WYCWYC: Small Steps Can Move Us Forward

WYCWYCI have come across an interesting little book that could be a tremendous help to procrastinators everywhere ­– not to mention those who see themselves as perennial failures. It is called What You Can, When You Can: Healthy Living on Your Terms, and it is written by Carla Birnberg and Roni Noone.

The premise of the book is that when it comes to accomplishing the goals we have set out in life for ourselves – whether it is improving our physical fitness or learning a new language – such approaches as determination, willpower and resolutions simply set us up for failure. As soon as most of us decide to go on a diet until we reach our goal weight, or exercise for half an hour every day, or finish that paper one week before it’s due, we are done before we start: one or two slips or misses, and we give up. We throw the baby out with the bathwater.

But, say Birnberg and Noone, if we look at it from an entirely different angle – if, instead of making a huge resolution we are not likely to be able to keep, instead we take one tiny step in the direction we want to go, we will ultimately get to where we’re going. Furthermore, instead of calling ourselves down, we’ll be able to celebrate along the way. All we need to do is to choose the leaner item on the menu just once, or skip dessert, or walk three blocks instead of getting on a bus. Along that road lies success.

They call their approach “What you can, when you can” – “wycwyc” for short.

Endorsed by no less an achiever than Venus Williams, the book is cleverly set out to deliver its own message: the chapters are small segments of a page or two that are easy to digest within a few minutes, then mull over at your leisure. You can read a bit, put it down, then pick up the book again when you have time. (In other words, you can read wycwyc. Get it?)

The book contains concrete tips (declutter, get more sleep) and well as psychological boosters (don’t let yourself compare yourself to other people). Birnberg and Noone have also set up online groups on every social platform you can think of so that you can find others who are celebrating small achievements in their daily lives. To find them, just search the hashtag #wycwyc.

In my own recent efforts to lose weight and (even more difficult, in my experience) to keep the weight off, I have found that it has helped to avoid thinking of myself as being on a diet. Instead, I simply take two days a week to work on my weight-loss efforts (by eating no more than 500 calories) and the other five days are mine to do with as I wish food-wise. The fact that my tastes for overdoing it are gradually diminishing (at least I hope they are.  “Leftover” Hallowe’en candy proved no easier to resist than it ever has) is beside the point. The point is that with this particular program, I did not have to make a resolution to which I was bound to fail again (going on a diet). (As some of you know, this was also the key to Rita’s success in my novel, Rita Just Wants to Be Thin.)

At the moment, I am taking the same approach to building up my ability to plank. Instead of sticking to the 30 Day Fitness Challenge guidelines (at which I would never have succeeded), I am increasing my time as I wish to, when I wish to. If it takes me 30 months instead of 30 days to get to the 5-minute plank, so be it. I have no doubt I’ll get there eventually. (I made four minutes last week.)  Nor do I doubt that I will reach my goal weight…. Sometime. Preferably before the end of January.

Living this way (WYCWYC) is becoming part of my way of life. I just didn’t know it until I read this book.

Procrastination: Push-Pull, Ebb-Flow, Up-Down, In-Out

In Defense of Procrastination WaltersI always feel as though I’m being drawn in two directions when I am in a procrastination mode. It’s not that I don’t want to do what I am supposed to be doing. No. In fact, I am quite attracted by the idea of completing whatever task lies before me. The prospect is delicious.

Of course, I am also tempted by the notion of not getting the task done, of avoiding what I am supposed to do, and this alternative, too, attracts me like a moth into a flame. This prospect is not delicious: it is frightening.

What both options share, of course, is time: specifically, the time I spend indulging in imagining myself either finishing or not finishing what I should be working on. When there is no time, I do not procrastinate. The problem with being a writer is that there is often no one waiting for the finished product: no deadline. So I finally make space in my otherwise too-busy life to write, and then I don’t. Instead I fantasize about the joy that will come my way should I ever get around to actually working, and freak at the prospect of what will happen if I don’t.

Fast, Slow

Interestingly, two articles I’ve read on the subject of time management and procrastination in the past two days have presented two almost completely opposite perspectives on the merits of my behaviour. One suggests that if I want to improve my work (my writing, in this case), I need to force deadlines into my writing life just like the ones that exist in the rest of my life. I need to put pressure on myself that will leave me no time for procrastination.

