Monday, August 08, 2011

How to stop procrastinating

Over the weekend I finished reading The Procrastination Equation, the book I blogged about on Friday.  I have to say I'm impressed — the book combines solid research on why people procrastinate with suggestions on how to stop.  I've got a lot of ideas now that I'm hoping will help me to be more productive going forward.

The author says that there are three different factors that cause procrastination, and everyone procrastinates for different reasons.  Early on in the book, he has you take a quiz to see where you stand in each of the three categories.  The first factor he calls expectation — i.e., the expectation that you're going to do poorly at a task causes you to put it off.  This one is linked to low confidence and sometimes even depression.  However, overly high confidence can also be a problem, as you tend to underestimate the amount of time it will take to do a task (a problem when you also tend to leave things to the last minute).  I scored really high on confidence, so obviously lack of belief in myself is not a problem, but apparently too much may be hurting me in other ways.

The other two factors are value and time.  The first represents how much value you place in your work (e.g., how meaningful it is and how much you enjoy it).  Time is more about impulsivity and how easily distracted you are, but also how likely you are to put things off to the last minute.  I scored the minimum "problem" score in both categories, so both are equally an issue for me, but neither is much of an issue.  In other words, since I scored just barely within the procrastinator range in each category, I ought to be able to get beyond this and improve my productivity pretty easily.

Once you've determined how you rate in each category, the author discusses all of the ways in which we procrastinate, individually and as a society.  He lays it on pretty thick, and by the time he's done, you feel pretty terrible.  Once you're properly disgusted with yourself, he goes into fix-it mode, and walks you through approaches to combating each type of procrastination.

The value section, for instance, talks about how to increase your perceived value of what you do.  He does suggest viewing your current job as a stepping stone to what you really want to do, or even trying to move into a different job altogether, something you will be more motivated to do.  I'd like to think I've already started down that path, having made my decision to freelance part-time so that I have more time to work on fiction.

He also talks about making goals in order to challenge yourself and make your work interesting.  He explains how to make effective goals: positive (instead of "Not doing such-and-such"), reasonable (something you can actually achieve in the near future), and specific (rather than general goals).  I already make a to-do list every day, but I could probably stand to make the items on my list more specific goals for that day, rather than a list of everything I need to do (more than half of which I never get to).

The value section also addresses energy, because as he said, it takes a lot of energy to keep yourself focused.  He talks a little about your natural rhythm, and how that affects your productivity.  He said that night owls are often procrastinators, because they are trying to force themselves into an unnatural (to them) schedule.  Bingo!  I've said before that I feel I'm less productive now that I'm trying to work during normal hours (instead of late at night).  The good news is, it sounds like there's a way around this: The author also talks about doing your most difficult tasks during your most productive time, which (apparently) starts a few hours before you get up, and lasts for only about 4 hours.

Interestingly, my typical schedule of answering email, blogging, and marketing first, and then moving to more important things, fits into this time frame pretty well — IF I can learn to focus myself better once I start on the actual work.  There's where my distractability comes in!

In the section about impulsivity and distractions, he talks about using precommitment, which is where you commit to something ahead of time to make it more difficult for yourself to back out (or procrastinate) once it's time to do the task.  One example is software to keep you from getting onto certain sites during work hours.  He mentions LeechBlock, which is a Firefox add-on that I was thinking about downloading a while back; this book gave me the extra push I needed to do it.  I get easily distracted by the Internet when I'm working, but of course most of the time I can't turn it off entirely, because I need it for work.  But LeechBlock allows you to block certain sites (Facebook!) during certain times of the day, or limit yourself to, say, ten minutes out of every hour.  It looks like there is also a lockdown feature, which presumably also allows you to lock yourself out of the chosen sites for a specified period of time — say, the hour you need to finish some certain task.

I'll play with LeechBlock a little and see what settings work best for me.  I'm thinking of starting of by allowing myself ten minutes on each site an hour during my peak productivity times, and using the lockdown feature when I really need to focus for a designated period of time.  I also took the author's advice and disabled all of the "new mail" notifications in Outlook.  I have a habit of immediately checking any new email the minute it comes in, and as the book points out, it takes a little while to get back to work after such a distraction.  I'll still have the distractions of the pets (my cat Ivan is distracting me as I write this by doing things he's not supposed to, which requires me to get up and make him stop), but at least the worst of the distractions — Facebook and other sites — will be minimized.

One more thing the book talked about, although I think this was in the value section: using productive procrastination.  This is when you avoid a bigger task by working on something else you've been avoiding.  Many writers will recognize this as their tendency to clean when they have writer's block, but you can also use it to, say, work on a different client project.  (Or, in my case more than once recently, work on fiction when you're avoiding a client project.)  A somewhat related technique (this one being from the time section) is breaking a larger task down into smaller tasks.  I've used this before to get myself going on an intimidating project, by starting with something easy like research or outlining.

As you can probably tell, the book is a treasure trove of suggestions, and I'm hoping I'll be able to put it to good use.  What about you?  Do you struggle with procrastination?  Have you tried any of these techniques before, or do you have a technique of your own that has worked for you?


Sam Tornatore said...

Another method is identifying the reasons why you procrastinate. Usually they are either 1. Wrong goals
2. Unclear focus 3. No Action plan or 4. Mental barriers
there are specific solutions for each one of these.

Lori said...

Then there's my reason for procrastination - short attention span. I put things off mainly because I work well under pressure.

Katharine Swan said...

Sam, maybe you could add to the discussion? I don't like comments being left for the sole purpose of driving traffic to another site, so I'd appreciate it if you explained what you mean here instead of expecting us to check your site. For instance, what do you mean by mental barriers? You'll impress more potential readers if you participate a little more in the conversation and try to be helpful.

Katharine Swan said...

Lori! I can't believe you! I was thinking of you when I wrote this, because I think of you as so organized that I couldn't imagine you procrastinating.

As for working well under pressure, I always said the same thing, especially in college. The author actually talks about this idea, though, and basically debunks it. He says that even if you are able to focus better under pressure, you don't have enough time to be as creative or to achieve the same quality of work that you would have had you started earlier. He also talks about how things are more likely to go wrong when you put things off for this reason -- emergencies that keep you from finishing on time -- and how most people tend to underestimate how long something will take them, and don't leave enough time to get it done.

I can also say, from experience, that the problem with procrastinating because you "work well under pressure" is that it's easy to put things off a little later each time, because you did so well at the last minute before. In college I knew I could get a paper done if I started the night before it was due, so I started progressively later in the evening each time, until eventually I was not getting to bed at all (instead of at 3am), or waking up early to finish before class (and more often than not, being late to class or not finishing). It's a slippery slope, and I've found it happening with me in my career, now, too.

I didn't think I'd be recommending the book to you, Lori, but it really was interesting and you might find it helpful after all. ;o)


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