Mindful Moments: Stories and Lessons of Procrastination

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Archive for March 2010

Flux time = permission to take longer than expected.

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“Don’t put off tomorrow what you can do today” is the maxim. Ignoring it is my personal favorite form of procrastination. “Tomorrow I’ve got 4 hours open. I’ll get this done work then, no problem. And so today I can goof around, right?” Uh uh.

It turns out that people consistently underestimate how much time it will take to get something done. This throws your schedule way off if you’re counting on doing more tomorrow. Plus not staying on schedule can, in and of itself, be demotivating: a bad feedback loop.

So what’s the tip for dealing with underestimation? It’s not enough to just say “This will take longer than I expect” because we already think we’re making allowances for that when we set our initial time estimate. So instead we can budget a separate flux time which we can either use on project that go over time or for goofing around if we get ahead. That’s right… goofing around is OK! Especially if it’s a reward for being on top of things.

It’s easier to see the logic of this when we look at a group that needs help scheduling time… Let’s say you’re setting the agenda to a meeting with a hard two hour time limit. It will help your group to have written expectations for how long each section of the meeting will take. So you make your best guess… this topic will take 10 minutes to go over, this discussion can be capped at 20 minutes, introductions should take more than 5 minutes… etc. Well we all know that meeting items can take longer than we want them to. So are we setting ourselves up to fail by writing down how long they should take? Not if we use flux time. Adding “Flux time: 20 minutes” to the bottom of a 1 hour and 40 minute meeting agenda lets us have permission to spend a bit longer on any meeting section that needs extra time. If a discussion goes longer, for example, then the group can quickly decide to use some flux time to get to a good stopping place before moving on. And at the end of the meeting, if you didn’t use all your flux time then that extra time can be spent chatting or getting back to doing something else ahead of schedule.

Flux time is equally helpful for our own project estimations. Once we get past the ego issue, setting personal flux time as part of any project estimation can be very helpful. The percentage of flux time to schedule will vary, but I’d suggest starting with the most amount of time you’ve ever gone over on a schedule in the past. If you start out with 100% flux time scheduled then that’s totally ok. You can always decrease that percentage as you get used to it. And remember to take that extra time to do something as a reward!

Written by clayward

March 29, 2010 at 5:42 pm

Posted in goals, tips

Daily Discipline: Not Going Nuts

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There aren’t many people out there who feel like they have longterm job stability. And plenty of us aren’t getting a pay check at all. So how can we feel productive and valuable members of society? Well we can help out of course, volunteer, work on our resume, take classes, engage our community, etc. There are a ton of options. But let’s face it, keeping yourself engaged day to day is challenging. So how can we make it work?

My advice is… do something that forces you to leave your comfort zone every day. I can’t tell you what that is, but I can say that this small discipline will help “break the ice” and keep your spirit challenged and engaged.

This guy, Reed Sandridge, he’s been giving $10 away every day and will continue doing so for 365 days. In a sense he’s a performance artists, a philanthropist, and a social worker. But what I’m really interested in is that he’s come up with a wonderful way to help himself get out of the house. In his own words? “being unemployed, I was starting to go nuts.”

Good work, Reed.

Written by clayward

March 19, 2010 at 6:26 pm

Posted in goals, stories, tips

Idea: Jog around treasure hunt replaces work.

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Everyone seems to love mining for gold on World of Warcraft… this was the subject of conversation at Brambleberry Manor (help them save their ducks) over the weekend. And since then my subconscious has been processing the latent terror (click, click, click… baby, I just need 10 more gold pieces to finish this mission). So how can we engage the “mine for gold” instinct in a productive (and wrist healthy) way?

Show up to work at ProcrasDonate and we’ll hand you a treasure map. There is no desk waiting for you here. There is work to get done and human scale self motivation systems to do it. Pivotal Tracker is the first step. Daily treasure maps the next?

