Meditation and pleasure reading help me stop procrastination

I try to take 15 minutes to meditate every morning. The old proverb goes: “If you have enough time, you should meditate 15 minutes each day. If you don’t have enough time, then meditate for 30 minutes.” I laughed the first time I heard that, but I think it’s 100% true. The days I don’t meditate or the days I’m most distracted and most prone to procrastinate. The days I’m most stressed and anxious, the days I feel like I have the least time are also the days when I am most prone to procrastinate. Coincidence? I think not. Meditation helps. The more overwhelmed I feel, the more important it is to take the 15 minutes. Or even 10 (like this youtube video). I used the Headspace program for a year and I do recommend it, but once I had it down it was not much harder to do with a free app like the Insight Timer.

The second method is pleasure reading. I’m a lifelong reader of science fiction. I love it. But aside from pleasure, this gives me a real method for reducing my stress and anxiety. Some activities just postpone my anxiety for a short time. So, reading a political or economic article is interesting. It’s a diversion from an important but anxiety-provoking activity. But when the article is done I don’t feel any less anxiety; if anything I feel more. The deadline is a little closer. Kira Newman over at Tech.co expresses her anxiety as a graph, and I think that’s useful.

Procrastinators (like me) don’t want to work until there is a crisis. Strangely, once the crisis hits, I start to work hard and the anxiety goes down. That’s the central paradox of procrastination: crisis = less anxiety. 2016-11-08-05_58_36-krita

This is why a longer timeline for a project may not produce better results or less stress. The longer timeline means that there is room for denial and inertia. The worst thing is an infinite or undefined deadline because anxiety can increase without bounds. 2016-11-08-05_58_47-graph-paper-sketch-graph-paper-sketch-kra-modified-krita

This is also why diversions or “breaks” are dangerous: they put off the crisis that will help get things started and get the anxiety under control. Tim Urban calls this urge to divert the “instant gratification monkey.” 2016-11-08-05_58_48-graph-paper-sketch-graph-paper-sketch-kra-modified-krita

Isn’t pleasure reading another break? I think “procrastination breaks” are attempts to reduce the anxiety the same way that eating snack food is an attempt to reduce hunger. The bad habit would be to wallow in anxiety, divert, wallow, divert, endlessly. Like someone who feels hungry, eats candy, and then immediately feels hungry again. It’s a bad cycle. The answer is not to stop eating, but to eat the right thing: an actual, satisfying meal. Reading is the right thing for me. It’s still not easy to get started without a crisis, but it’s easier without the ever present desire to divert.

 

Fun reading list this year: Dawn by Octavia E. Butler, Ash by Melinda Lo, A Crucible of Souls by Mitchell Hogan, Beauty by Robin McKinley, Memory by Linda Nagata, The Long Utopia by Terry Pratchett, Outlander by Diana Gabaldon and even a non-sci-fi book called That’s Not How You Wash A Squirrel By David Thorne

What Drawing for Fun Taught me about Daily Practice

I drew something almost every day for three months. It was a bit of an experiment on how to learn effectively. Learning a new skill is intrinsically rewarding. I wanted to see if I could learn to draw. I also wanted to see what kinds of practice work for me. Ultimately, it turns out that making time for practice every day was the most important thing.

At first, I started by following along with youtube videos. I followed along on videos by Christopher Hart. His videos are fun and he has some nice books, too. My versions of his drawings were… somewhat demented.

2015-12-05 11_13_11-draw blog - Google DocsI felt like I could improve at this, but it was hard to define what I wanted. I thought about how Covey said to begin with the end in mind. I was also inspired by the TED talk by Josh Kaufman called The first 20 hours — how to learn anything. I realized that I needed a more specific purpose. I started to ask what I wanted to be able to do. I realized that I wanted to be able to make a little comic and I wanted to be able to do it quickly.

At about 3 weeks, I made this comic about the frustration of being unable to tear a paper towel properly. I used stock art/photos, GIMP, and a drawing tablet to do it. It was fun. I wanted to be able to make comics like that more efficiently. I found a goal: to be able to make a simple comic panel in 10 minutes.

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I started reading about Scott Adams’ method. He deliberately designed a simple style that he could create quickly and consistently. He uses that style to tell a funny story every day in his comic strip, Dilbert. I like that. I started to study his style. The results were not very impressive.

