Help me stop procrastinating and get my work done!
August 12, 2009 8:42 AM   Subscribe

I cannot seem to stop procrastinating on a work project, and the deadline is looming. I have no doubt that I can get it done if I can just make myself get the work done, but I cannot make myself concentrate and buckle down and get it done!

Basically, I have about a week to get something I had over a month to complete. Putting things off until the last minute is nothing new for me, but my serious inability to make myself work despite getting rid of all distractions is new.

I know I can get it done, but I am constantly having panic attacks and having trouble concentrating on my research and writing. I’m unable to sleep without medication, or relax at all. I wake up still feeling exhausted and stressed out. My stomach has constantly been upset and my body aches and my eye twitches I have had pretty much no joy in my life for over a month because of this, and yet the more I try to buckle down and convince myself that nothing will fix this but getting some work done, the harder it seems to be. I can’t stop thinking about how this is all my fault and how I should have been done by now, not just barely getting started. And while I know this is counterproductive, I can’t seem to stop it.

I have uninstalled IM tools (coworkers use them, but it’s not required, so I got rid of them), installed LeechBlock to block everything from Facebook to Google Reader to all web mail. I’ve been reading The Now Habit and various articles on ending procrastination. I have had trouble breaking this project down into sub tasks… it’s updating a large document based on a couple of other large documents that are highly technical, and I just keep reading and re-reading my source documents, making plans, checking my calendar, checking my schedule, worrying, trying to calm down, etc etc etc.

I met with the NP who I work with about my anxiety (which has always been pretty severe) and depression and her focus is mostly on sleep. We’ve tweaked my antidepressants and switched from Ambien to trazodone for sleep, but while I think this will help in the long run, I need to get myself to get work done NOW.

Has anyone gone through this? Does anyone have any advice to just make myself get this done in spite of a really bad bout of anxiety and depression?
posted by dumbledore69 to Health & Fitness (21 answers total) 62 users marked this as a favorite
The only way I can force myself to get to work on a big, overdue project is to sit down and do one very small part of it. A very small part. Deliberately decide that "I'm only doing this one tiny thing and then I'm going back to (screwing around)."

At least half the time, I end up doing more than I planned, and once my head gets into the right work-space, I often do a very large chunk of the work, after all.

Repeat as necessary, and I can usually "trick" myself into getting it done.
posted by rokusan at 8:45 AM on August 12, 2009 [11 favorites]

I've been through pretty much the same thing recently and my advice is not to try to get the work done, but instead take some sick leave and relax. You should look after your own health, both mental and physical, before worrying about work.
posted by Nick Jordan at 8:46 AM on August 12, 2009

1. Get an egg timer
2. Set it to 1 hour.
3. Get started.
4. Ding.
5. Set egg timer to 15 minutes.
6. Do whatever you want.
7. Ding.

Start now, kthx. I mean it. Close the browser, don't look for any more answers, don't answer me, don't do ANYTHING else. Get started.
posted by Pragmatica at 8:50 AM on August 12, 2009 [9 favorites]

I wish I had more helpful advice. I am in the same boat. Story of my life.

One of the problems for me is that I don't want to start something then have to deal with interruptions. I frequently put things off because I feel like I don't have time to do them, or don't have time to reach a "stopping point".

The secret is to start anyway. Just start, and produce crap. Produce crap that you know you are going to discard. Once the "juices start flowing" it may be easier to continue, or even impossible to stop. Get the blockage out of the way.

One organizational trick is to break down the big task into many small, accomplishable tasks. Take on each task, work it, and move on to the next. Like taking a big exam. If you find yourself falling behind, or getting stuck, move on to another task. Come back later.

Wish I could wave a magic wand or take a tablet that was "instant motivation", but that's not the way we humans work. An old friend of mine once told me that the difference between a professional and an amateur is that professionals "play when they are hurt". Charles Shultz, the cartoonist, when asked how he came by his ideas, said that people thought he was inspired, but they were wrong. Sometimes he just sat down and "cold-bloodedly" drew the comics when he had to.

Sit down and get to work. Sorry.
posted by Xoebe at 8:54 AM on August 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

Pragmatica has it right: use a timer. The times suggested are good but you can vary them to suit your work style. Personally, I can start with two hours of work but each iteration has to decrease or I become less and less productive.

In addition, I find that putting on the headphones and listening to music helps me screen out the outside world and focus.

Good luck. I know I'm some random person out there in teh interwebs, but I think you can do this. Also, remember that you just have to make it through this week, then it will be done. Let friends help you out if they can. And definitely remember to eat and sleep.
posted by sciencegeek at 8:58 AM on August 12, 2009

I can totally vouch for Rokusan's method.

