as unproductive as
possible. He feels he has no control over his life so he
sabotages the system to get a feeling of control.
HOW DEADLINES WORK
We get things done eventually. We've always get things done when
the deadline gets really close. We like working under pressure.
Neil gives a great analogy. You are in a building and you have to
walk across a plank that is 1 foot wide lying on a street to
another building across the street. This is easy.
Now imagine you are on the 10th floor and the plank is 100 feet
above the ground. Now suddenly you want to procrastinate. Failure
means death. And so the tasks brings negative images to our mind
and we want to avoid it.
But in the third experiment imagine that the building you are in
is on fire. Suddenly the plank looks like a great way to escape.
Most people suggest they'll cross it on all fours (so they
innovate to reduce risk).
The fire is like the deadline. So instead of crossing the plank
on the ground floor, we imagine it is on the 10th floor, and then
we wait till the building is in flames before we cross the plank.
This is how deadlines increase stress in our lives and reduce the
quality of our work.
OVERCOMING THESE PROBLEMS
Next, ways to overcome these problems.
Instead of saying "I have to do this" tell yourself "I choose to
do this". In reality I have a choice. I can quit my job. I don't
because I like the things it provides. So I am choosing this
work. Acknowledging this weakens the cycle of the passive
Fiore suggests using the Pavlovian approach to set up neural
circuits to break the assocation of pain. Work at most for 30
minutes on unpleasant tasks. And always reward yourself
immediately after it. Make a list of things you like and use
those as rewards. E.g. writing this e-mail to you is my reward
for running some errands.
The neat thing about this is that it takes the guilt out of play
time. Doing the same activity to procrastinate is always
guilt-ridden and unenjoyable. Play-time as reward is guilt-free
SCHEDULE PLAY TIME
He proposes the idea of an unschedule. Instead of scheduling in
work create a schedule in which you fix your play times. This
ensures that (a) you always get to play, and (b) that your day is
filled with fun and stuff to look forward to, so the work gets
MEASURE HOW MUCH YOU REALLY WORK
Spend a week tracking how many 30 minute segments you really do
focused work. Most people do a lot less than 40 hours. Many of
his clients do about 5 hours of work every week.
Once you realize how little you are working, accept this, and
make sure you work at least this much. Make sure no week passes
where you do less than 5 hours.
This allows you to feel happy about doing 5 hours of work. The
guilt goes away. You accept reality as it is.
It also allows you to schedule in fun activities. It opens up the
whole day for other stuff. Again, fix the play time and then let
the work squeeze itself in between the play.
Try to make sure you work no more than 5 hours.
Gradually you can increase this. He recommends not increasing it
beyond 20 hours.
His point is that 5-20 hours of high-quality focused work is much
more valuable than 40-80 hours of low-quality unfocused work. The
PhD students who were putting in 5 quality hours into their
dissertations usually finished ahead of time. They also got
regular exercise, had full social calendars, ate well, played.
The underperforming students did not graduate on time. But they
worked much harder. They were frequently in their offices on
Fix a deadline and then schedule smaller deadlines in reverse.
This allows you to achieve small milestones (and celebrate).
FOCUS ON HIGH-QUALITY PLAY
The problem with procrastinators is not just that they don't work
hard. It's also that they don't enjoy their lives very much. They
put off play and fun. Focus on increasing the quality of your
play. And make it guilt-free. Everything else follows