Let me tell you a secret: I am a terrible procrastinator. I say it’s a “secret” because some people have this strange notion I must have superhuman organizational abilities to get so much done. People ask me “How do you manage to do all this?” genuinely thinking that I’m up to my elbows in creative work every day. Sadly, that’s far from true — I’m just as lazy and unproductive as any other person (perhaps even more, due to decades of untreated ADHD).
The reason I appear so productive on the surface is that I have occasional bursts of hyper-productivity, and once it goes on, I really am elbow-deep in creative work — I neglect sleep and food just to complete what I had set out to do as soon as possible. The problem with this mode is that it’s unpredictable, and it’s terribly draining. After I complete a project in such a rush, I’m left unable to do anything creative for weeks, or months. And I never know when I’ll go into the mode again — it can be a year or more. This is really not a good way to get projects done.
When I realized I have allowed this trait of mine to ruin my chances of career advancement in the near future, I decided to do something about it. I’ve looked everywhere for answers and struggled with finding a method that will help me bring my dreams to reality, because most productivity advice is written by neurotypical people, for neurotypical people. What works for some people does not work for everyone!
It’s difficult and I still struggle, but I’m making a lot of positive changes. I’m going to share the things I’ve learned over the past year of battling procrastination, and it might give you some ideas how you can tweak your own work process.
Know thy enemy — find the reasons why your procrastinate
I’ve determined that my biggest reason is I fear failure. I’m terrified of doing things wrong and embarrassing myself, so I’d rather not even start working on something, than making it less amazing than it is in my mind. For this reason I simply haven’t dared to paint some things that are lingering in my sketchbooks for years. For this reason I wait to begin working on a project until there’s only a few days left before a deadline. Uncertainty of the outcome is killing me.
To get past this freezing fear, I ask myself: “What is the worst that can happen?” The answer might be, it can end up looking terrible. Next question is: “So what?” Well, I’ve spent all that time and effort in vain, I’ve got nothing to show for it. “Well you’ve got nothing to show for sitting on your ass refreshing the mailbox and social networks every minute either, so get crackin’!” When you try to hold a dialogue with that nagging inner voice, you’ll find that you can shut up nearly any objections it might have.
This isn’t the only mental block I have. People can have a myriad of mental and emotional blocks and limiting beliefs preventing them from taking action. The key is to identify and write down all of your own, and work on them.
This work can be done in different ways, and my ways may not work for everyone (some may find them too woo-woo — I’m ok with woo-woo if it gives results!).
Indulge in your laziness
It sounds counter-intuitive, but it was one of the biggest breakthroughs on my way to becoming more productive. I’ve finally realized that I desperately need my down time when I’m not doing anything productive. I had to redefine my self-image completely to include this “laziness” component. Until then, I saw myself as a creative, a visionary, a person who loves making something out of nothing with my own two hands, a curious child always hungry for knowledge… and the part when I’m not doing any of that just didn’t fit in my self-image so I swept it under the rug. However, I had to acknowledge that precisely this component of my life is one that is behind all those other do-and-learn creative things. The period of incubation, as people call it.
My biggest mistake when trying to schedule my projects was that I didn’t include this component in the schedule. I thought that during the weekends putting 6 hours a day of freelance work, and some hours for my personal work was reasonable enough because obviously I was perfectly capable of doing so before, but things just didn’t happen like that. I kept postponing project for the next day, and the next day, and weeks went by… and all the while I felt miserable because I kept failing to complete my tasks day by day. And feeling miserable because you’re unproductive will make you even less productive. This feeling had to be released.
Enter: savoring my down time.
Switching off from social networks, blogs and forums for a period of 9 days or more was very beneficial for me, as it allowed me to spend my leisure time on things that aren’t related to communication. The constant influx of information into my brain via various screens made me tired and my thoughts restless. I didn’t get rested from surfing the internet. But wandering about my apartment, sketching just for fun, enjoying the process of cooking, and even walking to the store, did. Projects still got postponed, but when I finally did manage to sit down and work on them, I did stellar work. Clients were very satisfied with what I created, and I felt like I accomplished more in less time, because I allowed myself to wait until I felt like working.
