edney pitta

My anti-procrastination list

I'm a procrastinator. I wanted to write a well-researched-long-form article about what I'm doing to fight it but, well, I started to procrastinate on that.

What follows is a list of 3 actions with some background information that have been helping me to stop procrastinating lately. Probably they won't work for you exactly as they are stated here (they might not even work for me at some point anymore), so my advice is to try and adjust them to your needs.

#1) Don't overload your working memory

We have two memory systems: our working memory handles what we are immediately and consciously processing in our minds, as opposed to the long-term memory, which is responsible for storing larger chunks of information. The key fact about our working memory is that it can only hold about 4 chunks of information simultaneously, and acknowledging this had a big impact on how I work.

As you go through the day, you load your mind with all sorts of stuff: the comments you're getting on your recent Facebook post, that e-mail you still have to answer, a couple pieces of code you saw that need some refactoring, etc. To remember all these things you start to accumulate them on your working memory, which may cause you to feel overwhelmed and not knowing where to start.

This is by far the biggest reason for me to procrastinate. Preventing this alone helped me a lot, so I always keep this in mind: I cannot overload my working memory. I have to protect it, keep it focused only on the task at hand if possible. Here's a list of what I did to achieve this:

  • Set up an agenda. Whatever comes that I'll need to do later, I just put a scheduled reminder on my Google Agenda.
  • Related to the previous point, I started to use post-its while I'm coding. It helps me to break my tasks in smaller pieces and, if something unexpected arises, I just write it down and continue to do what I was doing. This has an incredible effect because I know I can safely focus on the current task and review all other things later, so they don't have to be on my working memory.
  • Avoid social media during the workday, specially in the morning. I used to wake up and catch up on stuff posted last night while in bed or commuting. By the time I sat down to work, my mind was already full of information and it was way more difficult to concentrate on work. Avoiding that makes me feel like my mind is empty, free to focus.

#2) Break bad habits

We are driven by habits, so it's important that we recognize which ones are harming our productivity or making us procrastinate.

As I mentioned, I had a habit of checking up social media and news sites while in bed in the morning. In fact, I had a problem with social media in general: once checked, I kept coming back to them, scrolling for minutes just to realize that none of that was interesting. I was kind of addicted to the notifications and new messages' little hits of dopamine. To beat that, I followed a so given advice: increase barrier to entry.

There are many ways you can do this. What worked best for me was turning my phone into a dumb phone: I uninstalled all social media apps, blocked WhatsApp and Slack notifications and even disabled my browser. This made it impossible for me to quick check social media on my phone and waste time on them.

I had to go even further however. I still had this problem in the browser, where I could just type "fa" and it would complete to "facebook.com". So I built a Chrome extension that hides the news feed from social media sites (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn) and stories from Hacker News and Reddit. It's been working great because I can still use other features without getting distracted by the feed.

#3) Be aware of your energy level

Lastly, I think one of the key aspects to avoid procrastination is to get to know yourself, specially regarding your energy level. We all have limited willpower to concentrate on work, and it takes energy to do so. Here's a few things I believe is crucial about this:

  • Identify when you are the most energetic. Personally I prioritize the mornings to do the hard work, so I try to wake up (and go to bed) early and schedule meetings for the afternoon.
  • Recognize when you are tired and act accordingly. If I'm having a hard time trying to focus on task, I find it's probably better to stop and find activities that doesn't require as much energy, like answering e-mails and reviewing code. Even better is engaging in activities that recharges me, like reading a book or taking a walk outside.
  • Find out what kinds of activities take you more energy. I always knew I was an introvert, but it was only when I read the book Quiet that I discovered what it meant and it finally clicked: interacting with people takes energy from me. Focusing on work right after a meeting, for example, is very ineffective and frustrates me. So I optimize this by trying to schedule meetings close to breaks, like lunch or end of afternoon.

Thanks for reading!

#References and further reading