Leaving the procrasti-nation

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.

Happy reading 🙂


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:

  • Motivation
  • Procrastination
  • Self-discipline
  • Self-leadership

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)

1. Motivation

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

2. Procrastination

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)


11 thoughts on “Leaving the procrasti-nation

  1. Im the queen of procrastination- I try to stop myself, but its become addictive. I tell myself I have to be in the mood to do something, and yes, I also use the old excuse that I thrive on pressure.

    I felt the same today-I finally did stuff and I felt productive. My problem is I’ve got into this bad habit of waking up late (11 ish every day) but thats cos I cant sleep at night, so I wake up feeling lethargic, which sets a bad start for the day. Its a vicious circle.

    Yup, its easy to get bored quickly. And I get bored very quickly!

  2. u know, the thing is that it becomes a habit. today, i had something i didn’t really wanna do – and it became a great opportunity for me to apply what i was studying in this course.

    so, i sat down and listed the causes of my procrastination; and found that – for this particular thing – there were quite a few. most were directly related to the actual task, but some were on a wider issue.

    i also formally recognised – though i knew it before – some other accompanying procrastination habits; the big one being getting a craving for junk food when i’m feeling bored. like, i wanna bribe myself into doing the work.

    anyway, got thru the causes today. still got that project to do – and got lotsa time to do it; so hopefully tomorrow i can start on the strategies to fight it.

    i’m hoping that this – as a case study – will serve as a good preparation for the future, when i face this kinda thing again.

    the trouble with waiting for a mood is that u then become dependent on that mood. and, relying on a mood is quite dangerous, because u may end up not having that mood for quite a long time. the part i started reading yesterday was on self-discipline, and i think that plays a big role in defeating the idea of ‘i have to wait for the mood to strike me.’

    hmm…maybe you should try to adjust your sleep patterns so that u can sleep at night. or, really, just recognise when your naturally productive time of day is, and try to make sure you do the important stuff in that time. and be self-disciplined about it. (i’ve still gotta read up on their suggested methods for self-discipline – hopefully if that makes sense, i’ll say a bit more about it here).

  3. hey dreamlife..
    I have been experiencing the same problem since last week. just dont have any motivation to start doing productive work…

  4. bb-aisha- slms.
    on your sleeping patterns, depending on what time u work or do stuff-exercise at around midday or early evening. light walks or jogs even skipping at home while ure cooking is a good form of exercise for those of us lazy bugs!! but i read that this gives u a boost at a time of the day when most of us are down and it uses up ure energy levels so that by 10/11 at nyt ur yawning on your way to bed!! also a warm glass of milk and honey cures insomnia, honey has many perks an is sunnah rasullulah which can only mean good things 🙂
    anyway hope u sleep gets fixed coz early mornings are the best tym to do the bulk of what u need to…
    peace, al

  5. Dreamlife-slms.
    Thanx for your comment on my 5-piece post!! it brought tears to my eyes-(hey don’t let it get to ur head, im very emotional of late!!lol) anyway u have lots of good reminders and advice I must say, u also very lucky to have that much tym to express them-time is something im grappling with at the moment and kinda envy u (in a good way)  for being able to express ureself, and so well too!!

    Anyway on this post-well hmmm.. whats ther to say that u havent said already? Its like u reading my mind its crazy how we all think the same- I know I always harp on this but seriously—how silmilar we all are is amazing, especially muslims-principle of tauheed I suppose. it really humbles one doesn’t it?
    Looking at the same place with the same set of eyes makes it mighty hard to see different things. But I get what u saying when u say (weird sentence that!) >>to ‘notice the subtle differences’ in the same situations that you encounter over and over again.

  6. But, to flip the coin, a set routine is very important-yes it can become mundane but I find that it really helps with tym-wasting. I find myself always planning my next steps-even my relaxation tym.ok im not that freakish to plan what Ill do in each moment but setting aside moments for certain things saves loads of tym. AND, best of all-Beats procrastination. Its like that movie (when tv was an option for me!)- ABOUT A BOY- in which hugh grant divides his time in half-hour periods. Except with more productivity ofcourse!

