5 Steps to Overcome Procrastination, Stay Focused & Be More Productive
One of the great challenges of our age, in which the tools of our productivity are also the tools of our leisure, is to figure out how to make more useful those moments of procrastination when we’re idling in front of our computer screens. Joshua Foer
Turning pro is a mindset. If we are struggling with fear, self-sabotage, procrastination, self-doubt, etc., the problem is, we’re thinking like amateurs. Amateurs don’t show up. Amateurs crap out. Amateurs let adversity defeat them. The pro thinks differently. He shows up, he does his work, he keeps on truckin’, no matter what... Steven Pressfield
How can we be more productive? We can adopt the Pomodoro technique which uses a timer to break the projects down into smaller pieces, while you drink coffee, remove distractions from your workplace, listen to classical music and as long as you don’t procrastinate. Now I got your attention! What about that last bit?
You know how you’ll have everything ready to do your work, you know exactly what to do, but you just can’t start? Sometimes for me, it’s like there’s this physically painful forcefield between me and action- and I just can’t do anything.
Then I’ll open up Netflix and the pain will go away. That’s the thing you don’t want to do. So what can we do in those difficult moments to get stuff done without needing a looming deadline to finally kick us into gear? I’ll tell you: Do two pushups and take a shower. “What the hell are you talking about?” OK I know that doesn’t sound like much, but give me a couple minutes to explain the process and the 5 concepts behind why it’s so effective.
1. Practise Mindfulness.
The very first step in this is to recognize what is going on in those moments when you are having trouble getting started or when you are getting distracted.
This is something I picked up from Psychiatrist Judson Brewer. He gave a talk called “a simple way to break bad habits” where he talks about how you can use mindfulness to stop cravings that lead to bad habits. Judson described an incredibly successful experiment designed to help people abstain from cigarette smoking. People were instructed to simply be curious about their smoking cravings when they appeared.
The point was to analyze and understand that craving. To not focus on “oh my god, I need a cigarette.” but to focus on “Oh I suppose I’m a little tired or irritated with this slow internet, so I am expecting a cigarette would make me less uncomfortable.” Just by taking a moment to really understand the craving, the participants had unprecedented success with abstaining from smoking. So I started trying this when I was working and analyzed what was going on in my head when I was having trouble staying on task.
Usually, it was something I could put my finger on: I was irritated with how slowly I was progressing in the project, or I suddenly started wondering when Saturn was discovered, or I just really wanted to watch an episode of the Simpsons.
Taking notice of the craving to get distracted helped way more than I expected. It was enough to be able to say “That’s a stupid reason to stop working…” and the craving would pass. Unfortunately, it didn’t work all the time. This is where part 2 comes in.
2. Tack A Desired Habit With Your Behaviour
The second part comes from human behaviour master BJ Fogg. BJ describes in his TED talk how there are 2 very effective ways to create new positive habits:
a. You can Change your environment
b. You can tack the habit you want to create onto an existing behaviour. With the second method, BJ talks about how he was able to get in about a 100 pushups a day by simply pairing a new behaviour – pushups, with an existing behaviour – going to the bathroom. So every time he got up to pee, he would do two pushups.
You might say “Why not 10 at a time, he could do 500 pushups per day” – actually, the small number is important to the likelihood of him actually doing it. For example, if you’re trying to get yourself into the habit of jogging every day, you’re more likely to commit and make it a habit- if your target is 200 meters per day rather than 5 kilometres.
No matter how tired you are, a jog up and down the street is attainable. And, you’ll probably end up doing more than 200 meters, but the point is that day by day you’re turning it into a habit. You can do all sorts of things with this concept like get yourself to start flossing everytime you brush your teeth. I chose to make the habit of doing pushups when I caught myself procrastinating. I successfully made it a very regular habit of starting with 2 pushups, but now I regularly do more like 10 or 15.
When I first started this, my idea was just that “If I’m gonna slack off, I might as well get some exercise” but this exercise helped me in a way I didn’t expect- it was giving me a small boost in willpower so I just would go back to work instead of opening up Netflix. Richard Branson has claimed that working out gives him 4 extra hours of productive time each day. Several studies have shown that exercise increases BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor), which stimulates the production of new neurons.
BDNF is very important to learning, memory and higher thinking. While a couple of quick pushups aren’t going to grow me a whole new hippocampus, it will increase blood flow, providing more energy and oxygen to the brain, making it function at optimum levels. Better performance also means increased willpower, which is usually enough to get control of oneself and stay on the project.
Another unpleasant possibility is that the intensity of my desire to work might be lesser than my drive to avoid exercise. These two situations alone are usually enough to keep me from procrastinating. And, this small practice is reinforcing my ability to be mindful of my actions. Have you wondered how sites like Facebook and Twitter utilize the sheer power “Hooks” to keep you constantly using them?