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After working on them for 10 minutes a day for two weeks, though, my drawings started to look more pleasing (at least to me). The style is deliberately simple. For me to create a panel in 10 minutes, it has to be simple. The proportions are not great by any artist’s standard. But I was starting to feel like I could make something that could tell a story.

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There is no pause button on this skill: it’s “use it or lose it.” It has been a longstanding pattern in my life that when something is “good enough” I tend to get distracted. After 6 weeks, I got spotty in my practice. I would take a few days off, and the quality would noticeably slide. I think that was a big eye-opener to me. It was either improving or atrophying. I think people who play sports intuit this, but I certainly don’t. My (incorrect and dangerous) intuition is that I should be able to come back to a task or project and pick up where I left off. For someone who wants to draw or has a particular artistic goal, clearly the right thing to do is to practice every day.

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For a casual hobbyist like myself, there are tools on the internet to help make comics. Computational tools have certainly helped me keep the illusion that skill can be maintained without practice. A basic memory of how a program works is enough to return to a project after a month or longer and still make progress. Working a program is like riding a bike (at least to me). That doesn’t apply to more refined skills, evidently. If I am not going to practice drawing every day, can I “cheat” and use one of these programs to help make comics when the mood strikes?

Two internet tools for making comics are StoryBoardThat.com and ToonDoo.com. Storyboardthat is a little more refined and responsive, but both can lay out a comic a lot faster than I can draw one. I tried using a toondoo comic as a template for my own. That worked reasonably well. It still required some skill to get it to look consistent with what I had been doing earlier.

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After 3 months, it was time to move on to other things, but I think the core lesson was worth remembering. My little experiment in drawing didn’t make me an artist but it reminds me that many (most?) skills take deliberate practice. I am taking this lesson to heart with writing (which is a big part of my real job). Writing every day is critical. As of yet, there are not many technological shortcuts for that.

Meditation is helping me not procrastinate

If you want your mind to be less distracted, you have to practice the skill of un-distracting yourself.

That is meditation. It is a technique for training the mind to return from distraction easily. That is different from trying to focus. Trying hard does not work very well to increase attention span. It sort of backfires. Meditation is more like accepting a certain amount of distraction, but practicing bringing the attention back. The mind inevitably becomes distracted and it takes a lot of practice to sense that when that is happening and gently correct it.

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Study Tip – Go Home When You Are Done

Work somewhere quiet and do not go home until the job is done.

In my later undergraduate days, I realized that I needed a place to study that was separate from my home. I was lucky enough to work in a university research lab that gave me some space to study. If I hadn’t had that, I would have found a quiet library nook to work in on a regular basis. One of my biggest advantages in finding a place to study on campus was that I could study until my day’s work was done.

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I’ve taken a media vacation this week and it was great

I have taken a week off from the news and Reddit and really enjoyed myself.

Strongly consider taking a media vacation, especially if you are stressed out. Watching the evening news or reading the morning paper can make an informed citizen, but the internet lets us get way too much news. The Internet allows us to check the news every 15 minutes. This uses up our mental bandwidth, distracts us from tasks at hand, and makes us feel powerless.

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Allergies make me feel tired

If you are experiencing fatigue, look into allergies

I thought something was really wrong with me when I moved to Texas. I felt unbelievably tired all of the time. I read up on all kinds of maladies and syndromes. Nothing fit very well. A good summary of the conventional approach to unexpected fatigue is at webmd

In my case, it wasn’t a serious disease. I was getting a decent amount of exercise and sleep. Water turned out to be part of the problem, but the other was unexpected. Texas allergies make me feel really tired. I did not know that I was allergic to anything and when I had the sniffles in December, I assumed I had a cold. When the “cold” faded but my tiredness did not. I stuck it out for months feleing like I was packed in cotton. It turned out that a Zyrtec every day made a world of difference. Claritin works for others. Benadryl is the last resort because it has the drowsinesss side effect. Hoewever, my allergy fatigue was so profound that the drowsiness of benedryl was much less. On bad allergy days, I would take half a dose of benedryl and perk right up.

So, if you are fighting the doldrums, try some allergy meds along with the other suggestions on webmd. Check with your real-live doctor, drink more water, get more sleep and exercise, but try a little antihistamine too.