procrastination, anxiety, and dialogue with your past self

Often procrastination is viewed as a problem of organisation, and a typical approach is to try to provide a system for prioritizing and tracking tasks, in the model of Getting Things Done.  There are all kinds of methodologies related to this kind of organisation and priotization model, and certainly they may help those who really are procrastinating because of a lack of structure in their work planning.

But what is often not addressed is that there are people who are procrastinating because of anxiety, not because of lack of organisation.

Tim Urban did a TED talk in 2016 called Inside the mind of a master procrastinator that really resonated with me.  But what I found even more interesting (since I am more of a text than a video person) is his blog posts exploring procrastination in more detail:

I really admire Tim Urban for being able to be open about this issue, in a society that values productivity perhaps more than anything.

I particularly like The Eisenhower Matrix, which gives a better way to think about task priority

It’s basically four quadrants.

Eisenhower grid

Although this looks like a classic productivity tool, Tim Urban has actually figured out that it has some subtle factors when you take into account how people think and behave when procrastinating.  In general, procrastinators mess up these priorities.  They will do Quadrant 1 (Important, Urgent) when a deadline forces them.  Otherwise they will do either Quadrant 3 (Not Important, Urgent) or particularly occupy Quadrant 4 (Not Important, Not Urgent).

If I apply an anxiety perspective, Quadrant 1 (Important, Urgent) gets done when the anxiety about the deadline overcomes the anxiety about the task.  Otherwise, aversive strategies move the anxious procrastinator either into Not Important, Urgent or Not Important, Not Urgent.

Disastinators

Procrastinators who are no longer able to use deadlines as motivation Tim Urban describes as “Disastinators”, stuck forever in a corner of useless tasks (e.g. unpleasurable obsessive web surfing or other maladaptive coping strategies) in Quadrant 4.

This is basically being paralysed by anxiety, doing meaningless things.

Eisenhower grid avoid stuck

One of the keys to getting out of Quadrant 4, if stuck there because of anxiety, is to deal with the anxiety itself, rather than the tasks.  In other words, an anxiety-based procrastinator may need emotions management and mental strategies a lot more than time and priority management (and may in fact be acutely and painfully aware of both the exact priorities and the time constraints they are facing).  This is a really important insight.  If it’s anxiety that has you stuck, no amount of productivity techniques will help change the outcomes.  The procrastination is anxiety-driven, the solution is addressing the anxiety itself.

And the highest priority things (Quadrant 1 & 2) may be the most anxiety-generating, which is why anxious procrastinators if they do anything at all, may churn out Not Important but Urgent items, or be stuck in endless Not Important, Not Urgent activities.

You May Be Missing Your Hopes and Dreams in Quadrant 2

Tim Urban makes a second really important observation, which is that even people who are high-functioning may do just the Urgent things (Quadrant 1 and 3) and never make it to the things in Quadrant 2 (Important but Not Urgent).  But Quadrant 2 covers a lot of things that are at the core of improving your life.  Depending on your personality, many things may be in Quadrant 2: relationships, health, new skills – basically all of your aspirations.  And as you busily do Quadrant 1 priority items, you may never find time to do the things that bring meaning to your life.

Tim Urban describes this as “delegating to future you”.  Learning that language, meeting that girl or boy, making that new career… all always safely in the future.

Dialogue Between Past Self and Future Self

Here’s where I would like to add some value to the already-excellent analysis that Tim Urban did.  One thing that happens with procrastination is a really dysfunctional dialogue across time.  It may be across minutes and it may be across decades.  It’s the dialogue between past you and future you.

Procrastinators load a lot of tasks onto their future self.  And whether it’s “I’ll just surf the web for five minutes” or “I’ll do that next month”, eventually the future self becomes the present self, and is basically thinking “I can’t believe Past Me stuck me with this task, there’s so little time left, why didn’t Past Me just do it then?  You suck Past Me.”

And since there is no past you and future you really, just present self, this means procrastinators basically feel angry at themselves a lot.  For some intense procrastinators, all the time.