I tell myself I'm just going to do five minutes, and I usually find that even if I do stop after five minutes that little bit of work has given me the itch to go back and "just finish off what I was doing."
posted by lucidium at 9:04 AM on August 12, 2009

Seconding rokusan and thirding Pragmatica. If you break down your time and your action list into small, manageable chunks, you'll see progress. I'm talking very small -- Even opening an application window is progress. This is how I usually manage to conquer the very same problem you're having.
posted by hifiparasol at 9:04 AM on August 12, 2009

Keep reminding yourself that the perfect is the enemy of the good. You don't have to get it RIGHT the first time, you just need to get it DONE. Then you can go back and revise.
posted by peanut_mcgillicuty at 9:32 AM on August 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

I used to have the same problem, panic attacks and all. 'Getting Things Done' (the book by David Allen) really helped me. It's been years since I read the book, but if I remember correctly, he said all that tension comes from ambiguity about how to approach the task. Breaking it down into next actions really helps. (Basically, what several people have already said.)

Try this:

1. Break your project into tasks. Each one should be a very clearly defined action that can be performed in one sitting, such as "read x pages of document 1 and make notes on them". (Note that, if document 1 is too long to finish in one sitting, you really should break it down into smaller tasks.) You'll probably end up with a really long list.

2. Add any dependencies. So, if task 3 can only be completed after task 2 is finished, your list could say, "[task 2] task 3: read x pages of document 1".

2. Add a context to each of task (@home, @computer, etc.). Basically, if a task can only be completed at home or at work or at the grocery store or wherever, you want to make it clear.

3. Now highlight the tasks that don't have dependencies and relate to your current context (@work if you're at work, @home if you're at home, etc.). That's you current to-do list. It should be much, much shorter than you expect. At least mine always is, and that's usually the motivation I need to burn through it.

4. Every morning delete completed tasks, remove the dependency label from tasks that were dependent on them, and create a new current to-do list.

The goal is to take a large ambiguous task and focus on a small set of clearly defined tasks.

There's software that can help you with this, and it's much more elegant than my solution. OmniFocus (Mac) is a good choice. Not sure what the PC equivalent is.

If you weren't in a hurry, I would recommend web research on GTD next actions. There's a lot of good advice on taking GTD projects and breaking them down into GTD next action lists, but you might want to look into that later.
posted by larkin123 at 10:03 AM on August 12, 2009 [3 favorites]

Even if you can't break your project down, you can pick a starting point, at random if necessary. Start the timer, open a source doc, and immediately begin comparing it to the doc that needs to be updated. When the timer dings, mark your place in the source doc and do something else for 15 minutes (you might try vigorous dancing to fun music). Then repeat.
posted by PatoPata at 10:07 AM on August 12, 2009

Are you good at keeping your word? If so, make some detailed promises to someone whom you're not willing to lie to; for example, "I'll sit down and work from 9 to 12 and from 1 to 6 every day for the next seven days. I'll email you at the end of every day to let you know I've kept my word to you." Procrastination usually just means you need more structure, and you can create that structure yourself by involving other people.
posted by markcmyers at 10:30 AM on August 12, 2009 [1 favorite]

All good suggestions above. I also like to write down how difficult I think each small part of the task will be and then compare that to how it really was.
eg. 1. Opening my briefcase and locating my work (70% difficulty) -- actual difficulty (5%).

It's ridiculous, but it works for me, especially for going to the gym. How hard was it to walk there? Getting changed? Doing the first set on the machine? Before you know it, you're just doing it.
posted by jmmpangaea at 11:06 AM on August 12, 2009

Expanding on larkin123's great advice, I've developed a technique that hasn't cured procrastination, but has let me work around it. I call it "micro-tasking."

Every day I spend 10 minutes updating an ongoing task list formatted as a cascading outline. Each project--"write case study", for instance--is broken down into tasks that are further broken down into "micro-tasks". For instance:
1. write case study
a. template
b. outline
c. research
d. notes draft
e. rough draft, etc.

Each sub-level task is further detailed:
1. write case study
a. template
a1. select style (modern)
a2. add lorem ipsum

The 'research' sources task might be outlined in finite detail:
c. research >
c1. identify sources >
c1a. internal sources
c1a1. Marketing Dir.,
c1a1a. send email, ask for communications plan
c1a2. Sales Dir.
c1a1b. send email, ask for Q3 sales figures
c1b. online
c1ab1. tech publications
c1ab1a. c/net
c2ab2. news sites, etc.;

I end up with a 'to do' list that runs a few pages, but I've basically sketched out my entire thought process and task list for the week. Now all I need to do is mindlessly tick off items that are, on a micro-level, incredibly easy to accomplish, don't fill me with a sense of dread/panic, and take just a few minutes--well within my attention span.

