How to Conquer Procrastination

by Ahmad Al-Shagra, October 3, 2011

To many, the ability to multitask is a gift bestowed upon humans who tend to work on multiple projects in parallel, and to others it’s a myth debunked by research centers around the world. For most of us, too much multitasking can simply lead to procrastination. Getting multiple things done is a delicate balancing act; here I’ll cover some ways to achieve multiple goals effectively and not get stuck when trying to start something new.

As I’m writing this post up, I’m peeking at the TV and listening to a Drum n Bass online radio station while my brother leads an excited conversation with his fellow World of Warcraft comrades, leading them to stomp on yet another horde of virtual enemies five meters away.

According to my college psychology professor by deciding to listen to a specific genre of music inattentively, I’m actually avoiding listening to everything all together. By choosing a genre of music with repetitive beats and minimal vocals I avoid concentrating on the music, and actually ignore all sounds. But how many conscious decisions do you need to make to stay focused?

What do you do about distractions like a Twitter Direct Message notification popup, or a mobile phone SMS? Or something even more urgent like a new post from your Wamda.com RSS feed (just kidding – or am I?). For now let’s categorize all the above as sources of procrastination.

Procrastination is defined as putting off, delaying, or deferring an action to a later time. The reasons for procrastinating may vary, but it can usually be attributed to distractions that pull your attention away from the task at hand, or that which you wish to complete.

The challenge to overcome procrastination is actually a challenge to avoid the distractions themselves, whether it’s you who’s creating them, or something other than you. The methods differ, but the result is beautiful: Achievement, fulfillment, ease of mind. Let’s see how the experts do it.

Uninterrupted Continuous Blocks of Time

In an interview with UMen Magazine, Palestinian-Jordanian entrepreneur, MIT graduate, and Google Inc. employee Sami Shalabi, describes one of the ways he finds time to be a husband, father and serial entrepreneur.

“In general, I try to avoid being interrupted and look for ways to get continuous blocks of time during the day. This allows me to focus.

Every couple of months I try to define macro things I want to achieve. This helps me think strategically a couple of times a year. Then every week I capture things I want to achieve for that week. This helps me manage my time in increments I can handle. Finally, I realize that when you work hard it is important to find time to rejuvenate with the family.”

Run a Dash

Writer and speaker Merlin Mann has a different approach to kicking procrastination’s behind: The 8 minute dash, or at least enough time to get something done. Let me elaborate more on that.

The writer describes this technique as short bursts of focused effort on a specific task to eliminate that sense of procrastination that can plague us. According to Dave Allen, the author of GTD (Getting Things Done), which I highly recommend reading as well, this sense of impending to-dos is the actual source of stress in our lives.

Mann is a living example of the technique’s success; he uses three types of dashes- the time-based dash, the unit-based dash, and the combination dash, to push past his desire to procrastinate.

The first type of dash simply requires you have a timer available, set to a specific time for you operate on a specific task within, once the time is up you should feel a sense of achievement. Mann’s recommended dash time is 8 minutes, although from personal experience that may vary according to individual. Find your own time and share it with us in the comments.

Other tasks require a more outcome oriented approach. This is where unit-based outcomes can help gauge us progress e.g. pages written, dishes washed, words read… etc.

I like to call the last combination type of dash ‘best effort basis’ which depends on either you hitting a certain timeframe or achieving the unit at hand before it. This is a tricky approach, though, because it could lead to you deciding to break tasks into smaller units to fit the number of minutes, and therefore possibly getting less done. This dash is for advanced users, so to speak- maybe it’s best to try to after you get efficient at the first and second approach.

You can also find some interesting examples in Mann’s original 2005 blog post.

From personal experience as a part-freelancer, trainer, consultant and aspiring entrepreneur, one of your biggest challenges after cornering procrastination is time management to make sure the tasks with the highest priorities receive an appropriate percentage of your time.

Moonlighting as a blogger and advisor to a number of startups in the MENA region and beyond while delivering training and consulting in my function as a fulltime employee for an IT company in the Middle East, I find myself challenged with managing several tasks at once. The trick is to know when to politely say thank you, but firmly: No.

We’ll cover more ways to keep time under wraps in future posts, but for now let us know if you have other ways of keeping procrastination at a minimum.

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Ahmad Al-Shagra is a Developer, Trainer and Business Technology Analyst. Follow him on Twitter at @afahad.

 
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