Last week was Productivity Week for me. Not every Weekly Challenge delivers tangible and immediate benefits, but focusing on getting stuff done for just 1 week enabled me to find the techniques I needed to overcome procrastination once and for all.

Beat Procrastination. You can do it!

Image courtesy of hang_in_there

A problem with finishing

First, let’s procrastinate for a minute with a (relevant) little story. When I was 23, I wrote a feature length screenplay in around 3 months. It was about a young man running away to join the circus, and it was awful. Nevertheless, as an aspiring filmmaker, it was a brilliant achievement which I managed (whilst also having a full time job) by spending 4 nights a week writing solidly 4 hours per night. Sadly, 10 years later, only 2 people have read that screenplay (myself and brave friend and flux hero Benedict Beaumont).

In my plan for ‘Writing a Screenplay’ I’d overlooked the secondary processes of rewrites and distribution.

My screenplay turned out to be a productivity and project management fail. I thought the hard work was done, and in actual fact it had only just begun. In my plan for ‘Writing a Screenplay’ I’d overlooked the secondary processes of rewrites and distribution. Instead of sending the script to every agent and director in the land, I became unhappy to change the script and increasingly paralysed by feelings of fear and inadequacy about sharing it with anyone. Eventually, the cycle completed and I stopped writing. I haven’t written a script since.

I’d made the crucial error of thinking that writing the screenplay would be the hard bit, and so focused all my project energy there. In reality – to use a movie screenplay structure analogy – the writing was the fun and carefree Act I, and what I’d forgotten to plan for was the struggling and adversity of Act 2, which – as with all good stories – had to come before the success and adulation of the final Act. My screenplay project failed because I effectively walked out of the cinema on my own movie after the first half hour.

I have experienced many such ‘Act 1 Fail’ moments in my life, I’m sure we all have.

Having the perspicacity to stick with your project until the credits role requires a plan of action, and some kind of productivity routine.

Productivity: an industry built on procrastination

I can guarantee that if someone tells you that they’ve ‘got this great productivity book, blog or app you should try’, they have a serious problem with procrastination. The irony of the productivity industry is that it was born to sate the wandering fingers, eyes and brains of procrastinators everywhere.

Here’s how the process works: we’re not getting into a project so we find displacement activity to get us off topic; those of us who are paralysed with feelings of guilt if they’re not doing something vaguely project related then spend procrastination time researching ways to save time, before enacting a half-arsed new productivity regime which packs up as soon as we get busy. Sound familiar? Take it from a procrastination/productivity expert: this never works. Here’s what could work though: putting your other projects down and commiting time to really learning about and enacting a productivity methodology which works for you, and then seeing it past Act 1 (which in this case is the point you get busy with urgent stuff again).

I combined elements from 2 different methods I’d come across in the past. The Action Method and the Pomodoro Technique.

During my productivity week, I combined elements from 2 different methods I’d come across in the past. Obviously I could have chosen others, but I didn’t want to waste my time on lots of research, so I started with what I already knew. My chosen productivity frameworks were The Action Method and the Pomodoro Technique. The former is all about compartmentalising and prioritising every project into manageable steps, and the latter divides all of your time into a series of 25 minute chunks interspersed with breaks. On the Pomodoro Technique I read very little because I liked and understood the simplicity of the idea, and on the Action Method I’d previously read about half of Scott Belsky’s Making Ideas Happen, so looked back at my notes. For me, this was enough preparation, because I really wanted Productivity Week to be about ACTION.

The Action Method

The Action Method was introduced by productivity blog 99U founder Scott Belsky. If you want to read more about Scott’s method, which was compiled following extensive research into the productivity habits of 100s of top creatives and business leaders, have a look at Making Ideas Happen. Right now, I’m just going to summarise what I cannibalised from The Action Method.

After writing a list, I feel more organised, but the truth is, I rarely am.

I love lists. Most procrastinators do. Making a list is a great opportunity to waste time on an easy project-related task. After writing a list, I feel more organised, but the truth is, I rarely am. The Action Method is great because it invites you to make a list of every project (yay!) and then apply a 3 tier prioritisation system to it.

So I, for example, have 12 ongoing projects: a project related to writing this blog, another related to promoting this blog, and others related to the other blogs I write for, Lifehack.org and Huffington Post. I then have projects for each new business idea I am currently considering, and my most pressing ongoing projects this year, which are completing my Weekly Challenges and making the most of my travels across the Americas.

Belsky’s top tip here is to begin every to do list item with a verb, e.g “Write up blog post”

The Action Method helped me to break down each of my 12 projects into actionable steps (Belsky’s top tip here is to begin every to do list item with a verb, e.g “Write up blog post”), and then define each step as either ACTION, RESEARCH or BACKBURNER. Action steps are things you just need to DO, Research Steps are things you must spend some time looking into further before generating the necessary Action steps, and Backburner items are things relevant but not immediately pressing. So writing Draft 1 of this blog post was an Action, finding imagery and links for the post was Research and looking into other interesting productivity methods is a Backburner item which I MUST NOT do right now for fear of being thrown off course into procrastination corner!

Once I’d turned each project into steps like this and defined my steps as Action, Research or Backburner, I then added crucial dates to any items which were time related (and therefore would become urgent at some stage). I now had my 12 projects broken down into around (in total, across all 12) 100 or so items, which in turn were all marked with one of the 3 Action Method tags.

