25 February 2020

Procrasti-ception: The art of Layering and Time-Boxing Un-motivating Tasks within Slightly Less Un-motivating Tasks

I think I’ve finally found a way to beat it. And when I refer to ‘it’, I don’t mean the great, big, all-encompassing black hole of procrastination itself; I mean the effort to try to attempt a small but potentially significant step towards combating it. Geddit? It = the a) effort to –> b) try and –> c) attempt to –> d) do something towards battling the all-encompassing… blah. I know. <Insert understanding (or judgmental) eye roll + sigh here>.

You see, I, much like you, have plenty of epic ideas and grand dreams. Starting with clearing out my wardrobe and finally acknowledging the whole me-reaching-the-acceptance-phase-thing by getting rid of those clothes that have long since been put onto the “Maybe-I-Might-Fit-Into-These-Again-Someday-When-I-Get-Around-To-Starting-HIIT-workouts’ pile, or let’s just call them the maybe pile, for short. Anyway, I digress. Perhaps in small part due to procrastinating the very thing I want to write about, even as I’ve started writing about it. Jeez.  

Last Saturday, I woke up with an unusually strong dose of determination and motivation. I WAS going to cook healthy food at home today instead of eating out again, and I WAS going to exercise, even if it was just for a bit. And oh, I TOTALLY needed to binge-watch the final season of Bojack that had just come out. 

I tried to focus on whether or not I felt any sort of guilt or self-loathing whatsoever when, in those few moments that some of that motivation started to fade away like winter daylight, I found that Bojack topped that list. Followed by watching some of the Netflix stand-up specials that I’d missed during the week. Both of which would have to be done at the cost of cooking and exercising. A wee bit of guilt, actually. Which was admittedly better than the usual “ngyeh” in response to that question.

Seizing those few remaining dregs of the moment and deciding to capitalize on them, I thought about which of the two chores between exercising and cooking I loathed more. Cooking, most certainly. Why, I might even count it as exercise, me trying to wrestle with and pin down that giant-sized cauliflower in a choke hold just to cut it up into manageable sizes. BUT: instead of Netflix, what if I decided to procrastinate chopping veggies and exercised instead? I’d still be getting a thingie checked off my day’s to-do list, right? I could add more dazzling exempla here, but I’m pretty sure you see my point.

As a coach and wannabe Agile Yoda, I subtly try and extol the virtues of having a prioritized backlog of stuff to do, with an experience-based estimate of effort or duration associated with each task.

And while the item that’s right on top of your list might be the most important but the most annoying thing to do, it remains undone if you don’t do it. Which will then have quite the unforeseeable cascading effect on the rest of your stuff to do, and your priorities as well. 

There are two points to consider in tandem here. Prioritizing a task is one half of the puzzle and the more straightforward concept to consider, but you also need to have some sort of time-box or timeline associated with your task.

Fun Scrum fact: a “time-box” is exactly that – a box that contains some capacity for a certain amount of time.

You can finish your task within half the time in that box, which is fantastic. Just be careful not to overload your time box beyond its capacity, which will just end up breaking your box. This is a useful point to keep in mind for meetings or activities that go on and on and don’t generate any real value.

Parkinson’s Law states that work expands to fill your available time. So, if you don’t have a set frame by which you’d like to see your task done, you won’t be able to close it out, and it’ll always remain work in progress. But… it is better to have started on something and leave it incomplete and unfinished than to not have started on it at all? Like, sunk cost and all that? Okay, that’s too much deep, philosophical thinking effort for a Saturday.

So, getting back to my original point that I started on somewhere in this article (and which now feels like a half a year ago), what if you decide to tackle the second most important item on your list instead? And find a way to use the motivation from having accomplished that to then get to the first? Or, what if you decided to type out an entire blog while thinking about doing the second item as a not-that-sub-conscious effort to effectively end up procrastinating both thingies at once and comfort yourself knowing that hey… at least you’re getting some writing done?  

Okay. That’s it. Exercise time.

<Five minutes later and panting> Man, that was NOT fun. But, I got in my cardio for the day. And it took much less time than I’d expected. And I’ll now channel the anger I feel due to my achy and protesting muscles into getting those veggies chopped.

I need to mention that all of this ground-breaking, self-enlightening thought processes and action happened before 10 am. As the day goes on, of course I’d end up making less disciplined choices about what to get done. And how much time I’d need to do it. And, because of a lack of time as the day wears on, what to chuck altogether. Which is what usually happens.

The bottom line is, (a) prioritize, (b) assign time-boxes to your top priorities, and (c) it’s okay to switch up your priorities a bit if that’ll help you get your most important stuff done.

Point (a) is basically effectiveness (doing the right stuff), and point (b) is one of the key ways through which you achieve efficiency (doing the stuff right).

Don’t underestimate the value of the time box. At the end of the day, I did manage to chop and cook my vegetables, exercise a wee bit, eat healthy, and watch my show. And yeah, it’s such a feat that I’m actually writing about it.

And now that you’ve read about my incredible exploits while you procrastinate what you need to be doing, after you’ve looked up from your screen and closed this tab (and any other procrastination-inducing tabs that you might have open), what top three things really matter to you today, how long will they take, and what are you going to do so that you can tick them off your list?   

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