Have you just returned from an extended Facebook or web surfing session, wondering where all your time went? You just followed a status update notification and “boom,” an hour is gone!
Perhaps you feel you have nothing to show for all that time spent.
On the contrary, now your mind feels cluttered and devoid of energy, and you feel guilty.
You are asking yourself, “How do I stop wasting time on the Internet?”
I have to admit I have been there many times. I have gotten sucked into Cyberspace and afterwards regretted having wasted all my precious time and energy.
Sometimes I got stuck trying to solve a problem while at other times I simply went on the Internet on purpose to distract myself.
So this post is about how to march through your day productively and not get sucked into Cyberspace.
It is also about putting some backstops in place that’ll bring you back when it did happen despite your best efforts.
What I am outlining below has helped my productivity and sense of accomplishment tremendously. I believe it can help you too.
Before going into the details, here is what I a recommend in a nutshell
- Have something to do when you sit down at your desk.
- Use a timer and pace (!) yourself.
- Use a counter to train your self-monitoring muscle.
- Spice it up: alternate between different tasks to improve your productivity and memory—and fend off boredom and drudgery.
1. Have something to do when you sit down at your desk
It sounds simple, yet in the past I consistently ignored this part.
Always work from a written to-do list.
Have three concrete, actionable things on your to-do list. Don’t start your day empty-handed, but also don’t start with twenty tasks!
Ensure this by reflecting on what you need to do the following day at the end of your work / study day.
In all likelihood you’ll already have a huge list of things you need to work on.
But you need to nail down three things; otherwise you’ll sit there in the morning and spend time figuring out where to start.
Or worse, you might find it takes too much effort to figure it out, and head to Instagram instead.
Priming yourself with three “actionables” also does something else: it gives your brain advance notice of what to think about!
Chances are that the following morning, you’ll already have the outline for an article you want to write or the solution for a problem you are working on.
You don’t have to break a task down into chunks if the sequence you need to follow to its completion is clear.
For example, if you have to read book A, simply write ”Read book A” on your to-do list. You will know on which page you have to pick up from last time. Since you are going to work in fixed time intervals, this actually means “Read book A for 40 minutes.”
Plan and chunk enough so that you have actionable items on your to-do list. Obviously planning and filling your to-do list are also activities on your list, but preferably have something actionable when you start your day.
Just ask, “What 3 specific things will I work on tomorrow?” and write them down.
The following morning, insist on starting with one of these activities to get on a positive trajectory. Don’t start by reading the news, checking email, or catching up on Facebook.
2. Use a timer and pace yourself
Pace yourself by working in fixed time intervals, i.e., time boxes. After each time interval you must get up from your desk and take a break.
In my previous post Pacing Yourself with Interval Timing, I recommended working in time boxes of 40 minutes with a pace-setting intermediate reminder after 20 minutes. This is what I currently do.
I suggest that you do all your work in time boxes if possible.
This means, you look at your to-do list, pick the task you want to work on and start your timer.
You shouldn’t be sitting at your desk/computer and either not knowing what to work on, or working on something without having started your timer.
The time before you start your first time box is crucial for getting on a positive trajectory for the rest of the day.
Vigorously resist the voices telling you, “I am going to read the news real quick,” or “Let me just have a look at Facebook,” and get going with your first time box.
Getting these first 40 minutes (or whatever length you have decided on) under your belt will give you a sense of accomplishment and steel your resolve to keep going.
During a time box, you are not going to do anything else but work on the task you have selected from your to-do list.
Your work period is clearly time bound, so if you want to do anything else, it has to be outside the current time box.
This also entails that you have to deactivate all email and social media notifications. You don’t want notifications because they will interrupt you and you may not follow them anyway.
The double-whammy of external interruptions:
There are external and internal interruptions, and the former are a major cause of the latter.
People knocking on your door or calling you and email/social media notifications are examples of external interruptions.
Internal interruptions are generated by your brain: you remember you wanted to send a mail to your friend or suddenly feel the urge to check your friend’s wedding pictures or read a particular article.
Studies have shown that the more you get interrupted from outside, the more you tend to self-interrupt.
To reduce the number of self-interruptions, you have to reduce the number of external ones, and the easiest ones to eliminate are email and social media notifications.
How to deal with your urges and self-interruptions during a time box?
When the task I am working on gets tedious, difficult, or boring, or I feel frustrated or tired, I often get the urge to distract myself. I want to get away from that unpleasant feeling.
If I allow myself to follow that urge, I can easily end up with half an hour of checking email and Twitter, aimlessly browsing the web, and reading in a few forums or groups.
Yep, that means I have gotten sucked into Cyberspace and it is killing my time and depleting my energy.
Instead of following these urges, I recommend you try this:
Whenever you feel like going into Cyberspace, “I want to…,” just record it—mark a stroke on a sheet of paper that you have placed next to your computer.
