Taking Control of Your Life and Other Odds and Ends

by Ron Woods

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    After dinner with his family, Hal read through the term paper once more, and after correcting two typing errors, placed it in a yellow plastic cover. “Twenty-seven pages,” he thought. “That’s the longest paper I hope I ever have to do. I sure hope Mr. Gillam is interested in the post-war politics of Yugoslavia.” Hal put the paper with his other schoolwork. “I’m glad I started on it when I did, or I’d have never had it ready to turn in tomorrow,” he thought. “That man really expects a lot of us seniors.” With his homework finished, Hal went downstairs and watched a TV show with his little brother before going to bed.

    Three houses down the street, Paul, another member of Mr. Gillam’s current affairs class, had gulped down a few bites of mom’s homemade lasagna, one of his favorite meals, and said, “Sorry, mom, I’ve just got to get that paper started—and finished!” and hurried to his room. His study desk was covered with notecards, most of them obviously written in haste. “At least I got some research notes taken at the library last night, so I can type all night if I have to.” He moved some of the cards aside to slide his typewriter into place, put a piece of paper in the machine, and looked at the first stack of cards. “I’ll just have to skip the first-draft stage,” he sighed, “not to mention the second-draft stage. This paper has to be turned in tomorrow morning or else.” As he started to type the one and only draft of the paper that Mr. Gillam would use to decide half of his semester grade, he wondered, “When will I ever learn to start sooner?”

    Now, which paper will impress Mr. Gillam more? Right the first time! Obviously Head-start Hal’s paper has a much better chance of being organized and well-written, more thoroughly researched and error-free than does Procrastinator Paul’s. (Hal has a better chance of being awake in class tomorrow, too.)

    Now comes the big question: If you were in Mr. Gillam’s class, which student would you be more similar to in your study habits, Hal or Paul? If you can honestly answer, “Why, I’m just exactly like good old Hal; in fact, I thought it was me you were describing,” then I expect that you’ll move on to some other article in this magazine that will be of more value to you. But if you’re one of that vast throng who see just a bit of themselves in Paul, the type who always planned to join the Procrastinator’s Club but just never got around to it, then read on! I believe this article just may have an idea or two that can help. (And don’t you dare say you’ll read it later!)

    Sneak Up on It

    Procrastination, or the “I’ll start later” syndrome, is probably one of the most commonly regretted failings of mankind. How often have we said, and meant it too, “Next time I’ll start sooner”? It sounds simple enough. But, somehow, next time is just like this time, and we’re late again. It’s been suggested that if someone summoned all the world’s procrastinators and laid them end-to-end, it would be a pretty short line, because most of them wouldn’t show up till next week.

    There is a simple way to overcome procrastination, so simple, in fact, that you probably won’t be impressed until you try it. But it really works and surprisingly well. Ready? Here it is: Sneak up on it.

    I told you it was simple. Another way to say it is: Do a little at a time.

    It’s really the lazy man’s way of getting a job done. Here’s how it works. Let’s say you have a task to do that appears difficult and not too much fun and that needs to be done in two months. For example, the term paper assigned to Hal and Paul mentioned earlier. Most of us, on receiving such an assignment, go through a thought process something like this: “Two months is a long time, so I won’t worry about it for a couple of weeks. (You know the old saying: Never put off till tomorrow what you can put off till next week.) But I’ll surely get started then, and I’ll get it done on time.” In fact, that’s just what Paul thought! But those two weeks were soon gone, and he said, “I just don’t have time right now, but I’ll get to it.” And suddenly the two months had passed, and it was only two more days until the paper was due, and Paul ran to the library … and you know the rest.

    But what did Hal do differently? When he got the assignment, he thought like this: (A) “I’d better get started on this. I’ll choose my theme by tomorrow.” (B) “I’ll start my research next Monday by looking up my sources and researching one book per day. That way I can get the main research and note-taking done in just a few minutes a day in the library. By doing one book per school day for three weeks, I’ll have 15 sources.” (C) “Then I’ll start the writing and organizing of the paper.” (D) “Two days before the paper is due, I’ll type the final draft so that the night before it’s due, I can make any corrections needed.”

