Unsticking and anti-procrastination

29 September 2011 by Jennifer

Ideas from various people on the subject of getting on with things, getting unstuck etc.

I did write something about this before, from my own thinking: the “Gearing up” metaphor, and a follow-up article giving examples. But this article is about ideas I’ve liked from other people, on similar territory.

Here we have

Motivational surface tension

I already microblogged about The Procrastination Equation:

Not great fave, but liked evolution bits & metaphor of breaking “motivational surface tension”.

(In case anyone’s not familiar with the original thing that he’s drawing the metaphor from, here’s Wikipedia on the literal meaning of surface tension, i.e. about how liquids behave.)

In fact there’s more than one metaphor in the text – a little constellation of them, all about difficulty changing state & getting into the new thing:

… many find that the hard outer shell of a chore, the first few minutes, remains the initial obstacle. How many times have you put off a task only to realise it wasn’t so bad once you got started? Cleaning, exercising, and even writing are often difficult at first.

It is a bit like swimming in the lake by my in-laws’ cabin, just north-east of Winnipeg (the coldest city in the world with a population greater than 600,000). The water is deliciously invigorating but, for most, the initial temperature shock is an effective barrier against reapling the subsequent reward. By focusing solely on the initial jump off the dock, I can plunge in and, after a few intense seconds, enjoy myself.

An extremely short-term or mini-goal, then, is excellent for busting through such motivational surface tension. Ten-minute goals are an application of this technique, such as the ten-minute clean-up around the house.

Consequently, if you have trouble writing, just sit down and type a few words. If you don’t want to exercise, at least get your workout clothes on and drive to the gym. Once you have completed your mini-goal, re-evaluate how you feel and see if you are willing to immediately commit to a longer stretch.

Having broken through that motivational surface tension and immersed yourself in the project, you, like most, will opt to continue.

This is definitely relevant to me.

The Now Habit

And here’s my micro-blog summary of The Now Habit:

Good ideas. One to re-read. “I can take one small step.” “When can I start?” “I must take time to play.”

These were my three favourite angles from a set of five in “How to talk to yourself”, which is itself part of a whole system. I recommend the whole book! but wanted to share these little gems in particular, and keep them handy as a reminder to me.

Note: I’ve added some paragraph breaks into the book quotes, just to make them easier to read on screen.

When can I start?

Telling yourself “I must finish” keeps you focused on the completed product somewhere in the future, without ever telling you where to start. “Finishing” is in the vague distance, a long way from where you may be now in terms of skills, confidence, and perspective. This focus will make the task seem even more overwhelming, almost impossible. …

Replace “I must finish” with “When can I start?”

“When can I start?” … works like a feedback device that pushes any wavering focus back to the starting point of the project.

And when it is impossible to start now, “When is the next time I can start?” works to preprogram you for a directed and easy start-up in the near future, with a clear picture of when, where, and on what you will be starting.

I must take time to play

Replace “I don’t have time to play” with “I must take time to play.”

Actually, Neil F’s reasoning for this statement and my reasoning for it are different. Here are some extracts from his:

Statements such as “I’ve got to work all weekend,” “I’m sorry I can’t join you, I have to finish this project,” “I’m busy tonight, I’m working under a deadline” will make you feel the resentment toward your work that comes from long periods of deprivation and isolation. Repeating these statements creates the feeling of having a life of obligation and demands that cause you to miss the things other people enjoy in life. …

Insisting on your regular time for exercise, for dinners with friends, for frequent breaks throughout the day, and for frequent vacations throughout your year increases the feelings of inner worth and respect for yourself that are at the heart of unlearning the need for procrastination. Knowing that you have something to look forward to in the near future – a firm commitment to recreation and time with friends – lessens the dread of difficult work.

Well, most of my work, I don’t resent at all – I enjoy it once I get going! (And “deserving” isn’t a meme that I hang out with much at all.) If I fail to take breaks, it’s quite likely just to be a failure to switch states – as described by the surface tension metaphor – quite similar to my failures to get going on work.

But, for different reasons, I still completely agree that planning breaks from “work” is a good idea. For me, it’s about refreshment and variety.

If I take an hour out to go swimming, I can pretty much guarantee that I’ll have some good ideas while I’m swimming, as well as feeling emotionally more contented afterwards. If I have a long chat with a friend, I’m very likely to come out of it feeling “unloaded”, and with a clearer picture of what’s going on in my life. Even going off to help a friend reorganise – which is often physically demanding – is a change of scene that can raise my energy.

Perhaps I should add a bit into Neil F’s catchphrase:

Replace “I don’t have time to play” and “I get stuck into something and I forget to take a break” with “I must take time to play.”


While discussing destuckification, it would be remiss of me not to refer you to the genius who is Havi Brooks! (And her duck Selma.)

Here are some of Havi’s wise thoughts right here right now, and you don’t even have to go to the library for them:

Doing just one thing.

Destuckification 101

Avoidance! Oh, and getting out of it.

Feel free to comment with your best unsticking tips :-)

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