Geetanjali Mukherjee

Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Procrastination: no more tears!

I have a terrible problem with procrastination, especially when I have writing projects. In college I had weeks of stress over papers, which I know is common among students. But my anxiety levels were so high I couldn't function normally, and once even ended up in hospital before a paper was due because I had a severe panic attack that went on for hours, and left me gasping, unable to breathe.

Obviously this is a problem that I needed to fix. Unfortunately, I didn't really think it was something that was fixable, I just felt I would have to live with the anxiety everytime I had a deadline. I just worked as long and as hard as I could, and hoped it was enough.

But recently I was assigned a project that was completely outside my field of expertise, and I felt enormous pressure to do a good job, without letting down those who had trusted me by giving me the project. I already had the research and had written one draft, which I knew was incomplete and lacked a complete picture. However, I didn't have too much other research, and I had another 2-3 weeks to complete it and hand it in.

Then, in an attempt to push off writing I spent some time Googling various aspects of the project, and suddenly found myself with more research than I could handle, and certainly a lot of the information was only relevant tangentially. But I had solved my problem of not enough information, and I certainly could do justice to the report.

I was faced now with a new problem - I had mountains of information, and only limited time to complete the report, and at the same time I had another assignment to complete in the same time frame. Panicking, I basically stared at the computer and wandered around the aspects of the project for a few days, totally overwhelmed at the work in front of me. I had no idea how to even begin incorporating the information into my project.

After panicking for a while, I finally read a book I had been meaning to get around to - Neil Fiore's "The Now Habit". Its a very good book, I really recommend it. Anyway, I took on one suggestion of his, break down the project into smaller chunks and start with only 30 minutes of work. I decided to just focus on reading one report at a time, and keep track of how much I get done. I downloaded a timer app on my iPad, and set it for 30 minutes, and got to work. Amazingly, in about 2 hours of focused work, with breaks in between, I got through 6 reports that day, some of them 40-50 pages long. I used this technique to get through all the reports I had to read, and also writing up the research, and incorporating it into my draft. Throughout, I used the 30 minute technique.

This is the first project that I have completed without crying or calling up my mom and panicking. So far the response to my work has also been very positive. I think my work improved because I focused on one little section at a time, 30 minutes at a time. I told myself I wouldn't waste time thinking about anything other than what I was doing for the next 30 minutes, I could freak out later. And the high of completing large chunks kept me from getting around to freaking out.

What techniques do you use to beat the tendency to procrastinate?

Friday, August 24, 2012

Procrastination: A Familiar Beast Rears its Ugly Head

I have been struggling lately with some work deadlines, and the recurrent beast of procrastination keeps rearing its ugly head. I don't know if my modus operandi is familiar or totally different from what others experience, but faced with a task that is complex, usually writing a paper or report, this is what I do:

I start a word document, then I make a cup of coffee. Then I create a semblance of an outline. At this point I usually have most of my research, but an idea will trigger in my head, and I will chase off after it on Google. 45 minutes later I have downloaded 10 relevant reports, and feel very satisfied with myself. I have loads of great new research - how exciting it will be to add all this to my paper.

At this point I have written a sum total of 20 words - the outline. I reach over for my cup of coffee, untouched. Its gone cold - so I go to the microwave to heat it up. And maybe look for a biscuit - to get my mental juices flowing as it were.

Now I decide to tackle one of the reports I found, and reading through it add a few sentences to my paper. This process feels like torture and a lot of work. I start to panic that my outline is all wrong, or that I have misunderstood the mandate altogether. Or else that I am missing out on an entire section of research that I don't know how to find or what it is, but anyone reading my paper will instantly spot the missing element. I have pysched myself out sufficiently by this point where I cannot handle working on it anymore, and I need a break. I find I am surprisingly hungry and must eat. I find a very interesting movie or program on TV, convince myself that breaks are very important to the creative process, and spend the next couple of hours doing anything but sit in front of the computer.

This pattern repeats itself over the next few days. I spend that entire time hating myself, the project, and every sentence I type into the computer. I also obsessively check the word count or page count, and focus on reaching some target that will prove that I have put in the requisite effort. All that new research I found earlier, now I want to just press the deleter button, its simply more opportunities for me to get it wrong. In the space of a few days, I have gone from excited about my project, eager to put my best effort, to reduced to praying I reach the word count and wanting to turn it in, convincing myself that how it is perceived doesn't matter or that really its quite good.

