My Procrastination Hacks

My Procrastination Hacks

I've been thinking alot about procrastination. It's a bad habit of mine. I've always wanted to write a series of posts about it, but I've kept putting it off. No irony intended.

But this week, there were a couple of posts (here and here) that caught my eye, and basically kicked me in the ass. Instead of discussing the perils, pitfalls, problems of procrastination, I'm just going to give you the hacks that I use to combat it. Day after day. Some days are better than others.

Why Do *I* Procrastinate

There are many books/websites/etc. that discuss why people procrastinate. Here's why I do it, I think:

  • The task is just too damned big. I'm working on my PhD. Enough said.
  • I'm afraid of failure. In fact, I'm afraid that it's going to suck horribly and I'll never be able to pass my defence. This issue may be wrapped up in the whole "imposter syndrome".
  • I might even be afraid of success. What? That makes no sense. But if I succeed, then I'm going to have to look for a job, and move away from the spousal unit for a few years. Yeah, success will suck in a couple of ways.

Am I Lazy?

Hell no. I can work like gangbusters, when I'm doing some easy, routine, bite-sized, non-taxing, etc. etc. I can work 20 hour days, and have been known to. I can work work work, when the deadline is tight, the mission is important, etc. etc. (used to be military, can work my ass off). But when it comes to reading academic articles (yawwwwwn), or working on my thesis research, well, something seems to happen. I spend days looking at procrastination web sites. Weeks finding the perfect GTD system. Months agonizing about how much work I'm not doing, and yet not getting work done.

Where's the Hacks?

There are severy things that I do to help myself combat procrastination, i.e., get my ass in gear. Not all of them work all the time, but odds are good something will help. The key is to keep changing things up. It's like working out or dieting – when you reach a plateau, do something different. So, here's a list of tools, techniques, tips I keep in my little bag of tricks:

  • Turn off the TV. I always thought I could work with the TV on. Nope, it's a fallacy. I can do mind-numbing things, like paying bills, or recreational surfing, but I can't do anything serious. It's true – I cannot actually multi-task, no more than my single-processor does true concurrency. I am a one-processor machine – I can do exactly one thing at a time. True, I might be able to switch quickly between tasks, but only one thing at a time has my focus.
  • Techno Kicks It. I love listening to music when I work. At home because I can, without headphones on, and at school because having headphones on is the only way to survive in a computer lab environment. I actually switch between 80's and Techno/Electronica. 80's because it's the stuff I went to high school on, and it tends to fade into the background, while making me bouncy happy. Techno because it tends not to have distracting vocals, and the songs last forever, putting me into an excellent writing/coding groove.
  • Keep Track of Time. I need to keep track of time. Not because I necessarily need to be somewhere, but keeping track of the passage of time helps when I'm avoiding work.
    • For instance, I use a clock widget (Yahoo Konfabulator's default Digital Clock, or the Mini Version) that dings every 15 minutes. So, when I hear the dig, I salivate. Actually, no, I check to make sure I'm doing something productive. Typically, I'll start surfing, blogging, whatever, then hear the ding, and try to force myself to stop dicking around and get some work done.
    • I've had limited success with the 10+2*5 dash concept. I think there's a resistance here because I find it takes me too long to context switch. For example, if I'm actually writing for 10 minutes, I'm not going to want to stop. Besides, how much fun can you actually have in 2 minutes? But if you want to try it, there's even a Mad Dash tool for Windows.
    • I occasionally make use of a timer to keep track of how much work I get done during a day. I used to actually be pretty specific and break it down by task, but now I just turn it on when I'm being good, and turn it off when I'm being bad.
    • I've had good success with some of David Seah's awesomely designed productivity forms, specifically the Emergent Task Timer and Emergent Task Planner. I've even made my own hack of the latter. In addition, there's an online version of the former, which can also ding you every 15 minutes.
    • Finally, the thing that I'm having the most success with is the "Unschedule", described by Neil Fiore in his book " The Now Habit". The point is to look at a week's worth of schedule, with only certain things written in. Then, when you've accomplished half an hour worth of work, put it in. I use it to keep track of what I've been doing during a week (think of the Task Timer/Task Planner sheets, but for a week at a time). I also use pencil crayons to colour (there is some inner child satisfaction there.) You can see my current week below. Green is good, i.e., research. Blue is required, but not research (like GTD phases, appointments, etc.). Purple is enjoyable surfing. Yellow is breaks/lunch/household stuff. Red/orange are for special things (in this case, a trip to the Bookstore and workout). Black? Well, black signifies the black hole of lost time. Time I will never get back again. Basically, black means that I fell off the wagon and probably couldn't even tell you what I accomplished in that time frame. In this case, I lost Monday because my computer was misbehaving, so I tried "repairing" windows. 12+ hours later, I had done a fresh reinstall and had to reinstall every fricking program. Yup, definite black hole. Oh, if only I hadn't tried to repair it. Oh, if only my task bar hadn't gone insane in the first place!