I could now review everything not just vertically by project and also horizontally by Action Method tag

Thanks to this organising, and the brilliant power of my To Do List app Things, I could now review everything not just vertically by project (a conventional way of looking at work) but also horizontally by Action Method tag and date priority. If this doesn’t sound revolutionary, consider how your brain works during a typical day: we need ebb and flow, we need variety, we need a healthy mix of Action, Research, Backburner and – of course – rest (on which more, later). The Action Method tags allowed me to look at JUST Actions, or JUST Research, across all my projects. This meant I could say, “okay today I’m going to spend the morning getting the pressing stuff done (Actions) and this afternoon on researching the areas I need to push forward on soon (Research)”, and with that, draw into my Daily To Do List the items I’d focus on in each section.

This removes ALL the organisational thinking from your daily routine and places it in a single ‘to do’ session.

In this way, the Action Method enabled me to look at everything I had to achieve, break it down into manageable and codified steps, and then schedule those steps accordingly. This removes ALL the organisational thinking from your daily routine and places it in a single ‘to do’ session.

For me, the extra step of hiving off non-essential Backburner items to a rainy day, and Research items into dedicated research sessions was revolutionary. Suddenly sessions where I just needed to get stuff done weren’t interrupted by needless procrastination as I ‘explored’ anything which popped into my mind. Instead, I noted it down, then filed it later in the correct project and with the correct tag.

Finally, I set a daily recurring item called ‘Am I Pushing The Big Stuff Forward?’, which was my cue to look at everything, at least once a day, through the lens of my bigger priorities. This helped me ensure each day contained a balanced to do list which pushed forward only the important stuff.

Pomodoro Technique

The genius of the Pomodoro Technique is its simplicity. You set a timer (originally for Pomodoro Pope Francesco Cirillo a novelty tomato-shaped kitchen timer, hence the name) for 25 minutes, and you spend that time on only the task in hand. Each chunk of time is called a pomodoro. In between pomodoros you take a short break of 5-10 minutes. IT REALLY IS THAT SIMPLE.

Pomodoro Technique timer

Image courtesy of Michael Zero Mayer

In this technique, I found 3 distinct benefits:

  1. Tick, tick
    With the clock always ticking I wasn’t tempted to procrastinate, because 25 minutes is a very short amount of time in which to get things done.
  2. STOP!!!
    I took lots more breaks than I probably usually do, and during my breaks I found myself getting fresh air, rehydrating (drinking a glass of water after each pomodoro also made me feel very healthy!) and allowing my mind to wander.
  3. Realistically, what can I get done today?
    Finally – and most crucially – I began to discover how long things actually take, because when I was reviewing my projects and formulating a to do list at the beginning of each day, I had to make a judgment on what was achievable in the given time. I quickly discovered that I kept giving myself too much to do in each pomodoro and, by extension, in each day.

Combining the Pomodoro Technique and Action Method

By combining these two productivity powerhouses, I developed a system which works for me. It casts a really sharp focus on what I want to achieve, how exactly that is going to happen, and how much of it I can get done within the confines of a single day.

For me, the combination of micro deadlines with realistic/actionable to do lists pushed procrastination out of the door, allowing me to focus only on the important things.

I also found the constant ‘tick tick’ of the pomodoro a little unnerving, so I’m now only using pomodoros for defined ‘action’ periods (usually about half the day when I’m working) rather than all day every day: otherwise it’s just too intense!

In addition, the system showed up project management flaws and highlighted the kinds of activities I perform best at. We all could use this kind of analysis from time to time, I think. It helps us be better decision makers when it comes to deciding what we’ll do ourselves, and what we’ll delegate/outsource.

The virtuous cycle of Making Time

So how did I conquer procrastination in just 1 week? The simple answer is, that I learned about the virtuous cycle of Making Time.

By making time to consider what is important
By making time for all the things I want to do
By making time to prioritise
By making time for organisation
By making time to file (and review) unrelated little nuggets that pop into my brain
By making time for procrastination

By making time for all of these things I made time for myself to have the luxury of deciding not to do something if I don’t want to do it, knowing that I had made time to put a system in place that would catch the items I didn’t get done, question why (is this Action step actually a Research step? Can I really get this done in 2 pomodoros?), and push them back at me the following day. That, my friends, is revolutionary. Just by focusing on productivity for 1 week, I have bought myself a little freedom from having to do stuff when I don’t want to do it.

Just by focusing on productivity, I have bought myself a little freedom from having to do stuff when I don’t want to do it.

The system isn’t perfect and for me we are still only in Act 1. Whether I manage to make it through the difficult Act 2 and see some of my current projects through to completion in a thrilling Act 3 denouement will be the biggest test of all. But right now, thanks to Productivity Week, I’ve kicked the ass of procrastination whilst also accepting and planning for my own biggest (project management) flaws. Not a bad week, then.

 

I was potty enough to focus on Productivity for a week during my year off from the real world. Why? Because it was part of my Weekly Challenge programme, which sees me trying something new every single week. That’s 52 new skills and experiences in just 12 months. To find out what I’m up to this week, or to see previous challenges which include Speed Reading, Wine and Surfing, you probably want to hop over to here.