7 Ways to Stay Focused on Your Work and Stop Procrastinating!

Focus Word cloud

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Do you ever have trouble staying focused on your work? Maybe you have a school paper or committee report due, or need time to research a topic, or even, need time to clean the house!

Raise your hand if you ever pulled an “all-nighter” to get your work done in time for a deadline.  (Guilty!)

Regardless of good intentions, overwhelm and/or looming deadlines can paralyze our desire to make progress. Procrastination further impedes our forward progress.  

In this post, I’ll talk about some reasons for procrastination and present solutions to try to help you stay focused on your work. I created a free handout that outlines these 7 strategies so that you could have them close at hand.

Click Here to Download my Free 7 Strategies to Help You Stay Focused Cheat Sheet!
 

4 Reasons We Procrastinate

Procrastination results in an inability to stay focused on your work. To procrastinate is to voluntarily put off doing something – to delay, to defer, to postpone, to stall, to not act. Scientists say procrastination bias is hard-wired in the brain.(1)

Researchers (2) have noted that procrastination is a type of “self-regulatory failure” (p.203), a serious, self-defeating behavior.  One reason that we may not recognize procrastination as a serious flaw related to productivity, is because it is so common — so many of us procrastinate. 

The reality of certain decisions (e.g., saving for retirement, making lifestyle changes, delayh5ing medical treatment) or having too much work to complete can result in overwhelm. Sometimes we procrastinate because we are afraid.  Our brains may be wired to decrease those pressures through avoidance measures — we avoid dealing with these issues (2). Distractions are alluring ways to sidestep the pressure of the work.  

Brain biases are recognized as a possible trigger for procrastination.(1,2) The brain has separate areas for processing concrete versus abstract thoughts (3). People have an easier grasp of concrete concepts (e.g., chair or cup) than those that are more abstract (e.g., presence or quality).

Instant gratification seems to be the way of our world. People don’t want to wait for their rewards. Think of the idiom, “penny wise and pound (dollar) foolish.” People want to save that penny now versus saving a dollar in the future.  That penny is real, now; the dollar is not real because it represents future savings.  

That idiom makes me think of spending for preventive medicine.  Spending money to implement lifestyle changes now to prevent a future disease doesn’t make sense to some people – they can’t see or feel the benefit of being healthy in the future, but they can feel the pain of giving up a favorite food now. 

Overwhelm can be due to self-imposed challenges (many of us can’t say no!) or duties imposed by external actors (your job, school work, social obligations, etc.).  Too many items on the To-Do list can lead to an unfocused effort on work to be done from trying to accomplish many tasks at the same time.  Frequently, the result is tasks being half-way completed or not done at all. Overwhelm feels like being crushed or overpowered or feeling buried or swamped – like you’re drowning. I can relate, can’t you? 

Distractions surround us: television, email, social media, work or life interruptions, etc. Some distractions are controllable and some are not. Allowing or indulging in distractions is just another way to fragment your time and take your focus off the work to be done. 

Fear. I admit that the fear of imperfection (that is, not living up to your own high standards) is my Achilles heel; fear of failure is another common reason for procrastinating. The perfectionistic procrastinator lives with the expectation that they are expected to be perfect, and therefore they have an obligation to be perfect – thus they put off tasks because there are still flaws in the product.  

Fear of failure is closely related to the need to be perfect, but you don’t have to be a perfectionist for this fear to trigger you to procrastinate.  Not completing the task-at-hand means that you won’t be judged, so the fear goes away. 

Procrastination behaviors can lead to dire professional or educational consequences, as well as psychological distress and physical illness (2). Professional “failures to act” can disrupt ones career and, therefore, financial outcomes. Procrastination may also be a symptom of depression.(2) 

Can Procrastination Ever be Good for You?

Procrastination can be a good thing if you need to be creative. I recently read an op-ed piece where the author talks about planning to procrastinate more!(4). The blog author said that he is a pre-crastinator; he is always working hard to get ahead of the deadlines he needs to meet. But as a result of his diligence to get work done in plenty of time, he realized that he may have missed opportunities to discover new insights into his topics.

Pre-crastinators are those who have a psychological need to get work done early – WAY ahead of time – regardless of the extra physical effort this productivity may require.(4,5) Grant described this as an obsessive-compulsive type of productivity.(4) Besides meeting their deadlines, pre-crastinators see another reward for their efforts – they equate getting started on a task early as being closer to getting the task done.(5) 

While the outcomes of procrastination can lead to personal, professional, and health consequences (2), the point of Grant’s op-ed is that procrastination (or “wasting time” as some might describe it) can help you become more creative by allowing your mind to wander and discover new insights into your task.(4) So when creativity is the goal, you should plan to purposely let your mind wander!

