Wednesday, June 02, 2004

Procrastination and Neil Fiore

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. SOURCES 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 procrastinator. 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 filter. REWARD MECHANISMS 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 not painful). 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. TAKE CONTROL 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 aggressive rebellion. REWARD YOURSELF 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 and fun. 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 done faster. 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 weekends. Etc. REVERSE CALENDAR 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