Resistance is futile

You know how the bad guys in corny movies always say that, usually in a fake German accent? Giff up now, Doktor Jones. Resistance iss futile.

Well, I’ve discovered (or rediscovered) it’s actually much worse than that. Resistance is stressful. Every time you consider doing something you think is going to be hard or unpleasant, and then put it back in the too-hard basket instead, you add to the size of the problem.

“One of the most stressful factors in most of our lives [is] procrastination. Avoiding a subject does not get rid of the stress associated with it. It increases it. The result is that bad time managers are always living with a considerable amount of generalised anxiety.”

Hello, and welcome to my life! I feel as if Mark Forster has been watching me.

I’ve raved before about his book Get Everything Done and Still Have Time to Play. I reread it again last week, and have been putting some of his strategies to good use. As before, I found using a timer to split my time between different tasks helped to relieve stress by making me feel I was making progress on a number of fronts at once.

The other thing that really helped was his technique of assessing your feelings towards the work you have to do. Resistance is not just futile or stressful, it can also be useful! Which is the task you feel most resistance to doing? Make a start on that one.

It’s amazing how good this makes you feel. It’s like a weight being lifted off your shoulders when you finally do something you’ve been dreading. I tackled a few things that have been hanging over my head this last week, and felt so thrilled to be done with them. The stupid part is how not-scary the things I’ve been scared of actually turned out to be when I knuckled down and did them.

So this morning I again asked myself the question: What am I resisting most right now? And the answer came back: Finishing the first draft of Verity. I’ve had only one last scene to write for the last two weeks, and kept finding other things that “needed” doing more urgently.

So I did it.

Yes, folks – nearly two years after I started it, the first draft of Verity Bloom and the Sea of Stars is finally finished. Imagine what a proud mother I am.

Sure, it’s probably crap. But it’s finished crap. Thank you, Mr Foster.

Get Everything Done by Mark Forster

I’m feeling evangelical today, so let me tell you about my experiences with two very different books in the self-help organising/time management genre.

I read Getting Things Done by David Allen at the end of 2008 and found it full of great organisational ideas. I particularly liked the one about getting all your mental to-dos out of your head and into some centralised list so you don’t forget anything. This frees your mind from the stress of trying to remember all these bits and pieces, and allows you to focus on whatever your real tasks are.

Good idea, I thought. Must try that. If using a paper-based system rather than a computer program, he advised getting a diary big enough to fit weekly lists. So last year I had a lovely big diary with lots of room for writing lists and notes as well as my appointments. I’m a stationery geek and a listophile (if that isn’t a word, it should be!), so it should have been a great system for me, right?

Sadly, no. The beautiful diary, which I really did love – so many extra features! – was too big to fit comfortably in my handbag, so most of the time I left it at home. Can you say Diary Fail? I never had it with me when I needed to check or add appointments. So this year I’m back to my usual small, un-beautiful diary.

The other big problems with the system, for me, were:

(a) I’m a procrastinator; and
(b) I’m a procrastinator.

I’m sure there are people for whom the system works beautifully, and I’m not knocking it, per se. I’m just saying I’m not one of them. I loved making the lists, but as the year marched on I grew more and more depressed about how few items I was crossing off. Nor was this a new experience for me. See (a) and (b) above.

What I needed was not a system for planning and organising what I needed to do. Being a listophile, I’m quite good at that part already. What I needed was a way to make myself do the things on the list.

Enter Get Everything Done and Still Have Time to Play by Mark Forster. Who could resist a title like that?? I read this one towards the end of last year, and have since reread it, highlighter in hand (which felt vandalistic and shocked my children, but there were so many passages that seemed to be written just for me it was like a religious conversion. Praise the Lord, I have Seen the Light!).

Written by a procrastinator, for procrastinators, it points out what I had already discovered from my list-and-diary fail of 2009. Organisation systems, priorities, schedules, etc, are great for people who have no problem getting stuck into action, but they don’t really help people whose main problem is with the actual starting.

So instead of these, it offers strategies to help you actually do the things on your list. One that is working really well for me helps with that perennial problem of having so many things to do that you don’t know where to start and instead do something else, so none of them get done and they’re still hanging over your head. (I used to think I was the only idiot who sabotaged myself like that, but after reading this book I realise I’m not alone here!)

I pick three or four main tasks and set the oven timer for 15 minutes. Until the timer goes off I work as hard as I can on the first task. At the end of the 15 minutes I stop immediately, reset the timer and start work on the second task. I go on this way, rotating through all the tasks. It sounds daft, and I do feel a bit stupid setting and resetting the timer, but it really does work.

It’s the power of the deadline. I can do an enormous amount of work if I have a deadline. Make a quilt for someone’s birthday next week? No problem. Write 50,000 words in 30 days? Sure thing. Yet without a deadline I flounder around and fill up the days with busyness that doesn’t achieve anything.

In three days, my trusty oven timer and I cleaned out the pantry, a horrendous job I’d been putting off for six months, just by alternating that job with working on my revision of Man Bites Dog, making a quilt and a couple of other big tasks. Knowing that time is literally ticking away motivates me to focus on the task, so I get much more done in these short bursts than if I just allowed myself to work on it till it was finished. Plus I don’t get bored. This trick also helps with that panicky feeling of being overwhelmed by all the other jobs that are still hanging over your head, by allowing you to make progress on several things at once.

And this is just one of the helpful strategies in the book. If you’re a procrastinator like me – and I think there are a lot of us out there! – this is a truly useful book.

I’d tell you more but the oven timer is ringing …

Writing routines

I haven’t done a post about writing in a while.

Don’t get excited. This isn’t going to be one either. More of a thinking-about-getting-ready-for-writing one. And if you think that sounds like procrastination, it’s juuuust possible you’re on to something there. Nevertheless …

With Baby Duck starting school in a month, I’ve been contemplating the vast amounts of time that are about to open up for me. Well, maybe not that vast, but life will certainly be different. It will be strange and wonderful to have several hours to myself every day. Just thinking about it makes me excited, like Christmas all over again – only without all the shopping. Much better.

I want to establish a routine of writing every day. There’ve been some interesting posts on routines and organisation lately, such as Jeff Abott’s series on the organised writer, starting with this one: The Creative Habit and the Organized Writer. Over at Murderati JT Ellison has written three posts on The Writer’s Life, starting with this one. Both of them enthuse over the Getting Things Done system created by time management guru David Allen, so I bought his book (and a couple of others on time management and decluttering, which for me go hand in hand).

Yes, I’m conscious of the irony in adding to the clutter of my house with more books on decluttering. Still, I figure there are worse things to spend your money on, and they make me keen to get started. Not that getting started on new projects is usually a problem for me. It’s more the finishing I find tricky.

The idea I like best from it all so far is to have one central place to keep all your mental notes to yourself, all the flotsam of daily life – be it work, social, school or writing-related. Getting it all out of your head gets rid of the nagging worry that you’ll forget to send the money to school on the right day, or pay the Visa bill or buy flowers for Great Aunt Desdemona or whatever. And if it’s all written in the same place, whether it’s electronic or paper, you know you’re on top of it all and you can free your mind from the stress of trying to remember all these bits and pieces, and focus on whatever your real tasks are.

I’ve certainly missed my share of deadlines, only to discover the relevant piece of paper at the bottom of a pile on the kitchen bench a week later, so I’m familiar with this vague feeling of unease that I’ve forgotten something. Some things I write on the calendar, but not all, so starting tomorrow my new diary will be getting a workout. Onward and upward and all that. I’ll let you know how it goes.

If anyone else has some good organisational tips, particularly writing-related ones, I’d love to hear them.