So basically, leisure time isn’t wrong. Wasting your leisure time on activities that are not recharging you is. Not “wrong” in a “you shouldn’t do it” way, but in a “it’s not doing you much good, so you might watch to restrict your hours on that” way. I’ll write more on that below.
Get enough sleep!
Also, this should go without saying, but a lot of people sleep far less than they actually need. We’re sort of expected to function on 6-7 hours of sleep a day, and that’s just not true for the majority of us. All the people I know who sleep so little are caffeine addicts. When I went caffeine-free and allowed myself to sleep until I wake up naturally, my average is between 8 and 9 hours. And when I wake up like that, I’m ready to go as soon as I awake. I feel cheerful and I’m willing to take action. So perhaps the “lazyness” is just a symptom of chronic fatigue. If that’s the case with you, be kind to yourself and go to bed earlier.
Time spent sleeping is not “lost”. Trust me, you’ll save time by being a lot more productive during your waking hours.
The “future self” test
Productivity is not just about “getting things done” — it’s about getting the right things done. You can spend your whole day doing stuff but it may be something you really shouldn’t be doing at all if you want to go in a certain direction.
For every project you are thinking about taking on, ask yourself — if you travel in your mind to a time in the future when this task has been done, for example 6 months, or 5 years, would you be glad you have done it? Would you be sorry? Would you already have forgotten you even did it? Note the answer, and make your decisions based on it. If it doesn’t have a notable effect on your future, just scrap it.
I have spent a lot of time wasting on unimportant projects. I did them only to feel productive, even though I really wasn’t.
Recommended reading: The 5 Types of Work That Fill Your Day
Learn your natural work mode
As I mentioned in the introduction, my natural work mode is what Steve Pavlina calls “bursting” — doing a large scope of work in a single day, or a couple of days (depending on the project), followed by a long period of rest. Other people’s natural work mode may be doing smaller amounts of work every single day across a period of a week, month or more, which he calls “plodding”.
I’m very inert, so it’s very difficult for me to begin the work, but when I do start working on a project for a few hours it’s very difficult to stop. This has many disadvantages, for example finding it difficult to stop working in the evening and go to bed early, or pausing to have lunch or take a walk outside.
While I cannot force myself into a working style that is clearly not my natural one, I have to find balance in my work so that I can create consistently.
Monitor your progress
Right now you may have a low self-image because you think of yourself as the terrible procrastinator. But this doesn’t have to be you — you can change.
How will you know you’ve changed? If you don’t keep track, maybe you won’t.
I recommend doing two things right away:
- Install RescueTime on your computer.
- Keep a document for every month where you will list things you got done every day.
I keep a Google doc for each month, where I’ve listed things I got done under several categories: Art, Freelance work, NelaDunato.com, Other websites, Other. I’ve had this habit since January 2013 and I can tell you that things changed a lot for the better since. Not because I started doing it — they changed because of things I’ll write about below, but now I’m really able to look at it and see how far I’ve come. It’s very motivating, and when you feel bad about yourself and start beating yourself up, just open these documents up and see the truth: You aren’t so bad!
Make it fun!
We avoid work because it’s “work”, not fun. But what if there was a way to make it more enjoyable? Do you think you could get yourself to start working more easily?
If so, read my post 15 ways to infuse creativity into your boring business tasks.
Why you need systems and strategic thinking
Now that we’ve dealt with all the “natural” touchy feely things, it’s time to get more systematic.
You know that the entropy of the Universe is constantly increasing, and unless you apply external force to it, it will just keep on increasing. What I mean to say is, if you do nothing, entropy will happen.
