Procrastination hack: get to zero

If, like me, you have a habit of procrastination, here’s a little trick you can use to get yourself going.

When you procrastinate, you probably find yourself engaging in some kind of substitution task. You’ll suddenly think of something else that needs doing (like checking email for example) which you’ll find a way to rationalise.

If you try to force yourself to work, you may feel a lot of resistance; like trying to force an oil tanker to suddenly change direction. So try this instead…

Get to zero first

The first step is to stop yourself doing the substitution tasks. Close the browser. Get to zero. Try to do nothing.

You will inevitably start thinking of all kinds of other things you should do to fill the vacuum, but calmly resist. Just do nothing. It may take some time, but if you are patient enough your thoughts will gradually settle so you can start to focus on your work.

If you create the space first, you can then start to bring your attention to bear on the work.

11 thoughts on “Procrastination hack: get to zero”

  1. From reading all the posts, its made me think about my working habit, everyone here seems to have a clear idea about their typical behaviour on any given day. Mine is always different with one thing the same, i need to procrastinate for the first two-three hours, mainly watching things on the net. Then my working kinda somehow happens, probably cos of guilt, then i need another session of watching nonsense. I have come to realise i need structure when working, but the watching programmes on the internet is maybe a combination of the addressing the social human interaction deficit and habitual behavior. I’m now thinking not to fight it, but to allow 2-3hours in the morning to ‘mess about’ and wake up with what i think is my version of a caffeine fix. I think i will implement some of the techniques mentioned here for when i am working and try to recognize any patterns. James, any thoughts on this? Thanks.

  2. I may not get to absolute zero, but I attempt to deal with distraction as best I can. To maintain focus on my writing projects, a couple years ago, I created a writer’s log. It’s a simple text file that I can pull up quickly with any text editor. Before I retire for the evening, I make sure two entries are posted to the journal. One is a quick summary of my writing accomplishments for the current day (this can be done as writing tasks are completed). The second is a brief blurb on what I expect to write the next day. I write these entries as if someone will be reading them.

  3. This might seem ironic, but being a bit of a workaholic, serious procrastination doesn’t come all that easily for me (what can I say except that I’m a rat bag ‘goody-good’ researcher, right?) but when it does it’s usually a happy affair because it helps me cope with the intensity and scale of the research, teaches me to take a step back and to see the bigger picture.

    Procrastintion tends to ‘hit’ me only after a long session of intense, productive/solid work when I start to experience brain drain. At this point, I start procrastinating out of a need to get some distance from my project in order to synthesize and see where I need to go from here. It’s not always clear what that is but after taking some distance from the project, I’m usually ready to go again. So in my experience procrastination isn’t such a bad thing at all, but part of the process of getting to the next step, and it usually means doing nothing.

    Love the idea re the quadrant. Thanks for sharing!! 🙂

    • What I find helps me in this case, is to have my day split in two or three blocks (two major projects and one smaller email & admin session). This could be writing vs performing analyses or simply working on two different projects (one before lunch, one after lunch). I had never done this during my PhD, but now I find this very helpful.

      I also tend to get a bit saturated and “brain drained” by one project after 3 hours or so. So, after lunch I am really looking forward to the next “working session” because it changes the topic and sometimes even activities and I feel I have fresh energy for it. This way I also have the “distance” you mention from my first project until the next day 🙂

      • Thanks for this very helpful suggestion! Seems like a much better way to avoid the dips.

        Note to self: must reduce reading blocks over an endless number of hours for 3/4 days at a time! yikes!!

  4. Here are my techniques for better focus and no procrastination:

    A. Have a goal

    B. Eliminate all distractions: Go somewhere where I can’t be disturbed, use earplugs. Turn off phone and notifications, use leechblock to block access to certain websites for a certain amount of time

    C. 5-10 minutes of mindfulness meditation before I tackle a main task

    D. use a timer and the pomodoro technique

    E. When I am engaged in a task that I want to dedicate myself 100% for a particular amount of time, I keep a piece of paper and a pencil next to me to prevent procrastination and clutter. Here’s how it works: Whenever I feel an urge to do something else, if I have an interruptive thought, if I get a new idea, I simply write them down. In fact, I divide the paper in 4 quadrants: thoughts (e.g. anxiety, memory, plan), ideas (e.g. to look up a particular reference, not to forget to include a paragraph on X in the introduction of a completely different article than the one I am currently writing on), to-dos (e.g. to write an email to Y, to buy eggs), other (everything that doesn’t fit elsewhere). I guess, everyone can customize the structure. The main point of this is that
    1) you can record everything so you don’t have to worry about forgetting about them – you’ll just put them on a proper to-do list later on and tackle them when tehir time comes
    2) you can recognize patterns of recurring thoughts
    3) it works like mindfulness practice: you note it down, let it gomentally and go straight back to your original task

    • Point E is one I will definitely try. I get distracted easily by the most mundane of things which I think are more important and need to be done there and then. Writing them down will feel like I’ve done them so I can then forget about them until later.

  5. really a pretty simple and brilliant idea!!!
    Might actually try it with a little meditation as well to both reinforce the idea of clearing the mind and calm the anxiety that usually precipitates looking for anything else to do. But the simple point of doing nothing is just so brilliant and yet so simple….which is likely why it did not come to mind before…particularly amidst all the static.

  6. James: When I write a paper, most of the time I stay focused on the subject for qiute a while, but I will admit, at times I will stop typing to check my e-mails. I need to get out of that habit. At other times, I turn the computer off and read an article or a book which is more sensible than checking out superfluous e-mails. From now on I’ll stick to ignoring abstractions. I am presently writing information for a course. Great tip! Marv

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