I show up to work, scan my card and a fortune cookie slip pops out with the todo list that I asked for yesterday. There’s a nice note from my boss about last week’s project which I skip because a new ship is appearing on my ipad treasure map! I head over to pink harbor, tap my card and watch a 30 second missive sent from development. I have a “silver pidgeon” that’s about to expire so I send my own 30 second spot back on priority. I vote for a 2 degree increase in temperature before jogging off to my next appointment.

OK, interning for ProcrasDonate isn’t quite that much fun. But we do create a self directed and flexible project strategy for everyone we work with. So email us at… info (at) procrasdonate (dot) com ….if you’d like to get involved.

Written by clayward

March 15, 2010 at 7:41 pm

Posted in fun, ideas, work space

Getting past pride, perfectionism, and fear.

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Fear plays a big part in procrastinating. According to Burka and Yuen, authors of Procrastination: why you do it, what to do about it, people use procrastination as an oddball way to maintain their sense of self-worth. The thinking goes like this: by procrastinating, we avoid feeling like a failure even when we do fail. “‘Well, I could have done better if I’d started sooner and given myself more time to do it.'” And even extremely successful people can be afraid of failure.

Why such an elaborate ruse to keep oneself prideful? Because when we’re too focused on being judged or even judging our own results then it is easy to become afraid of those results. Or so perfectionist that getting started seems daunting. It can be easier to put something off than start something that could result in failure.

When we think through the consequences of our actions, us humans are what economists call “risk averse“. We’re naturally more concerned with doing badly than we are excited about doing well. Decisions about starting new projects should therefore not be considered as a strictly rational process.

So is that it? Is it inevitable to be paralyzed with fear and never get anything done? Of course not! We can value the work that we do in and of itself. Failure and success are really beside the point. It’s the effort that we put into the work that we do that gets put on the scale at the end of our lives.

And how can we get reasonable feedback about our time management without going down the rabbit hole of cognitive dissonance? Well, that’s why ProcrasDonate‘s free browser add-on uses positive icons as sorting buttons. It’s why we include an unobtrusive (but ever present) procrastination meter at the top of a user’s browser. Together these empowerment tools create a graphical sense of real-time procrastination data without being intimidating. Likewise the weekly updates with uplifting quotes!

Procrastinating to protect our sense of pride? That’s just fear wearing a monkey‘s dress.

Written by clayward

March 14, 2010 at 3:42 pm

Posted in resources, theory, tracking

Be “kaizen” till you’re “wabi sabi”.

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The Japanese concept of getting small improvements done: “kaizen” is kind of like “iterative” process. We’ve recently had 1, 2, and yes a whopping 3 posts about getting small things done. So let’s develop our theme somewhat:

Process concepts, like kaizen, play a big role in Japanese language because of the role that they have traditionally played in Japanese culture. Japan’s highest traditional aesthetic philosophy is the appreciation of transient and flawed beauty: the “wabi sabi”.

A tea cup would be considered wabi sabi if it was exquisitely made and if that making was in some way exquisitely flawed. The tea cup could still be functional, just not perfect. The wabi sabi position is that true perfection must necessarily be imperfect. We make things in the world and they are real and that is their beauty. This elegant imperfection is not to be confused with random or unpracticed sensibilities. Instead, wabi sabi artistry must be flawed if it is to retain its experimental intention toward perfection. (I know, there’s irony there… the reasoning is nicely imperfect.)

Procrastination can come from worrying too much about perfection. So an understanding of how imperfection is necessarily a part of the highest level of perfection is a contradiction worth embracing. Is that why the best bloggers don’t always spell too good?

I saw Peter Schumann talk the other night at MIT. He considers digital media to be a passing artform and compares it to the longevity of a cave painting. And he didn’t balk at telling “The holy halls of technology” so. It’s the “smallness” that he blamed for his non-interest. But I wonder if it’s also not the difficulty in creating anything that’s meaningfully wabi sabi over the digital (exactly duplicative) internet.