    Is Hal really a better student than Paul is? No, they both seem concerned and conscientious, but Hal’s methods certainly are more effective. Let’s analyze those methods. Notice that Hal had a plan. Notice too that Hal did the main part of his work by sneaking up on it, by doing a little at a time, so that it didn’t seem like a big job. He managed his research in 20 minutes a day over 15 days. That’s 5 hours, but, since it was spread out, it didn’t seem hard. Paul did his research all at once, on the next-to-last night. And it was work.

    As an administrator in the Brigham Young University Department of Independent Study, I see many students who begin independent study courses, which they have up to a year to finish, who put off beginning the work until it’s too late. Then they rush in (or write) to request an extension of time. At the end of this additional six months, some of them still don’t make it. (Interestingly enough, most who do complete, do so in the first four months rather than the last months. And most of those students are ones who schedule their work—they sneak up on it—by doing a lesson or two a week on a regular basis.)

    Besides term papers and independent study courses, I can think of some other jobs that seem to go better when tackled a little at a time on a regular schedule. Keeping a room clean and neat has always seemed to me easier if done a bit every day rather than waiting until mom says, “Does anyone remember if the carpet in your room is green or blue? It’s been so long since I’ve seen it!” Keeping a desk clean, ironing, doing the wash, and weeding the garden all go better, it seems, when done regularly, in little segments, instead of day-long marathons. Writing, for me at least, falls in this category too. In fact, this article is the result of a commitment to do something on it daily until it was finished.

    Filing of articles and thoughts for church talks and lessons is another chore that I simply can’t stand to do for more than a few minutes at a time. Before applying this idea to the filing task, and while waiting—and waiting—to file until I “had time” or felt “motivated,” I felt guilty about not getting it done. After years of good intentions, I decided to file two items a day, every day. I’m still at it, but now instead of two boxes of material to file, I’m down to a stack about three-inches deep. And I feel much better about my file.

    I’m sure there are some jobs that don’t lend themselves to this approach. If you are painting your bedroom, stirring the paint, lumbering up the brushes, throwing down the drop cloths, putting on your painting clothes, opening the window, and then taking three swipes at the ceiling before cleaning up and putting everything away until tomorrow just wouldn’t be very efficient. Getting out all of your genealogical materials only to spend five minutes on a group sheet seems a bother. But it’s surprising how many jobs can be done with such minimal daily effort. And the best part is that most of these jobs are accomplished without ever seeming like work. That’s why I call it the lazy man’s way of getting a job done.

    Be Your Own Boss

    Convinced? Try it. How about another idea that’s closely related and that likewise can do wonders for procrastinatoritis?

    Ever get the feeling that your life isn’t your own? That you are constantly living your life for your teachers, Church leaders, or parents? This feeling occurs when we’re always late with some assignment, project, or household chore. That’s when people “get on our backs,” harangue us, preach at us. And that’s when we reply, “All right, all right, I’ll get it done—I just need a little more time!”

    This dismal picture can change. You can get ahead of it all. Sound like a commercial for a Mary Poppins whisk-away-the-work magic broom? Not quite. But there is a bit of magic in this second idea: Make yourself the boss.

    “And what does that mean?” you ask. “I have too many bosses already—that’s the problem!” Maybe you’ll like better this way of saying it: Set your own deadlines. It’s really a simple procedure. But let’s look first at the typical, but poor, way to handle an assignment.

    Suppose you’re a student (the principle can apply to other situations equally well), and you walk into class in the first week of October, carefree and relaxed. You’re suddenly brought to attention when Mr. Gillam announces that a term paper with at least 15 references will be due December 15. You think, “Okay, that’s over two months away. I’ll get on it later.”

    We’ve all had first-hand experience with that rather typical response, right? About December 5, we start to get worried; by December 10, we get to the library for some research; by December 12, we’re in a state of panic, omitting all other homework, and of course, the night of December 14 is an all-night session. The paper gets done, but we’re not very proud of it. The research is haphazard, and the writing reads like the first draft that it is.

    So you leave Mr. Gillam’s class that day in October and promptly forget about the term paper. But that evening as you’re reading the new issue of the New Era, which has just arrived that day, you come across a wise, sparkling, and motivating article on “Taking Control of Your Life.” The spirit of repentance grabs you, and remembering Mr. Gillam’s term paper assignment, you think, “Why not try it?”

