Initially, this was supposed to be a single post. But it’s turned out to be 3 different posts. I considered splitting it up, but decided against it – because they’re all similar in theme.
I’d like your thoughts on it – if you have any.
Part 1: “Leaving the procrasti-nation”
Like many people, I went back to work recently, after the end of year holidays.
Unlike school or varsity, where you sometimes – depending on the person, of course – dread going back for a new year; being an adult and going back to work is different: There is no new class you go into. No new subjects or courses that replace the previous year’s ones. No formal, scheduled annual advancement to a higher level of what you’re doing.
You have your holiday, go back to work, and – unless you’re in something like an internship in which you move between different areas of the company – you go back to the same job; with the same people; in the same place.
I didn’t fret so much about this, when I went back. What I worried about, a little, was my productivity.
A problem in the making
Towards the end of last year, things at work started getting a bit dull – in my mind at least. Most of 2006 was a really busy year, always lots of work, different projects to work on, and the general variety and high demand that brings out the best in me when it comes to working.
But towards the end of the year, things slowed down a bit, and it was a kind of in-between stage: not dead quiet, and not hectically busy. And those are the times where I’m vulnerable to procrastination and boredom.
So, first day back (2nd of January), I thought I’d go slow and ease into work again. Not an unreasonable idea at all. I took it easy; didn’t do too much, and thought I’d ease back into the groove of working again – since it requires a totally different mindset to the carefree relaxation of holiday time.
Unfortunately, the same projects I was working on prior to year-end were the same projects I came back to. Nothing new.
I felt those projects – that work – to be rather boring; unchallenging. Not something that required the use of my brain that I’d like in a working situation. So, it ended up being 3 days of not getting much done; and feeling bad about it.
The 4th day, though, was different. I don’t remember WHY, exactly, but it proved to be very good – very productive: One of the projects required putting together an article about a product they’re implementing. I’d put this off for a long time, for reasons I can’t quite remember. But that Friday, the work ethic just kicked in, and thankfully, I got a very good bit of work done. The fact that it was the kind of thing I enjoy (i.e. the process of writing and piecing together things) helped enormously.
Anyway, so week 2 of 2007 and now that the exciting work was done, I hope that the momentum will continue. But it doesn’t, and I end up feeling bored by those other projects again; and spend a lot of time NOT working on them, when I knew I should have been doing them.
Things got bad, and I realised this is a major, major problem. Not in the sense of the task having a deadline which I wouldn’t meet – because it doesn’t really have a deadline. But in the sense of a very bad habit developing. I know, from the past, that motivating myself to work on something – when it doesn’t particularly appeal to me – is a serious problem.
In some cases, its not that the work is actually boring or unchallening – its just that thats how I *perceive* it to be. So I put it off; or start working on it and get very easily sidetracked by other things.
Thats the problem. A big problem.
You know how employment ads sometimes talk about wanting a “self starter”? Well, I certainly am not a self starter when it comes to work I don’t want to do.
Breaking the habit
Anyway, last year, I had saved an online course called “Motivating yourself to perform”. It deals with:
I decided that sitting there, feeling frustrated about ‘boring’ work but forcing myself to try and do it, was getting me nowhere and in fact harming me. So, I remembered this course and decided it was time to continue with it. (I’d started it last year, but, due to work to do at work, couldn’t continue at the time).
I printed the course, went and found a nice shady spot outside, and started ‘studying’ it.
Though I highly recommend this course, I’m not going to give you all the details of it – obviously, since that would take too long, and its a copyrighted course. But I will try to summarise the points that impacted me, and made sense to me. (If you want the full course details, let me know)
Not much to say about this. The benefits of motivation, and the need for motivation, are pretty obvious. They talk about these, as a starter for the rest of the course.
Basically, they say that in order to increase your motivation, there’s 3 goals you should aim for:
* Overcome procrastination
* Apply self-discipline
* Practice self-leadership
They break down the signs of procrastination, the causes of it, and suggest strategies to overcome it.
Many of us say that we procrastinate, but we don’t always realise WHY we’re doing it. In order to overcome it, you’ve got to know WHY you’re procrastinating; and then implement certain methods to try and beat it.
