The problem of procrastination and getting things done without getting distracted is one that I am very fond of. For much of my life I’ve had to overcome these problems with the added complexity of having Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) which is a form of Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD). Some common symptoms of people that struggle with ADD/ADHD are “zoning out,” extreme distractibility, difficulty paying attention or focusing, and struggling to complete even the simplest of tasks.
A common misconception is that everyone has a form of ADD/ADHD and people that actually have the diagnosis use it as an excuses for their irresponsibility. It is true everyone can sometimes have symptoms of ADD/ADHD, but only people who have a chronic impairment with these issues have the disorder. However, with that being said, many people encounter this same struggle and it can be a barrier to getting things done.
Since I was diagnosed in about the 7th grade, I have refused to take the medication I was prescribed, because it was far too strong of a drug and counterintuitively left me exhausted halfway through the day. This comes with consequences that I’ve had to take responsibility for, and I discovered a personal workflow that has helped me become much more productive in respect to having ADD.
In the first episode of Back to Work, Merlin Mann gives his canonical quote on procrastination:
Procrastination is an effect, not a cause. [The cause is] when you temporarily forget who you are, or who you want to be. It’s when you forget what you’re supposed to be paying attention to, and when you lose confidence about what your options are for doing something about it.
Forgetting who you are and what you need to be focusing on stems even further from thinking about everything you need to do at once. You’re thinking too broadly. By thinking about everything you need to do, you are paralyzing yourself from doing something. You are really only able focus on one thing at a time. So, when you do this you’re creating a positive-feedback loop in your mind: your mind repeats everything that you need to do, knowing that it can’t do it all, your helplessness compounds exponentially as you keep thinking about it . This is what we know as procrastination.
Overcoming this paralysis is a multi-step process, with the first being to just get it out of your head. Your mind is using mental capacity in order to keep track of everything you need to do. You need to get it out and write it all down. For this you can write it down on a piece of paper or keep it in one place like a note-taking or to-do-list application. I use an iOS app on my iPhone called Omnifocus which is a paid app that can handle all of your projects and to-dos.
List out all of your projects. A project is anything that requires two or more action steps. Writing an essay, making a work of art and studying for an exam all require more than a single action step. For each project, list every single action step. You need to write an essay? Okay, write down the action steps:
- Grab your pencil
- Grab your paper
- Grab your laptop
- Find a quite place to work
- Sit down in the quite place to work
- Pull out your pencil
- Pull out your paper
- Start writing your first paragraph of your rough draft
Hopefully, you can see where that’s going. Get as specific as possible, even down to the simple task of pulling out a pencil. Think it’s silly? Well, you only deserve to think it’s silly once you’re able to overcome procrastination with less structure. Where you lack discipline, you need to add structure. Some people are able to do things with less structure than others, it is up to you to test it and figure out what you need.
Reverse engineer your project. Start with what you need and work your way backwards. Break things down to small tasks and give them shorter deadlines. Need a 10 page paper in two weeks? That’s five pages per week, and one page per day with time to spare for editing. Make a daily project to sit down and write a page.
Before you go to bed, take out a sticky note and write down three manageable tasks or projects you will do tomorrow. Yes, a physical sticky note. Don’t say you’ll remember or write it in your note app. The sticky note makes it real. Your tasks become something that take up physical space, not just intangible mental or digital space; when it’s there, you can simply choose not to think about it or not to open your note app. Plus, being able to crush that sticky note and drain the life out of the things that were consuming your mind, as you toss that disgruntled piece of paper in the trash like a basketball player making a buzzer-beater to win the game makes it that much more satisfying. Okay, maybe that was a bit cynical, but the point is it’s a nice feeling.
Once you’ve already begun working, possibly the biggest barrier when it comes to getting things done is focused time. You need to remove yourself from all distractions and interruptions. I’m not just talking about the times you’re checking your phone in the middle of a project, but interruptions by others too. Studies presented by CubeSmart have shown that in the workplace, the typical worker is interrupted “every 8 minutes or approximately 6-7 [times] per hour. In an 8-hour day, that totals around 50-60 interruptions in the day. The average interruption takes approximately 5 minutes. If you are receiving 50 interruptions in the day and each takes 5 minutes, that totals 250 minutes, or just over 4 hours out of 8, or about 50% of the workday.” On top of that, “statistics tell us that it takes 20 minutes to get back to the level of concentration that we were at prior to the disruption. We can easily spend our entire day on interruptions and crises and get nothing done that we planned to accomplish.”
Focused work time is huge. You need to let the people know around you that you cannot be interrupted for a set amount of time. After you set that expectation for others, you need to respect that commitment to yourself. Turn your phone off all together. No email notifications, no phone calls, no Facebook breaks. Nothing. Carve out a solid block of focused time in your day. If you have two hours for a project, impose time limits that will keep you from getting distracted. For example, I had an essay to write for my government class, and I had two hours of focused time. I had to cover eight essay questions, so I imposed 15 minutes to answer each question. That gave me small checkpoints that allowed me to tackle an essay in two hours. Two hours of focused time can easily surpass a full day of heavily interrupted work.
Two hours of focused time can easily surpass a full day of heavily interrupted work.
— Dane Gonzalez (@HeyImDane) December 2, 2014
Just as important as focused work time, is intentional rest time. When I first discovered that this was working for me I began to fill up my day with everything I needed to do so I could be super productive. This is a problem I struggle most with my ADD diagnosis. Not so much that I have a tendency to be super productive, but I have poor time management with an ADD symptom called hyperfocus. As described by helpguide.org, hyperfocus is a somewhat paradoxical symptom of ADD/ADHD and “is actually a coping mechanism for distraction—a way of tuning out the chaos. It can be so strong that you become oblivious to everything going on around you. For example, you may be so engrossed in a book, a TV show, or your computer that you completely lose track of time and neglect the things you’re supposed to be doing. Hyperfocus can be an asset when channeled into productive activities, but it can also lead to work and relationship problems if left unchecked.”
This definition of hyperfocus is the essence of my struggles with ADD and can be seen when I engross myself in my creative pursuits with lettering and writing in things that interest me. This subsequently leads to neglect things I should really be doing and relationships with people that care about because when I’m in this state, I’m all-in on the work. The hardest part is finding time to stop and rest or do other things, because it feels counterproductive. I’ve learned that these breaks keep me from getting burnt out, and the only way to overcome this, is to go all-in on breaks.
Schedule and plan your breaks just as you do your focused work time. This gives a light at the end of the tunnel to look forward to, and time to recharge for another focused block of time.
As I have learned, this system only works when you’re responsible when using it. You must be serious about the projects you put in your to-do list and write on the sticky notes. You can’t put things that are too large and won’t accomplish if you don’t want it to become a wish-list. Start small and make your projects easy to accomplish and establish a successful routine. The moment you fail to complete your tasks is when you’ll begin to perceive the system as a failure and is easy to give up. Clear out your whole list and start over each week. If you don’t finish a project one week, reassess and break down the project into smaller action steps and try again the next week. Whenever, you find yourself struggling, find out where you lack discipline, add more structure, and then keep on trying.
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If you have any questions about overcoming procrastination and getting things done, please comment or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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