    The downside ofcourse is that there will almost always be a day in the week when I just fall short, break down and just go crazy-not sticking to my palnned time slots, but hey maybe that’s part of the plan too!! Anyway I know my posts are not “reader-friendly” as they all over the place-but -this was not part of my time slot!!

  7. On productivity at work-well I suppose u lucky in tht u ure own monitor but then again I would not get anything done if my dragon-boss was not meters away from my desk-space peering in on me hour-on-the-hour saying in an unusually high pitched-voice “any stories I can file yet?” are u kidding me? StoRIES-plural????
    Lol sorry getting personel on ure blog-not good.

    I guess it would be a great idea to get my hands on that book u recommended but unfortunatley my tym, once again, does not permit it. But in a crazily, unworkaholic sense-I love being pushed like this- I love that I vye for tym with my creator- I love that during work I push to get done looking forward to increasing my tym allocation for me and Allah- I love that it’s a struggle to remain patient (which I often loose mind u) whilst listening to my younger sisters very uninformative rantings, making tea for my mom and gran and hanging up washing. It sounds crazy but the moment I sit down to learn about deen-I know that it was all worthit, coz this is what it all boils down to an I appreciate it that much more. But I guess im now entering into the boring zone so ill be off (if I havent reached that threshold yet-wow!).

    Lol- just got a call from the boss’ office. ..ooooh.

  8. But hope u get a job enjoyable enough to motivate u ina few months. I suppose as u say the key is to always keep moving never stop learning and stick to the sunnah way as far as possible-in this way u always re-evaluating ureself always growing coz u always gonna fall short-which also beats procrastination for if u compare your lifestyle and how u spend ure tym to the liestyles of sahabah, well need I say more? It’s a fun struggle, a struggle non-the-less and hopefully Allah SWT will help us all in vyeing for this high level of perfection, albeit the impossibility of reaching it.

    Peace, al

  9. Welcome back Ruby. Long time no see. I think many people experience that this time of year. everyone’s coming back from holidays, and though you’re physically at work again – your mind isn’t quite ready to let go of the holiday yet.

    so, it takes a while to adjust – and i think we should give ourselves that time to adjust so its a smooth transition, and not an extreme one.

    Alia: the exercising things u mentioned – they give you a boost after lunchtime? (thats usually when the lull sets in, and i wish we had an officially-sanctioned siesta period in this country 🙂

    as for the other post/comment – thanx. its important for me to actually express those kinda things, because they become like a record for me – of lessons i want to remember. and through this blog, its also a great way to share with others who can maybe benefit.

    u know, when it comes to advice from anyone, i think the thing to do is look at what applies to you – what makes sense to you. you don’t have to take ALL the advice – or even ANY of the advice that a person gives; u just have to look at your own situation, see what applies and what u want to try, and go for it. basically, you take from it what you want. thats an important thing to remember – the fact that you’re not obligated to take everything that another person may suggest. that doesn’t make u impolite or rejecting them or anything – it just means you’re doing what’s best for yourself, taking the help that you think will help.

    as for time to write all of this – i had to make time for it. it was important, at the time, so i re-arranged things so that i could write it and say what i wanted to say.

    u mentioned, about that recommended book, that time does not permit.

    from very young, reading was something that i enjoyed tremendously. but over time, as i grew up, priorities and interests changed. then, years later, i decided to try and rekindle this love of reading. but it didn’t work.

    i found that, though i wanted to, i didn’t read because either i was doing other stuff as hobbies (which, in actual fact, wasn’t adding much good to my life) or i just didn’t have time because of so much other stuff to do.

    but once again – though not as much as i’d like – i’ve started reading more. and it really is a joy; its great to do something you really enjoy – something that feeds your mind, rather than just be passive and let things enter your mind (as is the case with other forms of entertainment).

    the lesson learnt from all of this is that: there’ll always be things to do, always be things we do out of habit too. we can say “i don’t have time for it” and, through a busy schedule and noticable lack of free time, we can convince ourselves that this is true – that we don’t “have time”.

