With text messages, tweets, instant messages and the knowledge of virtually all of civilization a few clicks away on the Internet, there are a million ways and reasons to avoid necessary drudgery.
Unfortunately, the more you procrastinate, the more the pressure builds, adding stress and commotion in your life. It’s difficult to break the procrastination habit, though not impossible. Try using these techniques to nudge you out of your personal stall tactics.
• 1. Understand why you procrastinate. Psychologists theorize that procrastination is a complex coping mechanism for stress. The source of stress is the work that’s being delayed, which might trigger feelings of fear of failure (or success), dislike of the task at hand, anger at having to perform the work, or other emotions. Conditions like clinical depression and anxiety will often make the situation worse. Sometimes unrealistic perceptions of pressure or time create anxiety, which people temporarily escape through procrastination. And we don’t need scientists to tell us that when you dislike certain tasks, you’ll tend to deprioritize them in favor of activities you enjoy. For those habitually flirting with deadlines, it helps to come to terms with why you avoid specific activities. Cold, calculated analysis of these triggers can help overcome the emotions driving procrastination.
• 2. Use a kitchen timer. One effective method is called the “Pomodoro Technique.” Created by an Italian with a tomato-shaped egg timer in his kitchen, the concept is simple. Purchase a wind-up timer, one that rings when it’s finished, and set it for 25 minutes. That chunk of time is called a “pomodoro.” While it ticks away, work on one and only one task. When the timer rings, reward yourself with a three-minute break, then do another pomodoro. Here’s the rule: Don’t interrupt a pomodoro unless the building’s on fire. Knowing an activity will last only 25 minutes at a time can make even the most procrastination-inducing paperwork seem like a trifle. And knowing pleasurable activities are only 25 minutes away makes disagreeable work more sufferable.
• 3. Develop a routine. The winding-up action of the kitchen timer at the beginning of each pomodoro is actually a form of Pavlovian conditional brain-training. As Staffan Nötberg writes in The Pomodoro Technique Illustrated, “By always preparing with the same gestures and routines, the brain will self-configure into the best mode to solve a particular kind of task.” Once you associate winding up the timer with diving into a stack of work, the action itself will put you into a state ready for productivity. Developing a consistent routine is a powerful trigger you can use to unconsciously get yourself cranking. Those not winding up kitchen timers can use other triggers, such as listening to a specific kind of music, putting on headphones or using a favorite pen or notebook.
• 4. Eliminate distractions. Once you’re in the zone, you need to stay in it. Do what you must to avoid losing the tenuous thread of concentration and avoid interruptions as much as possible. E-mail is culprit number one. There’s no such thing as checking e-mail—there’s only reading and responding to e-mail. Fortunately, you can choose to close your mail program and turn off your mobile device for 25 minutes at a time. Your phone, too, can be shut off. Taskfocusing programs like RescueTime are available to track your Web usage, and you can run weekly reports to see how much time you spent on YouTube versus Westlaw, and even restrict access to time-sucking social media sites.
You may think avoiding interruptions is impossible. But if you’re working in 25-minute pomodoros, most people, when told that you’ll get back to them imminently, will leave satisfied. Just make sure you keep your word.
No matter how dreadful, work sooner or later needs to get done. The sooner you do it, the better you’ll be able to handle emergency calls from clients. Plus, you can look back at your month and feel smug satisfaction that your precious billable time wasn’t whittled away on Facebook.
Larry Port is the Founding Partner and Chief Software Architect of Rocket Matter, a Web-based legal practice management and time tracking product. For more information on techniques discussed in this article, see http://info.rocketmatter.com/procrastinate