Fear is the mother of procrastination
Suppose you have a task that is fairly big and is triggering procrastination and foreboding. This task doesn’t have an obvious step 1 to get you going. Instead it has some suggestible entry points. It’s very likely you can journal the task into simple steps that can be checked off and completed. You will have to flatten the complexity and remove all perceived cycles (catch-22s or if you’re a programmer, deadlocks). By following a recursive algorithm, you can transform a seemingly infinitely complex or overly complicated problem into a set of linear instructions.
Fractal Journaling is currently my favourite procrastination killer. I hope you find it useful.
Step 1: identify components
At the highest level, the first step is to subdivide the problem into components. Components aren’t steps but rather categories of tasks. This step is usually the most uncomfortable because the individual components are what spark fear into our hearts. Acknowledging the fears will illuminate what those components are. For example, suppose you’ve been putting off planning your wedding. Every time the thought comes up, you find yourself discovering ever more engaging Netflix nature documentaries. Perhaps you also learn how to extract penicillin from moldy rye bread in the event that a catastrophe obliterates modern medicine. After another day passes with no event planning, you decide to confront the problem using fractal journaling. You first try to identify the components. It leaves you queasy and you realize your main fear is having to negotiate and bargain with suppliers. You find the notion too unfamiliar and confrontational. You’re used to just paying the label price. Haggling just feels wrong. However a little reflection should yield the realization that not all of wedding planning is founded in engaging contentious suppliers. There are other parts like deciding on decor, figuring out who to invite, what to eat, choice of music. This brief pondering gives you some top level components:
- haggling with suppliers
- decor and venue planing
Step 2: Reassembling the components so that they occur in a logical order.
Now that you have your components, it should be clear to you that haggling, the part you hate, only needs to happen later. There is a lot more to be done now. First comes planning. And that relies on how you want the wedding to be. So bearing that in mind, you rearrange the list in an order:
- decor and venue planning
Step 3: Identify the most discomforting component and recursively apply the algorithm to it as a top level item
You still don’t have a step by step list of what to do. Each item is still high level. Also haggling hasn’t gone away, it’s just been shuffled down a list. What has happened now is that you’ve separated the generally discomforting event of “wedding planning” into a list of items that individually bring a mixture of joy and foreboding. For instance, the idea of decor planning and scrolling Pinterest and Instagram for ideas excites you. Planning seating elicits a “meh” response but haggling is still deeply uncomfortable. So you don’t need motivation to do steps 1 to 3. Instead step 4 is looming over you. You’re not done journaling. The algorithm doesn’t terminate until you have a list of instructions for which you’re either happy or indifferent to execute. So the next step is to flesh out 4. Going back to step 1, we can break haggling into:
- Identifying suppliers
- asking for quotes
- bringing some friends along to demos for opinions and help
- asking for a lower price or better terms than the quote
Interestingly you notice that you look forward to doing all but the last item. While compiling this list, it dawned on you that your friends and family might be quite involved in this process. When first thinking about haggling, the image of a cowering version of you confronted by a fearsome supplier fills you with dread. But now that you’ve remembered that friends are part of the fray, maybe they can help you confront the suppliers. So you quickly and recursively expand step 3 so that the list now looks like this:
- Identifying suppliers
- asking for quotes
- identifying best man, maid of honour, groomsmen, bridesmaids and interested parents
- Ask the best man, Rick, to do the bargaining because he’s a tech salesman who recently completed his MBA and loves the challenge.
- Tag along with Rick so that you learn to replace and neutralize the archetypal nightmares your hold with demonstrations of real world civil bargaining.
Step 4: Recursively expand the rest of the list until you have only actionable unambiguous instructions
After injecting the 4 instructions into step 4 of the original list, you’re now ready to rapidly and thoughtfully apply the algorithm to the rest of the original list until you have only actionable items. An actionable item is specific and leaves no room for planning. If there is still room for planning, it isn’t actionable. For instance, book a florist is not actionable. Which florist? How many flowers? Instead a good action item is “Phone Abigail’s Flowers and ask if they would be willing to take an order for 200 roses on the 1st of December at the Garden Vineyard Wedding Venue and if so, how much the deposit is”.
The algorithm does not terminate when you have the perfect list. It terminates when the individual items on it no longer bring any form of discomfort.
One final point on recursion. Sometimes, we can’t flesh out the list until we execute certain steps. For instance, a step like “go on Pinterest to find the perfect chair” has to be executed before steps like “order 100 wood framed dining chairs from Amazon”. You’ll find that as the list is executed, you either change it on the spot or draw up a new list. The point of fractal journaling isn’t to come up with a final list that never changes. Instead it is to identify the items that bring fear and recursively drill into what it is that evokes fear and figure out how to proceed. The algorithm does not terminate when you have the perfect list. It terminates when the individual items on it no longer bring any form of discomfort.