    but, that perception is only a perception. its the reality we make for ourselves by being so caught up in the idea that we’re overly-busy. or too busy to do things we really want to do.

    if something is important to us, we have to *make* time for it. just like the buffers for salaah – the same kinda concept (i.e. that of re-arranging your time for something important) can be applied to other areas of life.

    we shouldn’t just let what we do be determined by routine or habits. we need to look at the things that make us happy, and make time for that. if it means we discard some of the other things – things that, in reality, don’t add value to us – then so be it.

    in summary, its about adding quality to your own life. and it takes the insight and effort to spot when u can change something; and then the courage to actually make that change for the better.

    with reading book, i find that lunchtime is a perfect opportunity. because its very short chapters (less than 2 pages for each), it means that i can have lunch and read a few chapters, and have time to think about it – all in the space of 25 minutes or so. (finding a quiet place for this is also important)

    another example of this idea of adding quality to your life is some time for yourself at the start of the day – before the day ‘begins’:

    since Ramadaan, i decided that every day before work, i’ll take some time for myself. before i even go into that office – that environment which can be loaded with the feeling of work – i have 15 or 20 minutes to myself in a quiet place, just to get a nice, peaceful start to the day which is not intruded upon by any of the usual things that would face me in the working environment in the coming day.

    whether i just sit there and do nothing; or read something that i want to read; or listen to something i want to listen to – the point is that, before the busy day starts, i have a bit of time just for myself, and i find its a really nice way to begin the day. you’d be surprised, also, at how a short amount of time can be of benefit. for example, even if i get there and only have 10 minutes, most of the time thats all i need.

    its not the number of minutes – not the mathematical measure of time – that matters. its the fact that its personal time, which u can use for whatever you want, and not be worried by the concerns of what you’d face once you do start working on the day.

    i get what you’re saying about planning and routine, and i agree it has its benefits. for me, though, i kinda went to the extreme with that, and learnt that it was just weighing me down.

    so, if you become aware that you’re going too far with the planning, then stop yourself and re-evaluate what you’re trying to acheive with your planning, and whether its having that effect.

    when planning goes too far, and you have perfectionist tendencies, u can end up feeling caged in by your own plans – like u have to succeed in following the schedule, and if u don’t u feel bad about it.

    remember that life doesn’t work according to our plans and schedules -so you have to be able to adapt to situations that arise; whether its from an external source, or internal (i.e. we feel that we no longer want to do something on the schedule, or it won’t benefit us).

    don’t be so stuck to your schedule that you disregard your own well-being in favour of sticking to your initial plans.

    i still do plan, but just not to that degree anymore. i think each person functions in their own way, and they need to find the balance that is effective for them.

    with a lot of things, actually, i think its like this. you can get advice from others, and try things which may work at one point, but they may not work later on – because life is not static. it changes, and we have to know how to be fluid and adapt to changes.

    we learn, through experience, what works for us and what doesn’t, and what a good balance is – and we can then aim for that balance.

    just like you and tv – you don’t watch at all anymore, right?

    i went through a phase like that too, a few years ago. and that was what was right for me at the time.

    after a while, such a big tv-blackout didn’t work for me anymore; and i started watching a bit more. (though still not as much as before)

    i needed that phase, though. it benefitted me a lot:

    it was what i needed to break the habit of tv and the reliance i had on tv for entertainment. and it also gave me the space to see that, though some programming may seem ‘fun’ and light-hearted, there can be undertones, underlying values and messages in those programs – which i don’t agree with. so, it helped me with knowing what i need to filter out, and how to filter it out.

    i’ve never heard of someone enjoying a struggle in the way u talk about it; but its actually a very nice thought 🙂 also goes right back to the verse u quoted in that other post.

    anyway, time to go now. b4 i do though, there’s a project i think u’d really be interested in, and if you don’t mind, i’d like to send you a document explaining it. if you’re interested, mail me at sir.zippopotamus@gmail.com and i’ll send it to you.

    enjoy your day

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