I’ve joked for weeks that I’ve been wanting to blog about procrastination, but other things kept getting in the way. Joking aside, this is a serious matter. Even if you don’t procrastinate, most of us have experienced difficulty in structuring our time to complete a task at one time or another. This can happen with small, nagging tasks such as housecleaning or picking up an item from the store. It can also happen with large, ongoing projects, which can take on a looming presence in our lives as time keeps slipping away.
As someone with a passionate relationship with the the technologies I use, I can be a bit defensive when people pathologize internet and social networking technology. However, living in a culture of constant distraction certainly has an effect on our attention and concentration, even if we don’t have Attention Deficit Disorder. We are constantly being interrupted by our cellphones, SMS messages, Instant Messages, RSS feeds, Twitter updates, news headlines, email inboxes, and Facebook wall updates. All of this input can contribute to problems with task management. Information overload is also changing how we communicate: people are now microblogging and exchanging smaller snippets of information. This may be an adaptive way to connect with others, but it’s not always the best way to complete larger work projects.
Staying plugged in while still managing one’s time wisely is challenging. I’ve spent the past five years working in the counseling center at Stanford University, where I have seen many graduate students try to manage large chunks of unstructured time while working on their dissertations. Here are some time management tips that have been useful with these clients. They can also help you if you’ve fallen under procrastination’s spell.
1) Short work periods
If you have gotten really stuck on a project, try scheduling a 30-40 minute work period for your first day of getting back on-task on a project. Clients usually think I’m kidding when I prescribe such a short work block, but I am astounded at the number of people who come to see me who set aside 6 hours of work time and then are frustrated with themselves for not using the time well. Think of it this way: it’s much easier to mismanage 6 hours of time than it is to mismanage 40 minutes of time. This is especially true if you’re already reinforcing poor work habits. Get in the new habit of experiencing what a productive piece of work feels like. Keeping to short work periods helps create reasonable expectations while helping you build your skills and focus. It will also help you by leaving you feeling satisfied and productive, rather than angry at yourself for wasting time.
I tell clients to use an old-fashioned kitchen timer if they can find one, since it’s big, hard to ignore, and somewhat symbolic while you see it running out of time. There is the added tactile experience of twisting the time up when you set it, which may help to jar you from unconsciously web-browsing back to conscious work mode. Plus it’s one less thing to fiddle with on the computer.
Some people prefer to download different timers or stopwatches and use them instead.
2) Eliminate distractions
Have a big project to do? Turn off your cellphone (and that means turn it off vibrate!) and stick it in your backpack. Don’t leave it sitting on the table in front of you. Close your IM software, or at least go invisible. Close your web browser if you can, but if not, then close windows that are not work-related. If you have an email notifier, turn it off.
Is 40 minutes without access going to make a big difference? If you create room for interruptions and distractions, they will find you. It seems pretty straight-forward, but lots of people have gotten used to letting technology tap them on the shoulder every two minutes, and deciding that you’re going to be unavailable during your short work period will help immensely, at least for the outside interruptions.
If you need access to the web for the project you are working on, you can also use tools like LeechBlock to lock you out of specific websites for a specified period of time if you fear you will browse away from the project during your blocked out work time.
3) Schedule reward and break periods
When people are just starting to get back into good work habits, I recommend they start with 30-40 minutes of work each day. For many serious procrastinators, 6 days of 40 minutes of work is already three more productive hours of work a week than they’ve been completing. If someone is able to manage this and feel successful, we’ll talk about sandwiching an hour of internet playtime between two 40 minute chunks of work next. It is just as important to set the timer on the break periods as it is to set it during the work periods. After success with this, we’ll talk about increasing stamina to four work periods a day, with breaks scheduled and we may move the work period to 60 minutes with 40 minutes for breaks, internet browsing, research.
4) Break large tasks into smaller ones
Many people have difficulty because the size of the task. This can be particularly daunting if it’s something like a book or dissertation. Large projects can easily overwhelm a person. Start breaking projects into smaller pieces. Get specific about what you want to do with your block of work time and be reasonable. It may make more sense to start reading and reviewing one article than thinking you’re going to write ten pages of your lit review in one work session. If you’re having trouble breaking up your tasks, schedule some time with a friend who may be able to help you get organized and help you assess what a smaller task really is and whether it is manageable.
5) Get support
Try co-working or having a project partner. Getting together with someone for 1-2 hours of work a couple of times a week can help you to be accountable. It is sometimes easier to have to show up for someone else than it is to show up for yourself. Agree at the beginning of your work time on what tasks the two of you are hoping to complete. Check-in at the end of the work session and set an agenda for your next work date. If you can’t get together to work, plan a phone check-in at a set time later in the week to update one another on your progress. If you don’t have a partner, try Googling co-working and your city. Many cities have co-working networks and resources for people who want to get together and work.
Some other good sites and resources
Some people like to use tools to track their time to get a baseline measure of how and where their time is being spent. I don’t recommend people start with this, as it can add to the distraction or just bring up feelings of shame and defeat about misuse of time. But if you’re interested, RescueTime is a time management software that can do this for you. MeeTimer is a Firefox extension which does the same thing.
David Allen, the author of Getting Things Done (GTD), a strategic approach to workflow management, has sparked a large movement of devotees. You can find a 1:26 minute podcast over at 43 folders, where there is another great post about his concepts in practice.
I love Cory Doctorow’s piece on Writing in the Age of Distraction.
Thanks to Tim Ferriss for his post on How to Use Twitter Without Twitter Owning You in which I was tipped off to the software recommendations in this post.