Productivity for nurturers: my [so far, so good] system for overcoming procrastination

I wasn’t always such a procrastinator.

Sure, I’d put off school projects from time to time, but I got enough pleasure out of doing a really good job that I’d usually get to work on them right away.  I liked having time to revise things.  I liked working hard.  It seemed worth it.

I dealt with the usual senior-itis, in both high school and college.  And then I worked a couple of assistant-level jobs where I, for the first time in my life, didn’t feel like the hard work was worth it.  Part of the problem was that I didn’t mesh well with some of my supervisors.  My go-get-’em approach, combined with a few errors of the “you don’t know what you don’t know” variety, made me gun shy.  I didn’t want to try and be wrong and get yelled at, again.  So I started putting things off.  It was extremely stressful.  Not only did I have to deal with the stress of being undertrained or having a boss with unrealistic expectations, I had to deal with the stress of procrastinating.  But, like most issues that involve feeling hurt, it wasn’t a rational decision.

I brought that baggage with me to law school.  I was very much “once bitten, twice shy.”   The instant I felt like I wasn’t understanding a topic as quickly as my peers, I resigned myself to being a second-rate student.  If I didn’t try my hardest, the [relative] failure felt easier to bear.  Don’t get me wrong, I graduated with honors.  I was in Law Review, and the Editor-in-Chief of a specialty journal.  I competed in moot courts.  I did well.  But I think I could have done better, if I had more confidence.

I graduated from Law School nearly two years ago.  Sheesh, that’s a long time ago.  Due to a variety of circumstances, I’m still not working.  I finished the second part of my dual degree (a Master’s in Urban Planning), I studied for and passed the New York Bar.  I waited for Alan to finish his Ph.D., and then moved with him to Connecticut, where I would need to take another bar exam.  That exam is in 10 days, and if/when I pass, I will finally be able to work as a lawyer!

And just this week, I seem to have found a work-around for my now-chronic procrastination.  The only way I can reliably get my house clean is to go on vacation.  I will work and work and work to have the house clean when I return.  I want to come home to a clean kitchen, an empty sink, a freshly made bed with clean sheets, swept floors–the works.  Inviting people over will motivate me somewhat, but going away will make the house sparkle.

Earlier this week Alan came down with a cold.  He almost certainly caught it when he was flying back from spending a week in San Francisco for a conference.  I felt the beginning of the sickness, and decided to take care of future me.  I did all the laundry and put it away, cleaned the kitchen, cleaned out the fridge, made sure I had some prepared food ready to go, gathered the appropriate over-the-counter medications, and filled the electric tea kettle.  I did this for the first time last year, when a similar pattern befell our home: Alan got sick, gave me the cold, but that time he had to leave for the long weekend to go on a job interview.  I knew I’d be home alone, and I wanted to make sure I was taken care of the only way I could: the just-coming-down-with-a-cold me took care of the full-blown-sick-me, through some ordinary time travel.

As I marveled on my ability to get the house so clean, even as I was feeling ill, I saw the connection between my pre-vacation and pre-illness behaviors.  Taking care of myself in the future prevents procrastination!

I also observed this, to a smaller extent, in a few habits I’ve recently developed.  I’ve been setting out outfits the night before, making it a no-brainer to get dressed for the gym, or for the day.  I’ve also become a devoted fan of mise en place, the practice of preparing and measuring out all the ingredients for a recipe before starting any cooking.  Both of these habits make it nicer for future-Eliza to do something easily.

So here I am, 10 days before the bar exam.  And I’ve decided to think of poor Eliza, on Tuesday, one week before the bar exam.  She’ll be stressed and tired.  What can I do for her?  I can review all the outlines in my bar preparation materials, take notes, and transfer them to one 4″x6″ card per subject.  She can carry them around for quick review.  I can read and review all the exam procedures, print off maps to the venue, and get that all set, so she doesn’t have to worry about last minute stressors.  I can also write out a flexible review schedule for the last week of studying.  In addition, I can look over some meal plans, and sign up for some classes at the gym.

I have been more productive today than I’ve been in years with this realization.  I’m definitely in the beginning stages of figuring this all out.  Perhaps I’ll take some time every week to ask myself: what can I do this week to make things easier/better for me, one week from now?  It’s not that different than deciding what I’d like to get done in the following week, in theory.  But in practice, personalizing it, empathizing with who I will be ____________ [when I get back from vacation, when I am in the throes of this cold, when I am a week out from the bar exam, when I’m looking back on this week] makes all the difference.