So I’ve had to find new ways to “trick” myself into getting work done. Some of the habits that I’ve tried or developed won’t necessarily work for everyone.
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I’m a huge procrastinator. In college, I was the guy that “works best under pressure” and was on a first-name basis with the late-night/early-morning library staff. However, once I graduated, I realized that (1) putting things off gives you next to zero time to problem solve and (2) when you put things off while at work, you wind up the only person in the office at 11 at night.

So I’ve had to find new ways to “trick” myself into getting work done. Some of the habits that I’ve tried or developed won’t necessarily work for everyone. However, I’ve learned a lot more about productivity ever since joining the workforce that I really wish I’d at least tried to implement during college.

The list is always growing and changing. However, here are some of my favorite ways to stay productive:

Create Urgency

One of the advantages of working in a small nonprofit is that everyone has a bunch of different responsibilities. That means that a solid half of my day is spent in meetings and/or on calls with our Fellows or partners. On top of that, I live in New York, which means that there are always a thousand things competing for my attention after I leave the office.

That all combines to create a near-perpetual sense of urgency. In other words, if I don’t get “x” (for example, the first draft of this blog post) done by the time I have my 4 o’clock meeting, I’m going to have to finish it after the meeting, which will likely run until at least 5. That means that I’m going to be cramped for time and not be able to get my usual end of the day work done before I run off. That’s pretty good motivation to avoid Facebook for the next hour or so.

It’s pretty easy to create a similar sense of urgency while at school as well, especially because many of your appointments (classes, work, club meetings) are prescheduled into your day. All it takes is a little bit of planning.

Even if you don’t necessarily have something to do during the evening, consider making plans with some friends that won’t give you latitude to work afterwards. For example, my friends and I would often plan to eat dinner around 7:30 as a group on Tuesdays, which would then turn into us going out to trivia. I knew I wouldn’t be able to concentrate on editing a portfolio draft once I got home around 11 or 11:30 and, since I had organized the plans, I couldn’t back out.

Making plans also serves as something to look forward to: if you get you work done in advance, they’re a great reward.

One alternative to this method is to take only your laptop with you to a local cafe or to the library, but leave your charger at home. For me, that gives me about 2 and a half hours of time to get everything that I need to get done, done. As an added bonus, it also forces me to avoid websites or apps that are likely to drain my battery quickly, such as watching cat videos on the internet.

Change Your Scenery

Plenty of people are capable of sitting at a desk and working all day. I’m not one of them.

In fact, I usually only spend half of my day at my desk, which is where I’m best at answering short emails, editing a guest blog post or catching up on the news. If I’m writing a blog post, I’m most likely to be standing at one of the tables in our kitchen or hanging out on the couch by our front door. Kelsey, our creative manager, started a tradition of running off to a coffee shop once a week to get blog ideas working. Everyone has their own workflow: the question is figuring out how to best manage and adapt yours.

If you can’t change your scenery, look to see if you can change other aspects of your work environment. For example, there’s a good body of research out there that suggests music or background noise has a positive effect on creativity. However, I find that I can only work well to certain playlists or bands at certain times (I’m on a Justice kick right now). When music proves too distracting or I find my mind starting to wander, I switch to Coffitivity, which simulates the sounds of a busy coffee shop.

Set and Schedule Small Goals

My senior thesis professor insisted that we submit a schedule with our planned work time alongside our research outlines. I despised her for it: her insistence that we micromanage our time totally clashed with my traditional “save everything for the last minute” workflow. Unfortunately, her weekly reviews ensured that I actually stuck to the schedule that I’d planned, meaning that my research was actually finished before I started to outline my paper and my draft was edited multiple times before I started in on the final copy.

Unsurprisingly, the paper was one of the best (and most organized, despite being the longest) that I wrote during my college career because I gave each part time to “breathe” in between. I could go back to each section with a fresh set of eyes and make sure that each paragraph worked as a part of a more cohesive whole. Crazy, right?

I’m not saying that you need to necessarily plan out every paragraph of your next blog post, but following a schedule formed by working backwards from the date that your next paper is due or next exam is to be held is one of the most surefire ways to avoid burning yourself out.

Don’t know where to start? Begin by breaking your writing process down into four or five steps: I like “brainstorming,” “research,” “outlining,” “drafting,” “editing” and “revising.” From there, schedule each part to be finished (“due”) at least a few days apart and make yourself stick to that timetable, allowing room to think about what you’ve already accomplished in-between. The more that you get used to scheduling your time, the better of an idea you’ll have about how long it takes you to complete certain tasks and the more accurately you can schedule your time.

Chunk Up Your Project

This one can go hand-in-hand with my last suggestion, though it probably works best for those who don’t want to physically add each task into your calendar. I now use something called the Pomorodo technique, named after a kitchen timer shaped like a tomato that the method’s inventor, Francesco Cirillo, first used to develop the system.

You can find out a bunch about the strategy with a simple Google search (the Wikipedia page is here), but the basic gist is that the Pomodoro technique is a method of time management that looks to help you work with time, instead of against it. Here’s the workflow:

1. Pick a task and write it down

2. Set a timer for 25 minutes

3. Work, uninterrupted, for the entire 25 minutes

4. Once the timer goes off, leave your work for 5 minutes. Take a quick walk or grab a cup of coffee. Complain to your friends. Just get away from whatever it was that you were doing.

5. Sit down and start the timer again. Continue working, uninterrupted, until the timer goes off again.

6. Repeat steps 4 and 5 until you get through four cycles or “Pomodoros.” Then take a longer break and repeat.

The best thing about the technique is that it’s mind-numbingly simple. You can modify it by taking longer Pomodoros or longer cycles. You can ignore the timer and keep working if you’re on a roll and then take a longer break.

It’s no secret that we’re great at overworking our brains which is horrible for our creativity. The whole point of the Pomodoro system is to not only help you focus, but to also remind you to take breaks.

Kill Your Distractions

This is huge for me. All of my work is online, which means that I’m constantly inundated with my own Facebook notifications, email popups, sale alerts, iMessages and the like. When you add in a cell phone, coworkers and miscellaneous toys on my desk, it’s a small wonder that I get anything done at all.

The biggest step in getting myself into work mode is to hit “Do Not Disturb” on my Mac’s sidebar and my phone’s pull-up screen. Doing so means that my phone won’t ring or buzz when I get a notification (unless someone calls me more than once) and desktop notifications will stay muted.

After that, I would maximize the note or webpage that I’m working on, making it a new workspace on Mission control (if I were on a PC, I would hit F11 to make my browser page take up the entire screen). Working in Microsoft Word? The newest versions have a “Focus” mode that blows up the document to take up your entire screen.

As for distractions that you can’t control (such as your coworkers/friends), I’ve found that simply putting in a pair of headphones, even if you’re not listening to music, is a great way to signify that you’re busy.

The biggest thing to remember no one technique is going to solve all of your procrastination woes immediately (or even quickly). However, experimenting with different ways to keep yourself as productive as possible can be half of the fun.

If you’re looking for more ways to be more productive (or for more ways to kill time), I can’t recommend Zen Habits and the Buffer blog more highly.

What about you? How do you force yourself to study for finals or be as productive as possible? Share your tips below.


Posted 12.02.2014 - 04:05 pm EDT