One of the biggest barriers to our work-life balance is the amount of time we spend neither working nor playing.
You know the time I mean. It’s when you’re sitting at your desk, dreading some task that feels boring or intimidating or even impossible. You don’t want to start the task, either because you fear you can’t accomplish it in the end or because you just don’t want to do it. So you haven’t started. But instead of using the time not spent on that task to do some other important task or to rest and recover, you spend it worrying, your attention divided between whatever it is you tell yourself you’re focusing on and your dread.
There’s lots of research out there about procrastination, and I won’t get into it in this month’s newsletter, because it could literally be a book in itself. But one research study from 2013 describes procrastination as a form of mood regulation. The behavior of avoiding a dreaded task is an attempt to prevent the negative emotions associated with doing the task. However, this short-term mood regulation solution just pushes the problem down the line and amplifies its negative effects, thereby increasing the dread you feel about the task.
How to reduce procrastination?
If procrastination is an issue of mood regulation, then one of the ways to reduce procrastination is to improve your quality of life all around. Stress less, get more rest, spend time with loved ones.
Oh wait, but your stress is partially caused by your procrastination, causing you to sleep less and have poor quality sleep and struggle to be present in the moment because you’re too anxious about that thing you were supposed to do that you still have to do and isn’t done yet and oh god…
It’s a vicious cycle. I’m not going to pretend there’s one quick fix to stop procrastination, but I am going to introduce a tool that I have found valuable for shifting some of that performance pressure away from the dreaded task, allowing you to lower that anxiety barrier and actually make progress.
Time sprinting is a productivity method which is intended to reduce external distractions by dividing work time into intervals of deep focus separated by breaks. The intervals can be set however you like, but a common choice is 25 minutes of work followed by 5 minutes of rest. The goal is to improve productivity by intentionally shutting out attention-dividers, and for this purpose alone, it’s an excellent method.
But time sprinting is also helpful for reducing the pressure of a dreaded task. By refocusing your goal from “I have to accomplish this big/scary/boring thing” to “I have to work for 25 minutes on this thing,” you change your expectations. It doesn’t matter how well you do it or how far you get. All you have to do is focus on it for 25 minutes and then you get to rest. You can do anything for 25 minutes, right?
You can use whatever you want to time yourself. There are apps specifically designed for this (e.g. Focus Keeper, Pomodor, Be Focused, Focus Booster, Marinara Timer, the list goes on…), but you can set a timer on your phone or even use an old-school kitchen timer. In fact, this method is often called the Pomodoro Technique after the tomato-shaped Italian kitchen timers used when it was first popularized.
I used this method often when I was drafting my dissertation. When the project felt too big to even begin, I gave myself permission to write whatever garbage was in me for 25 minute stretches. I did this until I had a whole first draft, not letting myself re-read or criticize what I had written, for fear that it was terrible. And then you know what? It turned out that what I thought was garbage actually was a very useful start. I went from having nothing to having a first draft, and it was much easier to fix what was wrong with that first draft than it was to start writing in the first place.
Changing your expectations can help you get things done
Give yourself permission to be human, to be imperfect. When you feel yourself dreading some task that you know is going to follow you around, looming over your shoulder until you’ve finished it, try time sprinting. If nothing else, it will at least prevent you from feeling guilty about procrastinating. But most likely, it will help you work more efficiently, giving you a chance to do all those other things that help: stress reduction, sleep improvement, and quality time with your loved ones.