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Making it less likely I procrastinate

4 min read: I sit at my desk having finished writing today’s to-do list and prioritising what I’m going to spend my time on. I have a tender document to finish and some course material to write and both things will take a while but need to be completed today.

I say to myself “Before I do that, I’m just going to check my emails, sort out a couple of meetings and order that stationary I need and then I’ll get cracking”.

I open my emails and spot an interesting article, which I then set about reading. I finish the article and start answering emails. At 10am I get up and make a cup of coffee. I go back to my desk and go onto Amazon to order the stationary. A few recommendations for books catch my eye and I start to read about them. I order one of the digital books and read the first chapter……

Suddenly, I look at the clock and it’s 11.30am, half the day is gone and I’ve done nothing towards my main priorities!!!

Does this sound familiar?

This seems to be a habit loop I find myself in regularly and there is a definite pattern. Whenever I have a large task to deliver, I go into procrastination mode, filling my day with many avoidance behaviours. Such behaviours make me feel busy and useful and are easy to do, so I get my reinforcement from ticking things off my list, but they really are not wealth creating activities.

I rely on the pressure of the looming deadline to kick start me into action, working long into the night to avoid missing the deadline and telling myself that I work better under pressure. Rubbish, all that approach really achieved was to make me feel resentful and exhausted and not in control of my workload.

My strategy was clearly based on negative reinforcement, where we do a behaviour to avoid something unpleasant happening (e.g. getting into trouble for missing a deadline) and I needed to change it.

The reason I was in avoidance was because the tasks felt big and overwhelming. I needed to break them down into much more achievable tasks to help me progress.

Last month I tried something new. I am a competitive person at heart, even if that is just with myself, so I downloaded a procrastination app which gets you to break down and prioritise your list of tasks, assigning time to each one. You click the button as you start the task and a countdown timer begins. If you finish the task before the allotted time, you score points and if you go over the time, you lose points. At the end of each day you get a graph showing when you were most and least productive.

Measuring my behaviour in this way led to the following interesting observations.

Firstly, I didn’t even realise that I was going ‘off task’ a lot of the time. Measurement showed me I was easily distracted by email alerts, phone calls and other more stimulating things in my environment, so I now shut down email and switch my phone to voicemail when I’m focusing on something important. Using the App was a constant reminder to stay focused and on task, so I would win more points!

Secondly, the more I broke down the big task into very small pieces, thereby creating multiple tasks, the more productive I was in achieving the overall bigger goal. Even though my to do list looked as though it had grown tenfold, each time I delivered a task, I got reinforcement that spurred me on to do the next one and I achieved so much more.

Using positive reinforcement (where we do a behaviour to get something we want) was much more successful. In this case I improved my score with every task I completed and crossed things off my to-do list,

Thirdly, the parts of the day when I was most productive were surprising. For example, first thing in the morning and last thing at night where times when I was better at tasks that required lots of thought and creativity. This was not something I was expecting, but the data didn’t lie.

Finally, I realised how optimistic I was about how long tasks would take, with each task on the first few days taking more than twice the amount of time I had predicted. Now I make an estimate and multiply it by two before entering it into the app.

So in summary my experiment has taught me:

  • If I am avoiding a task it is because I haven’t found a small enough first step.

  • I am easily distracted without even realising it, so need to remove that stimuli.

  • Measurement is key because I would never have known what to fix, if I hadn’t properly measured and analysed my behaviour.

  • A strategy of positive rather than negative reinforcement has made me not only more productive, but I now enjoy my day much more.

  • Everything takes longer than I think it will, so being more realistic helps to plan the week better...and score me more points!

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