This mindfulness practice makes it easy to get yourself out of this hook say “I don’t even know this person, why am I looking at their wedding pictures?” What do you do when you have the willpower to work, but you need to come up with new ideas to continue? If the task at hand only requires the will to do it, you can continue using the exercise trick to boost your willpower.
3. Anticipate Creative Insights
But What if you’re at the point where creativity is necessary? This is where the shower comes in. Surely many have had the experience of being in a shower and having a good idea suddenly hit them out of nowhere.
Millions of subscribers to the subreddit /r/shower thoughts show how universal that phenomenon has been felt. The key point with the shower example is not necessarily the action of washing yourself- the crux is actually being isolated in a usually quiet room where you’re not working or watching TV or checking your phone.
When Salvador Dali needed creative inspiration, he would relax on his sofa with keys in his hand and when he dozed off, the keys falling would wake him up. He would then quickly jot down whatever ideas he had at that moment. Thomas Edison did something similar with ball bearings while relaxing in his chair.
Albert Einstein supposedly had one of his insights about the nature of light when he was rowing on a boat in the middle of Lake Geneva. The common theme here is… they weren’t doing much. Their minds were relaxed and not straining on a particular project. So it doesn’t have to be a shower – you can replace it with a distraction-free walk, relaxing in a chair, just something slow and quiet to keep your mind relaxed.
However, If you do happen to take a brief shower or warm bath, the soothing effect of it could cause your brain to release dopamine which has been linked to fluid creativity.
So what’s going on here? Engineering professor Barbara Oakley has a good explanation for this. She says there are two modes of the brain: a “focus mode” where you are engrossed in a particular endeavour, and a “diffuse mode” where you are laid-back.
You can think of these states as your brain comprising of two different types of pinball machines. The focus mode brain has many bumpers, so once the pinball takes off it’s easy for the ball to get stuck in a certain area.
The diffuse mode brain has fewer bumpers, so the pinball bounces much farther around and more parts of the brain can be accessed. In his book “Originals,” Adam Grant says that this sort of productive procrastination is actually one of the traits of creative people who take truly original ideas and turn them into multi-million dollar companies.
4. The Flow State
The last part of this has to do with the flow state Steven Kotler, the author of The Rise of Superman, talks about something called the “flow state”, a state he describes as an optimal state of consciousness where you feel totally absorbed in the task at hand and all aspects of performance, mental and physical, go through the roof.
If you’ve worked on a paper with only 3 hours left until the deadline and you were typing continuously at double your normal pace and you didn’t notice 2 hours passed until you had to pee, you were probably in the flow state.
A common trigger for going into flow is high stakes moments like “finish this paper or I fail” or “make this jump or I die.” Steven says that in order to put yourself in the flow state, you need to be aware of a 4-part cycle that starts with working through a phase of struggle where you are not distracted and working hard at a challenging chore.
5. The Release Phase
The next step is to go into a “release” phase where you take your mind off the problem. The third part of the cycle is being in the state of flow. After you’ve focused really hard and then taken your mind off the problem, you come back to it and (if you’re really lucky) your brain will start to release a bunch of performance-enhancing neurotransmitters and you’ll work or perform incredibly effectively. The fourth part then is a recovery phase which is sort of like a hangover.
The chemicals that boost performance are also the feel-good hormones, so you go from this amazing kind of “high” when “inflow” to feeling pretty crappy once those hormones have been depleted. So it’s also important to be able to deal with that neurochemical hangover by getting the proper vitamins, minerals, and some sunlight so you can get back into the cycle again. Of course actually getting into the flow state isn’t easy.
For me, I noticed I can sometimes get into it if I’ve cycled between grinding really hard and getting my mind off the task say 2 or 3 times in the span of 2 hours. So that is the 5 part anti-procrastination process. And The good thing about this process is that you get better and better at it. The more you practice mindfulness, the easier it is to be in control of your actions. Every time you successfully do pushups after getting distracted, it becomes more of an unconscious habit.
Steven Kotler says you can even learn what triggers put you in flow and then learn to more consistently put yourself into that mega performance state.
One thing that is really important is making sure you’re taking the right kind of breaks. If you are hoping to get into the flow, one of the things that you can’t do during the release phase is watching television because it will actually change your brain waves in a way that blocks flow. And, It took me a while to notice that taking a break from watching Netflix didn’t induce many creative ideas appearing in my head.
This type of condition makes me wonder how many creative insights may have been lost by people being constantly engrossed in their smartphones. Most of us can’t even cross the street without replying to a text message or scrolling through the Twitter feed. You are tempted to imagine if Einstein would have had those insights about the nature of light instead of the clouds if he had a smartphone to look at while he was on his boat.