You’re not going to just wake up organized and productive one morning. (Sorry to burst your bubble!) It won’t “just happen” out of the blue. Order requires you applying force to get to a more orderly state. And when I say “force”, I don’t mean you have to be forceful and change your entire life and personality. You just have to be smart.
It’s not enough to have a system. I’ve managed to break each and every system I’ve tried. (Read why I don’t use the word “planning”.) It has taken me a long time to figure out what works for me and what doesn’t, and changing old habits isn’t easy. But what you can do is give it your best and try not to set yourself up for failure by thinking you can do this overnight. Actually yes, you can do it overnight, but if you’re a true procrastinator your new habits will last about a week and then you’re back to square one.
Think of your brain as a trickster that tries to avoid the unpleasant things, and go toward pleasure. And work, even when it’s creative, is not always just about pleasure. It’s work!
This trickster brain has millions of years of evolution backing it. You have your desires and your willpower. The odds are not in your favour.
The only thing you can do to prevent your reactive mind from kicking in is to think ahead of time. Analyze the situations you’re in on a regular basis, and make your decisions now. Write them down if you need to. If you make the decisions in the moment, you’re more likely to make the wrong decision. That’s the brain that’s been trained to procrastinate at work. You have to break this training, and the only way you can break it if you make it a point to decide on things X, Y and Z before you even find yourself in a position to choose.
Translated to projects, you can decide ahead of time “Tomorrow after I’ve completed my morning ritual, I will sit down at my desk and start making a first draft for project X“. You won’t go look at your e-mail, social networks or blogs because you’ve made the decision ahead of time, now you just have to stick with it. More on this topic later.
If you know you’re prone to making the wrong decisions in certain situations, think about them now. What rules can you make for yourself, so next time you’re in this situation you’ll decide the right thing?
Recommended reading: How To Use If-Then Planning To Achieve Any Goal
Implementing the GTD system
People all over the world swear by the Getting Things Done system by David Allen, and I can tell you it’s for a good reason. Since I’ve implemented some aspects of GTD, my to-do lists are much more manageable. You can use a low tech variant with post-its, or a high tech variant with computer or smartphone applications.
The main benefit of GTD is removing things from your mind so they stop nagging you.
Every time you think of a project or task, you write it down.
And when I say “every time”, I mean every time. Projects are not just your work projects — they can be chores, personal development or even, ironically, organization itself. “Implementing GTD” was actually a project on my list until I’ve completed it.
Alongside of client projects, art I want to create, phone calls and other things, I’ve put on daily reminders for things that are important to me, yet never end up being on my list. So now I have reminders for “daily sketching”, “yoga” and “meditation” as well.
Recommended reading: Getting started with “Getting Things Done”
Update: I do not use the GTD system in its entirety, but the things I picked up have remained extremely useful over the years.
Clean and organize your workspace
And keep it that way!
Isn’t it amazing how people who are usually very messy get into total CLEAN ALL THE THINGS mode when faced with the alternative of doing some real work?
Image by Hyperbole and a Half
When you have to study or work on a project, suddenly you get the urge to throw away all the bits of paper off your desk, remove receipts from your wallet, move clean clothes from the chair into the closet, and while you’re at it catalogue your entire library online.
Every. Single. Time.
Do it now
As soon as you finish reading this article, look around your room and identify all that needs to be in order. Write it all down on a piece of paper. Don’t wait for some future moment to do it, that way you’ll never get it done.
If you have a pile of papers lying around your desk or on a shelf, and locating the one you need would take longer than 30 seconds, you need to solve that problem.
After keeping everything in one huge pile in a cabinet for several years, I’ve had enough. One day I went and bought 4 plastic paper racks, two 4-ring binders, 5-6 cardboard folders, 3-4 plastic folders and a pack of plastic sleeves, and organized all those loose papers — contracts, receipts, bank statements, utility bills, medical papers, warranty cards, RPG character sheets, project ideas, worksheets…
A month later I went to get one more rack, 2 more binders, another pack of plastic sleeves and mini post-its to label the sleeves. It all cost me around 40$, but it’s priceless to finally know where everything is at any moment. I will continue to expand on this system as I need it, but for now this is just enough.
