Procrastination is something that plagues a lot of people. It prevents them from completing work on time, or it prevents them from putting in the effort they could have, had they just started working earlier.
I have had several bouts of procrastination myself, in all aspects of my life, including with the things that I enjoy.
Those of you who know me know that I love writing, and that I get a lot of joy from advancing my writing career. This could come in small forms like publishing a blog post, or something a lot larger like finishing the first draft of a novel.
Despite my enjoyment of writing, I find that I sometimes procrastinate it. I’ve put off the editing of blog posts and novel drafts. I even delayed starting my blog by a few months.
So if it’s so easy to procrastinate doing what we love to do, how hard is it to stop procrastinating?
It can be pretty hard if you aren’t using these methods.
Plan It Out
Have you ever heard of Getting Things Done by David Allen? If not, I’ll keep this short so that we can get right into planning things.
The theory behind Getting Things Done is that if you write things down in a to do list, you’ll get more work done than if you don’t use a to do list at all.
How does this work? Well the first noticeable effect is that your brain no longer has to consciously retain the information that you write down.
Let’s say you’re in the middle of working and you realize that you’ll have to clean up your room when you get home from the office. Your mind will then become preoccupied with the thought of cleaning, and will try to plan out your cleaning routine in an effort not to forget.
If you just write down ‘Clean up room’ on a to do list, your brain will know that it doesn’t have to actively prevent itself from forgetting to do that task, and will delegate mental resources when the time comes to actually doing it.
Since it’s written down on a to do list, you can just reference it when you have the chance.
So how can you make planning work for you, besides no longer having to actively remember the tasks you need to do?
You can use planning to figure out when you will reap the rewards of an activity. As an example, I’ll use the two activities of writing an essay and playing video games.
Our brains are wired to want rewards, and to do the things that give us rewards as quickly as possible. That’s why you may want to spend time playing video games instead of working on that essay.
On the one hand, completing the essay on time will give you the rewards of:
- A personal sense of accomplishment
- Not failing due to handing in work late
- A better rapport with whomever requested that essay
On the other hand, those rewards will take quite a bit of time to get, whereas you’ll get an almost immediate (but short term) pleasure and relaxation reward from playing a video game.
If you plan out the act of writing an essay to completion, you can also plan out what rewards you’ll get, and when. Once you have those planned out, you’ll not only have concrete motivation to get them, but you’ll have the ability to increase the quality or frequency of those rewards.
The simplest way is to give yourself rewards at the natural milestones of an activity.
To complete an essay, you’ll have to:
- Outline it
- Do the research
- Write it up
- Edit it
That makes 4 milestones. However you’re only getting the first reward (a sense of personal achievement because of completing the activity) after the last milestone is complete.
So you’ll have to complete all 4 milestones before you can get a reward. You can change that by planning out rewards to give yourself after you complete each part of the project.
If you really like food, you could reward yourself with a yummy snack.
If you really enjoy video games, you could reward yourself with 30 minutes of game time.
Be careful about these rewards though, and be firm with yourself. If each part of your project takes only 30 minutes to complete, than 30 minutes of video game time for the completion of each part is just too much.
A better work to reward ratio would be 2 hours of work to 30 minutes of video games, as after 8 hours of work, you’ll have had 2 hours of game time.
There is a pitfall when it comes to planning though, and that is spending too much time planning things out. This is a guideline that I use:
If an activity will take more than 10 minutes to plan out, get started on the actual activity right away, and then start planning once you have more time.
Just Do It
Yes, the cliche of ‘Just do it’. I’m sure we’ve all heard it at some point in our lives. There is a reason for that though. It works.
It can be hard to do, especially if you don’t know exactly what you’ll be doing or for how long. If you can, take 5 to 10 minutes to plan that out before you start working.
One of the best ways to start working is by using the Pomodoro Technique, which was developed by Francesco Cirillo. It’s a technique where you set a timer (usually for 25 minutes) and work on just 1 task while that timer ticks down.
After the timer goes off, you can put a little check mark on a piece of paper. If you have a multiple of 4 checks, you can take a longer break of 15 to 30 minutes. If you don’t have a multiple of 4 check marks, you can take a 3 to 5 minute break.
The idea is that during that 25 minute period you work entirely on 1 task.
If any distractions come up, you either stop the timer and stop what you are working on, and completely deal with the problem, or you wait until the timer finishes before working on the new problem.
A way to continue working until the timer goes off, without having to stop and deal with that distraction, is to see if the distraction can wait.
I’m writing and I have 10 minutes left until my break. Someone comes up and starts talking to me. I’ll let them know that I’m in the middle of something, and ask if it can wait 10 minutes.
If it can wait, the person will know that they’ll have my undivided attention in just a bit of time. If it can’t wait, I know that it’s important enough to justify the stopping of my work.
Of course, the 25 minutes is just a guideline. If you feel you focus better for longer periods of time, you can try these instead:
- 30 minutes of work, 5 to 8 minutes short break, 20 to 40 minutes long break
- 45 minutes of work, 10 to 15 minutes short break, 35 minutes to 55 minutes long break
This is something that has to do with the effort to reward ratio that I talked about in the Plan It Out section. Our brains are wired to do things that require little effort and have immediate or quick rewards.
Another way to avoid procrastination is to increase the amount of effort it takes to not work or to decrease the amount of effort it takes start working.
Let’s go back to the essay vs video game example.
I like to play video games on a console that’s connected to a TV. The controller for the video game only works if it has batteries in it, and in order to see the game on the TV screen, I have to hook things up using a cable.
To increase the amount of effort it takes to play video games, I could hide the cable in a cabinet, and take the batteries out of the controller and put them in another room or device.
If I did that, I would have to go through the effort of hooking up the console to the TV, and the effort of finding the batteries and putting them in the controller.
While it may not seem like much, my brain knows that it will take 3 to 5 minutes to set up.
My brain also knows that it will take just 1 to 3 minutes to find my notes, turn on my computer, and open up a word processing program. That way I can start working on the essay that I need to complete.
Additionally, I can lessen the amount of work it takes to start doing that essay. If I know the night before that I will need my notes, I can place my notebook right beside my computer.
That way, when I start working the next morning, I don’t have to search around for my notebook. It’s already in my work space.
Becoming accountable for your lack of work is an excellent way to kickstart your motivation. In universities and colleges, the motivation for a lot of students comes from the fact that their education costs money. They might as well get as much reward out of that as possible, otherwise they are wasting their own resources.
If you find that money makes you more productive and accountable, you can use it to stop procrastinating. That doesn’t mean you have to flush it all away though.
Let’s say you want to start working on a project, like writing a novel or developing a video game. To keep yourself accountable, you can give a trusted friend $100 of your own money. Make sure they know that they will have to give it back to you.
Tell them that for every hour you work on that project, they have to give you $1 back.
Depending on your work ethic, you would probably have to work on that project anywhere from 3 weeks to 2 months, in order to get all of that money back.
To create even more accountability for yourself, you can tell your friend that after 2 months, they get to keep whatever money you haven’t been able to make back.
If you’re reading this blog post as a form of procrastination, I strongly recommend that you start putting these methods to work right away. You’ll be surprised at how effective they are.
If you have any suggestions for future blog posts, or have any other methods you use to avoid procrastination, please leave me a comment.