The other says that if I don’t take my time — wallow, drag my feet, as my inclination urges me to do — my writing is going to suffer.

The action-oriented article, from The Daily Beast, is an excerpt from a book called Fail Fast, Fail Often: How Losing Can Help You Win by Ryan Babineaux and John Krumboltz, psychologists. It starts by describing the outcome of an intriguing experiment carried out by a ceramics teacher: it indicates that by doing a lot of things quickly and not worrying about whether the outcome is going to be good or bad, you may create a better product than if you spend all your time trying to make one good product.

The excerpt includes a quote from Andrew Stanton, the director of Finding Nemo and WALL-E, who says:

My strategy has always been: Be wrong as fast as we can. Which basically means, we’re gonna screw up, let’s just admit that. Let’s not be afraid of that. But let’s do it as fast as we can so we can get to the answer. You can’t get to adulthood before you go through puberty. I won’t get it right the first time, but I will get it wrong really soon, really quickly.

In my case anyway, most of my procrastination time is based on the principle that I’m only going to create one good thing (an article, let us say), which I will write and revise until it is as perfect as I can make it. My procrastination does not encompass a strategy that would see me go headlong into the hurly burly, tossing out a bunch of articles until one hits a mark somewhere and sticks.

By contrast, David Whyte believes that procrastination does to ideas what putting fruit in a paper bag does to bananas and apples and pears: it helps with the ripening process and makes the flavours sweet and full.

Whyte says:

An endeavor achieved without delay, wrong turnings, occasional blank walls and a vein of self-doubt running through all, leading eventually to some degree of heart-break, is a thing of the moment, a mere bagatelle, and often neither use nor ornament. It will be scanned for a moment and put aside. What is worthwhile carries the struggle of the maker written within it, but wrought into the shape of an earned understanding.

Some days and with some tasks I agree with Babineaux and Krumboltz, and some days and on some tasks with David Whyte. Thanks to the former I wrote this blog post. In sympathy with the latter, I haven’t written any fiction this afternoon.

My only concern is that fruit left too long in the bag inevitably goes bad.

Are Resolutions a Procrastination Strategy?

Rewards without the sacrifice. What could be better than that?


Screen Shot 2014-01-02 at 11.47.48 AMWhen I was working on my CBC Ideas program In Defense of Procrastination (yes. That’s also the title of my forthcoming book), one of the most enjoyable interviews I did was with psychology professor Dr. Timothy Pychyl, who heads the Procrastination Research Group at Carleton University in Ottawa and is the author of Solving the Procrastination Puzzle. He’s a genuinely interesting and very funny person. I will be referring often to him both in this blog and in my book.

I was happy to read that Dr. Pychyl is now investigating the relationship between procrastination and resolution-making. In a recent article in the Hamilton Spectator, Pychyl pointed out that humans tend to see the future as “a true blank slate.” I know from personal experience (repeated personal experience) that this way of looking at the future is a slippery slope.

By allowing ourselves to put off acting on our (very worthwhile) decisions to make new beginnings, we get a double-whammy bonus: 1) we get to feel great about ourselves, and 2) we don’t yet have to start the hard work associated with the resolution itself. As Pychyl points out in his example, we can pat ourselves on the back because we are going to go on a diet, without actually having to go on the diet… yet. To put it another way, we can easily overestimate our ability to achieve in the abstract: the ongoing drudgery of changing a habit makes reality far more challenging.

So, if procrastinating brings us the kind of immediate rewards (e.g., permission to indulge in our less-than-productive activities while also feeling good about ourselves) that we probably won’t get for a long time if we actually try to change our lives, maybe we simply need to keep rescheduling our resolutions instead of trying to act on them. 😉

Your thoughts?

Are You A Christmas-Shopping Procrastinator?

Girl holding Christmas hours.

Are you one? Do you know one? Check out the poll below – and let us know what you think!

* * * * *

Here’s an interesting tidbit of procrastination-related information: a company named X-Ad has published research that indicates that on-line searches for store locations, hours and specific retail items occur 24% more often on Christmas Eve than on Black Friday. This phenomenon is said to be attributable to – what else? – buyer procrastination.

