A Life-Changing Chicken Lesson: How to Stop Procrastinating and Overcome Overwhelm

Grow in Wisdom
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If you and I met on the street today and I asked you how you are, there’s a good chance that your response would be, “Busy.”

Boy, do I hear that! We’re all busy these days, aren’t we? So busy.

So busy that when we think about all the stuff we need to do our jaw clenches.  So busy with all we have to do that we never seem to get to what we’d like to do. So busy and overwhelmed that we sometimes feel paralyzed, unable to buckle down to the tasks at hand because we don’t know where to begin.

Sound familiar? I think everybody feels that way sometimes. I know I have.

Setting Yourself Up for Success

When I’m on deadline for a new book, things can get really rough. Some people say the pressure of a deadline motivates them and revs up their creative juices. Not me. If I let it, the anxiety of a looming deadline can dry up my inspiration and suck the joy from my work.

Because deadlines and “too-busyness” are facts of life, especially for writers, I’m always on the lookout for systems and solutions to help me handle it better. Fortunately, I’ve found a few.

In an earlier post about the One Thing That Makes Everything Else Easier, I wrote about how making prayer the first and most immoveable appointment on my to-do list has helped make my life more productive and more peaceful.

In Your Roadmap for the Best, Most Productive Year, I wrote about the importance writing down your goals and how (after much trial and error) I found a nearly perfect planner that helps me identify my priorities and implement time-bound, measurable steps to help me reach my goals.

If you haven’t read those posts yet, you might want to do so when you’re done with this one.  I think you’ll find them helpful.

And if you haven’t yet gotten a Living Well Spending Less planner, you need to.  Since the planner is undated, you don’t need to wait for a new year, you can start using it today. And you should. When it comes to organization and goal setting, this planner has been a game changer for me!

Start Small

This week, however, I’m focusing my posts on small changes and simple steps we can take that can make life better. And when it comes to battling the busyness that can result in paralytic procrastination and generalized joy-robbing, I’ve got a really, really good one. You’re going to love it!

This change is really easy to implement, requires only a small investment of cash (assuming you don’t already have the equipment you need on hand, which you very possibly do), and involves just one simple step that will allow you to push through procrastination, punch holes in your to-do list, and find time you never knew you had to spend on things you love.

Sound good? That’s because it is good!

How to Take Back Your Time

So. The first thing you need to do – unless you already have one at home – is buy yourself a chicken timer.  Like this one.

Hmm…I see some of you scratching your heads out there.  Maybe I should back up a little.

Ten years ago, I was living in Connecticut, raising a teenager, working a part-time job with full-time hours, and hurtling toward the deadline of my next novel.

None of it was going very well.

I wasn’t just overwhelmed; I was under water, drowning in obligations and the sense that I was failing everyone. And even though I was burning endless hours of midnight oil, I wasn’t getting anywhere with my book.

Whenever I sat down to write, sitting was about as far as I got.  I’d type a sentence, delete it, type it again, and delete it again. Next, frustrated and empty of ideas, I’d check my email, answer what needed answering (at least I’d be accomplishing something, right?), then go back and write a few more sentences worthy of deletion, and repeat the process.

It reminded me of Oscar Wilde, who once said, “I was working on the proof of one of my poems all the morning, and took out a comma. In the afternoon I put it back again.”  Funny as a quote. Not so funny when you’re actually living it and your deadline is creeping closer every minute.

How to Stop Procrastinating

Sure that my writing career was going to die when it was just taking off, I kept telling myself that I was talentless and lazy, a procrastinator.

Then I heard about a program being offered at the library. As I recall, it was titled, “Seventeen Minute Procrastination Cure”. The woman who led it is still carved into my memory. She had red-hair, an enthusiastic if somewhat frenetic manner, and Phd. She also had ADD – Attention Deficit Disorder.

Sitting still and concentrating, she explained, was extremely difficult for her. That made the prospect of writing her doctorate thesis, which is basically like writing a book, terrifying. But, if she didn’t finish her thesis, she wouldn’t get her Phd, a goal she’d spent years working toward.  She had to come up with a solution.

That’s where the chicken comes in.

Break it Down into Bite-Size Pieces

As I said before, writing a doctoral thesis is basically like writing a book. It’s an enormous task. That, she realized, was the problem.

She’d been looking at her thesis as one, single, enormous task. A task so huge that it seemed impossible, especially for somebody who had trouble sitting still for more than a few minutes at a time.

But what if she stopped looking at her thesis as one enormous task, and starting thinking about it as many small tasks? And what if she divided those small tasks into blocks of time that she knew she could handle? Say…seventeen minutes?  She was certain she could maintain uninterrupted focus for seventeen minutes. Maybe not twenty, or even nineteen. But seventeen? That seemed doable.

She got herself a chicken timer, set it for seventeen minutes, and went to work.

She didn’t allow herself to check email or answer the phone. She kept a pad of paper on her desk so she could jot down quick, single-word reminders for any distracting to-do that threatened her concentration.

For seventeen minutes, she did nothing but focus on the task in front of her.  When the chicken went ding, she jumped up from her chair and did a little happy dance! She couldn’t believe her progress!

After the dance was done, she took a break, dealt with the couple of the to-dos that had threatened to distract her, and set the timer again. She wrote her entire thesis that way, seventeen minutes at a time.

The one-step solution worked for the red-haired Phd. It works for me, too. And it can work for you.

Here’s how to do it.

Choose your time.

For the Phd, it was seventeen minutes. For me, it’s forty-five. For you, it might be more, or less, or somewhere in between. The number doesn’t matter. You just need to be confident you can focus for that period of time.

Set your timer and get to work.

During this short time, focus only on your chosen task. Don’t look at your phone or email, and don’t allow interruptions. Tell your family that, unless it involves blood, flames, or sirens, any attempts to interrupt you will be met with severe consequences.

If stray, distracting thoughts enter your brain (and they will) push them aside. If they refuse to be pushed, jot a word or two down on a pad of paper so you can deal with them later, then return to your task.

Celebrate Your Success!

When the timer goes off, let out a little whoop or do a happy dance! Give yourself an atta girl or a small reward (this is an excellent excuse to keep a small supply of chocolate in a desk drawer).  Even if you feel silly doing so, it’s important to recognize and reward your job well done.

Rinse and Repeat

After your victory dance, take break.  If you need to make a call, answer an email, or run an errand, do so.  If and when you’re ready, set your timer and take another bite out of your task.

Some days, you might set the timer two, three, four, or more times. Repeat the process as your energy and schedule allows. Once you realize how much you can get done in even a short amount of truly focused time, you’ll be so motivated by your progress that you’ll probably find time for multiple sessions.

Sometimes, life will get in the way. If you’ve still got kids at home, are caring for elderly parents, putting in extra hours at work, or recovering from an illness or injury, there may be days when the chicken stands idle. That’s okay. But, if you possibly can, try to keep at least one appointment with your chicken.

That way, even if you only work for seventeen minutes in a day, you’ll end that day knowing you’re a little closer to your goal and that you’ve accomplished at least one thing that matters.

When life gets crazy, and it absolutely will, knowing you’ve accomplished at least one thing you care about can save your sanity. Knowing how to stop procrastinating is a skill that must be honed!

Seventeen minutes that belong to just you; it’s seems like such a small thing. Taken by itself, it is. But day by day, week by week, and month by month, those small steps add up, and can take you to places you never dreamed possible.

Now all you need is a chicken.

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