It took me 27 years to realize that a clean and organized apartment makes me happy. Just looking at my super neat workspace brings a smile to my face. There’s no excuse now but to get straight to work!
Make a pre-work ritual
A ritual can be anything, but it should be something enjoyable and not too elaborate. If you make it something difficult, you’ll procrastinate on performing the ritual, which completely defeats the purpose of having it.
Rituals prime your brain for what follows after them. If you’ve done a ritual, and then sat down to work for several weeks in a row, your brain made the connection “ritual-work” and now every time you repeat the ritual, the brain is expecting what follows — the work! So you’ll have an easier time fighting procrastination.
Think of something that will get you into a creative mood.
It can be drinking a cup of tea or coffee while just sitting and looking out of the window, or it can be lighting an incense stick and meditating for 10 minutes. You can do a page of art journaling, or you can do a short yoga session — whatever you like. You can see a list of my “entry rituals” in my article Doorways of inspiration.
Just one condition: make it something that’s not related to a computer or your smatrphone/tablet, because that leads to procrastination.
You can also use this time to contemplate on the task ahead of you and see what arises — are there negative or positive feelings? Doubts? Fears? Excitement? If they’re negative, try to stay with them for a while until you see what they’re about, and see if you can dissolve them. I don’t advise going to work while in a very negative state of mind. Keep meditating on the issue until you at least get yourself to the state of acceptance of your assignment. (This piece of woo-woo advice has been brought to you by Eckhart Tolle.)
The Pomodoro technique
Pomodoro has changed my work life, and one of my friends told me the same.
The magic of Pomodoro is that it enables you to work and take breaks at scheduled times, so you are unlikely to drop from your task and go on an unscheduled break when you know you have one coming up soon. And “soon” means really soon! “Best practice” Pomodoros lasts 25 minutes, followed by a 5 minute break, and after 4 Pomodoros you get a longer 15-minute break. However, you can reshape them as much as you want. My friend found a 45 minute Pomodoro followed by a 15 minute break fits her work better.
You will be reminded when the break ends, so it’s time to close that browser tab and get to work!
Resources for getting started with Pomodoro:
Recommended reading: The Counter-Intuitive Benefits of Small Time Blocks
Daily Internet allowance
When I was a student, it was pretty easy — you unplug the cable or just go to another room where there’s no computer. There were no smartphones at the time, so that wasn’t an issue. But if you need internet in order to work, not wasting your time on the wrong kind of internet may be very challenging. It’s impossible for me to say “no internet today” since I need a bit of internet for research and finding resources.
One method you can use is site-censoring add-ons for Firefox, but you can still get lost on domains you haven’t blacklisted.
For a while I had a daily internet allowance of 60 minutes. It’s not something I enforce regularly, especially if I have to do a lot of online things done (like, work on my own website), but during the times of intense offline work, it’s very effective.
I set up a countdown timer on my phone and started it every time I went online, whether it’s for work or for fun. This means that using up your “internet credit” for leisure will leave you with no time to do work, so you have twice as reason to keep this on the minimum.
Play around with the credit amount that works for you. Maybe it’s 2 hours. Maybe it’s just 30 minutes. Experiment and see how it works for you.
Schedule e-mail, social networks and blog reading
Contrary to popular belief, you don’t have to check your e-mail 20 times a day. Not even 10 times a day. (Unless you work in customer support, then by all means do check your e-mail at all times, I’m eagerly waiting for your reply!)
Recently I’ve decided on this schedule, and it works very well for me. I check e-mail 2 times per day, at noon and 7 PM. I reply all e-mails then and there. If I need to research something in order to reply, I research it. Mails get processed. Information gets copied to my project management software. Inbox gets to zero.