I think it might be possible to surface this dialogue in a healthier way.  There are two aspects: first, gratitude to your past self, and second, empathy with your future self.  This can start out small, but the key is to verbalise it, either internally or (depending on the people around you) out loud.  Did you put out your clothes the night before so you could get ready quicker?  “Thanks Past Me.”  Did you take some time to sort medication into daily slots so you don’t forget what to take each day?  “Thanks Past Me.”  Did you do the laundry yesterday so you have clean clothes today?  “Thanks Past Me.”

Similarly, when facing a task, you can try (this is hard) to empathize with your future self (who is, after all, you).  Writing that report today is a gift to your future self tomorrow, who will be less anxious and angry, who won’t have to struggle to complete too many piled-up tasks.  Doing even a small important task today means that future you won’t face the same anxiety and won’t have to fight whatever aversive behaviours and compulsions the anxiety may trigger.

This is a way to try to make your internal dialogue kinder across time, rather than (inevitably anxious) future you having to deal with the tasks that (inevitably anxious) past you avoided.

You can also, when necessary, forgive your past self.

Just as importantly, a healthier self-dialogue and addressing anxiety directly may open up the space so that you’re not always either dealing with crisis tasks in Quadrant 1, or obsessively avoiding anxiety-making tasks by huddling in the corner of Quadrant 4 (the “Stuck Here” quadrant).  It may open up the possibility that you actually make time for present you to do things in Quadrant 2, whether it’s learning photography, or going to a party, or whatever it is that will advance your life in important ways.

I hope this is helpful.

Many Government of Canada consultations

The Government of Canada is conducting many consultations.

It’s a bit of a challenge to find the major ones on ConsultingCanadians.gc.ca so I’ve made a list below.

Provincial Electoral Reform

There are also two provincial electoral reform (including online voting) consultations running:

Provincial General Consultations

And there are additional provincial-level consultations, too many to list them all, but here are a few:

CLOSED consultations

The following consultations are now closed:

Star Wars VII: A New New Hope?

Star Wars IV

Written by: George Lucas

very good

Star Wars V

Story by: George Lucas
Screenplay by: Leigh Brackett and Lawrence Kasdan (and George Lucas, uncredited)

good

Star Wars VI

Story by: George Lucas
Screenplay by: Lawrence Kasdan and George Lucas

ok

Star Wars I

Written by: George Lucas

terrible

Star Wars II

Story by: George Lucas
Screenplay by: George Lucas and Jonathan Hales

terrible

Star Wars III

Written by: George Lucas

terrible

Basically, with the exception of the first movie, the more George Lucas writes it, the worse the movie is.  (This also aligns with my “one great idea” theory, where many writers have one really good first book or movie in them, and after that, not so much.)

Star Wars VII

Written by: Lawrence Kasdan, J. J. Abrams and Michael Arndt

With Abrams and Kasdan writing, I have a new new hope.

According to Vanity Fair:

Abrams and Kasdan took over the screenwriting process, starting more or less from scratch. “We said, Blank page. Page one. What do we desperately want to see?” Abrams told me. Though Abrams said both men had pet ideas from the development process they wanted to incorporate, and did, Kasdan made the process sound like more of a teardown: “We didn’t have anything,” Kasdan said. “There were a thousand people waiting for answers on things, and you couldn’t tell them anything except ‘Yeah, that guy’s in it.’ That was about it. That was really all we knew.”

By mid-January, Abrams and Kasdan had a draft, most of it hashed out in plein air conversations recorded on an iPhone as they walked and talked for hours at a time through cityscapes that changed according to the vagaries of Abrams’s schedule: first along the beach in Santa Monica, then through a freezing Central Park, in New York, and finally on the streets of London and Paris. One day, the two men spent eight hours at Les Deux Magots, the boisterous café on Boulevard Saint-Germain where patrons are jammed elbow-to-elbow and which is famous for having once been a hangout for the likes of Ernest Hemingway, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Simone de Beauvoir. “We’re like yelling back and forth in this noise, saying, This should happen, that should happen, he can’t do that…”

science podcasts

There are lots of interesting science podcasts available, particularly thanks to the BBC and French radio.  English radio is almost always just continuous talking.  Some of the shows from France (maybe just France Inter) have (sometimes jarring) musical interludes (marked with ♫).

