Resources for
overcoming procrastination
by Kristian Dupont Knudsen

Productivity versus happiness

Productivity is a word I use a lot and sometimes it feels a bit sad. I live in Barcelona where long lunches with wine are common. Life is not all about work and it shouldn't be, so why am I so obsessed with productivity?

Most of the time I work for myself, without a boss of any kind. This is very enjoyable but I've found that I sometimes spend entire days without accomplishing anything. Not because I “take the day off” but rather because I just waste the time while trying to make myself work.

My productivity is highly correlated to my happiness

I think of myself as a creative person, in the sense that creating things gives me pleasure. I subscribe to a broad definition of creativity here—I am attracted to arts of all kinds but I also consider the process of starting a company to be creative. And I find that my productivity is highly correlated to my happiness. The more I've accomplished in a day, the happier I seem to be. This is obviously not the only factor, but it seems to me to be an important one.

I want to accomplish as much as possible in as little time as possible. I want to optimize the output of the time that I do spend working. Which I feel is quite a lot, sun and alcohol aside. So it's frustrating to me when I spend a day working but without having anything to show for it. In those cases, I would rather have spent it outside!

This site is a curated collection of research and techniques. It reflects my personal journey in this field, which is far from over. Links are provided to these resources and unless otherwise stated, they are ones I have read or used, and that I recommend. This site is about what works for me. For instance, I have tried meditating numerous times without noticing any effect even though countless people (including some that I respect greatly) say that it helps them a lot. I haven't personally experimented with nootropics, even though I find the concept interesting. Thus, there is no information about these topics here.

Procrastination, I find, is something you have to battle constantly, and on three different levels, both psychologically and in terms of the time frame they cover. There are different techniques to apply to each level. I'll go over them top-down.

If you have comments or suggestions please do get in touch. If you want to stay up to date, sign up for the newsletter. Of course, true to the topic of this site, you shouldn't expect frequent emails from me, in fact I am not completely certain that I will send out a newsletter even once.

Motivation, Commitment and Fear

  • The Now Habit
  • CBT

The Now Habit by Neil Fiore explores how the cause of procrastination is often fear. Fear of failure, fear of criticism, or even fear of success. If you are a perfectionist, you might be associating your accomplishments with your self-worth in an unhealthy way. Procrastination is a way for your ego to defend your sense of value. Procrastination doesn't necessarily mean spending all your time on YouTube, it can just as well mean that you are actually working on a project, only you spend your time doing more research or perfecting details indefinitely. These are safe activities because your work (and thus, your ego) is protected from exposure to the outside world.
With this perspective, it becomes clear that punishing yourself for laziness and simply trying harder or spending more time isn't the solution. The book describes a number of techniques that you can apply to overcome this fear, but the biggest impact it had on me was simply realizing that this connection exists. You can start with this article for an introduction to the idea.

If you want to tackle psychological issues like these, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, or CBT, is supposed to work well. I have not tried it myself. I have played around with an iPhone app called iCBT that simulates the experience, but I am sure it doesn't come close to proper therapy. I do think there might be something here and it's a topic I intend to research further.

Life is short and engaging in a project or developing a skill takes a lot of time

Neil Fiore seems to conclude that fear is the sole reason why people procrastinate. I don't think that is the case. My personal page links to many creative endeavours of mine that are nowhere near what I would like them to be, but they are out there, visible to the world. Unless I am oblivious to some really deep and hidden issues in my own psyche, I often procrastinate simply because my brain decides that a task is not (currently) important enough to bother with.
There is one fear I do struggle with from time to time though. In order to be productive, you need to make decisions. You may not be the goal setting type, but you still need to know what you want to be working on, and actually deciding to work on something is the first step. This sounds trivially obvious but in my personal experience, this can be problematic. I would like to do many, many things. Travel the world, create products and companies, run marathons, paint, write, compose—the list goes on. Annoyingly, I am so presumptuous that I believe that I could do any of these things, though not enough to believe that I can do all of them. Life is short and engaging in a project or developing a skill takes a lot of time, much of it spent in the painful gap as described by Ira Glass. This leads me to second-guessing of my priorities, sometimes driving me into paralysis by analysis.