    You turn your calendar ahead (You do have a personal planning calendar, don’t you?) and notice a few activities already scheduled for December: on the 8th, let’s say, your journal is due in your creative writing class; on the 10th, Sunday, you’ve been assigned to give a talk in a seminary-sponsored sacrament meeting. And on the 5th, your brother is coming home from his mission; you’ll have to move out of his room, put his stereo back together, and re-wax his skis. All of this plus December’s Christmas preparations too!

    The idea of being your own boss is simply to decide that you won’t turn in the paper on the 15th, but on a prior date, say November 30. I know it sounds astounding to do the job before it has to be done. But look at the advantages: you’ll have time to put the finishing touches on the writing journal, have time to work on the talk, and of course, have time to spend with your brother, explaining how you poked his ski through his three-way speaker and other interesting things he will want to know.

    You’ll have time for all of this if you get that paper done early. And think of the psychological power of setting your own deadline, being your own supervisor, turning in the paper when you choose. There’s also the secret pleasure of seeing Mr. Gillam’s mouth drop open and of smugly (but humbly, please) gloating over your friends’ last minute struggles to meet the deadline. (Of course, if you’re afraid someone will think you’ve lost your senses—after all, no one does anything early!—you can finish the paper and hold it until the due date before turning it in, and nobody will know.)

    Now you look at your November calendar. It seems to be relatively clear. You look at October and it’s okay, so you make your decision: you can do it by November 30. Congratulations—you’re now your own boss; you’ve set your own deadline.

    Eliminate Last-Minute Panic

    You’re not done yet, however. Naturally, you’re subject to the same possibility of failure that any boss has. For your deadline to be realized, you need a plan, a schedule. And now we need to look back to the first idea presented in this article. Of course! You have to sneak up on it. It won’t do to leave it until the last week of November, so you must set up your schedule now. One good approach is to build your schedule in reverse, that is, starting with the November 30 date and moving backwards. You decide to leave yourself plenty of time for the final typing, say from November 26–29. Now, moving backwards, you plan a week for the final draft, starting on November 19. Let’s say you’re one who writes three drafts (at least two, please!), so you leave a week (November 12–16) for the second draft, and two weeks (October 29 to November 9) for the first one. That leaves the rest of October, about three weeks from where you are now, for sampling topics and choosing one, then researching. And remember the idea we discussed earlier of researching one source per school day—sneaking up, you know.

    Get the idea? Does it sound too easy? Well, don’t fool yourself. It will be work, just as much work as if you did it the “usual,” last-minute way. But it spreads it out, lessens the load on any given day, moves the mountain a spoonful at a time, and completely—yes, completely, if you maintain your schedule—eliminates the last-minute panic. And if you are delayed by sickness or other unpredictables, you can move the date back a week and still get the paper in early.

    Are you ready to try it? Think of the possibilities. The next time mom says, “Either clean up your room by Saturday or I’m calling the city inspector to have it condemned!”, why not do it immediately? It would make you the boss, wouldn’t it, at least in part? (And it would sure surprise mom; that ought to be worth something.) After all, if you wait until the last minute and she starts nagging, and you want to do something else at the time, and you wish she’d stop, but she won’t, who’s really in control? One clue: it isn’t you.

    What about the next time you have an assignment to get a fireside speaker, decorate for a dance, arrange some refreshments for an activity, buy some gas for the lawn mower? All of these, and countless more of our daily tasks, lend themselves to early deadlines. Home teaching and visiting teaching can be great experiences when you make your visit by the middle of the month—your deadline—instead of the last day. And think what it communicates to the families you visit: “We wanted to come,” instead of “Somebody called and reminded us, so we had to come.”

    These ideas aren’t difficult, but they might help to change some habits you may have developed in poor time management. It really takes only one prime ingredient to stir up this recipe for the “new on-time you,” and that ingredient is a healthy measure of determination to run your own life to a greater extent, to take control of yourself.

    Why not try it? You’re not thinking of saying you’ll “try it later,” are you? That sounds too much like Procrastinator Paul talking. And I’ll bet that deep down inside there’s a Head-start Hal just waiting for a chance to jump up and say, “I can do it! I’ll be my own boss and sneak up on my work, and I’ll start today!

    Photography by Gerald Bybee