Some of the causes of procrastination which they mention are:
- Fear of emotional discomfort: for example, you think the task/situation could make you feel insecure or embarassed.
- Fear of failure: If you think you can’t succeed, you try to avoid the task/situation.
- Perfectionism: You put things off because you have very high expectations of yourself, and don’t think you’ll be able to complete the task to the standard you set for yourself.
- Excitement: You may recognise this as ‘Last minute syndrome’. You thrive on excitement and pressure, so you don’t do the work, and end up having to do it at the last minute.
- Rebellion: You rebel against the task, for whatever reason. E.g. you think the task is boring; you believe completing the task doesn’t bring any important rewards; you don’t agree with the task.
Obviously, procrastination can be a major problem. Not only in the professional side of your life (i.e. your studying / working), but it can also become a bad habit that carries through to your personal life.
They recognise that it can be difficult to overcome procrastination, so they suggest that a combination of approaches should be used.
Some of these are:
a.) Focus on the benefits and costs: List the benefits that you’ll get after completing the task; along with the costs you’ll pay if you don’t complete the task.
Some of the benefits can be:
- The burden of the work is lifted. (i.e. its over and done with)
- You’d feel good about having been productive
- The work you did will be of benefit to someone else.
And some of the costs could be:
- By not doing it, you could cause problems for other people who you work with. (i.e. they may need your work to do their work)
- You could harm your own reputation, and be seen as someone who doesn’t do the work they’re supposed to do.
- You could feel bad because you didn’t do the work you were supposed to do. You were unproductive – you wasted a lot of time and at the end of it, are in a worse position.
This, I think, is a right-brain strategy: something which should apeal to the rational parts of a person.
b.) Determine your concerns: Write down the reasons why you don’t want to do the task; then review those reasons – out loud, even. Then decide whether your concerns are valid, or whether its mostly just in your head.
I’ve found that writing is an excellent ‘release’ for me. Not only does it let you release the things that are in your head; but, through writing them down and thinking about them, you come to realisations about them. So, in essence, its not only an opportunity to let go of things that could weight on your mind – but it can also be a learning experience.
c.) Manage the task: A very, very important strategy, which involves breaking a task into small, manageable pieces. Then, start with the smallest / easiest ones, and go one piece at a time.
Firstly, the breaking down of the task is a great way of handling things which seem very big to you. It helps you see that it can be done; and its not this impossible thing that would require superhuman effort.
While studying, in the Info Systems courses, I’d find that in most courses, there would be mention of:
Q: “How do you eat an elephant?”
A: “One piece at a time”
I always found that a rather odd metaphor; and wondered if I.T. educators had a special fondness for eating Elephant meat )
But the concept is a very good one: break something big into smaller parts, and go one step at a time, and it won’t seem so difficult anymore.
As another saying (this one without Elephants ) goes: “The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step”.
d.) Use rewards and punishments: You could call it bribery, you could call it incentive – but regardless of the words, its all the same thing: if you want something, a reward, you’ll do what you have to do to get it. They suggest the reward should be something more than just the benefits of completing the task.
By setting a reward for a task, you help motivate yourself, because you have an end-goal in mind. And the goal, importantly, is NOT “the task will be over and done with” – but instead its a reward that you really want. (Chocolate, anyone? )
On the other side of it, if you don’t finish the task, you will punish yourself. The punishment should be something you don’t like to do – which is productive – such as filing or cleaning your desk or whatever it is you avoid because you just don’t like it.
This way, you gain something both ways: the reward, if you succeed and finish the task; or some of your unwelcome stuff being done, if you don’t finish the task.
Deadlines – realistic deadlines – are important for this strategy.
There’s a few other great strategies, but thats all I’ll mention for now.
That’s as far as I’ve gotten with the course, and I hope to continue with it in the coming days and weeks.
I think its really important to take on these kinds of courses, this kind of reading – things that will help you and add value to you – once you start working. Studying, learning, never ends. And, importantly, we shouldn’t assume that learning – once you start work – must be confined to a course the company sends you on, or a class you take on your own.
There’s a lot of information and knowledge out there which can benefit us – especially those of us who are still quite early into our careers. These are things we can pick up to help us improve not only our working lives and productivity; but concepts we can apply to other areas of life too. And we can pass them on to others too – whether they be those younger than us, or even those older.
