15 tips to stop procrastinating

Steve Kryger

Being busy doesn’t mean being productive. We established that last year.

A new year has begun. Could this be the year where you stop procrastinating and move to higher heights of productivity? Could this be the year when you spend less time at work and more time with your family as your time at work becomes more productive?

There’s some great websites that provide advice on productivity. Some of my favourites are Zen Habits, Web Worker Daily, Stepcase Lifehack and Lifehacker. Alltop also has a good directory. Here are 15 tips that I’ve come across (and personally found useful) for staying focussed and getting things done.

1. Do one thing at a time. Select one thing to do and just do that - write the report, reply to the emails, review the notes from the planning meeting. Once you’ve completed one task, move onto the next. Avoid having multiple windows open with the internet, email, word processing, Facebook etc - pursue one thing at a time.
2. Do important tasks first. Start your day by identifying and then ticking off one or two big ticket items. Things you don’t want to do. Things you’ve been putting off. Things that need to get done today. It’ll be a real confidence booster to tackle these at the start of your day that will set you up well for the rest of the day.
3. Do unpleasant tasks first. We’ve all got them - items in our to do list that we just don’t want to do. The problem is, not doing them doesn’t get them any closer to being completed, and having these in the back of your mind is an unnecessary distraction. So don’t sit on them - bite the bullet, and do unpleasant tasks sooner rather than later. Now feel the relief flood in!
4. Set short-term time goals. Goals like “I’m going to have a productive day today” are nice, but hard to quantify and work towards. Instead, set more realistic goals to work for short, concentrated amounts of time. For example - “I’m going to clear out my inbox in the next 30 minutes”, or “I’m going to spend the next 45 minutes working on this sermon”. These short-term goals are achievable, and the cumulative effect will be a productive day - built on lots of focussed bursts. On that note, the Pomodoro Technique is worth checking out.
5. Turn off your email. A bit of email here, a bit of email there, and before you know it your whole day has been spent on email. Most productivity experts suggest putting aside one or two 30 minute blocks each day to write/reply to email. When you’re not doing this, switch it off. Allocate set times to get your email done - apparently the distraction of an incoming email takes 3 minutes to recover from. Multiply that by the number of emails that trickle in all day, and you’ve got a lot of distraction. An interesting article on this note is ‘A day in the life of an email productivity evangelist’.
6. Turn off Facebook. Australians spend 29% of their online time on Facebook, which is either time they aren’t doing any work, or time when their attention at work is being split between what they should be doing, and Facebook. As with email, switch it off, and allocate particular times in the day to indulge.
7. Tidy your workspace. It’s hard to get things done if you don’t know where the tools are that you need to be productive. Clean your desk. Tidy your papers. Tidy your computer desktop. Create a system to file your papers - real and virtual. Don’t waste time trying to find where things are, when you can know where they are.
8. Allocate times to exercise. Spending time away from the computer, out in the fresh air (or whatever air you have near your office) can be refreshing, an give you something to look forward to after a couple of productive sessions. Work out when you’re going to exercise, and then stick to the plan - even if it’s just a walk around a couple of blocks.
9. Plan ahead. Each night as you’re packing up to go home, write a to-do list for the coming day. These need to fit within the context of the larger goals you are trying to accomplish, and could include the ‘top 3’ for the day-ahead, but will help you focus when you start the next day and avoid getting sucked in by email.
10. Unsubscribe or filter unnecessary email newsletters. If you find your email inbox being infiltrated by email newsletters (not including this one, of course!), set-up a folder and filter these emails to automatically move into that folder. If you have time, you can check that folder…but I’m guessing you probably never will! When these appear in your inbox, it’s just another opportunity to be distracted as you follow the links and browse the internet.
11. Keep lists and check them off. Perhaps it’s just my personality type, but I get a great deal of satisfaction from writing lists of things I need to do, and then ticking them off. I use an application called Things, but there’s lots of Windows, Mac and online solutions for those who like to tick boxes!
12. Know thyself. When do you work well? Is it first thing in the morning? Is it early evening? As much as you can with the work situation you’re in, work to your strengths. Do admin, email or other repetitive activities at the times when your mind is less inclined to be ‘in the zone’.
13. Automate. Wherever possible, automate your processes. Avoid unnecessary repetition and administration. Use time scheduling tools to schedule meetings. Use an electronic diary. Automation frees up your time to be productive doing more important things (like preparing for the meeting, rather than finding a time that suits the 12 participants!).
14. Set longer-term goals. Work out what your role is (you might have a couple, but your position description is a good starting point!) then set goals within those roles. These goals should be longer-term and will help to focus you, so that when you get asked to do something, or when you have a seemingly brilliant idea, you can assess its value against these longer-term goals. C.J. Mahaney has some great advice on goal setting.
15. Stop being a perfectionist. Perfectionism is the enemy of productivity. It says that the email, the sermon, the proposal etc must be perfect (whatever that means) before it can be considered complete. So we continue to dabble - making changes until the last possible moment. Instead, work out what is a reasonable amount of time to get something done, and get it done in that time. Don’t give yourself the luxury of time to dabble. The extra time spent tidying up usually won’t make dramatic improvements, and could instead be spent in other ways.

What tips and practices have you found useful for stopping procrastination and getting productive?