On control, procrastination and radio stations

I often behave as a procrastinator, in fact, I have for a long time. I probably started the habit in school, where I found out I could put work off until the last minute and still get it done with above average grades. Of course, such practice also tends to bring on above average stress. Still, it felt natural to me.

In the hopes of starting to tackle this poor habit, I recently read Do It Now: Break the Procrastination Habit by William Knaus. One of the hallmarks of some do-it-now style books is that they focus on getting you to build a system based on someone elses methodology. The focus is on keeping lists and setting dates and how to use a calendar. Knaus takes a different and more interesting approach. He focuses on the feelings and obstacles many people experience that shape their procrastination habits. A theme which runs throughout the book is that many procrastinators suffer from intense fears of failure, and as a result tend to put things off. The process of putting things off keeps us from having those uncomfortable discussions with ourselves in the midst of a project: "What if the end result isn’t that great?, “What if I can’t do this?”, “What if I fail?”.

An interesting connection Knaus outlines is that this fear of failure often results in a person’s feeling of need for overcontrol. Because failure is perceived as so scary and to be avoided, the procrastinator darn well better make sure they are a master of their environment. As procrastinators, we build restrictive rules for ourselves as to how things should be done, which conflicts with the fact that in this world, there is usually not one way to get a job done.

What this leads me to is one of Knaus’ most interesting suggestions for attacking procrastination: loosen up. If you are putting things off because you need to control your fears of failure and rejection, work on doing new things. On the surface, it doesn’t seem that practical, in fact it seems somewhat contradictory. Isn’t the procrastinator already loose? Isn’t that why we wait until the last minute to start the task? But in practice, I have found the advice not only to be helpful but provides me a richer life in general.

Keep in mind, I’m not suggesting you go totally masochistic on yourself and subject yourself to things you just loathe, or that you violate your standards in the process. Just focus on pushing your comfort limits within reason.

So here is a brief list of ways to try new things that are nearly painless to do. Some of it borrows from Knaus, and some are my own extensions of his ideas.

  • Get a library card – Next to the internet, the library is the most cost effective way to expose yourself to a wide range of diverse and new material. It had been years since I visited the library. I’m glad I went back.
  • Change your tune – I’m fortunate to have an XM Radio unit installed in my car. One of the beauties of XM Radio is they offer a wide range of music. You can pick from rock, folk, jazz, classical, r&b, country, oldies, music from specific decades, and so on. I discovered that I tended to hover around 1 or 2 channels. Boring and wasteful! Change the channel. Listen to something new. And by new I mean, something you can stand but don’t normally listen to. One week, I selected a new channel for every day. Out of the process I discovered I really enjoy their Luna channel. It’s earned a spot on my presets even. So if you’ve got satellite radio or just FM, spin that dial! If you prefer recorded music, hit up the iTunes Music Store, or even better, emusic. I find emusic useful because they have a good selection of world music, classical, and jazz that I can use to really mix things up.
  • Change the channel – This is pretty similar to the last hint. Next time you are just surfing channels, try watching something different. When it comes to dealing with rigid self restrictions, TV is a good medium to play with. Watch a nearly-unbearable sitcom that you’ve railed on before. Laugh a little, even if it seems like stupid, low brow humor. Do you usually spew vitriol over “reality” TV? Try some, if only for an hour.
  • Pick up a new hobby – Select something creative like needlepoint, crochet, knitting, sewing, painting, calligraphy, model making, origami, scrapbooking, photography, or journalling. Bonus points if you are a guy and think the activity is “chick-like”, or, vice-versa. More bonus points if it requires patience.
  • Knock yourself down a peg – Pick some social activity that you consider “beneath you”. For me, I found I could talk a little about the latest celeb goings on. I consider such discussion way below me, but, I took the time for example to bemoan the recent misfires of the (Tom) Cruise missile with co-workers.
  • Tickle your nose – Introduce some new scents into your life. Change up your cologne, burn a new candle, try some incense. Scent is a very powerful and often overlooked sense.
  • Eat somewhere new – This one is pretty easy. Used to eating at high-brow establishments? Time for some drive-thru. Eating on the go? Slow down and cook a meal, or go out and go gourmet. Of course depending on your fancy, this may cost you either more or less than usual.

—Jul 12, 2005