Thursday, February 12, 2009

On Procrastination and Swiss Cheese

For the last six months a forbiddingly large package has been sitting in my hallway. Although of sentimental value, the painting that was entombed in the package was not something I needed in the near future, and the box was not particularly in the way. But its constant presence served as a reminder of a seemingly daunting task that needed to be completed. This was not an ordinary package. Approximately 40 mammoth staples were deeply embedded through a covering of heavy corrugated cardboard. In short, the removal of the painting seemed akin to storming Fort Knox. Each day I passed this giant object, I felt increasingly annoyed, frustrated, and guilty.

Then last night, as I lay awake, I visualized a process involving a screwdriver and a hammer that even I, a physically small person, might be able to manage. When an enjoyable but long phone call ate into my planned workout at the gym, I decided that the time had come to tackle the monster. Wedging out the staples along three sides, cutting through the masses of tape around the inner cardboard box, and unearthing the painting shrouded in a blanket took exactly one-half hour. Thirty lousy minutes! How many half hours have I wasted over the last six months when I could have polished off this chore and stopped it from haunting me?

Of course, this project serves as a metaphor for all those things put off because they felt too time consuming, too overwhelming in scope, or too likely to lead to failure. Sometimes, the build up to the task takes more energy than the task itself, which may be dispatched with a short, concerted effort, as with the unbundling of my package or cleaning the bathroom. We just have to commit that small amount of time. On other occasions a delay of the simplest of tasks may lead to greater problems, such as the fine I once received for failing to affix my new parking permit by the deadline—a parking permit that was already sitting in my glove compartment. A one minute task!

But what about the really intimidating projects—especially the ones we are so personally invested in, like writing that novel or sending the completed manuscript out to agents? Here I like to use something I once heard called the “swiss cheese approach,” which involves breaking a very large project down into much smaller steps—writing the first paragraph of the query letter, writing the second paragraph, etc., giving it to three trusted colleagues for review, revising once, revising again, doing a web search or index review to make a list of five plausible agents, researching each of them and their requirements, addressing five envelopes, etc., each step designed to take just a moderate amount of time. It may be long plod, but we arrive just the same.

The key, as with the big package, is psyching oneself up (maybe through a little visualization? A reminder from a buddy?), not using other undone tasks as excuses (I can’t write until I’ve done the laundry, played solitaire on-line, cleaned out my email box…) and then just getting started. Time management experts suggest that each day, no matter what other expectations await, we aim to check off at least one item on our own “most important” list. (Note: Not someone else’s priorities for you, but your very own—those things for which you live and breathe.) Punch a hole in that project until there is no cheese left! I conquered the oversized package, but the real accomplishment of my day was using my effort to create my next blog entry. However, my self-congratulatory mode expires at midnight. Tomorrow is another day. Now where was that agent list I made a few weeks ago…..?

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