The only way to stop procrastinating is to simply start the task you’ve been putting off. Of course you’re thinking: Thanks a lot, Captain Obvious. We all know that “just do it” sounds simple, but in reality, starting on a dreaded to-do can feel impossible.
Photo remixed from Kyle Hickman.
Some tasks are just so big and awful that you can’t bring yourself to start in on them because the end seems so far in the future, and the journey there torturous.
The key is to make it as easy as possible to start. Here’s how.
The following is an excerpt from Lifehacker: The Guide to Working Smarter, Faster and Better, available at Amazon and bookshops everywhere.
Trick yourself into starting by deciding to work on the task for just a handful of minutes and guarantee yourself a break at the end of that time. For example, commit to work on your task for 10 minutes. 10 minutes! That’s one minute for each finger on your two hands. Anyone can work on anything for 10 minutes, and that includes you and that thing you’re putting off.
Starting your novel is a daunting task, one most people put off for their entire life. But typing something — anything — for 10 minutes? No problem. This book was written in short bursts of writing regulated by the beep of my favourite kitchen timer. This hack explains how to take timed dashes through your work.
Do Your First Dash
First, get a timer — an egg timer, a digital watch, a mobile phone timer, a software timer, the kitchen timer, whatever’s available. Pick your biggest, scariest, most put-off task. Choose the next action, set your timer for 10 minutes, start the timer, and begin.
When the timer goes off at the end of the 10 minutes, stop. Get up, walk around, get a drink, and pat yourself on the back for what you’ve just done: you stopped procrastinating and got started.
Then, do it again.
Adjust Your Dash
Ten minutes is a good time period to start running timed dashes. After applying the dash a few times, you’ll experience something amazing: when your timer beeps, you’ll want to keep working.
As you become more proficient at working the dash, you can adjust the amount of time you set up to work your tasks. Depending on your energy level, available time, and total stress level around a certain task, extend — or shorten — the length of your dash. The goal is to work up to 30-minute or even 60-minute dashes, but everyone has different workplace circumstances and attention spans for bursts of focused activity. Find your comfort zone, set that timer, and go. You’ll be amazed at how much you can get done in short, focused bursts.
Note: Author Francesco Cirillo developed a similar technique in 1992 called the Pomorodo Technique. The idea: 25-minute dashes, followed by five-minute breaks. Each dash is called a “pomodoro”, and every four pomodoros, you take a longer, 15–20 minute break.
Why Time Constraints Work
What you’re actually doing with that timer is creating and committing to a self-imposed deadline, a constraint. Limitations are usually viewed in a negative light, as something that holds you back from achieving goals. In reality, a constraint can be a help, not a hindrance. Lots of people work better under pressure because the limitation puts their brains into overdrive and forces them to think quickly and creatively about the best way to spend that little time they have. It makes you race to an imaginary finish line and gets you there more efficiently than if you had all the time in the world.
Game developer and writer Kathy Sierra says that going fast can boost your creativity as well: “One of the best ways to be truly creative — breakthrough creative — is to be forced to go fast. Really, really, really fast. From the brain’s perspective, it makes sense that extreme speed can unlock creativity. When forced to come up with something under extreme time constraints, we’re forced to rely on the more intuitive, subconscious parts of our brain. The time pressure can help suppress the logical/rational/critical parts of your brain. It helps you [equalise]EQ up subconscious creativity (so-called ‘right brain’) and EQ down conscious thought (‘left brain’).”
Timer Software Applications
If you have a choice, use a non software-based timer (such as an egg timer, stopwatch or kitchen timer) for your dash because it’s a separate entity that won’t get buried in your computer’s taskbar or blocked behind another window. A physical timer forces you to look up and reset it by taking your hands off the mouse and keyboard and doing something. It breaks your work trance, gets your eyes off the screen, and encourages you to stand up, stretch, walk around, and not just immediately switch to browsing ESPN.com to check the Yankees score. If you’re dashing through intense, computer-based work, a change in mode is important when the timer beeps.
However, if external timers make you feel silly or you don’t have one readily available, there are quite a few software-based timers. One of the best I’ve seen for working dashes on Windows, Mac or Linux PCs is a free download called Focus Booster (available to download here; a web-based version is also available at here).
Focus Booster is an interval timer that can set you up for a timed dash plus a timed break for so many times; it’s based on the principles of the Pomodoro Technique, so it defaults to a 25-minute dash and five-minute break, as shown in Figure 3-7, but you can adjust it to fit whatever works best for you. For example, you could do a 10-minute dash plus a two-minute break (for a total of 12 minutes), five times an hour.
While Focus Booster is counting down, you can minimise it and forget about it while you work. When it’s time to take a break, Focus Booster plays an alarm and then starts timing your break. When your break ends, it plays a different notification.
Now Do It
It may sound overly simplistic, but give it a try. It may be all you need to get that daunting task crossed off your to-do list today.