Coming to terms with procrastination and becoming productive
March 20, 2014 11:39 AM   Subscribe

How did you kick procrastination and become productive? What was your process? I've been in denial of my low productivity for years and I want to fix it.

I used to think I was good at productivity and focus. After looking at some data and facing the excuses I make, I realized that I've been in denial of my low productivity for years, and I actually get distracted easily, don't focus that well, and procrastinate a lot. For others who have gone through this: What did you do? Did you gradually work up to it, or did you go cold turkey and changed things all at once?

This is tough to face, but I think I can get through it. This is a good first step and I'm reading up on stuff like the Pomodoro technique. I didn't think I had to use stuff like that but turns out I do.

I look at Reddit. I read news. I go on Facebook and click around for half an hour. When I do work I'm not that focused. I leave work to the last minute. Even when I try to plan ahead I don't really do the work that well.

How did you recognize this and fix it?
posted by suburbs to Grab Bag (12 answers total) 99 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: Ok, here's the key. Your goal is to finish ONE THING early. One thing. Just one. You don't even remember how good it feels to not have the weight on your shoulders. You have to figure out a way to remind yourself that the addiction to the pressure of procrastination does not feel nearly as good as the sweet peace you get when you finish something early. The best way to remind yourself is to just do it once. Complete a small task, like a chore that you've been putting off because doing it would mean you couldn't do something more important (which ironically, you're procrastinating on anyways).

Just start off small, and learn to crave the feeling you get from being early instead of avoiding the pain of the actual work. You probably don't even remember what it's like to work and feel good about it, not to feel stressed and scrambling. It's a good feeling, and it will take a bit to get used again, just start small by finishing one thing. You'll find your whole world gradually shifting into balance.
posted by semaphore at 11:47 AM on March 20, 2014 [16 favorites]

I'm on mobile right now so I can't link to it but I found "Seven Secrets of the Prolific" by Hilary Rettig to be very useful in helping me to understand procrastination and deal with it.
posted by gauche at 12:24 PM on March 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have had similar experiences as you. Proactive work is very difficult for me to do, but reactive work (because the fallout for not doing it would be horrible) is much easier (though it's still not any more fun).

And somehow I've managed to build a small business that employs a couple of people full-time and allows me to be a lazy procrastinator and live rather comfortably.

The secret that you are searching for isn't in any techniques of doing, but in how you understand yourself and your world. Everything comes down to desire and aversion. We are all full of desires, many of which compete with one another. "Procrastination" happens when we pick a desire in opposition to another desire that we've consciously "selected" as more important.

The problem is that just because we think that one desire should be more important to us, our actions betray our true feelings on the matter. Many people begin self-flagellation at this point, which is a mistake, because while you _can_ force yourself to be 'productive,' you can't force the productivity to bring satisfaction and contentment (even if your logical, thinking mind tells you that is how it should work). Acceptance, on the other hand opens up your mind to your true feelings on the matter. Observe the clash of desires in your mind as it happens, and let the inevitable self-judgements be felt and then pass away without continued focus on them - try to trace your thoughts back up the chain of causation to the original causative thought. Example: You judge yourself to be lazy and a procrastinator. This thought is a reaction to a previous thought - that you should be doing something specific, yet you are not - which is a reaction to another, still previous thought, and so on. Follow the trail back to the source and you will see the erroneous assumptions that are being experienced as disharmony at your current functional level. Make this a habit and you will clearly see what is happening within your mind, including the understanding of why you are choosing one desire over another, and which, if any, are worth pursuing. When you are able to see things this clearly, you stop trying to force things, and the motivation flows effortlessly.

You will read a ton of information that explains how the mind builds things up unrealistically and uses those images to drive desire and aversion, but until you experience this within your own mind it will not 'feel' real enough to drive future decisions/actions - you are just using your mind to construct another unrealistic image to combat a previous unrealistic image. The magic happens on a level deeper than mind, when you 'see' what is happening within you it is 'known' through sheer experience of being rather than the anesthetized cold logic of thought.

One more time. Do not look externally for the answer to an internal problem, or you will continue to experience mediocrity. Your cerebral mind, the part of you that thinks in words and obeys the laws of logic and causality is what you are currently 100% relying on, and it is what has brought you to this impasse which has you confused and depressed. Accept the way things are, and allow your intuitive sense to be heard _in addition to_ your logical sense and you will begin to understand both what is happening and what can be done about it.
posted by Th!nk at 12:50 PM on March 20, 2014 [18 favorites]

I could be you. Here is a thing that helped me.

A little over a year ago, the problem of procrastination and lack of focus came up in a conversation with my son (then 18). We discovered that we shared the same problem. I was at my desk all day for days (weeks!) getting nothing done. I would bounce from Facebook to news to looking stuff up on Wikipedia back to news. If I needed to hand somebody some work product right now, I would do it. Otherwise I could to a large degree successfully avoid any actual productive work. I was amazed not to be called out for it and riddled with guilt. I would think to myself in the elevator ride "TODAY I will attack that task list and stay off the internet!" and break that resolution the minute I sat down at my desk. In the meantime, my son was putting off homework to a harmful degree and watching Netflix instead of practicing his musical instrument.

We agreed to be each other's accountability buddies. We would text each other when we started going off track and encourage each other to do better. I would text "setting the timer to 30 minutes" and he would text back "I'll do 30, too!" Then I'd text "I got so much done!" and he would text back "Let's do an hour!" That first day we were AMAZED by how well it worked. Such a simple thing. So powerful.