This principle is nicely illustrated in the following example. When confronted with his reputation as a “master procrastinator,” Alan Sorkin, the TV writer and producer, told Katie Couric, “you call it procrastination, I call it thinking.”(6) Thinking is good.

“You call it procrastination, I call it thinking.” Alan Sorkin to Katie Couric, 2002

Key Takeaway: If you want to be productive, then procrastination can be detrimental.  If you are looking for creativity, then taking some time to think and open your mind to possibilities may be helpful.  

The bottom line is that we do this to ourselves – it’s our choice to procrastinate or not, it’s a decision you make – and that’s a key to a solution if you want to get some control back in your life.

Solutions to Help You Stay Focused on Your Work!

When you need to stay focused on your work, here are some tips for making progress on your goals. Click Here to Download my Free 7 Strategies to Help You Stay Focused Cheat Sheet!

1. Set Priorities to Stay Focused

It helps to identify the work you have to get done and then to plan your days to complete your goals – so be deliberate in your workplan.

From your list of projects, choose the top 3 priorities on which to concentrate. (That number may vary up or down depending on how complicated the scope of your work – the more complicated the task, the more focus you will need to get it done, so you don’t want to be working on a bunch of projects at once.)

Write your priorities down and include deadlines – even if you make them up. (For the chronically late, it’s kind of like setting your watch 10 minutes ahead, soon you forget that you did that and you show up for appointments on time.) 

2. Stay Focused by Breaking Your Work Into Manageable Chunks

Break up large projects into manageable, bite-sized chunks or steps (this works for scholarly projects or house cleaning!). Smaller units of work are psychologically more doable.

Breaking up your work into smaller, concrete steps can put the whole project in perspective. The thought of tackling one piece at a time, rather than the project as a whole, might make it easier to fathom getting the work done.  Neuro and behavioral scientists refer to the brain’s preference “to grab immediate rewards” (2) as present-biased preferences.(1) Getting one small piece of work done at a time might set you on a psychological roll toward completion. 

So when your large project seems daunting, cut it down into smaller steps.  Writing a report might start with creating an outline. Cleaning the house might start with decluttering the bathroom counter. Make a checklist of all the steps so you can get the satisfaction (and positive motivation) of checking things off a list. 

For example, let’s say you are writing a report on strategies to decrease medication errors. Specific subgoals such as “review the literature on medication administration,” “search for clinical practice guidelines on medication administration,” “create an outline for the report,” “set up the thesis statement,” “write the first paragraph to include medication error statistics,” etc. will be more helpful to getting you going then a vague statement like “write report on medication errors.”

3. Make Plans to Stay Focused

Use a planner or create a schedule. Whether you use a paper or electronic planner or schedule maker is up to you. There is research to say that the act of physically writing (over typing) helps the brain remember and make connections.

The bottom line is to just use something to plan out and schedule your time. There is a reason the Day Planner industry brings in millions of dollars. The act of organizing our lives can be powerful!

  • If you have more than one priority or multiple steps, you may want to color-code your plan. 
  • Being able to check or cross-off the items can bring one enormous satisfaction and serve as a positive incentive to continue checking off the list!

Reverse engineer your week or month. Put hard deadlines in first. Then put in soft deadlines — your personal deadlines for getting things done a day or two before the hard deadlines.

  • Estimate the time required to complete the task and work backwards to when the task should be started.
  • Be realistic though and build in some reserve. (The joke at my house is that everything takes 3 times longer than we think it is going to take — so now that’s how we now plan!)

Now schedule concentrated periods of work each day for those priority projects based on your reverse engineering. Then work ONLY on those projects during your scheduled time periods.

  • Schedule 1-2 hours at a time to work on your steps and be sure to take breaks.  Using a method like the Pomodoro technique (below) may help you to stay focused by not having to watch the clock.  Having an audible reminder of the work and break periods allows you to just concentrate on work!    
  • That means if you want to check email or Facebook or Instagram, you schedule time to do that as part of your routine.

For example, I schedule one pomodoro in the morning to check, respond, and (try to) clear out my inbox and then I’ll check again at the end of the day. When the bell rings at the end of that pomodoro – stop and move on.  It’s hard, but I’m getting better at stopping this activity to get ready for focused work sessions. 

4. Stay Focused by Disabling Distractions. NO Multitasking!

Contrary to popular opinion, multitasking does NOT make us more productive!  

Research has shown that when we divide our focus among many tasks, we can’t give our best to each task. Instead of being efficient and productive, we are inefficient and easily distracted.

Concentrating on one task at a time allows us to give that one task our undivided attention. When we are focused, we are more efficient. Shifting from a written project to checking email, for example, requires our brains to have to reset back to what we were doing before we switched activities.  When interrupted, I’m sure you’ve noticed a lag time to get back into the swing of what you were doing.    

