Tuesday, October 26, 2010

That One Thing

Reading this article in the New Yorker about the nature of procrastination ("What does procrastination tell us about ourselves?"), I'm reminded of a story of a psychologist and a severely depressed patient who couldn't muster the energy to get out of bed. The doctor finally convinced the patient he could do exactly one small thing, but had to do no more: swing his foot over the edge of the bed. Once accomplished, things seemed a little more possible to the patient. The doctor got him to swing the second leg over the edge of the bed. Hey, things are looking up. In fact, the patient was now so optimistic about life he was able to be convinced to *sit* up. Each step was a little easier, and in 5 minutes he was walking down the hall.

For coping with unpleasant things we have to do and which we procrastinate about, break it down to it's simplest elements. For me, I hate paying bills. Hate. But I have it so well organized I can do it quickly -- I have a spreadsheet of accounts, weblinks, phone numbers, etc. So my simplest possible task is simply to open Excel. Just Excel. No files. That's way too much to handle as I approach this personal hell. I consciously commit to no more than opening Excel. And mean it.

But it's rare when, after seeing Excel spring to life that I can't do the next excruciating task -- open up my spreadsheet. And now, hell, I'm looking at it. There it is. What the hell. Let's at least look at what the most urgent bill is. Crap. It's the gas bill. I'm going to freeze when they shut off my heat. Better pay that one... All done. That wasn't so hard, was it? Massive feeling of accomplishment. Heck, the power bill is really easy to pay ... three clicks and I'm done. Two down. Wow. Do I really want to do another? Yes, I might have the energy for it. What the hell. I'll do three and feel really good about myself. Yes. So why not do that credit card?

And so it goes. I apply the same principle to anything unpleasant, but necessary, that I find myself procrastinating about. I ask myself what the one simplest possible thing I can do is, and most importantly, I commit mentally to saying I have the option of doing no more. (And sometimes I don't -- because that's how I prove it to myself.) But usually, I do more.

I hate to dilute this, but another thing for dealing with procrastination is that less important things *never* get done unless you allocate *some* time to them each day. 10%, let's say, for low priorities. So by imposing the 10% rule, you make them important enough to do. Learned that one from an old boss, and it works.

A friend remarked: "wouldn't it be nice if we didn't have to play the thought games we do, in order to do the things we don't want to do."

My reply:

I wonder if the thought games are all part of the crow epistemology (the number of units we can hold in our direct awareness at one time, around 5  to 8), and a necessary part of our psychology.  The more overwhelming an unpleasant task feels, the less we want to do it.  I notice that mentally, when the number of steps to an average task goes much beyond 6 or 7, it transitions from being achievable to unachievable.  But the more unpleasant it is, the lower that number.  The more fun it is, the higher the number.  When a task is  fun, we tend to stay focused on just the immediate-- so we never get overwhelmed by too many things, even when there are too many things.  Less fun tasks, we tend to start fixating on the enormity before us. ALL the things that have to be done to complete the unpleasantness.  "Enormity"  seems related seems closely related to having more than a half-dozen unpleasant things to do.

A related anecdote:  I've noticed that undefinable mild depression or anxiety is also related to the *number* of things bothering us.  The same crow epistemology.  So I have a simple rule -- when I realize that I'm feeling down or uneasy for some undefined reason, I stop and make a list of all the things big and small that are bothering me.  All. (That's very important.)  Usually, I find it's a number over 6 or 7 when I have that undefinable un-ease. Most important, though, is that I make a physical list that I can hold in my hand and look at.  Wow...  that's a long list.  No wonder I feel like crap.  Just knowing it's a big list helps a lot.

But often, I realize that out of the (say) 12 or 15 things on my list, most are trivial (often related to procrastination) and only one or 2 are really important.  Again, I feel a lot better.  I know what's bothering me, or I know that what was bothering me was that I simply hadn't identified what was bothering me.  I had overloaded my crow.  Then I realize that the solution to my problem is manageable. Better yet.  That motivates me (and guides me) to make a focused effort to attack the things I need to.  Sometimes it's the one important thing, first, but sometimes it's all the little things first, to get a sense of accomplishment, and to get the number of things down below 6 or 7, because then the big things seem more manageable. 

By the way, I've tested this strategy on other people.  It works for them, too.  My sister once was getting extremely anxious about a zillion things -- school, work, boyfriend, etc.  So I told her to make a list.  She did that and -- crap.  No wonder she was feeling bad.  But it all looked manageable while staring at that list.
A little oversimplification, but not that much.

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