Interviews with scientists

  • The Life Scientific with Jim Al-Khalili – BBC, iTunes
  • Les savanturiers ♫ – France Inter, iTunes
    • Bernard Croisile, neurologue, August 30, 2015 (talking about his expertise in memory, particularly as it relates to Alzheimer’s) – France Inter, iTunes
  • Discovery (see below) sometimes has interviews
    • Life Changers – Anita Sengupta, September 14, 2015 – BBC, iTunes

General Science (separate segments)

  • Canada’s classic science show, CBC’s Quirks and Quarks (generally very short segments) – CBC, iTunes
    • New Horizons Reaches Pluto, June 27, 2015 – CBC, iTunes
    • Dinosaur Fossils Preserve Blood Cells, June 13, 2015 – CBC, iTunes
  • The Science Show (Australia) – ABC Radio National (RN), iTunes
    • The Science Show celebrates 40 years, August 29, 2015 – ABC, iTunes
    • Quirks and Quarks – also celebrating 40 years, July 11, 2015 (Australian tribute to Canada’s show) – ABC, iTunes
    • Current sleep patterns far from normal, June 25, 2015 – ABC, iTunes
  • Discovery (BBC World Service) – BBC, iTunes
    • James Watt and Steam Power, July 13, 2015 – BBC, iTunes
  • Future Tense (Australia) – ABC Radio National (RN), iTunes – more tech focused than science
    • Science Fiction: Earth’s repair manual, November 23, 2014 – ABC, iTunes

General Science (entire shows)

Single-Topic Science

(one topic or theme per episode)

  • La Conversation scientifique – France Culture, iTunes
    • Qu’est-ce qu’un minéral ?, September 19, 2015 – France Culture, iTunes – « A l’occasion de sa réouverture, visite de la galerie de minéralogie du Muséum d’histoire naturelle, en compagnie de François Farges, Brigitte Zanda et Etienne Klein. »
    • Rosetta, Philae, Mars Express et les autres, January 31, 2015 – France Culture, iTunes
  • Science publique – France Culture, iTunes
  • Continent sciences – France Culture, iTunes – usually starts with a segment about an animal or animals, “La chronique animalière” (about 5 minutes) and then the main topic

History of Science

Mythbusting

Single-Purpose Shows

(single-purpose shows, a set of episodes on a particular topic, ends once the topic is covered)

  • A Brief History of Mathematics (10 episodes) – BBC, iTunes
  • A History of the World in 100 Objects (100 episodes) – BBC, iTunes
  • Seven Ages of Science (7 episodes) – BBC, iTunes

Other

  • The Long Now Seminars about Long-Term Thinking – Long Now, iTunes – sometimes has science episodes
    • Beth Shapiro: How to Clone a Mammoth, May 11, 02015 – Long Now (video), iTunes (audio)
  • In Our Time – BBC, iTunes – sometimes has science episodes
    • The Photon, February 12, 2015 – BBC, iTunes
    • Note: Although iTunes and the BBC site have an In Our Time: Science feed, it hasn’t been updated since 2013, so subscribe to the main feed instead.

Shows that have completed

  • Frontiers – BBC, iTunes – completed in 2014
    • Crossrail – Tunnelling under London, July 10, 2013 – BBC, iTunes
  • History of Science (UK Royal Society) – iTunes – last episode in 2014 – appears to have been replaced by Lectures and events – iTunes

Previously
April 19, 2015  light and dark, night and day, asleep and awake
April 12, 2015  podcasts I like
December 13, 2014  two urbanism podcasts

Cineplex VIP – there is a light that never goes out

Cineplex has VIP theatres, including one at Lansdowne.  It’s an ok idea but from my perspective appears to have a fatal design flaw.