  • Setting goals

Should you set goals? Many gurus say so, to the point where it seems a truism. But there are exceptions. Leo Babauta is not a fan. He feels that by creating goals you try to force your life in one direction while it might actually be better for you to go in another. Read his reasoning in this article. Others say that you can set goals as long as they are actionable (i.e. “make a million” is not a proper goal because it's not something you can decide to do whereas “cold call 10 people every day for the next month” is). From this perspective, I do set goals though I consider them to be more related to my task list than to some life vision.

Structure

  • Decision Fatigue

Once you have made a commitment, your focus should only be on the execution. For this, it's essential that you understand how willpower works. It's not just a workaholic trait that you and I happen to lack. It's a resource that we have in varying degrees at various times. The concept of decision fatigue, coined by Dr. Roy Baumeister, is key here.

Deciding to quit your job is a decision, but so is deciding if you want to make breakfast at home or go to a café

The theory says that you have a limited supply of cognitive resources on any given day. Making a decision depletes this supply, as do things like resisting sugary foods. Deciding to quit your job is a decision, but so is deciding if you want to make breakfast at home or go to a café. One is very important in your life and the other will have no consequences tomorrow. Yet they rely on the same, limited resource. He has a couple of books on the subject which I have yet to read, but this article gives a good introduction.
With this in mind, it's clear that you need to guard your willpower capacity fiercely. How to do that most efficiently? Consistency and habits.

  • Routine
  • 20 Mile March
  • Don't Break the Chain

When something is part of your routine, you don't have to waste your cognitive resources on it to the same degree. If you decide to work on something once and then do that day in and day out, without regard to your motivation and energy on the particular day, you remove the need to make the decision every day. Also, the constant effort compounds and can produce surprisingly great results. Two famous takes on this idea are the 20 mile march and don't break the chain.

The 20 mile march is described by Jim Collins and Morten T Hansen in their book Great by Choice. You can read an excerpt from the book on the idea here. The key here is to decide to do a specific amount of work daily. Some times it will feel exhausting and some times you will feel like you could easily do more and in both cases, the key is that you do exactly the amount of work you set out to do. This, it turns out, tends to give better results than scaling your effort with your daily motivation.

Don't break the chain is what Jerry Seinfeld uses to keep writing. I read about it in this article. You put a calendar on your wall that shows the entire year. You start doing something, in his case write a joke, every day. Every time you've done that, you cross that day in the calendar. After a while these crosses form a chain and now the goal is not to break the chain. A bunch of tools exist to assist this. I am currently using lift.do, but there are quite a few alternatives.

  • The Power of Habit
  • The Habit Course

I find that the two previous techniques work well for one thing at a time, so use them for whatever is currently the primary task in your life (and remember, if you have more than one top priority, you have no top priorities). For the secondary stuff, you need to create habits. Habits are great because they too are easy on the willpower account.

Creating new habits and getting rid of bad habits is difficult, but can be made easier by knowing the mechanics

Since habits are such an intrinsic part of our lives, it's easy to think that you understand them well and that there is no reason to study the subject. Don't fall into that trap. Habit formation is a field of interesting research that explains a lot about why we do what we do. Creating new habits and getting rid of bad habits is difficult, but can be made easier by knowing the mechanics. Habits rely on cues and rewards that turn into cravings. When making changes to your habits, try to limit yourself to changing one at a time. It turns out that if you decide to change a bunch of habits simultaneously, you are less likely to succeed. If you are removing a habit, you are going to suffer from cravings so you need to replace it with something else. The Power of Habit by Charles Duhigg goes into great detail about how to create and maintain habits.
Leo Babauta also offers great material on the topic. He has a course called “The Habit Course”. I haven't taken this course but I did attend a live webinar with him after watching another webinar that he hosted. Both were recorded here and here.

  • GTD
  • Inbox Zero

Even with consistency and habits, external distractions can still be very costly for you.

an unresolved task will stay in the back of your mind and not allow you to focus on other things

This cost can be minimized by creating a system that captures incoming distractions of all sorts. Getting Things Done, or GTD, is such a system. It was created by David Allen and is described in his book Getting Things Done. The basic insight is that an unresolved task will stay in the back of your mind and not allow you to focus on other things. The way to remedy this problem is to have a place where you "store" tasks for later. In order for this to work, you need to feel confident that you will in fact be reminded of the task when necessary. Inbox Zero is a GTD-like methodology applied to email which is one of the biggest sources of distractions to people like me. You might want to start there. You can get an introduction to it in Merlin Mann's talk at Google in this video.
There are many, many tools and software products that assist with GTD. I personally use the unsophisticated system of gmail and text files, so I won't make any recommendations.