This helped me to resist the urge to check e-mails at random, because all it takes is to check the clock. If it isn’t the time to check e-mail, I don’t.
If you’re a really freaky type that has to check e-mail very often, schedule it every two hours for example — that really should be enough. You have other important things to do beside checking e-mail, remember?
The same is with social networks. My social networks time is after I’ve taken care of e-mail in the afternoon (7 PM), because by then I’ve done all my work for the day (if I haven’t, I probably won’t now, either). Then after that I go read the blogs. This takes up to 9PM, and then it’s bye-bye computer — I turn it off and go do something else.
Get up on the right foot
There’s something about a fresh start that primes us for success or failure. If you had a rough day when you haven’t done much, it’s not very likely you’ll start doing something in the afternoon. You feel demotivated and it’s hard to break the pattern. You need a fresh start.
If it’s early enough, you can take a nap and sort of simulate the feeling of morning. But if it’s already afternoon, just admit today wasn’t a very good day, get off the computer and go to bed early.
But before you go to bed, prepare a clear to-do list that you can start working on first thing in the morning. If you’re not super clear on what those to-do items are, make sure you get clear today. Back to GTD system: they have to be actionable! Hint: if they don’t contain a verb, they probably aren’t.
If you do this right, tomorrow morning you have everything you need to get started. And then…
The worst thing you can do is say “I’ll start working now, let me just check e-mail first”. It’s a trap! 2 hours later, you have checked your e-mail account and multiple social networks for dozens of times, and got no work done.
Always start with work.
The reason I recommended Pomodoro earlier is that 25 minutes of work doesn’t sound like a lot. You can easily trick your brain with “I’ll check e-mail as soon as I finish one Pomodoro” and it won’t feel like such a drag.
Start with an easy task to warm up. Difficult tasks that have an uncertain result are more likely to make you procrastinate. If you already know what you have to do and how to do it, you will start more easily.
For example, when I have to think up a logo I get performance anxiety because the process is unpredictable, and quite exciting (and also scary!), but when I have to code a HTML/CSS template, it’s pretty much routine work for me so I have less resistance toward it.
Recommended reading: A simple tip for better creative productivity
Start with computerless work
I know most people will probably say now “But all my work is done on a computer”, and some will say “I require Internet to do my job”. Fine, if you’re an online marketer, you probably do. But is it true for the majority of people? I doubt so.
I do the majority of work on the computer, and do a lot of it online. I’m for all things digital, but there are some things I prefer to do on paper. For example sketches of logos, website wireframes, illustration sketches and color studies… I’m aware there are applications for these things, but I like it the oldschool way. I don’t want a tablet computer, so I don’t get tempted to turn 100% digital and stare in the screen the whole day. I wrote a post about it: Why I still start all my design work on paper.
I print out project briefs, send some visual references to my phone and turn off the computer so I don’t get tempted to “check e-mail” or whatever. I set everything I need at my drawing board, turn on the Pomodoro, and commence brainstorming. Once I have completed all I need on paper, I turn on the computer, and begin working digitally.
If you’re able to do anything on paper, I recommend doing it. Trust me, it’s easier to go to a blank canvas on the computer once you already have something in your hand.
Care to share any tips of your own?
Well, that was a long post, and I still didn’t cover everything! If you have something to add, please do so in the comments. I’d love to learn what your productivity techniques are!
If you’ve found this post useful, here’s a few more you might enjoy:
- My Top 5 Tips For Preventing Time Suck & Increasing Productivity
- 7 productivity tips for the incurably lazy
About Nela Dunato
Artist, brand designer, teacher, and writer. Author of the book “The Human Centered Brand”. Owner of a boutique branding & design consultancy that helps experienced service-based businesses impress their dream clients.
On this blog I write about art, design, creativity, business, productivity and marketing, and share my creative process and tips. Read more about me...
Some blog articles contain affiliate links to products on Amazon. I’ll get paid a few cents if you buy something using my link, and there’s no extra charge to you.