Most of us have a tendency to put off work we don’t like very much, or work which is so daunting that we cannot see how we can ever finish it.
When I was a child, we had a large garden, and if it wasn’t winter, I regularly had to attend to it and pick weeds. To me, the vegetable patches appeared to be huge. I just could not see an end to my work, so I became increasingly frustrated and started killing time by engaging in dirt throwing competitions with my brother. My concept of time must have been very different from my parents’.
Do you postpone work because you cannot see where to start, or how you can ever finish it? If you are procrastinating because the task at hand is too complex or time consuming, you need to break it into consumable pieces. I know, that is easier said than done, but there is a small trick: Start timeboxing, that is, working in fixed timeboxes of 30 minutes. Whenever you don’t feel like working, and are about to distract yourself by starting your web browser to catch up with your Facebook friends or read the latest news, pause for a moment. Tell yourself: “I am going to give this job one timebox now. For the duration of one timebox, I am going to do nothing else, but working on this task.”
For example, if you need to read a report, read only that report. Stop Facebook and Twitter, and close all programs (including email) not directly related to your task. If possible, even set the phone to silent, and do not take phone calls for the duration of the timebox.
If you get distracted by an important thought, write it on a to-do list and continue with your task. If you can’t completely avoid phone calls, tell the caller when you will get back to him / her, again make a note, and continue with your task.
To implement timeboxing, you will need a countdown timer such as the program Free Countdown Timer:
- Set it to 30 minutes and start working until it rings.
- After you have completed a timebox, take a 5-minute break. Set your countdown timer to 5 minutes and get up from your chair.
- When the timer rings again, start your next timebox, and so on.
On Android and IOS you could just use the timer app that comes with the phone.
As a variation to the 5-minute breaks, I normally allow myself two to three 10-minute breaks a day to do aerobic exercise. In addition to the short breaks, you need to take a longer break for lunch. Don’t cut down on this break!
You might find that 30 minutes are too long for the kind of work you are doing. In that case make your timeboxes last for 20 or 25 minutes. It is important though that you make all timeboxes the same length!
What is my experience with this procedure?
- Since I have started working in timeboxes, I procrastinate a lot less and am more focused.
- Even when I really despise a task, I can work on it for half an hour.
- The 5-minute break helps me to avoid getting stuck and to look at things from a different perspective. In the past, I sometimes used to ponder over difficult material for hours, and at some point ran out of gas.
- As long as I respect my timeboxes and break times, I am not really getting very tired during the day.
How about Facebook and the news? Reserve a timebox especially for surfing the web, chatting on Facebook, or reading the news. Just keep in mind that this is a normal timebox as well. Set your countdown to 30 minutes, and when it goes off, get up and away from your computer. It is really important to respect your timeboxes if you want to be successful with this method. Do you need more than 30 minutes for socializing on the net? Well, give it another timebox later during the day.
Francesco Cirillo has developed a comprehensive time management system based on timeboxing. The system is called The Pomodoro Technique and available as book and e-book from Francesco’s website.
Update March 3, 2016: As mentioned in an earlier version of this post, there used to be a free e-book, The Pommodoro Technique, version 1.3, 15 June 2007, licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). This free version hasn’t been available on Cirillo’s website for quite a while. I recommend getting the most current version. As of today, the old version is still available via the Wikipedia article (scroll down to see the article references).
However, even if you don’t want to learn a complete system, give timeboxing as outlined above a trial. It may be all you need to get things done and reduce procrastinating.