This is terrible isn't it? I bet this happens to others too, although hopefully not in such a neurotic manner. I spent most of my years in college dreading papers, and I still get all stressed about writing a paper, or doing anything that might reveal how stupid and incapable I really am, underneath. Thus, my procrastination really is about fear, of criticism and judgement. And the belief that there is no better way for me.

I have been reading a lot about this topic lately, and while I don't have any magic solutions yet, and haven't woken up raring to go, I read something that seemed to calm me down a lot. A lot of the fear of writing comes from feeling that I need to control the reaction to my paper, or the effects from my writing. My paper must get me an A+, or get published in a narrow list of journals, or prove to my boss that I should be promoted overnight. No wonder, under the burden of such strong expectations, my writing clams up. The advice I read was to decide to control only what was in my power, and let go of the rest.

I interpreted this in the context of my writing to mean the following:
-To commit to writing what I know, what I have researched, and not to worry about what I don't know
- To commit to make that writing as polished as I possibly can
- To ensure that I proofread and edit the writing that I have done, so it reads smoothly
- To ensure that all the references are correct, in the correct style
- To put in effort on the presentation, so that my work comes across as professional.
- To let go expectations of what happens to the work after I have done my best

I know these sound obvious, but in the past I am ashamed to admit that I have procrastinated so close to the deadline, that I barely have enough time to put it all together, and have not put in enough time on the references, presentation, etc. Usually this is because by this time I am sick of the negative feelings engendered by my fears on the project, and I just want to be rid of it. I am hoping that with the letting go approach, I can calmly work on all that is in my control, probably even raising the quality of my work while reducing the anxiety that usually goes with it.

Do you have any strategies for combating procrastination?

Wednesday, August 15, 2012

Happy Independence Day!

Happy Independence Day to Indians worldwide.

Listening to songs from patriotic movies on the radio makes me nostalgic - for the years I spent a lazy day watching the parade and the PM's speech on TV, and then watching the same movies every year. The movies always had cheesy plot lines and army style songs. They remind me that I miss being in Delhi very much, miss this usual ritual.

No matter what criticisms I might have of India, on this day I am still proud to be an Indian. There really is no other country like it on earth, kinna sona tenu rab ne banaya!

Monday, August 6, 2012

Why do winners win big?

Watching some of the Olympic swimming the last few days I asked myself, why is it that in situations where you would expect the difference between the first and others might only be a few inches, often the winner outpaces the rest? This has been true for a few of the events in the Olympics, but its all the more true in life.

I was reading in Seth Godin's insightful book, The Dip, that although the top flavors of ice-cream sell far more than the other flavors, vanilla, the best-selling flavor, sells almost double that of the second-best. There are probably many more examples of this, but it actually really surprised me.

To rise above the rest and get to the top creamy layer requires a lot of effort and hard work. Then what additionally separates the one right at the top from the others? What did the gold medalist do differently from the silver and bronze medalists? Is it a question of superior talent? I learnt from The Talent Code that is not the case. Is it a different attitude? Whatever it is, there has to be a significant difference from the best and the rest, and I am wondering what that is. 

Let me know if you figure it out...

Monday, July 9, 2012

Half-Yearly Review

Half the year is over - we are already into July 2012. Can you believe it! This is a good time to re-look at our New Year's Resolutions, if we made any and still remember them, and see if any of them can be salvaged in time.

My resolutions were more vague this year, none of the 'I will lose 30 pounds' stuff that invariably makes you feel bad about yourself on 31st December. I decided instead to focus on inner transformation, which is vague enough to be encouraging but not so vague that I cannot measure progress. What are all the ways I have attempted to accomplish this, that is another blog post.

The reason I am leading with this is to explain - one of the ways I interpret this transformation is to be true to myself - and voice my real thoughts and feelings, which in some ways I was hiding. Out of fear that I would be judged by others, I judged myself and hid behind a veneer of boring.

So my new half-yearly resolution - express my true thoughts - through this blog. A lot of people may find this is very easy resolution, but to me its surprisingly hard, as I second-guess every word and thought, critiquing myself far more harshly than most critics I would encounter.

So here goes, a leap of faith and a promise of adventure!

What half-yearly resolution are you willing to attempt?
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