Self-Helpful

Do we all lament our procrastinating? I happened upon a little time-management self-help book that addresses the problem of procrastination – often a troublesome side effect of re-entry after a trip. (My husband pointed out that a fine way to procrastinate is to read a book about not procrastinating.)

In all such books the suggestions are probably similar (the men in my family have been reading “The Four Hour Work Week” this winter): set goals, plan, organize, prioritize, make lists! Still I always need reminding, need encouragement to allow planning time and disallow over-frequent email checking.

This time I (quickly) read Tracy Brian’s “Eat That Frog: 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time.” Brian says, “Your ‘frog’ is your biggest, most important task,” the one you are most likely to avoid. For him, the crucial thing is to do that task first.

But even figuring out that task can be challenging, and rewarding, for our brains do love to accomplish. In his book, “Imagine: How Creativity Works,” Jonah Lehrer writes about people who definitely dine on their biggest frogs. Lehrer explores the latest scientific findings about the brain’s activity during creative work, and he upends some long-held assumptions about creativity. He tells us that numerous studies of outcome reveal the ineffectiveness of traditional brainstorming, and assert the importance of constructive criticism.

I loved a chapter on Milton Glaser, the inventive New York graphic designer who thought up “I ♥ New York” (while riding in a taxi stuck in traffic). As an artist Glaser thinks as much as he manipulates media, and says about creating: “It’s about taking an idea in your head, and transforming the idea into something real.” “If you’re doing it right, it’s going to feel like work.”

Ideas happen when brain cells make new connections – “sheer serendipity” but serendipity that can be encouraged – if we stick with it, if we work (and sometimes if we take a perfectly timed break and go for a walk or talk to a colleague). Lehrer would say the trick is to know what kind of “stuck” you are.

He’s is full of examples, from Bob Dylan to sticky notes, and says, “Every creative story is different. And every creative story is the same. There was nothing. Now there is something. It’s almost like magic.”

It’s interesting to know more about how the brain operates, but the frog book gets us in place, inspires us with suggestions like: make a list (a detailed step-by-step list), contain the distractions, seek clarity about what needs to be done, and break jobs into manageable bits.

Both books help, and I made a sign for my desk of one of Brian’s admonitions: