Let’s be honest. Procrastination is something we all do sometimes. Whenever we’re supposed to do something that’s not super fun and exciting, something that requires hard, intense and deep work, it tends to happen that our brain gets in our way and finds lots of highly interesting, yet distracting activities that we might partake in, instead of further continuing the task at hand.
Imagine, you’re studying, trying to write an essay. Maybe you’re simply at work, performing your daily tasks. Maybe you have to do tons of research, or you’re trying to get some words on paper. Whatever it is you’re doing, the scenario is: you’re trying to work.
Suddenly, something random pops into your mind.
– Oh, that’s right, I still have to pay my electricity bills.’
– ‘Looks cloudy outside. I wonder what the weather is going to be tomorrow’.
– ‘Let me just check how my stock/cryptocurrency portfolio is doing.’
– ‘I feel like playing a round of Overwatch/Fortnite/League of Legends/….’
– ‘My hair is getting too long, I should make an appointment with my hairdresser.’
– ’I should check my e-mail.’
– ‘The fridge is empty. I should go get groceries from the store.’
– ‘I still have to wash the dishes.’
– ‘Let’s see what’s happening on Instagram.’
There are literally thousands of possible random ideas like these that can pop up in your head.
We easily let ourselves get fooled by these random mental pop-ups. That’s because some of these seem important at first sight. You can argue that Instagram and video games are just entertainment, and just summon your discipline to ignore this. (if you have any left)
Me: “Study or wash the dishes?” Brain: “Dishes!”
But what about the other kind? You have to pay your bills, right? What if you miss an important e-mail? And you also have to eat, or you’ll starve to death!
But if you look at it from a third-person perspective, it’s easy to spot that this is just your brain trying to get away from work, and it’s thinking of excuses to make this happen. Your brain is lazy. It does not like things that take effort, things that don’t give you that instant reward, a new shot of dopamine every 15 minutes.
So it makes up stuff to do, little activities that do provide you with that addictive dopamine boost. These things might or might not be important, but they always take very little effort. There’s no mental pop-up that goes: ‘oh, I still have that fifty-page report to write, better go do that now’.
Oftentimes, these activities are actually of some importance. Think paying bills or getting food from the grocery store. The fact that these are not mere trivial entertainment activities provides you with a justification to abandon your work…only for a while, of course.
Nevertheless: in the end, although we might be able to rationalize afterwards, these random, trivial activities constitute nothing more than generic, standard procrastination.
This phenomenon can be tricky to deal with. Our mind is super good at rationalizing things and providing you with a good reason to take a well-earned break. In a way, that’s how we can become our own biggest enemy when productivity is at stake.
To counter this, I personally use a special technique, that has proven itself to be super effective for this type of situation…
I call it:
The ‘Do It Later Junk List’
The Do It Later Junk List is exactly what the name implies: it’s a list where you put all of the semi-important junk activities, and you allow yourself to do these later on.
Here’s how it works:
First, you free up one block of time during the day. There’s no set limit to how long this block must be. One hour is a good rule of thumb. The time you allot also depends on how long your distractions usually take. After all, going to the store to buy food can take a bit longer than just checking tomorrow’s weather or paying your bills.
For starters, just take out one hour per day. Personally, I use 1 to 2 PM as my timeslot. Maybe that doesn’t work for you, and 5 or 6 PM suits you better. Whatever floats your boat, just pick an hour.
The next step is equally simple. Take a small piece of paper, like a post-it, and put it somewhere near to where you’re working. You can also use a note-taking app like Evernote or the Sticky Notes app to create a virtual post-it on your computer screen. As long as you’re able to take notes within arm’s length, it’s fine.
Now, every time something pops into your mind, write it down on the post-it note or your note-taking app.
This note becomes your ‘Do It Later Junk List’.
The idea is simple: you allow yourself to do all these random things, but only during your allotted time slot.
The reason why this tactic is so effective is that writing all this stuff down gives you a feeling of instant gratification each time you do it. It’s as if you’ve already done the task, but without wasting and cluttering up your time.
The dreadful feeling of ‘I still have to do some other stuff’ is removed because your brain knows that it will be done, and the urge to procrastinate simply dissipates.
Where you usually tend to break up your productive time in multiple fragmented blocks, because of the dozen different random things that pop-up during work every day, this time you do all of it at once. This allows you to keep focusing for an extended amount of time on your work, which works wonders for your productivity.
As it turns out, once you bundle all of these things together, you tend to get them done really fast. At first, you might think you’ll need at least an hour for all your junk list items, but it’s likely you’ll be done in less than thirty minutes. Most of the little random things you think of usually take no more than five minutes.
Another positive side-effect is that over time, you’ll notice that you tend to get less and less of these random pop-ups. It’s like your brain knows that it’s become impossible to try to fool you, so it doesn’t even bother anymore.
And only one item remains on the list…
Take caution – using the List the correct way
The Do It Later Junk List has to be used strategically.
For example, the Do It Later Junk List is not to be used for video games, watching TV shows, or anything of a pure entertainment nature.
This is because ‘one hour of gaming’ can quickly turn into two or three hours. One episode of your favourite show quickly becomes ‘just one more…’, and that’s how you end up binge-watching.
The list is only to be used for things that seem somewhat important, or of clearly defined tasks. Before you write anything down on the do-it-later junk list, you need to know beforehand exactly what it is that you want to achieve.
For example, if you want to shop online, you need to know exactly what it is you want to buy and write that down. This is from preventing you to go down the Amazon rabbit hole for an extended journey.
Don’t be afraid to fill up your personal Do It Later Junk List to your heart’s desire. You can have five items, ten items, or even twenty. During your free block of time, you can whatever you want.
If you want to you can even fill up an entire wall with your list
One other thing: don’t think up new things to do during your free block of time. If something new comes up, put it on your next list. That will prevent you from extending your time.
Your free block of time is also not to be used for anything that wasn’t on the list. If you finish everything before your allotted time is up, simply go back to work. Don’t confuse your Do It Later time slot with free to spend playtime.
As you might remember, I’m usually not a big fan of random tactics and tricks. I’ve stressed multiple times before on this blog that you do need to have an overarching productivity strategy, first. Tactics will follow from this automatically.
However, I’ve personally found that the Do It Yourself Junk List is such an amazing, powerful tool to combat procrastination, that I just can’t keep it from you.
Try it out and see for yourself!