Self-hacks to conquer procrastination

Let’s face it–all of us have struggled with procrastination at some point or another (I bet even Martha Stewart has had her moments). It seems difficult to combat for a variety of reasons, particularly when you have a relatively unstructured schedule, but I’ve been working for the past several weeks to figure out how to trick myself into being more efficient. Here’s what I’ve done so far, in part thanks to the suggestions that I found in the book Procrastination: Why You Do It, What to Do About It by Burka & Yuen (read it, if you haven’t done so already).

  1. Figure out where your time is going. For several days, I simply made a rough log of how I was spending my time. Was I dawdling? Was I doing anything useful? Were chores and self-care eating up more time than I realized? By recording my time usage for several days, I was able to identify patterns and spot areas where I could improve.
  2. Record the excuses that you make so that you can recognize them later. This is a particularly tricky task, mainly since much procrastination happens automatically–you don’t necessarily “decide” to procrastinate. It just sort of happens. But once you start to realize what the excuses are that you are making, you can amend them. Turn “I’m tired, I want to take a nap” into “I’m tired, but I’m going to bang out a draft of that blog entry before I lay down for a nap.”
  3. Identify time-wasters, and eliminate them. These don’t have to be big, but they add up. I discovered, for example, that when I wake up in the morning I tend to hover around my computer and doodle around with email and Facebook when I should be making my coffee, taking my vitamins, and getting ready to get out the door. The fix was actually very simple: I shut off my computer before going to bed. The hassle of turning it on and waiting for everything to boot up first thing in the morning has been enough to prevent me from falling back into that old pattern.
  4. Leverage technology to your advantage. I’ll admit it, I’m a snoozer of the worst kind–even if my alarm clock (or phone, more frequently) is in another room, I will get out of bed, hit snooze, and go back to bed. It’s pathetic. However, I simply wasn’t making this task difficult enough for myself. I found an app called “Wake N Shake” that includes a number of ear-splittingly obnoxious alarm sounds, and you cannot turn the alarm off simply by pressing a button–you have to vigorously/violently shake your phone for a specified period of time to make the cacophony cease. Simply by using this tool, which only cost me a couple of bucks in the App Store, I’ve cut down on snoozing significantly (and I don’t even need to buy a Shake Weight!).
  5. Externalize your rewards. Studies of operant conditioning tell us that both rewards and punishments can help us to learn (though rewards tend to be most effective). For the longest time I struggled to come up with ways that I could reward myself for productivity–if I failed to meet my goals, my brain would rationalize some reason why I could treat myself to whatever my reward was going to be anyway. I was my own worst enemy in that regard. So I found a way to externalize the reward in the form of another app called CARROT, which is a to-do list that leverages both sides of the operant conditioning coin–it doles out both rewards and punishments. As you complete tasks, you earn points that unlock additional features and achievements (including an ASCII “kitten” that you can feed and “pet”), but if you fail to satisfy CARROT, it (she? he?) will grow “angry” and torment you by posting vitriol on your Facebook, sending you insulting messages and so forth. This app may not be for everyone but I’ve found it to be extraordinarily useful.
  6. Realize that completion is not the same as accomplishment. This is one of the biggest takeaways I had from the Burka & Yuen book–many procrastinators feel like they’ve failed if they haven’t completely finished a project when time expires. (I definitely have fallen into that trap.) You simply have to remember that “slow and steady wins the race,” that “Rome wasn’t built in a day,” or whichever aphorism floats your boat. Little bits of effort add up, and it’s important to acknowledge that. This may be the toughest change to make, but it simply takes practice and persistence.

There’s no surefire method to completely prevent procrastination–sometimes it’s good to have a little downtime, after all–but perhaps these methods will help you feel more accomplished. They’ve certainly worked for me… let’s hope I can keep it up.