Wednesday is my dedicated blog writing day. It’s the day I should sit down to blog for next weeks post that goes out on Tuesday. I turned up on time, but ended up doing some other nice stuff, but that didn’t help me create an actual blog post1.
Here I am commenting on others great stuff avoiding my designated time for writing a blogpost. At least I’m spreading _some_ value.
— Pavneet Singh Saund (@pavsaund) March 30, 2016
Set yourself up to succeed
Now this example is of me trying to write a blog-post in my spare time, but this happens on a daily basis to many developers at work.
How many times have you started work on a task, but got distracted by a chain of emails and realized that hours have gone by. Or what about when you get that chat message notification and get lured into group-chat, end up having a gif-war and again time goes by. Or maybe you’re being helpful and answering others helpfully so that they can better get their stuff done, while you have a deadline coming up.
One would suspect that having a job and doing work was motivation enough to be focused on the right priorities, but there will be times where you just can’t shift up a gear. I won’t go into details of motivation, but here’s a great article on the topic.
So, given that you are motivated to actually do the work, you need to get yourself in a state where you can follow through and accomplish what you’ve been avoiding. Here are some tips.
1 – Plan your tasks – Know what you are doing
Have a clear understanding about what you need to get done. Don’t plan it in detail, just know what the next actions are. When working in an Agile environment you usually have some kind of iteration or backlog that will have the next stories for you. This is great! It narrows down the possibilities and makes i easier to focus on what’s important.
Look through said backlog every morning and decide which task(s) you would like to accomplish today. Try to add a few simple things to your daily plan and do your best to stick to it.
Leave yourself some slack to be able to respond to anything that arises. There will always be something unknown that needs to be done. Also, having many tasks that you don’t get done is a huge motivation-killer.
- Complete on Story 12345 (Important – new deployment going out tomorrow)
- Start review of story 23456
- Double check your working hours
- —- (nice-to have, move to To-Do / This Week, pull in if time)
- Follow-up John
- Respond to the company survey
Now a list like this gives you a rough plan of what you expect to get done during the day. It’s also a great way to remove the cognitive load by removing items from your head and writing them down. It’s also important to recognize what is important and what is just nice to have. Move the nice-to-have’s to a separate list or backlog, or label them differently. Remember it’s not important that they get done today.
2 – Remove distractions
As obvious as this seems, we don’t do it enough. When we are focusing on a task, we need to remove anything that can distract us. Turn off notifications, or apps that cause notifications.
Avoid having private mail opened in the background, your twitter client or other desktop notifications. Close down the browser window with the latest news or sports-results.
Get rid of sticky-notes and other reminders on your desk, these also serve as distractions and end up giving you a guilt-trip. Move them to your backlog system.
3 – Don’t be available – isolate yourself
Social IM clients and chats are no longer just something you have privately, but also in the workspace. Turn off these clients or mark yourself with “Do not disturb!” if you need to be able to receive messages. Set your phone to DND as well. Use headphones, they indicate that you are busy and shouldn’t be disturbed, and you don’t need to have music on!
If someone does try to call you, then either let them get the answering machine or answer and ask if you can call back in a short period of time.
If someone physically comes to you, ask if it’s urgent then either accept the disturbance or ask if you could get back to them in few minutes.
4 – Work smarter
I personally use Kanbanflow for my daily and weekly priorities and Trello for rough ideas / dumping ground for unsorted thoughts.
5 – Don’t be an ass
I add this as a reminder that as important it is to focus on personal productivity, it shouldn’t trump the team’s overall productivity. Part of being a valuable team member is to actually be available to your team members. If you always say “no” because you’re busy then you are saying that you value your own time more than theirs. Your team karma (and value) will go down.
If you on the other hand do actually gauge the urgency of a request and allow yourself to be distracted when it’s really important then you will also be respected for saying no when the request isn’t urgent. But you have to follow-up, otherwise you aren’t being a reliable team member.
6 – Stick with it
As with any habitual change, this is going to be hard to do. Even if you see great improvement, your mind will lure you back towards procrastination and non-work. Be aware that this will happen. Don’t beat yourself up, but rather acknowledge it then continue with what you are supposed to be doing.
Keeping a log of every time you break your desired habit is a great way to follow-up and help you stick with the change.
Our brains are wired to preserve energy and minimize effort whenever possible. It’s the reason we acquire habits, which serve as our minds running on auto-pilot2.
“..It postulates that animals, people, even well designed machines will naturally choose the path of least resistance or “effort”..”
This is also why we have a natural tendency to procrastinate, or rather do things that require the least amount of mental energy (as I understand it). By putting in place tools and techniques, we can force ourselves to accomplish much more than by aimlessly waiting for things to get done by themselves (personal experience). With the goal of creating new habits that further allow us to accomplish more.
Oh, and here’s the breakdown of how the day i didn’t focus and the day i did focus compare:
Wednesday – blog day
- Plan your tasks – Check!
– I had planned my week and allocated time to follow through.
- Remove distractions – Fail!
– I had mail open
– Computer wasn’t in DND mode
– I had multiple browser windows open with many tabs open
- Don’t be available – Fail!
– I made myself available by responding to comments and on twitter
– Engaged in follow-up discussions that arose.
- Work Smarter – Fail!
– I didn’t really work on this at all.
- Don’t be an ass – Fail!
– I wasn’t really an ass to anyone else but myself.
Thursday – Running and final complete blog day
For the record I didn’t get all the way through the blog post, but it’s just about done. A lot more than I expected
- Plan your tasks – Check!
– Moved my run to earlier in the day so that I could spend time in the evening blogging.
- Remove distractions – Check!
– Closed ALL non-essential applications
- Don’t be available – Check!
– Kept offline and stayed that way.
– I still have notifications on slack and forgot to turn that off, but I did so when it ticked in and did not read the message.
- Work Smarter – Check!
– Did a meditation / concentration exercise before working.
– I was in a mindful state and had a soft focus. => achieved flow-state within first Pomodoro.
- Don’t be an ass – Check!
– Was open to interruptions from my wife whenever there was something.
– Had to pull my share in taking care of the new-born for a bit while she did some other things, then I got back into the groove.
I would love to hear your thoughts on this matter – how do you set yourself up for successfully getting things done and avoid procrastination? Feel free to drop off a comment or reach out to me
1: Actually missing my writing day gave this topic, so it helped a little 🙂
2: Paraphrasing from the book Power of Habit. The author goes into more details there.