Part 2: “The Cage”
Sometimes at work you just feel closed in. Bored by what you’ve got to do; restricted by the times you work; and caged in by the physical environment you’re in. We have such lovely weather in this country, such beautiful days throughout the year – but working in an office, or indeed working in general, you don’t really get to enjoy that beauty so much. Its gotta be on a short lunch break, or a short tea break or something similar – where you know there’s a time limit; you don’t have the freedom to just sit in the sun for hours, enjoy the breeze, watch the clouds.
The idea of structured worktimes – work from this time to that time; then have a break of x minutes; then go back and work this time to that time – would be fine if we were robots. But we’re not. We’re human. We don’t work like machines on an assembly line. We don’t crank out output in a mechanical way, keeping the same level of productivity for the whole time we work.
It took me a while to realise this – realise that this idea of highly-structured work times just does not suit me. Maybe that kind of structure is the conventional way things are done, and maybe thats why I thought it to be the ‘correct’ way.
But I know now that its not ‘correct.’ Not for me, at least.
Procrastination aside, if I’m feeling tired or bored or dull, then sitting at a desk, trying to do work does not yield much at all. Lots of times I get sleepy; lots of times I get frustrated; and many times I get distracted – with the Internet available and no boss or supervisor checking up on you, there’s no limit to the amount of time I can end up wasting. (Ok, sometimes its not a ‘waste’ – but you’re supposed to be working; so doing your own thing doesn’t count as ‘productive’ from the employer’s perspective).
So, rather than holding onto the idea that
”I’ve gotta be responsible: this is designated work time, so I’ve gotta be at this desk working”
I realised that this, like a lot of things in life, does not always conform to a conventionally-accepted way of doing things. You’ve got to be able to be flexible, fluid – adapt to the situation you find yourself in.
This doesn’t mean being ‘irresponsible’ by leaving your work and going to do something else totally unrelated when you have an attack of the sleepies / boredom.
It just means that at that particular moment, sitting there, *trying* to work, isn’t going to work. So you’ve got to do something different. Or get out of there completely and go somewhere else, so that your mind doesn’t feel suffocated, imprisoned by the working environment you spend so many hours in.
Unfortunately for me, my escape routes became rather routine – same walks, same places. And although they’re different to this office, they can – in themselves – become their own ‘prisons’, in that they’re the same places with nothing new.
Obviously, unless you can take a helicopter (or time machine, or other teleporting device ) to some completely different place, you’re going to be restricted by the general physical environment you’re in. You can’t go that far away from the place you work.
So, the trick, I think, is to adjust your mindest to one of ‘new eyes’: see things with new eyes, new perspective; and don’t let places and things become repeated to the point of routine. Funny, I was just watching an episode of “Scrubs” which touched on the same thing, and the answer there was to ‘notice the subtle differences’ in the same situations that you encounter over and over again.
If your employer allows the level of independence that you need (for me, its that I can manage my own time and work, and am not micro-managed), then you get to exercise your imagination and come up with different ways to try and break out of the cage.
And if you can manage to do that, and incorporate that as an essential part of your working life, I think you’ll be relatively well off when it comes to the demands that work makes of you both in terms of time and mental effort.
Part 3: “On a related note”
Its amazing how things come together sometimes. The stuff mentioned above was, primarily, motivated by problems at work. There’s a book I started reading recently which fits nicely with the idea of changing your habits, consciously changing things, to try and improve your life. One of the things mentioned as a cause of procrastination, perfectionism, is something which is prevalent within me, and its something that I know is a bad habit. But the gap between knowing there’s a problem and knowing how to fix it, can sometimes be a (not so) merry-go-round of different strategies which seem good when you start them, but become routine and lose their meaning through repetition and mental laziness (i.e. not reminding yourself WHY you’re doing it).
Sometimes, simple advice – things you already know – can make a difference when it comes from someone else. And this book – the few pages I’ve read so far – is full of things like that. I’d recommend it to anyone who feels overwhelmed at times, by all the things coming their way, and all the new responsibilities they face. (Quite pertinent for those who are officially moving into their adult lives)