Procrastination and Hyperproductivity

bullet journal

Early on in my life, I recognized that avoidance and procrastination were a downward spiral. Putting things off only leads to stress, which impacts the ability to do things that aren’t the thing you’re trying to dodge. Not doing a thing doesn’t make it miraculously go away. Doing it does. It wasn’t until someone made me think about how I managed to be so prolific in terms of how much I was able to get done that I made the conscious connection between procrastination and hyperproductivity.

For me, there are two specific pain points. These are the reasons I’m tempted to procrastinate. The first is not knowing what to do. This is why I outline everything. If I look at what I need to do and I’m still locked up, I break the tasks down even further until the chunks seem clear and manageable. Yes, this can take time, but it’s worth the investment. It beats sitting around, staring at the walls, waiting for inspiration to strike.

Procrastination and Hyperproductivity

This is also why I never outline a project on the same day I’m writing it. It’s why I set up my bullet journal for the coming week on Sunday. There’s no pressure that I’m supposed to be doing any of those things at that moment. Planning is the only task I need to accomplish, and I love planning. Outlining and making lists gives me time to process what has to be done. I have a chance to think before I dive into it, even if it’s just cycling through my subconscious. It’s also rewarding to check off the sections of the outline later as I complete them. In my mind that future satisfaction starts to build up enthusiasm.

The second is worrying about the outcome. What if I do this, and it fails? If you never start, you’ll never finish, and it you never finish you can’t fail. For me, this gets worse the more important the outcome is, and the less confident I am about my ability to succeed. That’s normal, but when you have an anxiety disorder, it’s sheer hell. If I’m being honest, one of the reasons I push myself to be hyperproductive is so if one thing doesn’t work out, there’s something else going. I mitigate my risk and hedge my bets.

Productivity as Anxiety Management

What I’ve learned to do is lean into my fear of anxiety. I am more afraid of having a panic attack than of failing at any given thing. If you’ve ever had a panic attack, it literally feels like you’re dying. The first time I had one, I thought it was a heart attack. I can remind myself of all of the thing I failed at, survived, and recovered from. That is less scary than the effects of anxiety. Doing things, even odious and frightening things, makes them go away. Getting things done gives me a sense of control and accomplishment.

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Bullet Journal for Project Management

The great thing about bullet journaling is that your process is allowed to evolve. The needs of current projects won’t be the same as future projects, so they’ll need to be tracked differently. What works for me today might not be what’s most effective tomorrow. Over the past two years I’ve played around with a number of different ways to use my bullet journal for project management. What I’m currently doing isn’t perfect, but it’s working in the moment so I thought I’d share.

My first tip is to use pen for anything that is absolutely, positively unmovable. For tasks and dates that might change, or can be allowed to slip, use pencil. This seems obvious, but it took my a while before I stopped running through copious amounts of correction tape.

Bullet Journal for Project Management

Everything starts with the project spread. I like working with facing pages, so I can have more information all in one place. At the top of the left-hand page I write the name of the project. Underneath that, I write the hard deadline if there is one.

Below that “title line” I divide the page into two columns. The left column is a future log. Most projects I work on don’t go on for months, so I sort it by weeks. Any milestones, benchmarks, fixed appointments, and mini-deadlines get noted there. Leave space to add things to it. Keep a spot open to thread, so if you need to expand a week on another page you can find it.

The right column is a task list. If you know the order things need to go down, great. I try to keep this high level so it can double as a mini-index. The smaller pieces can be documented elsewhere, if they need to be written down at all, but I’ll get to that. Leave room on each line to add page numbers and thread it. There should also be space to add to the list as needed.

On the right-hand page is where the daily log begins. I put the day and date, and list out any tasks that need to be accomplished. This is where high-level tasks can be broken down into smaller steps. I rapid log anything of note: things I learned, problems that arose, and so on.

Control Follows Awareness

As things are completed, I check them off at the future log, the task list, and the daily log as needed. This allows me to quickly scan through at the end of the day and see open loops. That helps me to carry things forward to the next day, or to reschedule it on the future log.