Urge to go into Cyberspace: I
Or, use a tally counter or wrist counter and count these self-interruptions to make this action even more dramatic.
Then you go back to work. Over time, these self-interruptions should get less—provided you also minimize external interruptions, e.g., notifications.
I got the counter idea from David Burn’s book Feeling Good: The New Mood Therapy.
Dr. Burns suggests using a wrist counter to monitor and over time reduce negative thoughts. He writes, “Click the button each time a negative thought about yourself crosses your mind; be on the constant alert for such thoughts. At the end of the day, note down your daily total score and write it in a log book.”
If you remember something important you need to attend to, just note it down on your to-do list and get back to work.
For example, if you are reading a paper or writing an article, all important unrelated activities and ideas that come to mind during your time box go straight on a sheet of paper, even if it would only take a minute’s work to complete them.
So don’t discard your brain’s input, record it and get back to work.
At the end of a time box comes a danger zone you want to watch out for:
Add two strokes next to your activity to record the time box and get up and away from your desk.
This is a great opportunity for some physical activity. At the very least, turn off your computer screen and really take a break.
No Facebook, no email checking, and no web-surfing!
If you allow yourself to browse the web now, the next thing you’ll find is that you have spent twenty minutes looking at photos: you have been sucked into Cyberspace yet again.
And you haven’t taken a break.
Perhaps you will object, “I have to check my email” and “When do I get to check Facebook?”
I recommend that you schedule that and put it on your to-do list. There should be a time box for answering email, even several if needed. For me this is usually before lunch.
If you remember from Paced Time Boxing, I currently use 40-minute intervals with an intermediate pace-setting vibration after 20 minutes, and I record two strokes for each time box. Responding to emails often only takes 20 minutes. No problem, I just record one stroke and am done with it.
Bundle shorter recurring activities in a routine
You can bundle several smaller activities into a routine (aim for at least 20 minutes of work): I have a time box assigned to a routine composed of reading Twitter and Quora, checking stats and, if there is time, reading the news. But you have to respect the end-of-time-box alert and get up from your desk. Otherwise, you might find yourself…
3. Alternate between different tasks
For me, the first 40-minutes working on a task are usually the most productive ones. I can do another time box working on the same thing, but often my productivity decreases.
For example, I can easily focus on writing for 40 minutes. But more often than not, writing for a second time box, I find myself polishing and rearranging prematurely, rather than writing.
To improve on what I have written and cut the crap my mind needs time to reflect.
I can easily give it this time by just working on something else for the following time box. I recommend that you try this too. This is why you need to have three tasks on your list.
Now this is no hard rule, so by all means if you are in the flow, take a break after a time box and then keep working on the same task for another time box.
When everything comes easy and I enjoy myself, I do this too.
But, if you start resenting what you’re a doing, find yourself slowing down, or increasingly feel the urge to distract yourself, this is a sign you are depleting your mental resources.
I recommend you give this task switching after a time box a try to see where it takes you.
During the time I work one something different, I get a ton of valuable thoughts that help tremendously when I get back to what I just left.
I find alternating between tasks to be a great productivity booster.
Interleaved learning is a related strategy that is increasingly used at schools and colleges. It improves memory and transfer-ability of learned concepts and skills. By mixing different topics or related subjects learners also make more connections between these different topics.
So don’t keep hammering at the same wall for hours on end until you’ve run out of steam.
4. Start with an empty browser home page and a clean desk
You want to avoid temptations and wasting energy on resisting cues that might lead you someplace unrelated to your work.
Configure your browser so that it displays an empty home page upon startup (no favorites or frequently visited sites) and doesn’t restore your last opened tabs.
Before I set my browser to start with an empty homepage, I frequently got sucked in by one of these homepage tiles. But now, they are “Out of sight, out of mind.”
After you have finished working on a task, close all open browser windows and programs, and remove all items from your desk that are related to it.
Bookmark and tag pages you need to come back to and then close them.
Always start with a clean slate when you start a different task. You don’t want unrelated windows to distract you when you are looking up information for the task at hand.
To keep your day productive and happy, (1) have something to do, (2) pace yourself with a timer and take breaks, (3) alternate between tasks after 40 minutes, (4) watch out for urges to distract yourself and go aimlessly on the Internet, (5) use a counter to keep track of and reduce your self-interruptions, and (6) keep an empty desk and browser homepage.
Naturally, if you need to check specific information, such as terminology, for a work or study task, do this right away. But if this checking takes more than a few minutes, it goes on your to do list and gets timed.
What if you are like me and sometimes really want to gorge on social media, reading the news or chatting? Well, you could always set aside a time box (with alert to bring you back), or spend your evening doing it.
I sincerely hope these ideas will be as helpful to you as they have been to me.
Please let me know in the comments how it goes.
Have a great day.
- Image credits: swirl-vortex-emoji-cyclone-motion, by johnhain via Pixabay.com
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