Twenty-one years ago, psychologist Neil Fiore released his book The Now Habit. Here's a look at his revolutionary book on overcoming procrastination at work and enjoying our free time guilt-free.
Image a composite of a photo by Chris Willis and The Now Habit cover.
Note: All parenthetical citations in this article refer to the page numbers in the 2007 edition of The Now Habit.
If you've climbed out from under a soul-crushing project list, cleaned out and redefined your to-do list, and set firm boundaries between work and play, but you still feel like you aren't handling the weight of broken commitments and unaccomplished work, plain and simple procrastination may be the root of your stress.
The Root of Procrastination
Many people believe that overcoming procrastination is simple: just work harder. The implication is that procrastinators are simply people who aren't working hard enough or who don't have a system in place that helps them to work hard enough. The Now Habit was revolutionary for being the first mainstream procrastination self-help book that focused on helping procrastinators deal with the psychological reasons behind procrastination and skipped the lectures on discipline and motivation. Photo by James Lee.
Instead of treating procrastination like a lazy man's disease that can be cured by a stiff shot of Puritan Work Ethic, Fiore redefined procrastination and the subsequent treatment:
Procrastination is a mechanism for coping with the anxiety associated with starting or completing any task or decision. (5)
The first section of Fiore's book focuses on defining procrastination, its causes and our motivation for procrastinating. Few people could read through it and not see some of themselves in the examples Dr Fiore provides from his practice and his years of treating patients. I can't replace a thoughtful and reflective reading of the first portion of the book in this overview, but I can suggest you reflect on the three main ways people procrastinate:
- ...as an indirect method of resisting pressure from authorities;
- ...as a method of lessening fear of failure by providing an excuse for a disappointing, less-than-perfect performance;
- ...and as a defence mechanism against fear of success by keeping us from doing our best. (25)
Overcoming Procrastination: Observation, Reframing and Unscheduling
Changing your procrastination behaviours begins with an honest reflection on what motivates your habit. Knowing why you do something, however, is only part of the process. Adopting new habits requires solid scaffolding and tools to help you approach work and play in a new way. Here's how Fiore breaks it down:
Get a handle on how you spend your time. Similar to budgeting and dieting, the only way to really understand how you're spending your time is by tracking it. Keep a time schedule. It doesn't matter if you buy a paper-based day planner and fill it in with pencil or log it on your computer using a tool like RescueTime (or any of the other popular time-tracking applications). You can't honestly assess how you spend your time unless you measure it first. Photo by dbking.
Stop talking like a procrastinator and start talking like producer. Language is powerful, and Fiore believes that procrastinators tend to wield its power negatively. The worst time in my life was when, faced with the increase in responsibility and time constraints that come with being a full-time worker, husband and father, I started saying "I don't have time to relax". Do you know what happens when you tell yourself that you don't have time to relax? You allow work to fill every available minute of your day. If you don't have time to enjoy life you might as well be working, right? The minute I stopped saying "I don't have time to relax" and started saying "I must make time to relax", everything changed for the better. The work never went away, mind you, I just had a renewed focus on containing it and keeping it form eating away at my personal time.
Be realistic and productive in your worrying. Non-procrastinators think of procrastinators as lazy and careless. The reality for most procrastinators is that they care way too much. They worry that the work they do isn't good enough (so they put off doing it so they have an excuse for not meeting their own unreasonable expectations). They worry that the worst possible thing will happen if they don't get their act together (they'll lose their job, people will find out they aren't as competent as believed, or they'll fail at accomplishing what really matters to them). Photo by Keo 101.
Fiore asks: What's the worst that could happen? What would you do if it did? How would you overcome that worst case scenario? Worrying paralyses the procrastinator; break through it by assessing your worry as though you were helping a friend. You wouldn't saddle your friend with unreasonable worry or ridiculous theories about what could go wrong — you'd help him see how he could succeed even when it was tough. (As performance artist and speaker Ze Frank puts it: avoid hoarding ideas like they're brain crack.)
Start "Unscheduling" your calendar. On the surface, procrastinators might seem to have lots of fun. They seem to goof off a lot, right? Who hasn't procrastinated away a few hours here or there playing games, surfing time-sink websites or otherwise not really digging into their important work? That kind of behaviour is a sinister fusion of fake work and fake play at the same time. You're unhappy because work is looming over your head, you're unhappy because you're not getting that work done, and you're unhappy because the "play" you're engaging in isn't relaxing because you know you're just avoiding getting work done. You're cheating yourself on all levels.
Fiore encourages procrastinators to get away from pre-emptively scheduling work and focus on unscheduling. Unscheduling is massive shift in thinking from how most of us use calendars and schedules. Rather than start by filling the calendar with the work you want to do, you start by scheduling fixed commitments and play. You reverse your calendar and begin with the premise that you need (and deserve) at least one hour of play and relaxation a day and at least one day of work off a week. You schedule those first, as well as previously committed time — like when you sleep, eat, exercise, commute to work, and other blocks of time you must expend each day.
Why do this? Fiore highlights how procrastinators are almost always very poor at gauging the amount of time available for tasks. You don't have 24 hours in a day to devout to work. You have to tend to all your other commitments — like spending time with your family, walking your dog, and living. You need to see those things on the schedule both to help you understand where your time goes and set realistic goals for work and what you can accomplish at any given time. Photo by Erik Fitzpatrick.
Where does the actual work go on this schedule, you ask? It goes on the schedule after you spend 30 minutes of quality time working on it, and not a moment sooner. You don't block out 9am-11am for next Monday with the promise to yourself that you'll "Work on the Johnson Proposal". That sort of scheduling is what creates the stress that you're not doing what you should be doing. Instead, you come into work on Monday, and after you invest focused effort on the Johnson proposal, you put that on your unschedule. Think of your calendar as a time clock you're using to "bill" productive work. You can only punch the clock for the work you actually do. Your calendar becomes a living record of your achievements instead of a prediction of the unrealistic expectations you're bound to be unable to meet. As the weeks go by, you'll start to get a picture of how much work you can realistically do in a day.
Fiore also urges readers to focus on small blocks of time with a focus on realistic output. In addition to limiting the total amount of time you spend working (and recognising the limitations of how much work you can do in the process), focus on limiting the size of your individual blocks of work. If you sit down in front of a task with an open-ended schedule like "I need to finish this entire project by the end of the day", you're setting yourself up for a bout of procrastination. In the mind of a procrastinator, the end of the business day is practically in the next century. Instead say, "I have 30 minutes to work before I must take a small break to relax. What can I realistically accomplish in 30 minutes?".
I've read The Now Habit multiple times, I've given copies away to college freshman I'm teaching (every year I watch them struggle with procrastination and time management), and I've praised the book to anyone who confided in their struggles with procrastination and a sense of despair in the overwhelming nature of their work. If you've read books about procrastination and put them down in frustration after they turned out to be a rehash of the old "just focus and work harder!" shtick, Neil Fiore's The Now Habit is a refreshing look at the habits and thinking that drive procrastination and what you can do to change the way you work and play.