  • Rainy Cafe

You also want to look out for your environment. During a meeting in a fancy hotel I discovered that I tend to think “bigger” when in luxurious surroundings. Likewise, I find it easier to stay focused when surrounded by people who are working. When I am in a situation where my environment changes a lot, it helps me to create a virtual environment by putting on my noise cancelling head phones and going to Rainy Cafe (an alternative is mynoise.net).

Achieving Flow

  • Maker's Schedule
  • Flow

In this article, Paul Graham describes a distinction between makers and managers, and how managers might negatively affect makers' productivity with interruptions. Managers, he says, have lots of meetings and don't consider another meeting to be a distraction as long as their calendar has the empty slot. To makers however, it can be greatly disruptive to a day's work to have a meeting in the middle.

You need to be working on something where you feel confident in your skills, and the work needs to be sufficiently challenging to match those skills

I'm going to assume that you don't spend all of your time managing because procrastination tends to be less of a problem there. When you have a meeting, you basically go to it, you don't say “I'll do that tomorrow.” As a maker (or person spending the day in “maker mode”), the optimal way to perform tasks is by reaching the state of flow. This term was coined by Mihály Csíkszentmihályi who has done extensive research in this area. Flow is the state of mind where you focus completely on the task at hand and lose your sense of time and place. A number of conditions need to be met for this to happen. You need to be working on something where you feel confident in your skills, and the work needs to be sufficiently challenging to match those skills. If you want the details of this, read his book Flow.

  • Timeboxing
  • The Pomodoro Technique
  • The Nothing Alternative

One way that I find helps me achieve flow is timeboxing my tasks. This simply means setting a timer to a certain number of minutes and committing to working during that time. After the timebox ends, you are allowed a break where you can check Facebook or get coffee. There are a couple of reasons why this works well. Firstly, it forces you to divide and conquer: you can only set out to do a moderately sized task in 15 minutes. So if the task at hand is too big for that, you need to break it down. Secondly, it's easier to avoid distractions when you know that you are allowed a reward in a few minutes. This keeps you focused during the timebox.
John Cleese tells about using timeboxing for creativity in this excellent talk. The most famous timebox system is probably The Pomodoro® Technique by Francesco Cirillo. Pomodoros are 25 minute intervals with 5 minute breaks and 15 minute breaks for every 4th pomodoro.
GTD also uses the concept of a timebox for quick tasks: if something can be done in two minutes or less, you should set aside those two minutes and complete the task right away.
Francesco Cirillo prefers a tangible device over software because the manual process of rewinding the timer is a sort of commitment. I find that for me personally, software works just fine.

At times I apply what Fabian Till Kruse calls “the nothing alternative” which implies that your timebox can be used for two things: whatever you set out to do, or nothing. But nothing must be literally nothing—you are not allowed to work on something less important and you are not allowed to spend the time on time wasters like YouTube. This is sort of negotiating with your brain, tricking it into something that seems okay at the time but which turns out to be so boring that it agrees to work after all.

  • Microrewards
  • Magic Dots

I used to think that the timeboxes were the finest level of granularity necessary. But alas, my brain will pull any trick to avoid working. Even in a 15 minute timebox, my mind will some times start to wander. To combat this, I started giving myself micro rewards, a variation of the Magic Dots idea by Dr Seth Roberts. He has a timer that notifies him every 6 minutes.

the weird thing is that it actually does feel like a little reward

When this happens, he draws a dot or a line in a simple pattern. His repeats the same pattern consisting of 10 dots and lines, which makes one pattern and takes an hour to make.
The micro reward reminds you not to drift, and the weird thing is that it actually does feel like a little reward. It's hard to relate to until you try it. When I discussed this with my friend Thomas Blomseth, he decided not to do repeatable patterns but instead create pieces of art by simply adding a dot to his drawing every time. I've been doing this myself for a while now, at 5 minute intervals. It works well because my timeboxes are typically divisible by five minutes, 15 minutes, a pomodoro (25 minutes) or 45 minutes. As a reward, you end up with pieces of art. I am currently keeping different pieces for different projects.

Alright, you've clearly spent too much time here. Now stop consuming and get back to producing!