Not only am I more productive on single projects, I'm able to "multi-micro-task" multiple projects. I'll complete a few items on the priority/business list, scroll down the list, pick a micro-task, and spend 10 minutes adding metadata to new music in my iTunes library, or updating my portfolio, or invoicing, or updating expenses, or something else. Over time, even non-priority projects--like adding album covers to my itunes library--get done effortlessly, because I spent 3 minutes here, 5 minutes there, over several weeks, on the project. On priority projects, 10-15 microtasks ticked off over a 5-hour period add up to an incredibly productive day.
posted by prinado at 12:13 PM on August 12, 2009 [11 favorites]

Look at this way: If the whole project had been, say, the equivalent of doodling on a sheet paper, you'd have been done in five minutes. Why? Because that is an extremely easy thing to do; something hopefully well, well within your abilities.

Now, for this actual project, you say "I know I can get it done,"... but can you really? Answer this honestly. The evidence you've shown us does not seem to point to a yes. You may have to face up to the fact that, for the time being, this project may be beyond your skill or ability.

Gasp. I can see you getting angry, getting mad...

... but this situation seems to me like a classic case of perfectionism, with all the anxiety and depression that come from trying way too hard to achieve a goal that is beyond one's current capabilities.

Drop this project thing or get outside help on it. Your existence need not be justified by your productivity or your achievements. When that shit starts affecting your sleep and your health, you have to ask yourself if it's really worth it to try to be such a good little worker bee.
posted by Theloupgarou at 2:39 PM on August 12, 2009 [2 favorites]

prinado did a great job expanding on step 1 of my answer above. If you can get your tasks down to small bite-sized chunks, you'll be shocked at how fast you run through them. Seriously, I used to get panic attacks and still couldn't get any of my work done. Now I have a really long, extremely detailed to-do list which I use to generate a short next actions list (with a context label on each task). It's amazing how much my productivity has increased.

Also, I wanted to add that if you use a Mac, the Notebook application from Circus Ponies is a good choice for an outlining application. I create a detailed outline of tasks, use keywords to assign contexts to those tasks, and add status checkboxes only to tasks which are 'next actions'. The automatically generated 'To Do Items' page (which is made up of outline items with status checkboxes) is just a short list of my next actions, which I sort by context.

I don't know of the PC equivalent, but I'm sure it's out there.
posted by larkin123 at 3:25 PM on August 12, 2009

Do what rokusan suggests until your project is done. And after it's done, pick up a copy of The Now Habit. I got it after seeing it suggested here on AskMe and it has helped me overcome my procrastination when I thought I was doomed for life. Good luck on your project!
posted by Mouse Army at 3:58 PM on August 12, 2009

Getting started is an integral part of getting work done, and is it sometimes, if not often, the hardest part. The earliest you get over the illusion that this is easy, the better. Getting started is going to require some serious dedication, effort and discipline, and dare I say, lots soul searching.

Creativity comes from a very deep place, and you have to respect that.
posted by gmarceau at 7:43 AM on August 13, 2009 [1 favorite]

Seconding the egg timer idea, but instead of giving yourself 1 hour to get work done (way too much time to get stressed out and distracted), start with 15 minutes. After the bell dings, give yourself 15 minutes to dink around (read Metafilter!). Repeat. Pretty soon you'll be on a roll. Good Luck!
posted by hollyanderbody at 2:46 PM on August 13, 2009

Yes, timers, yes a thousand times. Fall in love with their music.

Whether I feel like procrastinating or not, I start each day with as little as fifteen minutes of work followed by ten minutes of goofing off. No work allowed during the ten minutes! After exactly two cycles of this I upgrade to twenty and ten, and after two cycles of that I move on to fifty and ten for the remainder of my prescheduled stretch of work. I follow this routine religiously day in, day out. The familiar pattern takes away most of the resistance my brain sometimes puts up.

I also never work longer than four hours at a time and never more than eight hours a day. I schedule fun activities after each working day and have a set finish time when I need to drag my butt off my chair and put away the files. This is all according to the ideas of The Now Habit which I, too, highly recommend.

This thread has some very good advice already.
posted by Orchestra at 9:07 AM on September 16, 2009 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: Just as a follow up, I did get this project done. I spent one day breaking it up into manageable tasks and making a tremendous master checklist, and then brought all my work home for the weekend. I then got a good night's sleep (using the last of my ambien), and spent the rest of the weekend working my ass off, using a timer and imagining getting fired if I didn't pull it together.

Then I went back to my psychiatric NP and got screened for ADHD. Because this is not an occasional thing for me.
posted by dumbledore69 at 4:18 PM on October 19, 2009 [3 favorites]

Congrats, dumbledore. Good luck with this in the future.
posted by hifiparasol at 6:48 PM on October 19, 2009

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