Organization for the procrastinatorially-inclined, or: How I learned to get my shniz together

Feb 02 2009 Published by under Uncategorized

This is for Becca, and anyone else who feels like they SHOULD be able to organize themselves but just don't know how.

I am not a naturally organized person. Even though I am someone who is overachieving and neurotic, I still do not easily get myself together or keep myself on track. Lack of organizational industry runs in my family. I come from a long line of pathological procrastinators, who don't just procrastinate out of laziness, busy-ness or discombobulation, but take it as far as to procrastinate out of spite--to spite authority figures; to spite family members who they feel are nagging them; or even those who have only asked nicely and not nagged at all but who are perceived as nagging just for having asked; to spite even our very SELVES in some twisted, self-destructive, pointless way. As a result, we have a lot of incredibly smart people in our family who don't quite have their shniz together. Some far worse than others.

But the neurotic, type-A, pathological need for order ALSO runs in our family. We call it "the Bomma Gene." Bomma was my grandmother--she had to have everything JUST SO and made people around her conform to that with an iron will and iron Catholic guilt-complex skill. Her compulsion to control the situation led to some psychological damage along the way... (Getting any idea where the pathological spite procrastination might be coming from now?)

I've been working on finding the good parts of the Bomma Gene to harness them for constructive organizational use, something my Reuben Sandwich cousin is very good at. I've been dragging my procrastinatory butt forward, taking advantage of modern technology and my love for my job to make things a little easier. It involves a lot of planning, and sufficient time for reflection to strategize that planning (for me, that's my 165 mile a day commute). The main key is that it takes DISCIPLINE. You can't shirk on carrying out your plans. If you start making excuses, it's a slippery slope.

Here are some of my tactics, that really do work, even for fundamentally disorganized procrastinators like me. I used an extremely similar strategy as a postdoc, the only difference was that it was just for my own activities and not other people's as well:

  • Give yourself time to think. Being too busy to think is not constructive and doesn't help you get any more done. If you think you are too busy to think, then sit down, take a deep breath, and realize that the Western blot you're freaking out about is not going to be any more helpful if you do it by today vs. tomorrow or even early next week. I try to take an hour or two a day where I don't have meetings, don't have other work to do, and can just think about what's coming up short and long-term and how I want it to turn out. I do this for experiments and for overall project plans. I usually start this process during my drive in the mornings, and finish it sitting in front of my computer where I can type plans into my calendar (see third point).
  • Visualize the map of the next few weeks/months/year. This also refers heavily to the third point below. I use my thinking time to map my personal and lab strategic plan. For research stuff, I delineate what needs to happen, and who should work on it, what it will help us figure out and what it will contribute to our goals. For non-research stuff, I make sure I am leaving myself enough non-freakout time in between whenever possible.
  • Keep an active, live calendar. I use iCal on my Mac, but Outlook works too. Enter everything that comes up as it comes up (you can do this directly from your email with either application), but also do some long-term mapping. I put in long-term plans like grant due dates, target dates for finishing proposals, intermediate dates for checking on progress and meeting with people about it, target dates for manuscript submissions, family events and vacations, seminars I want to go to, recurring meetings, etc. Everything that helps me visualize where we are going and what we are trying to do.
  • Schedule time to work on different parts of a project. I put reminders and time into my calendar to do parts like "Think about overall proposal plan," "Look up papers on X topic," "Write background section," and "Work on figures." And then I MAKE myself stick to it except in extreme extenuating circumstances. I give myself a few hours for each, here and there. I also make sure I start EARLY EARLY EARLY because I KNOW myself, and I know if I don't start actively working on this stuff at least a month in advance, it will get lost in the many other things I accidentally plan for that same time period.
  • BE DISCIPLINED and make yourself do the things you know you need to do. There is just no excuse for backing out on yourself. Pull that shniz together and do what you planned to do. Even if some of the details change, stick to doing something rather than flaking out on yourself. It's like quitting smoking or deciding to eat fewer pizzas. There will be times you just want to listen to that soul-sucking, seductive pull inside that is telling you "It won't matter if I just watch TV instead just this one time... c'mon..." DON'T LISTEN! Pull yourself together. The more you practice doing this, the lower the activation energy barrier to doing it becomes. Soon, you too will be efficient and get shit done, and wonder where this person came from!

It's not easy to be organized if it's not naturally in you. It is not easy for me. I frequently find myself having to re-pump my flattening go-tires. I have to give myself peptalks, or talk to friends to get them to give me peptalks, or read blogs to keep motivated and inspired to push through the blahs. But if you can develop a little set of behaviors that keep you disciplined about little things, then you can expand those fractally into other behaviors too. It becomes a little game for yourself: Can I get these dishes done right after I eat dinner? YEAH! I did it! Can I knock off this series of emails to organize a meeting by this friday? YEAH! I did it! Can I get this proposal done a week before its due date so I can get some feedback from my mentors? SWEET!! I did it and it's in well in advance and the business office people love me! PEW PEW PEW I'm awesome!

Reward yourself by taking pleasure in those little accomplishments, and then reward yourself by scheduling in a nice weekend every once in a while (about every two months or so) of doing absolutely nothing at all but sitting around in your pajamas on the couch, eating chips while simultaneously watching Law & Order reruns and messing around on the internet. That's how I get myself to be organized.

6 responses so far

  • Odyssey says:

    This sounds an awful lot like my approach. Except the eating chips while watching Law and Order. :-)I just wish iCal let you have todo's with sub-todo's...

  • Professor in Training says:

    Arlenna, it looks like you, Odyssey and I are all on the same page then ... except that you and I also share a passion for sitting on the couch eating chips and watching tv. I use the Sticky widget on OSX for my to-do list for each day. [shamless geek]

  • quietandsmalladventures says:

    thank you!! i needed to read this now as i'm deep in the throes of "OMG, why did i wait so long to start X, Y, Z, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5???" the bad thing is that pre-marriage i lived on my own and did this routinely. now that i'm not alone, it's much easier to sit around and watch NCIS marathons. i needed the firm reminder of what need's to be done 🙂

  • Arlenna says:

    For my to-dos with sub-to-dos, I use the old fashioned paper method. I have notebooks with lists on them, post-its, random scraps of paper and etc. that I either carry around with me in my bag, or leave scattered around my desk so I see them frequently and am constantly reminded to look at them. So there is an element of the random and chaotic to my organization, but it works! I can cross things physically off the list and feel accomplished about them.

  • Ambivalent Academic says:

    Great post - I am also a pathological procrastinator and I find that the same techniques you apply are very helpful - thanks for the reminder/peptalk.There was one time a few years ago when, due to crap in my personal life, I was deeeeeeep in the throes of Imposter syndrome/procrastination/disorgnaization and just couldn't get it going. A very dear friend who lives very far away came to visit me to help out with the personal crap, and while she was here she "decorated my house, desk, and lab bench with little hidden signs that say "YES!". The idea being that I would see them and decide to take some positive action rather than wallowing in self-sabotage mode.I am happy to say that it really helped me pull out of that phase - and I still find her little "YES!" signs in unexpected places years later...and they still work.

  • AliceAcademic says:

    Great Post! Thanks for writing this.

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