BeforeYourNext Birthday-DeniseFisher’s Blog

Get fit, get organized, & get your financial affairs in order

Forget About Catching Up – Work Ahead

Posted by denisefisher on January 24, 2009

I am an amateur procrastinator. The fact that I’ve written and posted this blog entry, however, takes me out of the elite league of the pros. I’ve been able to achieve this status, in part, due to this amazing and little-known secret I’ve discovered:

Stop trying to catch up; work ahead instead.

What?

Yeah.

Logic and reality have little place in the world of procrastination. If the land of postponement had any sense of rationality, there would be no justification for delays. Who in their right mind would consciously choose to stall, dawdle, dillydally, and drag their feet on a task that could be efficiently completed in a sensible order and be done with?

And yet, procrastination persists.

So, we need a new strategy to navigate this exotic territory. This calls for some creative game play with your procrastinating mind. In this alternative universe, focus is on pleasure, novelty, and excitement. “Catching up” on unfinished projects involves none of those attributes. Catching up involves drudgery. It’s heavy. And you can never really catch up on everything. While you’re working at tasks on which you’re behind, new tasks and projects are coming in. As you’re working on old tasks, the new ones are piling up, waiting, and aging into “new” old tasks that will need to be caught up on. You’ll never feel like you’re on the forefront of fun, new, innovative activities because you’ll be living in the realm of continuous backlog. Where’s the pleasure, novelty, and excitement in that?

However … what if you didn’t have to languish on the tail-end of outgoing waves of procrastination? What if you could ride the crest of the incoming idea surf and be on the leading edge of the excitement curve? You could even coast on the momentum and ride the project all the way out.

How do you work ahead when you’re already behind? Here are a few scenarios:

Scenario A – the fun new project

It’s Friday morning, and you are busy doing your regular work – taking care of routine tasks and chipping away at your backlog of procrastinated projects. Then, you get an exciting new project to work on. You’re eager to put your ideas on paper and get going with it, even though the project isn’t due until next week. But you still have some unfinished work to complete and you can’t abandon your other duties.

The typical approach

Conventional wisdom would tell you to take care of those unfinished tasks to get them out of the way before turning your attention to the fun project. It might even be suggested that you pace yourself and spend a couple hours each day on the special project, to assure that you maintain a steady tempo and timely completion.

The clash of conflicting worlds

It sounds feasible in theory, but procrastinators don’t run a steady marathon. They go shopping for new running shoes, upload a rocking playlist on their iPod, and then get distracted by the cool new fountain in the park as they’re running by. A slow, even pace could thwart their initial enthusiasm and leave them mindlessly following the pack, gradually falling further and further behind, in a fog of lost momentum, struggling to keep up in a race they no longer want to run.

The procrastinating mind would rather take off with a jackrabbit sprint, with the leaders slowly closing in from behind, and then take a spontaneously discovered shortcut through a climbing and jumping obstacle course, while the crowd saunters by in a steady pace, down the smooth-surfaced longer route.

The work-ahead technique

There is significant unbridled energy in the procrastinating mind that can be harnessed and put to good use with the right direction. In a work-ahead model, you would drop everything else you were doing and concentrate the high energy of your excitement on the new project. You might work through lunch and stay late if you were on a roll. If you reached a point where you needed to pause and determine your next step, you could take care of a few of the more urgent routine tasks while getting a second wind. You would work on it throughout the weekend because you’d be really excited about the progress you were making and the way your ideas were coming together. You would go in early on Monday, eager to share your first draft and have it reviewed and admired by the person you prepare to report to. While you waited for that person to arrive, you would use your nervous energy to clear off and organize your desk. In the process, you would find a few tasks that could be easily completed, and you would find it relatively simple to wrap up a couple of other loose ends. With your desk cleared off, and your mind sharply focused, you would be able to compose a response to an inquiry that posed a mental block several days earlier.

By working ahead, you generate the momentum you need to do some catching up.