VIP basically means:

  • a lounge/bar outside the theatres
  • a few one-person “executive” washrooms rather than large shared washrooms
  • larger seats, with seat controls to lean back and (I think) put up a foot rest
  • reserved seats
  • drink and food service at the seat (server comes and takes order before movie, then brings it)
  • smaller theatre

Because of the drinks, it is local legal drinking age only (e.g. 19+ in Ottawa).

So other than the 1% income inequality aspect, ok.

UPDATE 2015-12-31: Cineplex has turned off the blue seat lights, at least in the VIP Lansdowne theatre I was in yesterday.  So the primary issue reported in this blog post is now fixed.

The new theatres have some other minor distractions, but they are mostly understandable:

  • if you sit in an aisle seat, you will have the lighted stairway in half of your feild of vision – but 1) you can always sit in the middle and 2) I concede that it is a necessary safety measure to have the stairs always lighted
  • The (bright green, glowing) exit signs are on either side of the screen (both in VIP and UltraAVX) which makes them hard to exclude from your awareness.  I imagine again that much of their brightness and position may be required from a safety standpoint.  One issue I have a hard time forgiving is that the signs cast a glow onto the screen itself.  This seems unnecessary, as no one is ever likely to be standing right at the screen position when needing to find the exit.  They could do some simple design (e.g. a black metal or plastic barrier) to block the light scattering “backwards” onto the screen.
  • The servers came in with some last service after the movie had already started.  To me this is not acceptable, as it pulls you out of the movie experience.

ENDUPDATE

IMG_2888-12888-20150621 - Version 3

Except. Those seat controls. That glow bright blue. They never go out.  Here’s an artificially-darkened version of the above image.

IMG_2888-12888-20150621 - Version 2

Now if it were me, here’s how I would design these seat controls:

  • they would only illuminate, when the house lights are on, if someone was sitting in the chair
  • they would be illuminated in red
  • they would have distinct shapes or raised icons so that you could identify them by touch
  • the illumination would go out as soon as the house lights went down

At the absolute maximum, I might agree to a touch-activated, very very dim red illumination when the house lights are down.  So as to not distract the other guests.

These are not controls that you’re using all the time.  At most you might adjust your chair when you sit down, or just before the movie starts.  I didn’t actually see anyone using them at all.

Instead, at least in the movie I was in:

  • they never go out
  • they are illuminated in bright blue (which is not a natural light, and which is the wrong colour for any light in an otherwise dark room)

The fact they never go out might be ok if they were completely blocked from view.  But they are not.  Which means if you have good peripheral vision, you can see not just the light below you on your chair, but the lights on the chairs to the left and right of you.  Which means the entire movie experience is like this:

blue light blue light blue light blue light blue light blue light

Maybe your ideal experience of a movie is to have the rough equivalent of someone constantly shining blue laser pointers into the corners of both your eyes, but mine is not.

As a side note, Cineplex has started an autism-spectrum-friendly screening program called Sensory Friendly Screenings, with “2D projection, increased auditorium lighting, lower volume and smaller crowds” (Autism Speaks press release, PDF).  Other than the increased lighting, this actually sounds like a better theatre experience for everyone.  The VIP theatre would be ideal for this screening program… except it seems likely that the blue lights that never go off will be a distressing stimulus.

I very much hope they are supposed to go out, but just weren’t switched off.

In any case, I really only care about the the reserved seat part, so I will be going to IMAX instead.

(Also incidentally the three one-person washrooms may be nice in theory, but mean a giant lineup at the end of the movie – go down the hall to the larger shared washrooms by the UltraAVX section.)

Sidebar: There are three four VIP theatres at Lansdowne.  Cinema 3 is bigger than cinema 2.  I don’t know about cinema 1.  Make sure you check not just the show but the time posted outside the theatre (all three VIP cinemas were playing the same movie, just at different times.)

light and dark, night and day, asleep and awake

There is pretty good evidence for how human sleep relates to cycles of light and dark.