  • Start Strong. I've noticed that if I start the day by checking my mail, then the newspaper, then, oh, just a couple of RSS feeds, I'm lost. I spend a couple of hours surfing, dicking around, organizing, whatever, and then I can't get motivated to actually get any work done. After all, I've already frittered the day away, why bother starting now? Sad, but true. My best days seem to be when I don't check email/news/rss first thing, but instead, leave the computer off and read an article. Or start writing something in particular.
  • Plan Ahead. Going along with the previous item, I need to end the day with an idea of what I want to start working on tomorrow. You'll notice I didn't get any good work done this morning – that's because last night, I finished working on something and submitted it. But I didn't really think about exactly what I wanted to do this morning – I left it in general terms, "start coding". Yeah, not specific enough, therefore, not enough to get me going in the morning. So, at the end of the day, decide what thing you want to be working on first thing the next morning. Leave any supporting material sitting on your desk, in plain site.
  • Do It Tomorrow. I've done some reading online about Mark Forster's book, " Do It Tomorrow". One idea that I really like is the idea of a closed list, i.e., you write a list of things you're going to do tomorrow/today, and you stick to it. Nothing new gets added to that list. It's a fascinating idea, and I want to explore it more (as soon as my bookstore has his book in stock again). Because I tend to get sidetracked with stuff, e.g., I'll decide that some program needs tweaking, so I'll just tweak it now, but then that can snowball (say, into completely reinstalling Windows). But, if I had written a new NA for it, and put it on tomorrow's list, it wouldn't have screwed up my entire day. It also give you a day to think about some things, maybe there are next actions that don't really "need" to be done.
  • Your Computer is a DistractionThere's a cute post over at LifeHacker that discusses the concept of a "monitor curtain" that can be used to block your monitor. It highlights the fact that sometimes, you just don't want to be distracted by your computer. In my case, I find my laptop very much fun, there's always something to tweak. But it can be too distracting. Take reading. I need to read academic articles. I prefer to read them on dead trees, because there are no bells and whistles in dead trees. But I don't have a laser printer, and I refuse to print out 60 page documents at home. So, I read them on my laptop. But I have to make Adobe go to it's full-screen look, turn off the sound (no chiming while reading, please), even go so far as to hide the taskbar. Then I force myself to think of my laptop as nothing more than a piece of paper with no additional functionality. Sounds screwy, but it works for me. (I take notes in a notebook, instead of highlighting the pdf.)
  • Your Desk Can Be A Distraction. I spend a lot of time at my desk in my home office. I'm working from home, and I can be here for a good 12-14 hours per day. It's where I work and play, and sometimes the fact that I play here distracts me from the fact that I need to work here. It's the same logic that applies when they suggest that you don't put a TV in your bedroom. So, if I want to do something that needs focus, specifically, that dreaded reading, I'll take myself down to the dining room table. It's got a nice view of the backyard (very soothing), and not much else. The chair's also pretty comfortable. Even if I have to bring my laptop down to read from, I focus much better at the dining room table. And there's lots of space for spreading out papers, notebooks, etc.
  • Pretend You Don't Have Wireless. Going along with the previous couple of posts, wireless access can be a disaster when you're trying to work. I used to go to the library to get serious work done, before there was university-wide wireless. However, the last time I went, I fell into a black hole, because I checked my email. Even at home, if I start using wireless in the dining room, I can lose hours of time. Instead, I pretend that I don't have wireless access in some places. I'll even go so far as to turn off the network card. That way, I can be in a self-imposed blackout region and get some work done. There's a recent post on Jim Gibbon's blog that discusses this very concept.


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