The editorial article in SDExec where I read about this study suggests that the advent of internet-based devices is allowing people to put off their gift purchases to the last minute due to the ease with which they can now locate stores and specific articles when they are running out of time. But Christmas-shopping procrastination has been habitual for a significant segment of the population since long before the internet, so I wonder if the tendency to shop at the last minute is actually increasing or is just more traceable today.

What do you think?

  • Are you a Christmas-shopping procrastinator? (Do you know one?)
  • Have mobile devices have made your (their) shopping procrastination habits worse? (Contribute to the poll below!)
  • Are you (they) going to avoid leaving everything to the last minute again this year?
  • Are you reading this blog post when you should be shopping?

Getting Started (well, sort of…)

In Defense of Procrastination Walters


Have you ever:

  • neglected to thank someone for a gift or act of kindness for so long that you feared running into that person by accident?
  • felt simultaneously ashamed, enraged and mystified at your inability to get to work on an assignment with a deadline?
  • promised yourself a hundred different times that you would start (or stop) doing something the very next day, without ever actually starting (or stopping) it?

If you can relate to these kinds of experiences, well…. Welcome to the human race.

I’ve met very few people who are not bothered from time to time — some more frequently than others — by their inclination to procrastinate. I myself have reached the point on several occasions when I semi-seriously weighed the alternatives of admitting that I had not yet written an article I had promised to someone and throwing myself off the nearest bridge. It was, in fact, during an episode like that I first conceived the idea of writing about procrastination. I knew even then that I was not the only person in the world who suffered from it, but it was not until I began to do some research that I discovered how widespread the problem actually is.

The original focus of my exploration of the subject of procrastination was the development of a one-hour program for CBC’s long-running and excellent documentary radio series, Ideas. What I wanted to investigate was this: If so many people experience procrastination, fight it, try to live with it, find they cannot avoid it – if it is, in short, perhaps, a human inclination, something that has perhaps even evolved in us – can it be entirely bad? Might there not be a good side… even, perhaps, some benefits?

The Ideas program was several months in the making, and during that time almost everyone to whom I mentioned the project, which I had confidently named “In Defense of Procrastination” from the start, seemed eager to hear the program; a surprising number even volunteered to contribute to it. Everyone seemed to relate to problems with procrastination. They loved the idea that there might be some justification – better yet, more than one – that might help them live with themselves as procrastinators. They greeted with even more enthusiasm the prospect of acquiring solid arguments that might help them to defend themselves from the range of reactions (ranging from disapproval to rage) of the people with whom they lived and worked.

They were also, of course, keen to learn how to avoid ever getting themselves in a situation where they’d procrastinate again.

In addition to getting them into trouble with other people – or at least making them fearful that they would – their tendency to procrastinate evoked feelings in them, as it does in me and probably you as well, of guilt and pain. It made them feel as though they were lazy.

Granted, Thomas De Quincey said:

If once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing; and from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination. (“On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts,” 1827)

But surely this was written tongue-in-cheek? It is not human nature, at least under normal, peaceable circumstances, to commit murder, or to steal. It is, in my experience, human nature to procrastinate.

(to be continued. In the meantime, I welcome your thoughts and responses.)

Procrastination in the News (1)

In Defense of Procrastination Walters

The online journal Quartz has published an interesting article entitled “The Complete Guide to Procrastinating at Work,” although I do think its title somewhat overstates its content.

The author, Anna Codrea-Rado, offers eight points relating to procrastination, some of them intriguing (Joseph F. Ferrari, an expert in the field, says that there are two types of procrastinators – those who delay decisions and those who delay actions), some worrisome (it includes a link to an article that advises employers how to avoid hiring procrastinators), and some consoling (it suggests that maybe our procrastination tendencies have been instilled in us by the school system or other childhood circumstances and are not some gigantic personal failure after all).

Ms. Codrea-Rado asks, “Can procrastinating ever be a source of productivity?” and of course I would answer that question with a hearty affirmative – that is, in fact, the whole point of the book that I am (fairly soon) about to start constructing here before your eyes. However, I do take small issue with this apparent guidance:

The Creativity Research Journal studied the working habits of a particularly intelligent group of people, winners of the Intel Science Talent competition. They found the group procrastinated productively. Some used procrastination as a trigger for a helpful amount of stress needed to ignite positive action. Others saw it as a “thought incubator”: They put off making a decision because they wanted to fully process it before finding a solution.