Here are some podcasts and books about light and dark, night and day, sleep and wakefulness:

As you can probably tell from above, Roger Ekirch was a major force in bringing segmented sleep to popular attention, in part through his book At Day’s Close: Night in Times Past.  I actually find the book a pretty slow read – it’s a scholarly examination of how people perceived the night, it’s not just about sleep.  The TL;DR is that people basically thought night was pretty weird, with miasmic air drifting about.

Interesting historical sidebar 1: The European Celts apparently measured time not by days, but by nights.  They counted time by darkness, not by light.

Interesting historical sidebar 2: Lest you think people always fled the night, ancient Rome was so crowded that delivery vehicles were banned during the day, and had to deliver at night.  That being said, night in Rome was dangerous, with roving thuggish gangs.

Disclaimer: I’m not an expert, everything below is based on my understanding of things I’ve learned from the above resources and other sources.

The lost night – how artificial light broke human sleep

We’re basically made for very bright light during the day, and very dark darkness during the night, with dawn and dusk transitions.  Our eyes and our brains have special sensors and systems that measure and act based on the light levels and the light change.

Sleep is a very different physiological state from being awake; the transition is traumatic for the body.  What’s supposed to happen is that about an hour before you actually wake up, the body is supposed to start preparing, based both on your internal clock and the light intensity and light change (rising with the dawn).  This depends on you getting up more or less at the same time each day.

During the day, you’re supposed to be outside in the very bright sunshine.  (If you ever emerge from your office blinking at the noonday light, it’s because our offices are dramatically less bright than being outside.)

Dusk is a signal to your body to start relaxing into the evening, and total darkness is the sign for your first sleep.

And slepte hire firste sleepe / and thanne awook/

Canterbury Tales

We’ve learned that sleep based on natural light and dark appears to be broken into two cycles, first sleep from full darkness until a bit after midnight (say 8:30pm to 2am) and second sleep beginning an hour or two later until dawn (e.g. 3am to 6am).  The phase between first and second sleep is physiologically different from either full sleep or full wakefulness – it’s a kind of relaxed state, ideal for contemplation.  And there is also an alertness cycle during the day, leading to a typical dip after noon, when it would be natural to have a nap (e.g. around 3pm).

You should think of these rhythms as also applying to your mental activity – you’re supposed to rise into alertness, be alert during most of the day, and then wind down in the evening.  You shouldn’t either go from rising from bed immediately to a complex mental task, nor do something mentally engaging or stressful and then drop yourself immediately into bed.  You’re supposed to ease your way into the day, and then ease yourself back into the night.

So we have these basic rhythms.  Our body’s natural clock actually runs longer than 24 hours, but it’s supposed to get reset every day by light.  Having predictable wake and sleep times helps too, as does a regular meal schedule (there is a secondary clock in the body, based on when you eat).  The body also has a much longer lunar clock, based on the phases of the moon.

Babies and teenagers have different body clock cycles – babies sleep basically all the time, teenagers’ clocks get skewed so that they fall asleep later and wake later.

In modern life we basically ignore all of these natural cycles.  This is manageable, as humans are not just biological machines – we have neuroplasticity; we can adapt.  But it has significant impacts nonetheless.  Our misalignment is on many levels:

  • we use artificial light to extend the evening, going to bed much later than we would naturally
  • we have overlit cities, overlit buildings and overlit bedrooms, which means the sleep itself is disrupted
    • including bringing blue light into our bedrooms, whether a television, a laptop, a smartphone or tablet, or bright blue clock LEDs
    • the smartphone in the bedroom is basically an anti-sleep bomb
  • pre-computer, and still very much for many people today, the TV is on and being watched intermittently for the entire evening (and all day for some)
    • this includes the TV in the bedroom, which is very bad, and watching TV to fall asleep, which is terrible for your brain on multiple levels
  • we expect to sleep in a single consolidated 8-hour block
  • we often force ourselves away to follow the clock, rather than our bodies – including forcing teenagers to get up much earlier than they would normally, and not resting when we feel tired or sleepy
  • we change the clock with Daylight Savings Time
  • we have months that don’t align with the lunar cycle
  • (we have a year that doesn’t align with the lunar months, but this is because the earth’s orbit around the sun doesn’t exactly divide into the lunar cycle)

Basically anything you do that isn’t aligned with the dawn – bright light of day – dusk – very dark night cycle will screw up your sleep.  And screwing up your sleep screws up your wakefulness.

