I don’t believe that time flies when you’re having fun. Well, ok, I do. But it also flies when you are procrastinating. And when you’re procrastinating, even fun is not fun. Hulu is not fun. Coffee is not fun. Housework suddenly seems fun, but it’s really not. That’s the nasty thing about procrastination: it spoils both the present and the future.
Do you know where your procrastination comes from? Not in a “from my childhood” way or a “deep-seated confidence problems”way, but in a “why I don’t want to do this thing NOW?” way.
For me, it’s fear of the dark. Beginning a project seems like vast, uncharted territory. I can’t see where I’m going, and I don’t know how long it’ll be before I get out.
The GTD “Next Action” model provided a way out of this dark night of task management. David Allen defines a project as “anything that has more than two steps,” and GTD is based on finding the very next action a project requires-- not “work on client website copy” but “e-mail client to ask about their target audience.” These highly specific tasks cut through that resistance that can crop up when you know you have to “work on” something, but you don’t know what it is you have to do.
But when I started working for myself, I found that, well, the days seemed really long. When I looked at my “Next Action” list, I didn’t know what to do first. I had all day, after all, so “I can do it later”-itis set in, but at the same time, I wanted to know what the most important thing on the list was, so I could do that first. Without other time structures in place, the list still worked as a task manager-- but I needed a time manager.
I pulled out my iPhone, set the timer for 30 minutes, selected a task from my Next Action list (on my Sandglaz grid), and started working. At the end of the time, I stopped and switched to another task. As this strategy moved from experiment to system, I started taking a break every 3 30s (or 90 minutes.)
Am I just tricking myself into doing work? Absolutely. But there are a number of reasons it works.
- You can do anything for 30 minutes. Even stuff you really, really hate seems manageable if you know it will be over in half an hour. Yes, most projects will take more than 1 30-minute block, but as you get used to working in shorter chunks, the task will get less painful. After all, you’ve done it before.
- You don’t have to worry about all the stuff you’re not doing. Since you’re only doing this task for 30 minutes, that leaves a lot of other 30-minute blocks for other things. Again, this is deceptive: you haven’t added hours to the day. But by working this way, you spend the time you would otherwise waste deciding what your highest priority is actually doing the things on your list.
- You can mix and match priorities. The beauty of the Eisenhower grid is that it reminds you what is really important. But those unimportant tasks should only be on the grid if you have to do them. I like to spend about 90 minutes each afternoon on “unimportant” tasks; that way they get done, but not at the expense of Important items.
- You can use the time as a guide. While it’s a good way to get yourself to do things you don’t want to do, task switching can be an inefficient way to work. So here’s what I usually do. I spend the first 90 minutes of my workday doing tasks that can be finished in 30 minutes, so I start the day with some wins. Then I spend the next 90 minutes on a single project, using the timer simply as a way to note the time passing-- it keeps me from watching the clock. And there’s nothing magic about 30 minutes. You might power through some short tasks with 15 minutes on the clock, or dig into a project with an hour or two. The “pomodoro” method uses 45 minutes.
- It forces you to do one thing at a time. When I’m on a task, I don’t look at my e-mail. If I need the internet, I only keep one browser tab open, otherwise I close the browser. I often brainstorm, mind map, end even draft by hand to enhance focus and creativity. This does not come naturally-- I make these rules to avoid the e-mail, facebook, check, check, check mentality that typically governs my internet behavior.
30 minutes works well for me, but the underlying principle here is really about noticing where your time goes. You can use any time division you want-- power through short tasks in 15 minute bursts, or buckle down and immerse yourself in something for an hour. The key is to take back control of your time-- to do something with it. So, go ahead, start now. Pick a task. Set the timer. And GO.
Caroline Rothnie is a freelance writer who lives, works, and consumes heroic amounts of coffee in Charleston, SC. You can find her on the web at http://carolinerothnie.naiwe.com/, or on Twitter @SupposedlyFun88.