We texted a LOT for a few weeks and slowly, naturally, tapered off to what are now only occasional texts every few days. Both of us feel we have improved our habits, although there is some backsliding (I'm at work right now and on Askme, go figure). But to a large degree, it worked.

Bonus - increased closeness with son.
posted by rekrap at 1:41 PM on March 20, 2014 [10 favorites]

Is it fear of failure? Are you secretly a perfectionist? Nothing will ever be perfect, so why bother starting? Oddly enough, this seemed to be one of my motivations for slacking.

Otherwise, I use two browsers- one for fun and one for work. The fun one has all my tabs and stuff already saved, so its easy to pull up the cycle like your have going. On busy days, I don't even get to pull up the fun browser at all! The pain/annoyance of switching browsers helps me stay more focused.
posted by Jacen at 2:07 PM on March 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Oh, and I should add: you're going to resist yourself, even on this one small task. Listen to the way your psyche makes up excuses for why you shouldn't be doing it, and ask yourself why you would be so opposed to yourself getting the heinously dirty car washed or taking those photos your boss requested or sprucing up your resume or going shopping for the week's lunches (or whatever the chore is). Choose to ignore yourself and do it anyways, despite your inner self trying to make you feel guilty for not working on something more crucial first. Remember how you feel, so that when you finish the task and feel slightly more free, you can compare your visceral gut psyche negative predictions with the truth (which almost certainly will be, 'wow. it feels great to get this done. now i have more space and energy and drive to finish something bigger', not 'wow, i really messed up by doing this. i was right all along')
posted by semaphore at 2:19 PM on March 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

Things that have helped me:

- Having time limits and hard deadlines
If I think I've got "all day" or "all night" to work on something, I'll just screw around on the internet. But when I've got the time pressure of "I have to go to bed at 10 for an early appointment" or "I have to leave work right at 5 to catch a train", I screw around less. Same thing when I don't have a solid, unmissable, humiliation-will-be-involved deadline. If there's no consequence for not getting it done, I won't hurry to get it done.

- Starting work FIRST before checking email and social media
If I start my day or my project working session by reading email/Twitter/Metafilter, forget it. It's like I've primed my mind to just drift away on the internet. I have to actually do constructive work first and check that stuff *later* or else I'll goof off on the internet for hours. Plus then it feels like I've earned it.
posted by cadge at 3:18 PM on March 20, 2014 [1 favorite]

I have had success using the website Kanban Flow. You input all your 'to dos' and can categorize if you like. In the lower left-hand corner, there's a thing called "Pomodoro timer." This is based on a productivity method which you can check out as well (the Pomodoro method) -- I find the complete method to be overly strict for how I work, but the looser version in Kanban Flow is great for getting me to be really productive. The general idea is that you work for 25 minutes (or 30, you can change it to fit how you work), with total focus -- no Facebook, email, etc. Think if it like a dare to yourself -- maybe I can't do 4 hours with total focus, but I bet I can do 25 minutes. Start with 15 minutes if you need to. Then you get a 5 minute break to do anything you want. Then repeat, with a longer break every 4 work sessions. This type of clear "working"/"on break" time has worked great for me, as well as setting the explicit goals/to do items for each day rather than "I suppose I'll work on this giant project, hmmm, where do I start?"
posted by rainbowbrite at 5:09 PM on March 20, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'm both good and bad at being productive. That is, I get a decent amount of stuff done. At the same time, given the number of hours I spend doing that stuff, I am screwing around an awful lot. My friend has a technique he likes to call The Virtuous Cycle of Procrastination where he goofs off doing one thing he should be doing by doing... another thing he should be doing! So like if you can't get that paper written, go do the dishes, or go for a walk, or fold your laundry. Hate folding the laundry? Go work on that paper! Don't want to do any of that stuff? Make a list of the things you need to do to do another task. Having a list of tasks for a task is actually partway to getting the task done!

And build in some time to check facebook and do the other things you like to do online, just don't let them become avoidance strategies. Know when you are giving in to your own "seeking mechanism" (one of the most powerful motivators, the "what happens next?" impulse) and when you are just bored (or any of the HALT things - hungry, angry, tired, lonely) and try to address those things. Do things thatup your energy level generally whether it's getting more exercise, eating better, connecting with friends or taking more downtime for yourself/meditating/listening to music you like, etc. Spend as little time as possible beating yourself up over what you haven't done in the past and use that negative thought pattern to propel you into fixing that thing going forward and going and getting something done. I found that I get more done when I'm at a standing desk because just standing there is not really natural for me and so I'm more mindful of "Okay I am being here because have a thing I need to accomplish" and not "I have parked my body here because it's comfortable and oh look, a cat video...."

It's also possible that you have actual distractibility problems and you might want to try reading a book like Driven to Distraction to see if some of the ADD/ADHD hallmarks might be issues that you have that could merit doctor attention. Best of luck.
posted by jessamyn at 8:37 AM on March 21, 2014 [4 favorites]

I highly recommend The Now Habit.
posted by storybored at 7:03 PM on March 21, 2014 [1 favorite]

My standard answer
posted by lalochezia at 4:41 PM on March 24, 2014


Everything you care about, everything you are about, needs to begin today or it may never happen.
If you don’t want to do it now, you clearly don’t want it bad enough.

Momentum comes from pushing, not from planning.
Confidence comes from scars and risk, not from indecision.

posted by lahersedor at 5:55 PM on March 24, 2014

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