The thing about distractions is that, for the most part, we can turn these off! There are time management apps that track your activity and can block certain websites for a predetermined amount of time.

Rescue Time is one example. I highly recommend this app! This is a great app that tracks how productive you are by tracking how much time you are spending on websites. You fully control what to track. There is a free and a paid version and you can install the app on as many devices as you like. Rescue Time is available for Mac, Windows, Linux, and Android devices.

You could also put your devices on airplane mode so that you are not distracted by email or social media audible alerts. Tell yourself you will only check email or social media at scheduled times – and stick to it!

Wherever you work, make your focused work schedule known to others.

  • If you can make a habit of always working on priority projects during certain time periods, your colleagues will know you are not available during those times. Close your office door and refuse casual interruptions. 
  • This works if you work at home, also. Keep your focused work time sacred, if possible. Let your partner or significant others know that you need uninterrupted time to focus your energy on your priority tasks. 
5. Stay Focused with The Pomodoro Technique®

In the 1980s, Francesco Cirillo came up with a method to help him manage his time better and increase his productivity.  He called it the Pomodoro Technique® and wrote a book of the same name. (Check out Barnes & Noble, Amazon, or try Blinkist to read the book.) 

Now a pomodoro is a tomato sauce … so what does tomato sauce have to do with time management?  It doesn’t.  Cirillo used a kitchen timer that looked like a tomato to focus his work into manageable units of time. He set the timer for 25 minutes and counted that as one pomodoro session (i.e., one tomato timed session). Then he took a break for 5 minutes.  After each 100 minutes of focused work (that’s 4 pomodori), he took a longer break.

The idea behind this technique is to focus for intense periods on the work at hand – ideally on one project or step.  When you commit to a specific project, without distractions, you can focus your energy on making progress for that one task.

The reward for a focus session is a break.  Breaks are good.  Go to the bathroom, get a drink, close your eyes, stretch, sit on the porch and listen to the birds, whatever — you decide what to do during that break time.  The reward of a break is (hopefully) a renewed sense of clarity and energy for the next pomodoro session.

The key to getting that large project done is to set time goals for each step. Setting a goal of working 250 minutes a day is equivalent to 10 pomodori –  that’s ten 25-minute sessions of concentrated work. And if you stay on task for each short 25-minute session, you are sure to make progress!

According to Cirillo, once you set your timer – you are committed to completing that pomodoro for the full 25 minutes. He believed that the only way this simple technique works to help you learn to focus, is if you follow the rules. No cheating. He says there is no such thing as a “half-pomodoro.”

Additionally, breaks are mandatory in his system! This is another rule; the purpose of which is to keep you motivated and fresh for the next work session. And to celebrate the feeling of accomplishment after each pomodoro and each round!  

Talk about saving time -You can use the Blinkist app to get more details and read the highlights of Cirillo’s book, The Pomodoro Technique®, in just 15 minutes!  I am a Premium member and I love this app! (See more about Blinkist on the Resource page.)

The Pomodoro Technique® is simple.
  1. Get a timer. You can use a kitchen timer, the timer on your Smartphone or tablet device, or download an app.
  2. Decide on your focus. Choose the task or project you want to focus on. The idea is that you are concentrating on ONE project or task during each session, right? So use a priority list or to-do list and choose what you are going to work on.
  3. Set the timer to 25 minutes. Again, you can use whatever time unit you want (though Cirillo insists that 25 minutes is a minimum).  If you are using a free app, this time may be preset. The Pro versions let you customize your settings.
  4. Okay, GO!  Head down; get to work. Turn off or hide distracting apps, screens, etc. No interruptions allowed!
  5. When the timer rings, take a 5 minute break. Do nothing. Relax. Change your focus from work to relaxation. Don’t check emails or social media.
  6. Repeat the cycle 3 more times. This is called a “round.” Each round equates to 100 minutes of dedicated work time and 15 minutes of breaks.
  7. At the end of each round, take a longer break. Your app may have this preset (you can always pause the timer to extend the break, of course). Mine is preset at 25 minutes.
  8. Of course, you can decide how many rounds or pomodoro sessions you want to do during your day.  

There are a bunch of free and paid apps for your computer or Smartphone that can help you use this technique — I use a free Smartphone app called Focus Keeper. Twenty-five minutes is the preset session time for the free version, but you can change the individual setting for the timer up to an hour. At the end of each pomodoro session, a 5 minute break begins.  I set a clock ticking sound that I only hear during a short break; a bell goes off when the break is over and it’s time to work again. After one round (4 pomodori) a longer 25 minute break begins. 

