Getting things done: Practical advice, hard-earned through failing miserably at it.

Determine never to be idle. No person will have occasion to complain of the want of time who never loses any. It is wonderful how much may be done if we are always doing.
    –Thomas Jefferson

For as long as I can remember, I have been a procrastinator. Like most bad habits we have in life, I learned the art of procrastination at an early age, and spent the following years of my life perfecting it. As I entered college, I slowly began to learn that procrastination would end up being the death of any hopes I had of doing well, and I set about trying to change it. Procrastination was a part of my life philosophy, whether or not I realized it, and putting a stop to it is easier said than done.

Change does come, though, with determination and perseverance. I’m certainly not perfect, and I am, by no means, a productivity master, but I have learned a few things the hard way (I’m pretty damn stubborn). Here are some of the things I would do differently if I had to go back.

Pick a method to stay organized.

Having the right method is not the silver bullet to becoming a procrastination-free productivity powerhouse. There is no magic method to take the work and effort out of overcoming laziness or changing bad habits that have been ingrained in you for years. Having a crappy method–or worse, no method at all!–can definitely hamper or even cripple your productivity. The Pomodoro Technique is a great place to start if you’re not sure. See this LifeHacker article for some more ideas.

A key feature that these methods must have is simplicity. It’s hard enough already to accomplish the tasks before you, and you don’t need another layer of complexity or difficulty standing between you and the task at hand. What you need is something that helps you stay focused, and gets out of your way when it’s time to get to work.

Plan your course of action.

This is where some of you can get stuck. Either you don’t know how to plan, or you over plan. This planning process should involve breaking your individual tasks into chunks, spacing those chunks out in reasonable intervals between now and the deadline, and making sure that all of the chunks fit together in your schedule as you do this for all of your tasks. If you can’t think of the steps to take, you don’t know the task/problem well enough to begin with, and you need to familiarize yourself with it. Make sure that you are at least at the point where you understand it well enough to summarize your problem and goal to a stranger in your own words. If you can’t do that, you probably don’t even know enough about it to begin researching an efficient set of steps to take.

You should also make sure to be reasonable and realistic with your schedule. It’s easy to carelessly make assumptions about the task early on, when you have not yet begun the actual work and the pressure of the deadline is far away. Do this step thoughtfully, for you will need to trust and rely on it later! This is the point at which you should be looking at the big picture, at everything you need to do, and how it all fits together.

Sprints, not marathons.

Don’t plan to sit down and do the task in one sitting. Not only is this usually completely unreasonable, but it is almost always the least efficient and most stressful way to do the task. Planning to get anything but a small or trivial task done in one sitting does two things:

  1. It makes the task seem big and scary.
  2. It makes us want to procrastinate doing the task because it seems big and scary.

Breaking a task up into smaller chunks requires more planning and discipline for sure, but it offers lower stress, guaranteed completion on time (assuming you respect, trust, and adhere to your plan), and the habit of starting early.

Trust the plan.

This is where the rubber meets the road. A plan is of no use unless it is obeyed and executed as devised. You already broke the task into chunks in the first step, and spread them out between then and the deadline date; trust yourself, focus only on the chunk at hand, and don’t get mired in the big picture! That’s what the planning phase was for, remember?

Be disciplined with your “work sprints” as well as with your breaks!

Obviously you plan to work, but do you plan to not work? Planning to work for 25 minutes straight is a lot easier to swallow when you know you have a guaranteed break after. You’ll also be a lot more focused if you know that, at the end of that 25 minutes, you better have something done, because it’s “pencils down” and no more work is allowed for the duration of the break. Be disciplined, firm, and consistent with your breaks, and you’ll find that your motivation and focus during work periods will increase as well.

Like any change in habits, there is no way to sidestep the effort and sheer willpower needed to make the change. There will be times when you simply just do not want to care, and when you don’t want adhere to the plan. One thought I commonly encounter when doing this is “man, this chunk is so small, I can easily do this later, when it won’t be interrupting my flow of free time!” That’s how it starts! Don’t give yourself any wiggle room! By adhering tightly to the plan, you will ensure that your task is always completed by the deadline, and without the crazy spike in stress of putting the whole thing off until the last minute, and that is definitely worth losing a little fun time right now.

Learn to delay gratification, and to do the little chunks when they need to be done. You’ll thank yourself later. I promise.

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