Dealing With Procrastination [en]

In her post about going freelance, Leisa Reichelt tells us of her favorite method for fighting procrastination:

My number one favourite technique is called ‘structured procrastination‘ and here’s how it works. You’ve got a to do list. It’s reasonably long. Make sure it’s got ALL the things you should be doing or should have done on it. Then, attempt to tackle the task you think you should be doing. You may have some success, but if you are like me, this is a task that you’re probably doing ahead of time and the lack of adrenaline makes it less compelling than it could be. Rather than just surfing the internet or doing something even less constructive – go to your list and pick something else on the list to do.

Leisa Reichelt, Did I mention I’m freelancing? (or, coping strategies from the dining room desk)

Well, it’s not really foolproof, but one thing I often do is just decide I’ll work 30 minutes on something. 30 minutes is an OK time to spend on something, even if you don’t want to do it. Then I’m free to do what I want.

Sometimes, once I’m “in” it, I run over the 30 minutes and finish the task. If it’s very long, however, I force myself to take a break from it after 30 minutes — so that I’m not cheating myself and the next time I convince myself to spend 30 minutes on something, I know it’ll be just 30 minutes.

You see, one of the things I’ve understood about my “not being able to start” things is that it’s closely linked to my “not being able to stop” things.

In that respect, I quite like the procrastination dash and (10+2)*5 hack. I’ve also used the kick start technique with success.

Being quite the GTD fan, I’ve had a chance to notice more than once that my productivity is usually the right opposite to my levels of stress. And my levels of stress — surprise — are usually closely linked to the number of things I need to do which are floating in my head. Capturing all the stuff I need to do and organizing it in one system (which is what GTD is about, really) is often enough to make me feel “un-stressed” enough that I can get to work on the next things I need to get done.

Sometimes, it’s a particular thing I need to do which stresses me most. And when I get stressed, I tend to feel down, and when I feel down, well… I’m not good at doing things. So I go through a routine which is similar to Merlin Mann’s cringe-busting your to-do list to identify what it is exactly that is weighing down on me most. Then, do something about it!

And as Leisa mentions, having a list of all the stuff you need to do that you can pick from really, really helps.

A word of caution however: “to do” lists are often a trap, because they can contain much more than “things you need to do”, and the items on the list are not always simple actions you can take immediately (“Next Actions” in GTD jargon). Here’s how to make your to-do list smarter — it’s useful even if you don’t use GTD.

Another thing I’ve been doing lately (it worked well enough until went through a bad personal phase — nothing to do with doing things — and everything went to the dogs) is deciding that I devote a small number of hours a day to paid client work. If you’re a freelancer, specially in the consulting business, you’ll know that a lot of our work is not directly billable. So, I try to keep my 9-12 mornings for paid work and what is related to it (e-mails, phone calls, billing) and the rest of the day is then free for me to use for what I call “non-paid work” (blogging, trying out new tools, reading up on stuff, nasty administrivia…) or relaxing.

2 thoughts on “Dealing With Procrastination [en]

  1. I appreciate reading such a thoughtful analysis of this important topic which has so far-reaching consequences for so many people – including me. Obviously one strategy for dealing with procrastination (Does anyone know a nice German translation for that?) does not work for all.

    I personally find it rather impossible to work an “hard” projects – which are often the subject of delayed start – for only 30 minutes. Even the prospect of not having at least three hours for such a start of a new big job stops me from working on it. Once I am involved with a subject I do not find it hard to stick with it for hours on end.

    So here is my strategy:
    Split the todo-list into “small and useful” (like: fiddle with website, do bookkeeping, …) and “large and hairy” (like: write a specification, write a large program, …). Of course each of these lists also needs to be sorted according to priorities (deadlines etc.)
    Now start with the item that you least like and that is most pressing, given the time available for it today. Thus, if you only have 30 minutes left, don’t start on any big, hairy item. If you do have ample time, however, start with the one you like least.
    When you get tired of it, do a small useful one and return to the current big one. When you have done all the small useful ones, switch back and forth between two big ones. Promise yourself the pleasure of working on a nice big one (develop a new program with new tools) as a reward for having finished the necessary and pressing ones (write the controversial strategy paper for a big project).

    I find that I can get involved even with stupid administrative jobs once I have started them if the reward is available. The only real difficult show-stopper is difficult relationships with people for who you write or develop. I have not really found a solution for that problem. I try to avoid working on such projects for such customers.

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