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The Now Habit

The Now Habit: A strategic program for overcoming procrastination and enjoying guilt-free play. Neil Fiore, Ph.D.
Penguin Putnam, New York. 1998. 196 pages.

When you are procrastinating on a task—any task, but let's say, oh, housecleaning—do you have an inner voice in your head telling you that you have to clean up, that the laundry should be done and put away, that you would do it if only you were more disciplined, that the fact that you're not cleaning shows that you're basically lazy?

Neil Fiore does not accept that more self-discipline is the answer to overcoming procrastination, nor that anyone is inherently lazy. His positive view of the human spirit is that we have an inner drive for meaningful work, a desire to produce—which explains why the human race isn't still living in caves.

So what causes us to go against this basic drive and procrastinate? Fiore argues that our procrastination is a self-defence mechanism against the underlying issues that we see as a threat to our self-worth:

  • fear of failure
  • fear of success
  • fear of being imperfect (perfectionism)
  • fear of impossible expectations (being overwhelmed)

These issues can manifest as indecisiveness, ineffective goal-setting, an imbalance between work and play, and so on. The Now Habit uses the following definition of procrastination: Procrastination is a mechanism for coping with the anxiety associated with starting or completing any task or decision.

The reason that self-discipline doesn't cure procrastination is because the inner drill-sergeant tape we play in our heads, with its calls for constant discipline, pressure, and threats must automatically create an inner conflict. The presence of a drill-sergeant implies the presence of a soldier who needs to be drilled into doing something. It is this self-alienation that The Now Habit program seeks to heal.

In explaining why we procrastinate and how we can stop procrastinating, Fiore uses the metaphor of walking a plank. An objective task is represented by the activity of walking a 30ft plank of wood placed on flat grass:

[Plank of wood on grass]

Walking this plank would be easy. Ah, but we don't really live in an objective world! People bring their own baggage, their subjective views and filters to any task... For example, someone who is a perfectionist, who feels that they must achieve a result of 100% or be a failure, will approach the task as if the plank has been raised and suspended 100 feet between two buildings:

[Plank of wood between two buildings]

Is it any wonder that we hesitate to cross, now that the stakes are so high? So, what do we do? We procrastinate! We stay safely at our end of the plank, rearranging the piles, watching television, napping, chatting, surfing the Web, doing anything but walking that plank.

Many times, other forces come into play, forcing our hand (apartment manager notice pinned to front door, your mother just announced she's coming to your city and expects to stay at your house.) In the plank metaphor, this can be represented by a fire starting near your end of the plank:

[Plank of wood between two buildings, one building is on fire]

Now you're compelled to cross that plank any which way you can—on your hands and knees, if you have to! In squalor terms, this mode translates as "Dash 'n' Stash"! But wouldn't it be great to have crossed of your own free will? Fiore explains that what we need to empower us to cross that plank before the fire starts is a safety net—a Plan B in case Plan A doesn't work out.

[Plank of wood between two buildings, with a safety net below]

Your safety net is your alternative tool for coping with the deep inner fears that lead you towards procrastination. It could be as simple (and as deep) as realising that your self-worth is not dictated by the outcome of your task. Fiore says there are three types of major block caused by these inner fears, and offers a tool for coping with each.

Major BlockTool
Being overwhelmed and fear of starting
Three-dimensional thinking
Remember you don't have to accomplish a complex project in one step - break it up into smaller tasks and tackle them one at a time.
A reverse calendar
If the project has an external deadline, take the smaller tasks and working backwards, set realistic dates for completion of the smaller tasks.
Fear of failure and of being imperfect
Doing the work of worrying
Don't dismiss your worries....be alert to possible dangers but also do the work of worrying - developing a plan for how you will cope if the situation you are envisioning does in fact happen.
Fear of finishing and fear of success
Persistent starting
All large tasks are completed in a series of starts. Keep starting. Finishing will take care of itself.

Fiore emphasises the importance of guilt-free play. The time we spend not obviously "working" is fundamental to re-creating and re-energising our minds, bodies, and spirits, which in turn improves the quality of our work. Guilt-free play is so important to our productivity that you have to prioritise your play-time as highly as your work! Fiore suggests that we develop an "Unschedule", and that the first items to go into your Unschedule are:

  • Previously committed time such as meal, sleep, meetings
  • Free time, recreation, leisure reading
  • Socialising
  • Health activities such as swimming, running, tennis
  • Routine structured events such as commuting time, classes, medical appointments etc.

"Work" is only entered into the Unschedule after you have completed 30 minutes of uninterrupted work. After each of these periods, you can change to something that is more enjoyable and immediately rewarding. Using the Unschedule in this way puts the emphasis on what you've actually accomplished when you add up the hours of quality work each day and each week. The Unschedule lets you see how much time is actually available for work—and also what may be missing from your life (rest, relaxation, creativity, fun.)

The Now Habit gave me new insight into why I procrastinate in certain areas but not others. While some of the tools seemed like common sense to me (e.g. Three-dimensional thinking), I had to admit that I often skip "the work of worrying". Other readers may find that The Now Habit fills in the gaps for them in a similar fashion. This book was easy to read, but what I mostly enjoyed about it was that Fiore takes a positive view of the human spirit—that we are driven to be productive, not lazy (a word that is banned on our forums!) by nature.

Pigpen

The Now Habit is based on the fact that somewhere in your life there are leisure activities and forms of work that you choose to do without hesitation. You are more than "a procrastinator." You do not procrastinate twenty-foure hours a day. When you turn your attention toward what you love to do—activities that foster your spontaneity, motivation and curiosity—you know that you are more than a procrastinator, more than just lazy. With these experiences you can begin to shed your identity as a procrastinator and reconnect with your innate human drive to produce.
~ Neil Fiore, The Now Habit