limits

For as long as I can remember, I was always a procrastinator. I remember borrowing Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales from my English teacher, and felt so embarrassed about not returning it for a month that after five years I still hadn’t given it back. A little jolt of anxiety burned its way through my nerves every time I saw it on the bookcase. I have no idea what happened to it in the end: I moved on to university and forgot about the book. But I still remember it, and I am practiced in beating myself up about it.

Procrastinators all have an unwritten list of unfinished projects, and mine probably lists in the hundreds. I have a violin that I never play, a bow I never fire, but getting rid of them just reminds me of my limitations, and as someone from Generation Y, surely I should have no limitations? I can do anything!

These are the limitations I want to discuss today.

There are, it seems, very good reasons to limit yourself. If we look at an average day, it is built up of a series of decisions: some bigger, some smaller. For instance, which side of the bed do I wake up on? What do I wear today? Which route do I take to work? Which shoe do I put on first? Which company do I buy? How do I expand my business? Which of the three excellent candidates do I hire?

Now some of these things are decisions you didn’t even make. You make them so often that they become a habit. If I asked you which shoe you put on first this morning, I think you would struggle to remember: it has becomes a habit. Neuroscience has shown that when you follow a habit, you’re not actually making a decision. What this means is that you are saving your “decision energy” for later. We typically refer to this energy as willpower.

Recent research has shown that willpower, previously thought of as something that you either have or you don’t, is actually more like a muscle that tires over time and actually needs to be refreshed. It can also be strengthened with use.

David DuChemin is an author, photographer and “Chief Executive Nomad” of Craft and Vision, a publisher of books on photography, whom I discovered when listening to photography podcasts. He wrote (and various other authors have written) on the need to limit yourself to allow your creativity to flourish, in his book, a beautiful anarchy. Decision paralysis is well documented as the inability to act when confronted with too many choices; I’ve linked to Barry Schwartz’s tedtalk below which is a good starting point.

The other reason I found to limit myself was lack of time. In 2014, when I started my journey to where I am now, I was working 9–5, I was captain of a squash team, I was a beginning photographer and I had aspirations of doing a half ironman triathlon. I had been married for 5 years and my wife had the usual expectations on time.

I had no time. My main limitation was time, and it was because I said yes to everything. I wanted to do so much! In the end, I learned that I can’t do everything.

I am quite a meticulous person, I like things a certain way and I like to take care over how things are presented. That’s fine. I don’t consider it to be an OCD trait, I just find peace through order.

Imagine trying to be meticulously careful about how things are presented and enjoying peace, but having so mush stuff that you have to make compromises. That’s how I felt. I wanted to live in a house that was tidy, but didn’t have the time to dedicate to that. And we didn’t even have a big house!

Through reading books and websites, I learned that to be the person I wanted to be, I needed to be more selective with what I did with my time. If I was ever going to have time to do the things I wanted to, I needed to say no to the things that I didn’t need to do but that my procrastinating self would cry out for me to do.

Looking back now, and having read The Chimp Paradox by Prof. Steve Peters, I know that procrastination is just the chimp inside, terrified of success, terrified that I’ll actually stand out and be known. So the chimp shows me some other shiny thing that is safe, that will stop you being attacked in the street, instead of doing the few tasks that you actually need to do to be the person you want to be.

After a lot of work, I managed to sieve through my amorphous mess of tasks, that between my chimp and I had decided were the absolute minimum of tasks that were our priorities, and came up with a fresh list, divided into priorities and distractions.

Distractions are priorities in disguise. In the wrong frame of mind, you can convince yourself that these distractions are absolutely necessary to be the person you want to be.

I read Charles Duhigg’s excellent book The Power of Habit, and I did some research on him. I found Charles Duhigg’s productivity tips on lifehacker, and I was intrigued by his statement. For someone who seemed so into his productivity stuff, his productivity tips were the opposite of what I expected. To quote:

I want everything in my day to be as boring as possible because it makes all the tasks I need to do the most stimulating options. […] Sit down. Don’t get up. Don’t do anything at work that doesn’t involve work. If you do that enough days in a row, it becomes second nature.

Charles Duhigg, NYT bestselling author and journalist

Paraphrasing, Charles avoids all distractions and sits at his desk for mind numbing hours until he has nothing better to do than write his article. It occurred to me that, while procrastinating about a task, a second, uglier task had come along. Once uglier task two had come along, I actually did task one to procrastinate about doing task two. This may not be what Charles was getting at, but that’s how it resonated with me.

Along with that I also read the zero notifications website which I’ve linked to below.

While also reading The Organized Mind by Daniel Levitin, he describes how energetically demanding it is for our brains to flick between tasks. Received wisdom told me that the way to get things done was to multitask as much as possible. Again looking back, all I see now is that lots of tasks were being attended to, but not necessarily done.

I have always been terrible at being distracted by the novel. I think this boils down to certain tasks being quite dull, and when the brain can have a fresh dopamine hit by reading whatever unimportant email had just hit my inbox, then my brain would get easily distracted. I would pride myself on my ability to deal with email quickly, but that wasn’t the issue. It was the time and energy lost on the MIT (most important task). It was the fact that my brain went back to bored mode and would wait unhappily while a new dopamine hit arrived.

One of the biggest revelations to me was only checking my email once an hour. I first tried to switch off the notifications, but I couldn’t even find where to do it. Either Microsoft doesn’t understand why on earth you’d want to, or my IT department didn’t. Then I just thought, if it’s an email, then whoever sent it isn’t that worried about getting a reply, and if a reply only came after an hour, then they would just assume that I was elsewhere at the time. So now I check my email once an hour, on the hour, and not when I first get into the office. Any emails that arrived overnight definitely don’t need attention until at least mid-morning. So I typically get into the office at about 7:15, and I check my email at 9:00, 10:00 and 11:00.

All I’ve written above can be neatly distilled to a single phrase: “Do not confuse the urgent with the important.”

I’ve written more extensively about what I do with email here.

So with zero notifications comes zero distractions, and the time and space to get work done.

A more recent trick that I heard on the GTD podcasts is the yesterbox idea: you treat yesterday’s inbox as today’s task list. The idea is that yesterday’s inbox can’t get any fuller, so you can figure out how long it will take you to get through your inbox. At the moment, this idea is a bit drastic for me as my email volume doesn’t warrant it.

So first on my list of distractions was Instagram, Facebook and Twitter. I had been fairly brutal with Facebook for a while, cutting people on a three strikes and you’re out ruling. But once I told myself that it was how to keep in touch, I had to check them once a day. To limit myself, I removed Facebook from my phone, and I only have it on the iPad now, which I leave at home. Twitter I deleted entirely: I never got much value out of it anyway so this was an easy one.

Consider your own life and your relationship with the list below: Are they important or urgent? What can you live without? What can you live without for a week? What can you check less frequently? What are you checking out of habit rather than mindfully? What do you need to be notified of?

  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Email
  • Television
  • Netflix
  • Instagram
  • Physical mail

Be your own experiment.

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