Scenario B – the photo collection

You return home from a thrilling trip you took with a small group of close friends. As you download your photos from your camera, you are reminded of a previous birthday party you recently attended and photographed. The party was a momentous occasion and provided a chance to see family and friends that you hadn’t seen in years. You promised to put the best photos from the event onto a disk and send copies to few loved ones who live far away. You enjoy organizing your photos and you even have some music you’d like to add, which would turn your pictures into a memorable slide show. But you really want to check out the photos from the trip and do something similar with them. (P.S. When you create a new folder for the photos you’re downloading, you also notice hundreds of other photos that need to be sorted through (some of which can be deleted, and others which need to be cropped, lightened, or otherwise edited). The thought of dealing with all of those photos is way too overwhelming to think about, however, so you virtually push that task to the back corner of your mind, even though you know that it’s something you need to do “some day”.)

The typical approach

The logical compromise for this scenario would consist of 1) quickly viewing the photos from the trip (but then setting them aside to work on at another time), 2) creating the slide show project for the birthday photos you promised to do, and 3) (in some magical fantasy world) scheduling time to work your way through the other photos in your collection until you are caught up.

What’s wrong with this picture?

Even the non-procrastinators reading this scenario will recognize the obvious disconnect from reality that’s described in Step 3. Is it very realistic to imagine that you’ll ever schedule time to sort through all those other photos? And even if you did envision a plan for such a project, what are the odds that you’ll actually do it? It’s kind of like getting a letter from a dear friend – if you don’t write back within a few days of receiving it, you’re probably never going to write back.

But there are other problems with the designated steps 1 & 2. By viewing the photos from the trip, the enthusiasm for that project is dissipated because, without channeling that energy into some kind of action, the novelty of seeing those photos evaporates. Now there will be two projects that are awaiting your motivation before coming to fruition, and both of them have moved to “catch up” side of the list of things that need to be done.

The alternative? Work ahead.

The birthday party project is already behind, so why double your troubles by moving your new project to the back of the backlog pile? Instead, work ahead … on the project for the trip photos. Use the inspiration of your excitement to organize and edit those photos, put them into a slide show, and copy the show onto disk. Then, capitalize on the rhythm you’ve got going and do the same thing with the birthday photos.

At this point, the logical skeptics will be thinking, “why not just do the birthday project first, and use the same rhythm to then do the trip photos?” This is a perfectly reasonable line of thinking. If we were in a non-procrastinating world. But here’s what tends to happen. The irresistible urge for the new, the novel, and immediate gratification will make it impossible to restrain the procrastinating mind from viewing the new trip photos. And while it may be plausible to imagine that one could then direct this energy toward the birthday project, the initial excitement of seeing the trip photos will have worn off. With anything less than optimal momentum, the wandering mind could lose interest or find a justification for coming back to that project later on. There is no absolute sequence of logic here; this thought process is purely anecdotal and based on experience. But I’d rather not take the risk of trusting rational thought in the world of procrastination.

A few other scenarios (without all the follow-through analysis):

Scenario C – I want to start my own business

You have an idea for a business you’d like to start, but you’re not ready to quit your job. You know that you’ll need money to get things going, and you’ve been told that you need to have a business plan to present to your potential funding sources. The idea of writing up such a tome of information ranks right up there with the thought of cleaning out the garage.

Skip past the logical sequence of writing out your business plan and start collecting photos and prices of equipment, products, furnishings, or fixtures you’d like to have. That could give you the incentive to start a savings plan for your venture. Then use the financial data you’ve collected as the basis for determining your estimated startup costs. Once you’ve put that together, you’ll find that you’ve actually completed a major portion of the financial section in your business plan.

Scenario D – the dinner party

You’re hosting a dinner party this weekend (which is in a couple days), and you’re rather dreading the cleaning you need to do. You also need to go to the grocery store and do a few other related errands, but what you’re really thinking about is your plan for setting up a buffet, using some cool serving dishes you forgot you had, and designing some nifty placecards for the table. You can take it from here.

One final caution

I must advise you of this one warning for using the secret work-ahead process. Because it defies logic and rational methodology, I strongly advise against telling anyone of your unconventional plan before taking action. You could easily exhaust your initial enthusiasm by having to defend or explain your idea, or the rationale behind it, to someone who doesn’t appreciate the meta-physics of the procrastination universe. And you’ll need that burst of energy to reach the escape velocity and break free from its gravitational pull. Good luck on your quest.

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