Have years gone by while you put off writing that novel? Or would you like, for once, to begin a paper on time? Maybe you’d rather paint? Or make a documentary? Or finally get around to starting your own business?
There’s a good chance that, like me, you’ve been waiting for the “ideal circumstances”. Before you know it, you’ve spent years believing that, before you begin, you need a good work space where you can type. Or that first you have to quit your job so you can devote yourself to your project full-time. Or maybe you really need to read a self-help book to learn the right way to go about it. I’m guilty of the latter – I’ve read Getting Things Done by David Allen and a dozen other books on productivity.
But in a poem entitled Air and Light and Time and Space (see a comic illustration of the poem below), Charles Bukowski made mincemeat out of that idea of needing everything to be just right before one starts.
There’s no such thing as a perfect studio, and there’s no such thing as “ideal circumstances”.
Then what are we waiting for?
Procrastination itself causes more shame and guilt, and that leads to another vicious cycle of procrastination.
Canadian professor Tim Pychyl has spent the past two decades researching “why we become our own worst enemy with needless, voluntary delay”. In 2016, he told Vox that we procrastinate in order to avoid work that makes us feel bad. Because, for example, we don’t really believe that we can do it (I could start writing that novel, but I know it won’t be any good).
In order to avoid that unpleasant feeling, we do something else, something that boosts our mood temporarily (okay, I’ll load the dishwasher!). But then procrastination itself causes more shame and guilt (I never get anything done!), and that leads to another vicious cycle of procrastination.
So what remedy does the professor suggest?
Just get started. Definitely not “just do it” – Pychyl finds that too intimidating and too vague – but rather: just get started.
I know what you’re thinking: “That sounds really stupid. Of course you have to get started. Thanks for nothing!” But Pychyl explains why it’s the only solution: “Somehow adults believe that their motivational state has to match the task at hand.” But because this is rarely the case, we say: “I’m not in the mood. Year in, year out, you can make yourself believe that, if you don’t feel like doing something, it’s better to not even try.”
In actual fact, not feeling like it means that you’re afraid of what’s at stake, that you’re experiencing self-doubt. If you truly want to get something done, the only thing you can do is confront that fear. Pychyl says to be strict with yourself: “Okay, I can tell that I don’t feel like it right now, but I’m just going to get started anyway.”
It’s a comforting thought, really, that you only have to get started and then keep at it. So that’s what I do now. I keep at it, no matter how frustrating it gets. The first 10 sentences I typed for this piece were a disaster, but they got me going. After understanding what’s at the heart of the problem, I could give the solution my full attention.
What are some ways to help yourself over that hurdle to get going? What do you have to do to “just get started”? With Pychyl’s analysis, and insights from the countless self-help books I’ve read, I’ve put together a three-course breakfast – one recipe I’ve been successfully testing for months – for a productive day.
1. Begin the day with a Post-it
It’s incredibly tempting to start your day with email. But remember, email is a to-do list that other people can add to. Before you know it, you’ve spent the whole morning responding to things that other people think are important, instead of working on what is important to you.
In order to avoid that, I use a trick from The Four Hour Work Week by Tim Ferriss. Grab a Post-it or small piece of paper, and write down a maximum of three things that you want to accomplish that day. Try to imagine whether you would go home satisfied at the end of the day if you’d crossed off those items. If so, you’re on the right track.
Tip: Make sure your action items always start with a verb. That forces you to be as concrete as possible and keeps things off your list that are too vague or too big.
Then what about email? You simply wait and check it later in the day. Ferriss says to accept that there will be small glitches. Maybe you’ll be late in sending a reply. That’s no big deal. Apologise and move on. “The point is that you accomplish a few big things that can have a fundamental impact on your work or your life,” Ferriss explains.
2. Next, eat a live frog
“Eat a live frog every morning, and nothing worse will happen to you the rest of the day.”
‘Your "frog" is your biggest, most important task, the one you are most likely to procrastinate on if you don’t do something about it.’
This quotation, attributed to Mark Twain, is a kind of silver bullet in the productivity industry. Brian Tracy dedicated an entire book – Eat that Frog! – to the quotation, and defines the frog as follows (because yes, it is a metaphor): “Your ‘frog’ is your biggest, most important task, the one you are most likely to procrastinate on if you don’t do something about it. It is also the one task that can have the greatest positive impact on your life and results at the moment.”
Take a look at that post-it. Which task is the most stressful for you? Which one has the biggest consequences? Do that one right away. For one thing, at the start of your day you have the most energy to tackle that difficult task. What’s more, it’ll save you a bunch of stress for the rest of the day, because the hardest thing is already done. In the resulting high, you can wrap up the rest of your tasks much more quickly.
3. The kitchen timer is your best friend
Just getting started on your most difficult tasks takes enormous effort. For me, it’s a daily battle just getting through the first few minutes. But as soon as I have conquered them, I quickly get into a flow.
Guard your concentration with your life.
The rotten part is that flow is awfully fragile. One little text message and my concentration is gone. Then I begin the battle all over again.
That means it’s important to minimise the chance that you’ll be distracted. Turn off all notifications on your laptop, put your phone in do-not-disturb mode. Maximise the screen you’re working in. Find a quiet place in the office. Use earplugs. Guard your concentration with your life. Technology philosopher Evgeny Morozov once said that he puts his internet cable and iPhone in a time lock safe.
And then there’s also a technique from Francesco Cirillo that helps to stay focused by breaking work down into 25 minute intervals punctuated by short breaks. It’s called the “Pomodoro”, named after the tomato-shaped kitchen timer the Italian consultant used back in college.
Sometimes I set a kitchen timer (actually, its virtual equivalent). Then I promise myself that, until the timer goes off, I will focus all my concentration on a task. After that I walk around for a few minutes, relax a little, and then I set the timer again.
This technique prevents me from checking Facebook because I’m working towards a clear deadline. When I want to finish something on the weekend, I use a variation of this: I alternate, for example, between working for an hour and watching an episode of a series.
During the day, I spend two or three pomodori dealing with email and returning phone calls. I take care of emails that require fewer than a couple of minutes right away. Messages requiring more time go on my action list, and I process them during a new pomodoro.
And then there are those off-days
So here’s the recipe again: begin the day by writing down your most important tasks on a post-it, start with the most difficult one, and make sure you won’t be distracted. Those are the three tips that help me to start – and finish – important tasks.
I nearly forgot the most important tip: accept that some days are simply off-days. Anything you get done on days like that is a bonus. I often use those days for whittling down my reading list. Or I surrender to what I would normally do when procrastinating, like unnecessary web surfing. That often brings me interesting new ideas and perspectives.
This article was first published in Dutch on De Correspondent. It was translated by Diane Schaap and Erica Moore.