In the Protestant work ethic countries, we got this idea that sleep and relaxation are wasted idle time, that we should maximize our wakeful work and activity time, above all other things.  So many of us are in perpetual sleep deficit.

There is good news for many people who sleep poorly, on two fronts:

  • one is that you may actually be sleeping normally, if you’re waking up for a few hours in the night
  • two is that if you’re sleeping poorly you may be able to improve things by taking some basic steps

Things you can do:

  • first and foremost, the bedroom must be dark.  like really dark.  like at the bottom of a coal mine without any lights dark
  • if you have way too much artificial light outside to be able to leave the window uncovered for natural dawn, get an artificial dawn alarm – this should both gently raise the light level in the morning, and optionally have a quiet sound that very gradually increases (could be radio, music, white noise, a tone etc.)
    • there is basically no natural sudden waking.  if you wake suddenly to an alarm, your body basically thinks you’re being attacked by a tiger or something.
    • always get up at the same time every day
  • take time during the entire work day to look out a window, to get the full brightness of the sun
  • go outside at lunchtime, in the full sun
  • dusk is basically a lost cause in the modern world
  • in the evening, wind down your screen time at least a couple hours before bed
    • yes, this means no computer monitor, no laptop, no smartphone, no tablet and no television for a couple hours before bed
    • no glowing screens in the bedroom.  An e-ink device is ok (e.g. a Kindle) because it’s reflected light, not direct projected light.
    • always go to bed at the same time every day
  • have dim lighting in the bathroom (if you e.g. brush your teeth while looking in the mirror before bed)
  • in general, no blue light in the bedroom (blue is the strongest trigger for the sensors in your eyes).  bright blue LEDs are terrible for your sleep.
  • set your devices to total silent mode (or just turn them off) – if your brain knows that the phone might beep or buzz with a text during the night, part of you will always be waiting for that to happen
    • plus which, as I mentioned above, there’s no natural sudden waking.  your phone buzzing and pulling you out of deep sleep makes your brain think it’s an emergency.
  • no bright light during the entire span of the night
    • cover your windows well (e.g. blackout curtain) if it’s bright outside
    • use dim nightlights (e.g. electroluminescents are good)
    • no switching on the lights or any screens – maybe a very dim light to read by between first and second sleep, but no screens (due to the blue light)
  • eat at the same times every day
  • eat breakfast (part of signalling to your body that it’s time to ease itself into the day)

That’s basically the best that I know that you can do.

I used to read (paper books) to fall asleep, but for me it creates two problems, one is that the book falls down when I fall asleep, which wakes me up (often falling on my face), another is that the light stays on and eventually wakes me up.  I found a solution in listening to audiobooks (and to podcasts) at night instead.  That way I can set the sleep timer and then I just fall asleep in the dark.

As a society, we could also:

  • design our cities to be dark-sky, rather than overlighting them
  • design our buildings to use natural light, and to be dark by default
    • for example in Europe, hallways usually have windows to the outside, and a minuterie (a light timer) that gives you only a few minutes of artificial light to get around
  • start school later for teenagers
  • let people nap during the day
  • spend more time outside, including walking meetings and outdoor lunch breaks
  • spend less time facing the computer screen, and more time working on paper (or e-ink screens) using natural light
  • use all our screens less
  • get rid of Daylight Savings Time, which is stupid on many levels
  • go to bed earlier

The above is pretty much all about light and dark and your body clock.  There are of course many other factors, including caffeine, stress, and noise.

If you want more info, you can google first sleep second sleep and a bazillion articles will come up.