By Ruth Fordyce
Psychologist, The Resilience Centre
This post follows on from a previous post, Five tips for increasing your productivity. Here are some further ideas if you are struggling to work through your to-do list or feel that you are not achieving the goals that matter to you.
Schedule important tasks that need to be done regularly
Most of us are diligent in following through on commitments and appointments that we have booked in our calendar. We are much less likely to follow through on tasks that have no particular time allocated in which to achieve them. Instead of having vague goals or intentions, set up times in your calendar to get things done that really matter to you. In the work setting, this might mean spending some time early in the day on an important task before other ‘urgent’ demands crop up through the day. On a more personal level, you could block out times for exercise or other self care activities. I know someone who finds it helpful to write down her exercise times in her diary so that when asked by others to do or attend something, she can honestly answer, “sorry, I already have something on at that time”.
This can also be a useful strategy for tasks that you tend to forget. Some tasks repeat at regular intervals but not often enough that they stay in our attention – for example, invoicing that needs to be completed by a certain date each month. If you use a mobile phone calendar, Google calendar or a program like Outlook, it is very easy to set a recurring task on that date each month. Add a reminder alert and you have an external prompt, instead of relying on your memory … or that sinking feeling when you realize you’re late on your invoicing!
Lower your standards where necessary
You may be putting off a task because you are asking too much of yourself. People who procrastinate a lot often have a perfectionistic thinking style. In their mind, they imagine that they need to complete a task thoroughly or to an exceptional standard, when this may not always be achievable or helpful. I am not suggesting that we become sloppy on things that really matter; however, if you know that you agonize over the wording of every email or spend 30 minutes playing with the fonts in your PowerPoint presentation, you might like to ask yourself if the benefit gained from these extra efforts is really worth the time? If it genuinely is (perhaps you have a boss who is really picky about fonts), then of course keep doing it! But if not, embrace the idea of “good enough” rather than perfection, and free up some time for other more important activities.
Set a timer
Some tasks have no end but can take as much time as you allow them (browsing social media is a good example, as is reading and replying to your emails if you get a lot of them!). If you find that you get carried away on these activities and waste too much time, choose an amount of time you want to dedicate to the task and actually set that amount of time on a timer (most mobile phones have one you can use).
This sounds incredibly simple (and it is!) but it really can motivate you to work more efficiently as you are more aware of a time constraint. If the activity is an enjoyable time waster for you, social media being an obvious example, you might find it hard to have the discipline to stop when the timer goes off. The tip below might be useful here!
Setting a timer is also a great strategy to use for tasks you really don’t feel motivated to do, like filing, tidying up or sorting and deleting emails. Set a small amount of time (say 10 minutes) and tell yourself to just do as much as you possibly can in that time. At the end of the 10 minutes you will have two choices. If you actually find that you have the time and energy to keep going, go for it. Many people find that the first 10 minutes is the hardest and then the motivation starts to come. The second choice is to stop, and commend yourself that at least you did 10 minutes! Some is better than none.
Use natural breaks in your schedule to set limits
This is a similar strategy to setting a timer, except that it creates a definite end point for you. Think of where there are commitments already set in your day – for example, a staff meeting that happens the same time each week, or needing to leave the house to collect your children from school. You can choose an amount of time for your task, say 30 minutes, and then get started on that task 30 minutes before your meeting or the need to leave the house. The natural break will force you to walk away from it. It may still take some practice to learn to use your time efficiently, but starting with the intention to complete the task within the timeframe is much more helpful than an open ended time limit.
Which of these tips is most relevant to you? Make a plan to try it out in the following week. Reading about it is a good start, but only doing it will actually make a difference to your productivity!
Ruth Fordyce is a Registered Psychologist at The Resilience Centre in Sydney. Find out more about Ruth by clicking here.