Written by clayward

March 12, 2010 at 8:44 pm

Lucy’s project development buddy: Pivotal Tracker

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One of the best things about working with Lucy is her enthusiasm for work process tools. We’ve tried a number of them working on bilumi, ProcrasDonate, and a couple other projects together. Pivotal Tracker is the tool that sticks. I’ll let her explain why… but let me just say that the smile on her face when she finally surpasses the tool’s expectations is wonderful (and motivating in and of itself.)


“I use Pivotal Tracker (PT) to manage software development. Pivotal Tracker is an online web service. After logging in to our private ProcrasDonate project, I see a prioritized list of stories (high level modules that may contain specific tasks).”

“I found Pivotal Tracker via a Hacker News poll of project management tools… From the get-go I was sucked in… We decided to use it for our big launch… Using the tool exceeded my expectations.”

Clay and I can add and reorder stories. We can loosely indicate the time to complete a story using “points.” A 1-point story will take less than 4 hours, a 2-point story will take a full day, and so on. We use a fibonacci point scale for stories because PT is just that cool.”

“The list of stories is partitioned into week-long iterations. PT determines how many stories to put in each iteration based on my previous performance. Working full time I tend to complete 10 “points” worth of stories. As my work habits and skills change, the expectations of PT will correspondingly change over time.”

“Pivotal Tracker has expectations. It is my buddy. It graphs how many story points I complete each day from the start of the iteration or release deadline to the end. The burn down graph also shows my expected burn-down rate.”

“For our first release, even when I burned down at a better than linear rate, PT was still quite cautious of my abilities. It still projected a flat burn down rate for the future, expecting me to miss the deadline by weeks. Every day I tried to burn down faster and faster to show it that I could meet deadlines. Of course back then we also added more and more features each day, so I always hovered around linear burn down. I did meet the deadline, and after a few weeks PT’s expectations synchronized with my actual performance. Still, it was super exciting in those first weeks to feel pulled forward by PT’s challenge.”

“PT’s expectations and challenges change as I change, and that makes it more forgiving and less emotional than dealing with a real person. The rewards and punishments are all wrapped up in the graphs, so in the end it is only as motivating as my commitment to the website.”

“PT’s website is excellent, especially because it takes so little effort to use. The stories list and the charts are right there on the main page. Stories are re-ordered using drag-n-drop. Stories are added and edited using AJAX rather than loading a different page. The UI is snappy and flexible, yet stays out of the way. There is a separate project settings page that allows one to enable advanced features such as fibonacci points and checkbox tasks.”

“Not enough peanut butter.”

“I fail PT when I stop using the service or start questioning the track. The fault is mine, but the point of project management software is still to help users have good process. I’m not sure what PT can do in these cases. Being on a team with someone a step outside the actual work is helpful. I suppose PT could know when it’s a good time for me to be using it, and then automatically open itself into a new tab and say something friendly, such as: hey, here’s a challenge, why don’t you burn down this little graph right now!”

“It would also be neat to see a larger timescale of progress shown, possibly on a calendar view. Then we could see when future stories would land given our current work rate, as well as understand past performance.”

“[PT makes me feel] like I have a friendly mentor keeping me on track. Of course, I also had a real person, Clay, managing the stories list and keeping me on track, so I might be mixing up the human and robot influences on my feelings. At the very least, PT’s charts offered excellent feedback on my progress. That kind of feedback can be boring for a human to give, yet make a huge difference in the motivation, focus and peacefulness of a worker.”

“[I would like PT to] provide statistics on my work performance. For example, am I personally accomplishing more over time? How does my performance change in weeks with lots of bugs, or weeks with lots of small point stories? What does my average chart look like? If I was on a team of developers, it might be nice to provide a little competitive motivation, but it would have to be done in the right way so that all sorts of strengths were highlighted, and none of the stats were too important.”

Written by clayward

March 10, 2010 at 7:06 pm

Posted in process, resources, tracking