There are days (many days) when you just don’t want to do what you have to do. Anything and everything, no matter how boring it may be, suddenly becomes very interesting and very very important indeed. At first it may be a harmless distraction, like highlighting your notebook. Quickly the task deviates when what you perceive to be a lack of variety in your highlighter colour choices becomes an hour-long quest to find a new highlighter (this happened yesterday – I never found one). When you realise how time has slipped through your fingers, you begin to panic. You might end up convincing yourself that attending to the mundane tasks, like the laundry or sorting out the files on your desktop, are what have been slowing you down in life and by sorting them out suddenly everything else will be easy to do. Sometimes it’s true (personally, I don’t quite know how to function if I’m not wearing clean socks). But more often than not, you’re delusional. Before you know it, the day is over, and you feel rubbish.
Now, I am an organised person. In my life, to do lists have enabled me to achieve incredible things I never would have thought possible. Yet, I am not immune to the above scenario. In fact, it happens regularly. Sometimes weekly, sometimes daily. It’s a fact of life that no matter how productive a person you are, you will have days when you cannot move. There are many other productivity nerds (heroes) out there who share great ideas about how to be successful (if you haven’t already heard of Cal Newport, then consider this a recommendation). But commonly in the working world, procrastination is the cardinal sin – something to be avoided at all cost, and if not resisted, commands a deep and dark self-loathing!
This post is not going to tell you that procrastination is in fact good and we should all embrace wasting away our working hours on idle tasks. No. What I want to share is how to bounce back. Procrastination happens. Human beings are often at the mercy of our pathetic attention spans. The point is reducing the time it takes for you to get back on track. In my opinion (and experience), having the ability to quickly realign yourself is what makes the difference between being fruitful and fruitless.
So how do you refocus yourself when you just don’t want to do what you have to do? I will tell you my simple 4-(and a half)-step secret! (shhhhhhhhh)
You will need 3 things:
- A pen
- A piece of paper
- A stopwatch (preferably something with an alarm).
Step 1: Brain dump
The first thing you need to do is deposit all the things in your brain. Set your stopwatch for 1-2 minutes and using your trusty pen, dump it out onto your clean sheet of paper. List everything and be as detailed as possible. Add the tasks you’ve been ignoring (writing this week’s blog post) as well as the ones that get you distracted (searching for the ultimate wedding guest outfit). I find it important to be honest with yourself and acknowledge all the unnecessary things that are occupying your thoughts. Admitting they’re there validates them which helps them to settle down and stop intruding on your task. They’re on the paper now and won’t be forgotten.
Step 2a: Prioritise
This step is where it starts to get difficult and you begin to convince yourself of just how important it is to check the weather on the other side of the world. There’s no pressure to actually complete these things in order of priority. The key here is (again) honesty – focusing your attention on what you really must do. The order in which I actually do each of the tasks is difficult to describe, but it often involves an intuitive understanding and balance between when the deadline for the task is and how good I am going to feel when it’s completed. I do not always start and stick with the most pressing of matters. Instead, I tend to break up scary ‘DO THIS NOW’ tasks with ‘this will only take a minute’ tasks – that way I get the satisfaction of overcoming a couple mole hills as I scale the mountain. And if you’re a simple creature (like me), then you’ll know that crossing things off the to do list is a powerful motivating factor.
Step 2b: Bartering
Sometimes you just know that resisting urges to do nonsense will be difficult. That’s good – you’re being honest. When I go to prioritise tasks I also tend to barter with myself, telling myself that ‘I will write this blog post for an hour if I get to eat my lunch afterwards and watch the news’ (rock n’ roll!). Some people might call this slacking, but I find breaking up the long slog of a hard day’s work can become more palatable if I know it will be interspersed with snippets of pressure-free moments.
Step 3: Start the clock
I’ve been using the Pomodoro method now for about 4 years. It is genius. My friend, if you don’t know this technique then I don’t know how you manage anything. Without doing all the hard work of explaining it, I’ll just focus on the key aspects that I have adopted from it. Time yourself. As soon as you’re ready to take on one of your tasks, set the clock for 25 minutes and try to keep yourself focused until the timer goes off. Then set the time for 5 minutes and take a moment to refresh yourself, make tea, check the news (Instagram), go to the bathroom, etc. When the timer goes off, begin again with 25 minutes of your work task. Breaking your day down into 30-minute chunks suddenly makes realigning yourself doable.
Just think, in the UK most secondary school classes don’t last longer than 45 minutes. If children can stay focused for that long, then you are certainly capable of doing so for less! To help drive this point home further, consider also how many hours a day the average person works. Most of us clock in at 9am and scuttle off by 6pm – if you’re lucky you get an hours lunch. The common view is that we’re left with 8 hours of working time. This is a lie. In reality the average person works a shocking 2 hours and 23 minutes. On my dullest brain days, I aim for a minimum of 6 half hour chunks of time. Even if I have to drag myself through the mud, sticking to this method means it usually gets done.
Step 4: Be kind
Inevitably there will be times when you can’t even focus for 30 minutes. My advice is to still try. Setting the clock is like the starting line of a run. The fact you got up and put on your running shoes (changed out of your pyjamas), did your warm up (made your coffee), and gotten out on to the track (sat at your desk), you have already made a number of micro commitments that mean you want to do this. You should already feel powerful because you have the will. And, where there’s a will, there’s a way.
Yet, on those days when you’ve started the clock too many times to count, yet failed to make anything of it, then be kind. Write the day off the way you would a smashed up car. Tomorrow is another day and you still have your legs. Mental work is physical. We are not born experts (unfortunately) and to form productive habits, or indeed achieve anything requires honest evaluation, persistence, and patience with ourselves – NAMASTE HARD WORKING FRIENDS!