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How to be more productive: Tips from a seasoned procrastinator

06 Nov 2019

I had a problem. My entire school career from primary all the way to my first year of university saw me cruise through 90% of it, only to crash and burn horrifically at deadlines because I hadn’t prepared well enough. Why? Because I spent all that time worrying about the exam or the project hand-in or the coursework — or procrastinating about it — rather than actually putting my head down and actually doing the damn job. And thus, not only did I constantly put myself in a state of guilt, I was always disappointed: I never felt I’d tried my best nor reached my fullest potential.

However, come-second year, I knew things had to change. I do animation, a famously rewarding, yet very intensive course. I already had to work hard just to get everything done. But we spend a lot to study at university so passing was not enough for me, I wanted to actually do well. I had to step it up, procrastination no longer had any place in my life.

So I turned things around. I don’t find myself procrastinating anymore, rather these days I have an insatiable itch to get things done. But how does someone as hopeless at time management and as awful at self-discipline as me manage to get her work life together?

Waking Up Early

Naturally, I am a night owl. The thought of getting up before 11am was nightmarish to me, and at my worst, I would regularly go to bed at 5AM and wake up at 3PM. Clearly this was not ideal, as although I’d work into my late evenings, the work I did end up doing was often subpar with errors everywhere. To make it worse, even though I’d often sleep for 10 hours or longer, I would still be tired the next morning (afternoon), as if my body had jet-lag, and I’d be in no position to work so I’d just spend the day procrastinating until I felt ashamed enough to start working again.

As a result, I started waking up at 6:30AM and sleeping at 10:30PM, and the effects I tell you were almost magical. Some say ‘showing up is half the battle’, but Jocko Willink, a retired Navy seal who wrote ‘Disciple Equals Freedom: Field Manual’, reckons this can be applied to sleep as well. It’s super tempting to sleep in but an early rise is a big victory that will end up having a positive effect on all other parts of your day: you already triumphed through the greatest victory of waking up, and now you are motivated to win all the other battles of your day too, including your homework. Jocko wakes up at 4AM — insanely early for most people — nevertheless getting up one or two hours before the time you usually set your alarm to will benefit your work day in a similar way. Just make sure you sleep earlier too so you don’t end up exhausted!

Putting Your Phone Away

Speaking of sleep, phones invade your rest and they invade your time. Distractions in general should be put far away during work sessions, and for most of us our main distractions are our phones. Personally, I use apps to block everything on my phone for a set amount of time, but I’ve also found success putting my phone in another room, or letting someone else keep my phone for a while. Obviously, if you recognise the other procrastination triggers in your life, like your sketchbook or your Nintendo Switch — put those away too!

Using Timers

We might be at our third bullet point in this blog but I’m telling you this now, if you take away any advice from me today, let it be this point.

Spending hours slaving away on a massive project might seem daunting at first, hence, we procrastinate — but by breaking up said task into short chunks, you’ll find the job becomes a lot simpler, and for this, what I like to do is use a timer. After all, one of the many hefty weaknesses of a procrastinator is the tendency to get easily distracted, but to get a job done for most people it’s much more feasible fully concentrating for short bursts of time than telling yourself that you’ll work for several hours straight.

For this, the Pomodoro method is super popular. When you work for 25 minutes at a time with 5 minute breaks in between each section, and then a longer 20 minute break after four Pomodoro sessions. You can get a surprising amount done in such a short amount of time, but personally I find the Pomodoro method to be too short: it gets me in a ‘flow’ state where I’m in complete focus and doing my best work, only for the timer to abruptly cut me off. I prefer to work for one hour at a time with 15–20 minute breaks in between. This means I get to work in my ‘flow’ state for longer, but also enjoy more meaningful breaks — and moreover I find myself working overtime because I’m so engrossed in my work that I don’t want to leave just yet.

Studies suggest 30–90 minute work sessions are the most beneficial, but you should experiment to see what times work best for the work you’re doing. However, rest is a MUST, or else you risk burning out and doing nothing at all!

Setting Goals and Deadlines

Still, timing yourself still might not be enough especially when you don’t know what you’re doing, and so setting goals can be extremely effective. Don’t set lofty and vague targets, such as ‘revise the entire Vietnam War’ or ‘make a faithful recreation of Alexandros of Antioch’s ‘Venus de Milo’ wholly in papier mache’ — love yourself and establish more small-scale objectives. Do this by splitting your project into distinct micro-goals: instead of studying the whole of the Vietnam War in one session you can review a two year period or a specific topic, and instead of constructing the whole of ‘Venus de Milo’ you can create the basic form of her torso or sculpt the careful details of her face.

By breaking one big task into several tiny steps, you will find that the job suddenly becomes a less intimidating, and you’ll be more likely to actually complete it. You will become more motivated too, as ticking off your achievements will release a small amount of dopamine that will keep you going for longer. Yay!

For instance, I applied this method to this blog that you’re reading right now: I had a week to write this, I looked at the title, and after deciding on the article’s headers, I gave myself a day to write each topic — and it made the blog pain-free to write and organise, despite the mountain of work I already had to do because of my course.

I used to have no modicum of how to manage myself and my life, and subsequently I found myself wasting my precious time again and again and again. However, after so many years of testing out different ways of beating it, I can finally say I have my work life together. And, by following these tips, if I can beat it, you absolutely can too!

— Charlize :)