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Even on days when I start out strong, I sometimes end up clicking aimlessly from window to window, shuffling through inboxes and browser tabs.  It’s not even a conscious decision to goof off; I just end up wandering in this un-productive trance.

I think what I lack is the instinct to return to my prioritized to-do list after I finish something.  This is a habit that i need to develop.

Edit: Or, as a good friend pointed out: when I get to that lethargic don’t-feel-like-working state, I should take a break!  Trying to force myself to work when the biology is against me is counter-productive in so many ways.

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I have tried many, many task tracking methods and to-do list apps.  They all work for a while, but eventually they get too complicated and I stop using them.  I always end up returning to the old tried and true: pen-and-paper.

I can write bigger and smaller, add notes in the margins, highlight things, draw boxes, check things off and cross things out.  It’s all very intuitive.  Whenever the page fills up, I re-writing the list, copying over all the unfinished tasks to a fresh page.  This is a built-in regular review of my tasks.  Things get re-prioritized, unimportant tasks get dropped, and my list never gets too big.

I might spend an extra 5-10 minutes a week re-writing lists, but it’s time well spent.  For me, no method works better.

When my work habits get really bad and I reach a crisis point, I address my procrastination directly: I read a book, or re-read my notes or my blog or something.  And I take action against my procrastination directly: I institute some new plan or daily ritual to keep myself on track.

It works for a while.  But I eventually stop.  And then my work habits get worse.  Rinse and repeat.

Why do I stop with the tactics that keep me on track?  Because, when I’m being productive, I think: “I have so much work to do, I can’t spare the time to do my anti-procrastination thing today.  And anyway, ‘I’m cured,’ I don’t need to keep doing it”.  WRONG.  I have to remember that this thought is always wrong.

Recovering alcoholics call themselves “recovering alcoholics” forever after.  They never say “I used to be an alcoholic,” no matter how many years it’s been since they last got drunk.  They never say “I’m cured.”

I should think of procrastination the same way.

I’ve been writing a post every day, just a quick note on my work habits and what thought patterns or external conditions are affecting them (you haven’t seen them because they’re marked “Private”).  It’s helping me to recognize what helps me focus (a good night’s sleep) and what throws me off the rails (having to make a tough decision).  I’m finding it helpful.

Here’s today’s nugget of wisdom.  A few minutes of down time really helps me to re-focus.

I often find myself staring at the screen, sleepily wondering what I should be working on.  I semi-consciously scroll through my inbox or gaze at my old to-do list, half the items crossed off, unable to make a decision.  Without a clear sense of priority, I too often just start goofing off instead of working.

Contrast that with today: on my way back from a morning meeting, I turned off the radio and just let my mind wander (that part of my mind which wasn’t engaged in driving!).  Pretty soon I was thinking about what else I wanted to accomplish today when i got back to the office.  I was remembering things that I want to get done, mentally prioritizing them, and even started to work on one of them in my head!  When I got home, I quickly scribbled out a prioritized to-do list and dove into work on it.

I should take some time every day to do nothing.  Not a web-comic break,  but really to do nothing.  A ten-minute walk, or a sit in the back yard to listen to the birds.  Followed by a bit of thought on what else I want to accomplish that day.

Today I’m in a temporary office in my bedroom.  If this works out, I will make it a permanent arrangement.

I’ve had a few really bad days lately: whole days at the computer, very little actual working.  I just keep getting sucked into non-work activities, and the day flies by.  And then I thought of an article I read recently, about temptation.  Nobody has perfect willpower, and “out of sight, out of mind” really works.  What do they tell dieters?  Not just “don’t eat chips and cookies,” but “get the chips and cookies out of your house,” because, when you have a craving, you’re GOING to walk to the cupboard and get those chips if they’re in there, but you might not go all the way to the shops.

The advice is: Control Your Environment.  Get temptations out of sight and out of reach.  Work in an environment that is free of non-work distractions.  Support your willpower.

My basement office is possibly the worse environment for this.  It’s more than my work-place, it’s where I play games, design games, read the news, and practice guitar.  My hobbies are all around me.  When I’m in my office, I’m reminded of a dozen things I’d rather be doing.  No wonder I goof off so much!

So I have set up a work space in my bedroom.  Table, chair, laptop, phone, timer, and nothing else.  I’ve deleted my bookmarks from my laptop.  If I want to take an email/Facebook break, I will go downstairs to the PC in my office.

The other benefit of this is the Habit Of Place.  If I only ever work in my bedroom office, then I’ll only think about work when i’m in my bedroom office.

Today is day 1. Wish me luck.

-J

Learning Of The Day: Possibly the greatest aid to focus and self-discipline is
A Good Night’s Sleep.

-J