Being a bit more strategic with our procrastination

Sarah Ramsay will don her sneakers to some more deliberate deferment. PHOTO: GETTY
Sarah Ramsay will don her sneakers to some more deliberate deferment. PHOTO: GETTY
Monday night by 8.30 I’d cooked dinner, used all the nearly dead fruit we hadn’t eaten to make a gluten-free left-over fruit crumble, emptied the wheel-barrow of weeds and put the gardening tools away, did a load of washing, tidied the kitchen and got on the exercise bike — all things seemingly much more important at the time and needing ‘out of the way’ before I could start this article.

Which coincidentally has become the subject of my article — procrastination.

Why was I procrastinating? Because I hadn’t decided what to write about yet. This time I was starting from a blank page. I even daydreamed about calling in sick!

Why is it that when we really know we should get something done, we sabotage ourselves by doing everything else around the thing but the thing? Or do we?

Ever noticed that when you walk away and take a break from something that it percolates in the back of your mind anyway and suddenly becomes clearer? There is wisdom in the phrase "sleep on it".

Maybe we just need to be more strategic and deliberate with our procrastination. An "active procrastination" perhaps. Instead of "sleeping on it", we "run on it", "tidy on it", "garden on it", "yoga on it", "bake on it". Whatever I do I’ll try not to "snack on it", which is a bit of a favourite.

I’m going to experiment on myself for the next month and see if I can hack myself into "active procrastination".

Step 1. Put my sneakers on.

A podcast I listened to said that the hardest part of taking up running is just putting your sneakers on and walking out the front door. That if you get out the driveway and still don’t want to be there, give up if you really want to — hardly anyone ever does, because once we’re rolling along we don’t regret it.

It’s a bit like my 8-year-old. If you asked him what he wanted to do he’d never actually want to do anything but play the PlayStation and watch telly. Drag him out and get him started — he’s away! So what are the "sneakers" of writing that story, email, document or plan?

Some self-reflection on when I "get stuff done". When I have an idea for an article or business case the notes tumble out before a deadline and I jot them down into the notes app on my phone.

Once I’m ready to start typing it up the music is on and I move around the dining table, board table, couch and usually some power typing at a cafe or on a plane. Each change in context getting me back into flow lost in thought.

My sneakers therefore are a change of environment — music on and shift position.

Step 2. Rest my brain.

I think focus is my biggest issue. My attention span has shrunk to the size of a pea, as the volume and variety of my workload has increased. Change of season doesn’t help either. It mucks up my routine and nothing is enticing when it’s cold and dark.

I know I’m not alone in this. Our brains are overstimulated by our work, media and constant availability. Ever go into your emails to find something, flick across to Google to search and get sucked into a pinball machine of news articles, social media, reply to a text and then think "oh what was I doing half an hour ago?" I’m going to make sure my "procrastination breaks" don’t actually involve any devices, reading, scrolling or listening to anything other than music. While I’m a fan of podcasts, I do find they don’t allow me to switch off. It’s the same with television and even reading — they just distract us from allowing our brains to process our thoughts.

So when I find myself wandering into my emails or the socials while mid-task, instead I’m going to take at least 10 minutes out and do something that keeps my hands busy and my mind still. There’s a mountain of "jobs" around the office and house I’m always "too busy" for, so maybe they’ll all finally get done!

Step 3. Structure and flight mode.

"Mum phone down." When your son says this to you several times a day you know you have a problem!

My structure has been discombobulated by travel, school holidays and the change of season. I overestimate how much I can get done in a day, which leaves me feeling like I’ve run around all day but achieved nothing. It’s not unusual to be at my laptop at 5.30am and back on it clearing messages or "just doing that last thing" at 10.30pm.

This week I’m trying to juggle parenting in the school holidays (I’m just back from being in the US for 10 days, so it didn’t feel fair to put Fin in a full-time holiday programme), while on-boarding a new senior employee, fitting in physio for a back injury and a board meeting thrown in for good measure.

Date it, dump it, do it or delegate it. I say this to my team all the time when they get overwhelmed with what to do next. This week it’s going to be all about "date it" and taking it off my mind. I have a great task list and planner, so I just need to trust my process and be more realistic about what I can achieve.

Today my goal is simply to get out of the office by 3pm so I can take Fin to the movies to see The Mountain (because it’s Kiwi and it looks really wholesome), but he’ll probably talk me into Kung Fu Panda or Ghostbusters and that’s OK too.

Ultimately instead of my brain being in constant "flight mode", my phone will be instead.

 - Sarah Ramsay is chief executive of United Machinists.