If you use a free app, you may not be able to change the preset time for each “official” pomodoro or break time, fyi. I do like the app, though. If I’d used a timer or phone timer, I’d have to reset the timer after each pomodoro or break — the app I use just takes me from a session to a break without needing to reset anything – unless I pause it for some reason. I like that automatic feature and the audible cues. Of course, you can always upgrade to the Pro versions for more features.

Update: I’ve since updated to the Pro version of Focus Keeper and have set my focused sessions to 50 minutes with a 10 minute break. 

6. Use Visual Clues for Motivation: The “Don’t Break the Chain” Method

This method is attributed to the comedian Jerry Seinfeld who marked each day that he spent time writing comedy jokes in an attempt to be productive and get better at his craft.(7)

This idea helps you create a visual reminder of your productive “streak.” Place a mark on a calendar when you’ve completed the task or goal you set out to do. Each day you complete the goal, place another mark. Soon you’ll have a series of marks (Xs, circles, gold stars) in a row. Seeing your success at your task (writing, creating, not smoking, fill in the blank) helps you to want to continue the streak because you “don’t [want to] break the chain!” 

The method is simple. 

  1. Get a calendar
  2. Decide on a goal. 
  3. Mark the calendar with your choice of mark (an X or a gold star, for example) each day you complete your task
  4. Get motivated by your achievement.
  5. Don’t break the chain of Xs (or gold stars)! 
7. Start Now

“The journey of a thousand miles begins with one step.” – Lao Tzu

Start now is a mindset shift, literally. Procrastination is a delaying tactic; start now is, well, just what it says, a getting started tactic. This tactic may help your brain get on board with a large task!

Make a commitment to start. Once you start and cross off that first small step, you’ll have moved forward. Now keep going!

Granted, these methods may not work for every task or every person, but they may help to get you in a habit of committing time for focusing on specific projects, like a paper for class, an article draft, or preparing a slide deck, etc. 

How successful are you at focusing your time and your work? Do you have a specific method you use? Let me know in the comments!

 
References

  1. O’Donoghue, T., & Rabin, M. (1999). Doing it now or later. The American Economic Review, 89(1), 103-124. Retrieved from http://www.anderson.ucla.edu/faculty/keith.chen/negot.%20papers/ODonoghueRabin_DoingNowOrLatter99.pdf
  2. Pychyl, T. A., & Flett, G. (2012). Procrastination and self-regulatory failure: An introduction to the special issue.  Journal of Rational-Emotive & Cognitive-Behavior Therapy, 30(4), 203-212. doi:10.1007/s10942-012-0149-5
  3. Binder, J. R., Westbury, C. F., McKiernan, K. A., Possing, E. T., & Medler, D. A. (2005). Distinct brain systems for processing concrete and abstract concepts. Journal of Cognitive Neuroscience, 17(6), 905-917. Retrieved from http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/abs/10.1162/0898929054021102#.WBPur_krKCi   doi: 10.1162/0898929054021102
  4. Grant, A. (2016, January 16). Why I taught myself to procrastinate [Op-Ed]. The New York Times. Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2016/01/17/opinion/sunday/why-i-taught-myself-to-procrastinate.html
  5. Rosenbaum, D. A.,Gong, L., & Potts, C. A. (2014). Pre-crastination: Hastening subgoal completion at the expense of extra physical effort. Psychological Science, 25(7), 1487-1496. doi: 10.1177/0956797614532657
  6. Couric, K. (Reporter). (2002, May 22). A conversation with Aaron Sorkin. [Television series episode]. NBC Today Show. Retrieved from https://preview-archives.nbclearn.com/portal/site/k-12/browse/?cuecard=2090
  7. Trapani, G. (2007, July 24). Jerry Seinfeld’s productivity secret. 
    Retrieved from http://lifehacker.com/281626/jerry-seinfelds-productivity-secret
Good Reads on Productivity:

Frankton, J. (2014, June 29). The 4 main causes of procrastination revealed [Blog Post]. Retrieved from https://motivationgrid.com/4-main-causes-procrastination-revealed/

Quito, A. (2016, May 16). To boost your creativity, procrastinate [Blog Post]. Retrieved from http://qz.com/679259/to-boost-your-creativity-procrastinate/

Rubin, G. (2016, June 28). Struggling with tasks that you don’t want to do? Try these 7 tips. Retrieved from http://gretchenrubin.com/happiness_project/2016/06/task-dont-want-to-do-tips/  FYI, I LOVE Gretchen’s podcast, Happier. Seriously, you should subscribe to it. 

Webb, C. (2016, July 29). How to beat procrastination. Harvard Business Review. Retrieved from https://hbr.org/2016/07/how-to-beat-procrastination

Wong, K. (2016, October 16). The best productivity habits of famous writers [Blog Post]. Retrieved from http://lifehacker.com/the-best-productivity-habits-of-famous-writers-1787729922