2012-08-11 11.36.57

5 Steps I’m Taking Towards Beating Procrastination

Sometimes, when I sit down to work, I feel completely overwhelmed.

For me, procrastination isn’t so much a desire to be doing anything but working as it is a desire to do everything at the same time. Or sometimes, it’s the desire to be working on everything except what I *should* be doing.

The problem, I think, is that I have no sense of time. While intellectually, I know that people take years to build their websites and their businesses, to write books and to use Photoshop, I want it all NOW. I want  to DO, but I also want to HAVE DONE. And I want to have done well. I don’t want to wait years. Who does?

After lots of reflection, and hours upon hours of procrastinating by reading productivity blogs, I think I’ve finally figured it out.


I’m worried about what will happen if I do the wrong thing. What if, right now, my time would be better spent writing a post for my other site, Paris Unraveled, or sending out emails to potential clients for my web design business? How do I know that my true purpose in life is to help study abroad students in France, and that I should focus on that site before starting a website for families of kids with PLE (#41) or write my memoir (#15)?

I can’t know that. I just have to do it and see if it works out.

But first, I need to stop the voices in my head that tell me I should be working on something else right now. Here are five steps I’m taking to figure it out:

1) Figure out what my goals are.

There are so many things I’m interested in and that I want to do in life that sometimes it’s hard for me to know what my priorities are. I imagine that even for people with relatively straightforward careers who *AREN’T* creating their own projects, responsibilities pile up and it can be easy to lose your head. For me, every great idea is immediately followed by a frantic listing of the steps I’d need to take to make it happen. This is both a blessing and a curse.

I took a big step towards figuring out my priorities just by making the list of 101 goals, but there are still a few things I have to decide. For example, what about the things that aren’t on the list?

This blog, for example, isn’t on the list, and I had no intention of starting a personal blog when I first made the list. Does it count towards the 20 pieces of non-fiction I promised to write (#14)? I should think not, because 20 isn’t an appropriate number of blog posts to write in three years. Besides, when I wrote #14, I specifically had in mind writing magazine articles, not blog posts. Perhaps I’ll count guest posts I write in connection with this blog, but not the blog itself. Having started this site, I also have to decide how many times per week to post and exactly what topics I’ll cover.

And right now, I’m reading the autobiography of Booker T. Washington, which is both an autobiography (#96) and on the Modern Library’s Best Nonfiction list (#94). How do I choose what it should count for? Is it cheating to have it count for both, even though I’m making the rules?

2) Make to-do lists with three things, max, per day.

This is a tip I’ve read in several productivity blogs which frustrates me to no end.

I have a beautiful Moleskine agenda with the week on one side and a lined notebook page on the other. On the lined page, I put 6 different-colord post-it notes, one for each weekday and one for the weekend. I write the date and I fill each note up with 3 or 4 things to do that day.

And then I proceed to do none of the things I listed.

One problem, for sure, is that I’m neglecting the advice so many productivity masters repeat over and over: if each thing on the to-do list actually has 3 or 4 parts, you’re doing it wrong. And true to overachieving form, my to-do list items always have subparts. I feel more accomplished if I have “Write 3-4 blog posts” rather than “Write blog post entitled X.”

Except it doesn’t work.

Obviously, I need to put some of this advice into practice and limit my to-do lists. I suppose I can always move on to the next day’s list if I get super-motivated one day.

3) In the morning, start with the hardest thing on the list.

This one is particularly tough for me because I’m not a morning person, but it’s amazing how much easier it is to get up in the morning when I don’t have to go to the Place That Shall Not Be Named, i.e., work. Email and Google Reader in the mornings are a killer for productivity, so I created an email filter that puts almost everything – newsletters, Amazon recommendations, and the like – into a separate folder that isn’t visible. That way, I can check it once a day.

I definitely find that writing is easiest when I start the day with it, and I can often bang out 1500 words without too much trouble if I just get started before it gets too late. Right now, I’m writing in the afternoon, and my thoughts are waning towards the episode of Leverage that aired last night, and when do you think the new season of How I Met Your Mother will start up again? Oh, look, it’s not until the 24th.

4) Stop working after 4-5 hours.

Perhaps the most reassuring thing I’ve read recently is that even experts can only focus deliberately up to 4 hours a day. Anything more than that is possible, but not sustainable. That explains why I spent all the overtime I did at my last job staring out the window.

At this point, I’m not sure I get even a good 4 hours of pure focus. I always have other tabs open in Chrome. I can’t help but check my phone when it buzzes with a new email or Tweet. And since most of my work developing my websites is done online, it’s not like I can completely disconnect. But I definitely need a solution.

Aside from the fact that I’d probably get a lot more done if I worked with iron focus from 8-1 and then stopped, I have to ask the question: what would I do once I finished for the day? Would this post-focus free time be for answering emails and reading blogs (which is technically “work”, since I do this to find guest post opportunities), or galavanting around Paris, or learning Spanish (#52)? What qualifies as work, and what doesn’t?

Over the next few weeks, i’ll set up an experiment to figure out how much time I can spend really, truly focused on my work. I’ll have to use some other method than using Rescue Time, which tracks time spent on “productive” activities but includes the fluff research work as productive as well as the straight writing. And I’ll come up with some ground rules for limiting my screen time, too.

5) Work to maintain momentum.

An object in motion tends to stay in motion, and an object at rest tends to stay at rest.  I definitely need to make sure I’m working towards my goals a little bit every day, even if it’s not for very long, to keep up the momentum.

What steps to you take to maintain productivity, and what are your biggest productivity challenges?

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