Getting the Work Done: Tools to Fight Procrastination

 

I am one of the world’s best procrastinators.

Admittedly this is a difficult thing to measure as most people are pretty private about their failures and procrastination is, by and large, failing – failing to start, failing to make progress, failing to finish, failing to act – but if ten thousand hours is the amount of practice required to gain expertise in a particular field, then please consider me a master of procrastination.

For as long as I can recall I’ve been honing my craft. As a child, I would wait until I could hear my grandmother’s footsteps coming down the hallway before rushing to get ready for school. Homework assignments with weeklong deadlines were feverishly started (and completed) the night before their due dates. Once, I left the creation of a handknit gift until mere hours before the recipient’s party. In college, I consistently threw together last-minute essays that I had been given a month to complete. I am no stranger to all-nighters.

It’s not something that I’m proud of, despite my apparent skill, and it’s clear to me that procrastination has had a negative impact on my personal and professional life. It’s a shallow-feeling victory to squeak past the finish line when I know that I could have done a better job if I hadn’t procrastinated (and all without the white-knuckle, adrenaline-charged 12 to 24 hours that preceded). I have a laundry list of projects that have never seen the light of day because I am too disorganised (or scared) to actually start or finish them.  It is a major bummer to have a day pass without having accomplished anything of value. Our time, and willpower, are limited, and so making the best use of those resources is, I think, one of the most important skills a person can learn.

As authors, we often have to set our own deadlines and the last-minute scrambles begin to lose their charm pretty fast when you’re in charge of the clock. We all have our own particular styles of working, but for those of us who don’t enjoy the self-inflicted terror thrill of constantly being under the proverbial gun, here are some of the tools that I have found helpful in managing my urge to gold brick:

Quarterly Goals:

I started using this system with great effect after learning about it from author and vlogger Jenna Moreci. I tailored her system to best suit my own work style and have seen a rise in my productivity and focus since doing so. My quarterly goals span most aspects of my life – work, study, family, fitness – and I try to get the majority of my list accomplished each quarter to allow for a clean slate in the next. I schedule myself a ‘reality check’ two weeks before the quarter ends, during which I can revise a couple of my goals to better reflect what is actually attainable in the time left – I do this because I’m the kind of person who overfills her plate, and also the kind of person who flops into a heap of emotional diarrhoea when she’s overwhelmed. If you’re scrappy, and facing the impossible just makes you work harder, or the type of person who’s a little more down-to-earth with their expectations at the start of the quarter, then maybe you don’t need the reality check phase.

I print my goals onto a regular old sheet of 8.5″ x 11″ copy paper and post it above my desk. When I finish a goal, I cross that sucker off. Any still-relevant goals remaining at the end of the quarter get added to the next goal list, and I give myself a little reward if I’ve managed to complete more than 75% of my goals (usually a new book, or a nice stationery, or a fancy tea – something little but also a little lavish, to make it feel special). Repeat into infinity.

Pomodoro Technique:

I know that this method doesn’t work for everybody, but if you’ve never tried it I encourage you to give it a whirl. In essence, you are dividing each working hour into two sets of 25 minutes of focused work and two reward periods of five minutes. You work for 25 minutes on a specific task, then allow yourself 5 minutes to take a break (this could be getting up for a glass of water, dancing to a song, browsing social media… whatever). It works well for my day-to-day and lets me focus on my work without feeling bogged down or getting fatigued.

A fella by the name of Francesco Cirillo came up with this swell technique sometime in the 80’s. It’s simple, easy to use, and I’ve found it to be very effective. If you’re a traditionalist, any old kitchen timer will do but the red tomato-shaped twist-timers are the classic model for this technique (I had a pink piggy twist-timer that I used for years until its eventual demise). If you prefer something digital, the timer feature on any smartphone works just as well, or you can repurpose the browser-based tea timer Steep.it. These days I use the browser addon ‘Strict Workflow‘ for my ticking tomato needs, and it has been a terrific boon to my own productivity. I love it because if I’m being particularly neglectful I can spring it on myself with a single click, thereby snatching social media from my hands like an impatient parent.

There’s a similar system called ‘20/10‘ that I learned of from UfYH, which allocates a 10-minute break after every 20 minutes of work. These are a great tool if I’m being particularly fussy or if the task at hand is particularly difficult, but the 5-minute breaks of the Pomodoro technique is usually sufficient.

Social Media Blockers:

Another nice feature of Strict Workflow is that it can also be set to block certain distractions for the duration of the ‘work’ periods. There are plenty of free options out there for every browser, so don’t be afraid to try out a few to see which one works best for you. Most allow the user to tailor the list of blocked sites, the time allotted to blocking and breaks, and even the severity of the punishment/resistance if you try to bypass the block.

Eating the Frog:

The self-help book, ‘Eat That Frog‘, by Brian Tracey, centres on a useful tool for avoiding procrastination. The main idea is that you can build momentum in a day by starting with your hardest task (your ‘frog’) and completing said frog you can motivate yourself to move on to smaller/easier tasks, thereby mowing through your to-do list with the tenacity of a caffeine-addled llama. It’s pretty business-centred, and parts of it are definitely more useful than others, but the main principle of it has been quite helpful in my own day-to-day, so credit where credit’s due.

Making a Game of It:

It’s no secret that I love games. I go rabid for them. I will participate in just about anything if there’s scoring involved, and I love the challenge of competition. My penchant for points may lead to some pretty awkward board game nights, but I’ve learned to use my compulsion for play to my advantage.  If I’m chronically procrastinating on a project or field of work, making a game out of it allows me to approach the task from a different, and appealing angle. ‘Don’t Break the Chain‘, a year-long challenge to see just how many days I can keep up momentum for, or trying to break my own word count from they day before, are both great ways to make work feel exciting, and playful.

Lowering My Goals:

I firmly believe that procrastination is a defence against the fear of failure, so if I’m stuck on dalliance, I will not hesitate to hedge my goals.

This may sound like a cheat, but it’s one of the most useful tools I have for getting shit done. Like I said earlier, I am not resilient when overwhelmed. I melt like whipped cream on a radiator. Call it a byproduct of being raised a special snowflake, or a symptom of my anxiety disorder, but if I don’t think I can succeed at something I usually give up. In situations like these, the kindest thing I can do for myself is to lower my expectations. If I set out to write a thousand words a day and by day six I’m pooched, I lower my word count goal by half. Or three-quarters. I cut up my workload into tiny little bites that are sure to fit into my delicate milquetoast mouth, and I eat them.

And that’s that. I’m sure that as I gain experience I’ll discover more ways of putting off my desire to put things off, but for now those are the tools that have worked best for me. If there are any techniques or tools that you swear by, please mention them in the comments below, and I hope that by reading this post you have found something that will help you to break the cycle of your own procrastination.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I should really get back to work.

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