For some projects I’ve used the right-hand page a bit differently. I’ve split it into two columns, marked “events” and “pending”. Events are time-dependent things like meetings and conference calls. These get copied onto my main bullet journal future log and monthly logs, so I don’t forget them.

The pending column is for anything I’m waiting on. It’s the same as on a Kanban board. I can’t move forward on X until Y is done. No work can be done on A until we have B. These get written in pencil, and they’re in only place so I can remember them. As they get resolved I note it in the daily log and erase it from the pending. I could check it off, but this method makes it so I don’t have to browse. Things that are in the pending column tend to be urgent and important.

Two Journals for Work/Life Separation

At the moment I have a separate bullet journal just for project spreads. I did this so when I’m working on something, that has my complete attention. I’m not looking at my personal errands, my grocery list, or anything other than the work that needs to be done. I can take it into a meeting and not have to worry about anyone seeing my private stuff mixed in with the business. It also means that when I’m in my personal bullet journal I’ll see the events and deadlines, but not the esoterica. I can focus on life stuff, and have some separation from work.

That’s my process. I’d love to hear your thoughts and suggestions. How do you manage projects using your bullet journal?

Embracing Incremental Improvement

Have you ever run into someone you haven’t seen for a while, and they tell you how much you’ve changed? You don’t think anything is different, but to them it’s drastic. Because we see ourselves every day, we don’t notice incremental improvement.

One of the things I like about bullet journaling is the ability to see change over time. If I have set things up correctly, and am tracking things properly, I can see progress. It doesn’t matter if it’s a habit I want to build, a project I’m working on, or not breaking the chain on my daily word count. I have the ability to go back and look at where I started. Comparing that point to the present can be dramatic.

Embracing Incremental Improvement

Incremental improvements are better than drastic changes for a number of reasons. First, they’re less traumatic. If you’ve ever been forced to change the time you go to bed and wake up, you understand. Every person who has tried to quit something cold turkey knows what I’m talking about. You’re not physically or mentally prepared for that kind of abruptness.

Drastic changes also don’t stick. It’s easier to revert to old patterns of behavior. New projects fall by the wayside. Part of it is because they’re hard. They don’t fit with the established flow of your life. It’s disruptive to everything else, not just the thing you want to do or not do.

The downside, of course, is that we want it now. We’ve been raised in a culture of immediate gratification. No one wants to invest the time, put in the hard work, and wait for something good to happen. The thing is, though, that we don’t appreciate things that come easy. When we have to make sacrifices, struggle, and have patience, we’re more likely to cherish the results. We’re less likely to backslide, because we don’t want to invalidate the progress we’ve made. Most importantly, we gain a sense of accomplishment, because we feel that we’ve earned the results.

To Do More, Do Less

At any given moment I have several projects going at once. While I’m less productive than I used to be, for voluntary and involuntary health reasons, I still manage to get a lot done in a day. Being organized helps, but it takes more than using your time efficiently. The key is to focus on the right things. Activity is not automatically productivity. “To do more, do less” sounds counter-intuitive.

Some of the “busy work good, down time bad” mindset come from the paradigm of the 8-hour day and the 40-hour work week. We’re used to being paid for time served, not the results we get. All you need to do is look busy, or at least busy enough to justify your wages. When you’re self-employed and only make money from your useful output, it changes your perspective. Every moment has to count.

Do Less: Abandon Multitasking

No sane person is still claiming that this is a good idea. Note that I didn’t say that people aren’t still pushing this idea. Employers want to squeeze every ounce of value from labor, and a lot of them still think that humans can not only do several things at once, but that they’re able to do them well. Your brain doesn’t work like that. It may look like you’re doing two things at the same time, but you’re rapidly switching back and forth from one to another. That’s inefficient and burns energy. It also prevents you from getting into the zone, into a flow state where creativity and deep work can happen.

Whatever you’re doing, give it your full attention. Even if you don’t buy that you’ll do better work, there are other reasons to abandon multitasking. It’s less tiring. It’s more respectful to people you’re working with. The work goes faster, so the odious tasks are over more quickly and you make more progress on the passion projects. People will be impressed with the quality of your work, rather than the dubious achievement of quantity.

Focus on Goals

Once again, you need to stop behaving like an hourly worker. The goal for most job I’ve held has been to survive and not get yelled at. Stop chatting with your coworkers and clean something. Look busy. Justify your paycheck. When you’re self-employed, working in a creative field, or engaged in a passion project, you need to make the time you’ve got count. To do that, you have to understand your goal.

If you know what you’re trying to accomplish, it’s easier to align your tasks with that goal. Does this get me closer to the goal? No? Don’t do that. Yes? Spend time there. It seems easy, but it isn’t always obvious. Cleaning off my desk is something that has to be done, but is it a greater priority than making my daily word count? If it interferes with comfortably sitting at my laptop pounding the keys, then yes. If it can wait, then no.

Think in terms of the larger goal, not the tasks. I invoked making word count, but that’s a task. The goal is to pay my rent. To do that, I need to publish a book. For that to happen, I need to make my daily word count every day until the deadline. Maybe I need to clean my desk for that to happen, maybe not.
For certain, checking email and Twitter aren’t advancing the goal. Certain coffee breaks do, while others are procrastination. Be honest with yourself and know that difference. This takes us to the next point.

Separate Needs from Wants

Not everything that you have to do aligns with your goals. I could say that sleeping and eating contribute to my making word count on a writing project, but that’s a stretch. I need to do those things for independent reasons. A want is an extra hour of sleep when you’ve blocked out that first hour of the day to write. That extra coffee break when you don’t feel like writing is a want, although the mid-afternoon cup to clear away brain fog is, for me, an essential need.

Make time for your wants. Build it into your schedule. All work, no play, and all that. I take planned breaks to check Twitter and play Mahjong. Just don’t confuse your wants with with your needs. You can adjust the resources allocated between the two based on circumstances. When I have a tight deadline, obviously things are needs-driven. If I managed to stay on top of things, and can work at a more leisurely pace, I can schedule a more wants-driven day.

To Do More, Do Less

Focus on what has the greatest impact. It can be a big thing, a couple of medium-sized things, or a lot of little things that add up. This seems like a fancy way of saying “don’t waste time”, but it’s not always clear when a task is just filled. We deceive ourselves into believing that any activity is productive. We rationalize that we did a thing that needed to be done, even if it didn’t need to be done now. If you can tighten things up, you’ll spend more time on the tasks the get results. That, for me, has turned out to be net fewer things overall. It feels like less work, because I’m less rushed. I get to spend more time on the handful of things that matter.

My Patreon Has Officially Launched

Today’s my first day blogging over at Patreon. It’s a bullet journal-adjacent post about doing less in order to do more. Don’t worry, I’m not going to be posting here every time I add something new over there. Posts will be available to patrons there first, and a week later they’ll appear on this site. For a whole US dollar a month you get early access to my blatherings. For five bucks, you get the previous month’s posts collected into an e-zine.

My Patreon Has Officially Launched

The one thing you won’t get over there is me hawking my latest release or my work in progress. That alone ought to be worth a buck. There will be occasional posts on Patreon about things that I’m more comfortable leaving behind a pay wall, to keep the trolls out. Over time the two will develop their own identities, in spite of the shared content. The goal, really, is to have these avenues of self-expression that I can share with people.

Tomorrow’s Patreon post is about how Isaac Asimov and Ray Bradbury have affected the creative processes of both myself and my wife. It’s something that I’ve talked about before, but this is more of a compare-and-contrast of how Katie and I work. She’s an artist, I’m a writer, but there are so many habits we have in common in spite of working in different media. She’s always been a Bradbury worker, I an Asimovian, but both of us have started adapting each others’ best practices.

Anyway, my Patreon has officially launched. Next week you’ll be getting a minimum of 3 to 5 posts per week here as a result. It’s time to start rebuilding this platform, and getting back to the type of blogging that I’ve always enjoyed doing. Hopefully long-time readers are still with me, and we’ll pick up some new friends along the way.