It has come as no surprise to find that I am a bit of a procrastinator, but when you don't keep regular office hours because you freelance, the problem can suddenly escalate. Not only that, but you have your entire living space to distract you, not just the office kitchen. For me personally, it's got to the point where even washing dirty clothes can suddenly seem like a pressing matter that cannot, ironically, be put off.
So, is procrastination something you can work on? It would appear that the answer is yes. According to one BBC story published in August, procrastination is less about time management and more about managing your emotions. Researchers scanned nearly 300 brains and found that the amygdala - the part of the brain that processes and controls motivation - is larger in people who are procrastinators.
Bear with me, this gets a bit technical.
The researchers also found that connections between the amygdala and the dorsal anterior cingulate cortex (DACC) in procrastinators aren't as good as in proactive people. What is the DACC? It's the part of the brain that uses information from the amygdala to decide what kind of action the body should take. Researchers believe that people who procrastinate are less able to filter out distractions and emotions. But we can work on changing the brain, say doctors quoted in the story. Apparently something as simple as mindfulness meditation can help.
I then came across a story from Time that talked about how we inherently attach values to tasks, and if the value of that task is (a) too difficult to achieve; (b) too far away from you in terms of time; or (c) not appealing because you tend to be more impulsive, then procrastination sets in.
The advice? Take a step back and identify your habits. Is there a pattern? What do you always put off to last? If you have a clearer picture of your habits, then you have a better chance of fixing them. The article also includes some useful tips (some of which are covered below).
And, now, my top tips for beating procrastination. Don't blame me if they don't work!
The Pomodoro technique (named after a tomato). I learned this on a course and found it useful; there are loads of apps that help you with this too. It's basically working in short bursts. Choose one task and set a timer for 25 minutes. Work for that entire time, even if some of that time is only spent thinking. When the timer goes off, reward yourself with a short break of five minutes. Repeat four times (also called four pomodoros). Take a longer break. Warning: don't be tempted to check Facebook or go onto YouTube for your break. You'll find five minutes easily turning into 20.
Timeboxing: allocate a fixed time period (called a time box) for all of your planned activities in a day. Some people might use spreadsheets to map it out, but I would recommend Trello. If you've not heard of Trello, it's a great time management tool and free to use. It allows you to use colors for different tasks, set priorities, add links and lists, add colleagues to projects and, importantly, you can check stuff off.
Batching: group your regular tasks into concentrated work sessions. Some tasks that you can batch are: responding to and writing emails, invoicing and expenses, promoting your business, pitching, building business leads, etc. It depends on the type of work you do, but batching can be useful if you find yourself constantly moving between different tasks haphazardly.
If spreadsheets make you break out in a sweat, just make an old-fashioned list. Put things on there that are manageable and practical, things that you can tick off fairly easily. Don't start the list with 'finish the novel that I've been writing in my head for the last three years'.
It' s an obvious one, but turn off all notifications on your computer. It's a good idea to put your phone out of sight too. Close down any windows that aren't related to the task, because it's far too easy to casually head back over to do a bit of shopping on Amazon if the tab is open.
There is no time like the present. Ever heard that one? I find that putting something off is usually related to not knowing where to start or not having an imminent deadline. So just start. It doesn't have to be perfect. I do a lot of writing for a living. If you can't nail the intro, start a bit further down. Put anything down. You'll find that it will kick-start the process and it should get easier.
Get out of the house. Some of us need others to inspire us with their
productivity and others are good at motivating themselves. If you fall into the former camp and work from home, try a co-working space. There are lots of cheap options out there and you'd be getting to meet other self-employed people or entrepreneurs. It's also nice to have somewhere new to check out. The new surroundings could help get you out of a rut or to see things from a different perspective.
Stop lying to yourself. The thing is, we all probably have the time to get done what needs doing, but we tend to tell ourselves otherwise. The inconvenient truth is usually staring us in the face, but we might not like the answers. It might mean getting up an hour or two earlier, taking a shower the night before, cutting half an hour from your exercise routine and maybe even working after the kids are put to bed (which is a bit awful, I admit).
If you've got any tips or feedback, feel free to comment below.