The problem, as I see it, is that if you are delaying intentionally, you are not in fact procrastinating. There is a certain lack of power on the part of the person who is procrastinating, at least in my experience: When we are doing it, it has hold of us, rather than the other way around.

Although I did interview one professor, Dr. John Perry at Stanford, who has developed a whole protocol for “Structured Procrastination.” More on that later. (Or you can Google him, or even check out his book, if you are looking to kill a bit more time right now.)

What is your most ridiculous, funniest, most creative, or most time-consuming procrastination episode?

In Defense of Procrastination Walters

We all know the downsides of procrastination (and I will be listing them here in future posts, and you will have a chance to tell me–and my readers–some of your downside stories). They are the stuff of nightmares.

However, it is my firm belief that procrastination also has its uses, and that in fact it can be very beneficial in certain contexts. That will be the whole, overall point of the new book I am writing. It is a book in defense of procrastination. How overdue is that?

This very blog/book project provides an excellent example of what I mean by benefits.

About ten years ago, I did a program, also called “In Defence of Procrastination,” for CBC’s Ideas. In it, I explored the downsides and upsides and examples and horror stories associated with procrastination. I talked to experts in the field (experts of both the psychologist and the practitioner varieties). I talked to people who were married to procrastinators (argh!) and those who worked with them. I amassed quotations on the subject, and I explored the historical and cultural angles of the phenomenon. At the end, on the basis of numerous examples and mounting evidence, I proposed that the procrastinators among us should not feel so guilty: we may actually be doing something that will benefit ourselves and humanity when we finally do get to the task at hand – or even, sometimes, while we are procrastinating.

Ever since then, I have been planning to turn all that material into a book. I figured that while they were reading it, people would at least be procrastinating in a productive way (I planned to include crossword puzzles, doodle pages, etc. that they could use along the way to slow their return to reality down even more.) Plus, with a book they would have something concrete to show to their spouses and bosses that would get them off the hook–for a few minutes anyway. (“Look, darling! I know I said I’d paint the bathroom four years ago, but it says right here in this book that the delay is a sign of creativity!”)

Anyway, I’m only getting around to writing the book now (not only because of procrastination, but partly because of it). But look what’s happened in the meantime? The evolution of the Internet has allowed book writing to become a public activity, which means that all of you can help me write it – by sharing your thoughts and your examples. If I’d written this book ten years ago, it would have been a totally different (and far less interesting) project.

So, in the near future (“near” being a relative term), I am going to post the outline of the book (developed ages ago), and start posting the introduction (which I also wrote several years ago). Then I am going to write the entire rest of the book right here online, including but also adding to the material I did for the Ideas program. The book won’t be in its final format when I write it here, though, because I need your input all along the way to make it the best that it can be.

I won’t publish any examples or comments from readers of this blog in the book without asking for the permission of the person who sent it in, so make sure your avatar will lead me to you if I want to get in touch.  But I do I plan to scatter comments and examples from readers (attributed unless they ask to be anonymous) throughout the book. You will help me make my case.

But more on the outcomes and the processes later. For now, what I want are your examples of procrastination behaviours in which you indulge on a regular basis and — even more interesting — bizarre things you have done at some time in the past (or present) to avoid doing something else. When I did the Ideas program, I talked to one guy who’d had a empty beer can collection in his closet when he was in highschool (?), and one night before an exam, instead of studying he took all of the cans out of the closet (there were dozens) and sorted them by label colour into towers on the floor. Then he threw them all back into the closet, because what else are you going to do with a beer can collection? But he’d wasted most of the night. Another person I talked to, a writer, had on a deadline taken her microwave apart, screw by screw, cleaned all of the pieces, and put it back together again.

So how about you? What is the most ridiculous, funniest, most creative, or most time-consuming procrastination episode you have indulged in? Please let me know via the Comments section if you’re okay with others reading them too, or at mary at marywwalters dot com if you prefer to remain anonymous.

Note that it may take me a while to post the comments on the site after you send them in, as I want to read them before they are posted, and throw away the spam, and I am often away from my computer for up to eight hours at a time (that would be at night). So patience, eh? Play FreeCell while you’re waiting for me to approve your post.

I am sooo looking forward to this! I wish I’d started it ages ago. No I don’t.