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Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Turtle steps

I am obsessive about lists. I make lists for what I need to do on a given day, in a given week, for different projects, for work and for my personal life, you name it. I make lists of stuff I need to buy at Target or at Trader Joe's, what I need to pack for an upcoming trip, and stuff I want to blog about sometime in the future. I've also started writing down pretty much anything that I might want to remember later, as soon as it comes into my head, because I swear, my memory just doesn't work the way it used to (I'd like to blame social media multi-tasking rather than old age but I may be deluding myself with that one). My point is, I make a lot of lists.

Some might see list-making as a procrastination device - i.e., time spent making my To Do list is time NOT spent actually doing the things on my list. But while that is technically true, I've realized that, for me, list-making is a way of making sure that I do things efficiently and it actually makes me less likely to procrastinate. The efficiency part comes from thinking through the different aspects of a project before I begin, writing down exactly what needs to be done, in what order. But the real key for me is that my To Do lists are masterpieces of what life coach Martha Beck calls 'turtle steps'. In her book, Finding Your Own North Star, Beck talks about how she got stuck writing her Ph.D. dissertation because she felt so overwhelmed by the enormity of the task that she couldn't make herself even begin. She didn't make any progress until she stopped thinking about the task as "Write dissertation" and instead broke the task down into steps that she considered manageable; in her case, that meant she told herself she only needed to work for 15 minutes each day. While that doesn't sound like much, it was 15 minutes more than she had been doing before and she ultimately finished.

I'm a huge fan of turtle steps - most people would probably find it ridiculous how much I can break down a project! But the great thing about those tiny steps is that when I'm having one of my blah days, when I just can't seem to get motivated and all I want to do is play Bejeweled or Angry Birds, I can almost always find something on my list that is so small that I think to myself, "OK, I can totally do THAT and then I'll at least have done something productive today." About half the time, doing that one little thing pushes me enough out of my lethargy that I end up finishing off at least a few more. But even on really bad days, when that one thing is the only thing I do, I figure it's still more than I would have otherwise done (given that I am honest about the fact that the alternative is that I would have done nothing). And of course, on good days, there's nothing to stop me from plowing through several items.

To give you an idea of what I mean by turtle steps (and why I'm thinking about them today), one of my summer projects is writing a new edition of a book (with the book's original author). I was terrible about working on it during the spring semester and have promised myself and my co-author that it is my top priority this summer. So of course, today, my first real day of summer work (I actually took a vacation last week), I could not find any motivation for it. I had to catch up on a bunch of stuff that I missed while away so by the time I was ready to get to work on the book, I had run out of steam. But on my project To Do list, one of the items is "create a Word file for each chapter (to record notes and links)", followed by a list of the individual chapters I'm supposed to focus on first. So I opened Word, typed "Demography" at the top (that's one of the chapters), added a couple section headers as reminders of what I need to do, and saved the file. I opened another document, typed "Education" and the section headers, and saved the file. I made three other files for the three other chapters, and then crossed all those items off my list. That's it. I know it doesn't sound like much but it's more than nothing and it's five minutes I won't have to spend tomorrow so I can start right in on the next item: "Go through 3 papers and decide if ideas are worth keeping". I have a stack of about fifty papers to go through so that item will be repeated multiple times but if I just wrote "Go through stack of papers" I know I would be much more likely to find some way of putting it off (note this is also how I get through grading - if I thought "I have 150 papers to grade," I would suddenly find Top Chef reruns the most interesting thing in the world but if I tell myself "Just grade five papers before you watch TV," I'll sit down and do it).
(oh, and for my co-author, who I'm pretty sure will read this: don't worry, I promise that there will be plenty of days when I accomplish a lot more than I did today!!!).

Maybe this sounds ridiculous but it works for me. How do you stay productive when you don't feel particularly motivated?

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