TL;DR: Sometimes keeping accountable with deadlines, buddies, and reducing the barrier to start does wonders as opposed to procrastinating.
I think as I become more of a senior in my role at work these past few years, it’s becoming increasingly hard to prioritize and and pick and choose what to work on. There’s too many things vying for attention. That task you wanted to do at work that would reduce operational burden but conflicting priorities tell you otherwise, the inefficiencies you see in another system that a ‘quick fix’ (half a day tops) you so badly want to do, but can’t, because you’re on a ‘tight deadline’. I do however, note it down somewhere and tell myself I’ll come back to it… someday, right?
Outside of work, this is the same pattern, you may have errands, yard work, parental obligations, spousal, health (gotta exercise to stay healthy! or some genetic inheritance you received that is unfortunate); some home improvement project that you even went as far to purchase all the materials for, but end up just putting it in a pile. Then maybe, outside of all the adulting you’ve done, if you’re into learning outside of work, always something new on the front page of Hackernews that you tell yourself you want to experiment and build with. Let’s not forget the 100+ tabs you have open in your browser because you’ll ‘get back to it’ someday and get to the bottom of it!
Some of the delay of ‘getting to work’ is somewhat justified, post college and outside of work, I see less and less opportunities where I have a large enough chunk of time allocated in my day/week to properly sit down and deeply focus on what I want to work on. Then I also face the problem of thinking too much and not actually doing anything. “Ah, I gotta do that first” … and proceed to only get to it weeks later because you already have an existing backlog that you want to chip away at. Sometimes, it might even be due to the pressure of being in public, where you may have a high quality bar and decide that it’s not good enough to be put out in public, and rather than publicizing that repository or organizing your thoughts into a blog post, you end up just not doing anything. Being an avid reader of Hackernews when I
procrastinate want to learn new things on my down time, these thoughts and challenges are not new, and the subject of productivity is constantly discussed.
However, I’ve noticed that a lot of it; at least personally for me - is “I want to do X, but I know I should really be working on Y first, since that’s been a priority for me”. This ends up giving me a logical reasoning that I’m not putting off working on it because I want to procrastinate, rather I am ‘forced’ to put it off because I’m only human and I have a finite number of hours in a day outside of sleep and work. This false sense of self-reassurance eventually chips away at my motiviation to do anything because I perpetually decide to procrastinate until that initial ‘spark’ to go at it is lost… and we end up with another situation of talking more than actually doing.
Is there a way out of this?
Here are some strategies I’ve used in the past with some degree of success. I say some because it really depends on the nature of the task at hand, for example, deadlines only serve as a forcing function if there actually is one! If there’s no negative or positive consequence to it, you’ll probably just slip or be inundated by other higher priority tasks.
Over the years I’ve come to realize I function pretty well when there’s a deadline, it’s like having a fire under your butt, that slowly gets bigger as the deadline approaches. Maybe it’s because I responded well to the education system that is full of deadlines and due dates. In any case, it’s pretty easy to lay out all the ‘need to be done by’ dates and arrange them in order of most to least important, or, if you’re like me, the dates arrange themselves since there’s always something overdue at work.
Skin in the game
I hear this a lot at work. I’m mentoring many developers as part of my “Hire and Develop the Best” leadership principle. A Sr Manager once mentioned to me when I talked about exploring management over being an individual contributor, that I use mentoring as a proxy to get a feel on how it’s like. “You’ll never really be managing until you have skin in the game”, was what stuck with me. I think that makes sense. If you work on a task or work with someone simply as an advisory role and that the outcome is of no consequence to you, you’re going to be less likely to prioritize it over the other things you’re on the hook for. Once the incentives are aligned, your priorities will align too. You’d certainly be more driven to complete a chore if you clearly articulate what happens if you don’t (will the dishes pile up?) and what happens if you do (a clean kitchen, a clean plate ready to go!). That being said, when faced with something like reducing tech debt, you’ll still have other deadlines to meet above, so it’s really a balance.
The idea behind this is simple. You would tell someone, typically a close friend, someone you trust, or has shared goals with that you’re about to do something, and then the social pressure of not doing it exceeds your will/inability to be productive and you get to work. While this is a great idea for goals that require physical presence, e.g showing up at the gym regularly. I’ve found this to be not very effective for things that are on my to-do list, but don’t immediately need to be done. For example, I wanted to get back to being able to crush coding/technical interviews, which require quite a bit of effort to prepare and ace the coding portions (#leetcode-grind). This was before I even thought of making a career change. While I found someone that had the same end goal as I did, and I even went as far to setup a Discord server as a shared virtual space to study, neither of us kept up the pace after a couple days. While we did check-ins bi-weekly (once every two weeks), perhaps the motivation to actually sit down and study for coding interviews was not actually there. This might have worked better if there was a money amount involved, though, like this guy, relevant [HN thread].
Leave your work in a broken state
I’ve read on Hackernews (obviously - it’s kind of where I get all my daily dose of tech on the internet these days) that stopping whatever you’re working on at a painfully obvious point, eg leaving your code broken by fudging up a statement, or a plain unit test broken so it’s practically zero inertia to restart and pick up where you left off. I find this to be interesting. I relate to not picking a task back up because of the amount of effort required to start again, I end up knocking off the smaller things I need to do, or even better, open one of the many short-form video platforms to kill time (Youtube shorts or Instagram reels, TikTok) and what do you know, the chunk of time alloted is gone! I have had some success by leaving my work in a broken state that is easily fixed, and I come back right into it just like fish to water; in my element, zen, flow - whichever you prefer to call it. That HN thread shows many others do the same! Leave comments on what you’re about to do next, leave things in such a way that it’s almost mindless to pick up, and get back into that zone.
Lowering the effort to start
Now, the argument against ‘just doing it’ might be that you have a set an internal higher standard for yourself. Or that if it’s really important enough, you’ll make time for it. Which is certainly valid, but I think that assumes you’re a disciplined human that’s able to chip away at the tasks at hand with laser focus. Unfortunately for me, this never happens, especially when there’s no deadline or must complete date.
This inertia killed a lot of things I could have done, or at least, wanted to do.
So many ‘good ideas’ and “I should learn X technology” often end up never happening because I keep thinking I’ll need dedicated time for it, and if my routine does not allow for it, I often end up just reading about how other’s are building and experimenting. I think just getting into the cadence of doing something, while also allowing yourself to make/create/manifest/build something that is flawed, incomplete will at least get you past the starting line. I also have this internalized within me that I have to finish what I start, or to get it to an acceptable state. Which often times end up with trying to finish off somethings that I may have lost my interest/focus on, and instead thinking about something else to do. I think this coupled with the ‘leave your work in a broken state’ helps to increase the likelihood of me finishing something.
Cull/Groom your lists
I find sometimes after having too many to-dos, spending just 5 minutes to cull or groom through that build-up/backlog really helps me to re-focus my attention and divert my energy appropriately. While it doesn’t directly increase my odds of finishing something, having lesser things to do and keep track of = less mental stress over how much sh*t you got to deal with.
I always tell myself I’d like to write more, because it:
- Helps solidify my thinking and document my thought process 1
- Acts as a medium for communicating ideas
- Provide value to others by pointing to my writing as something I’ve explored before
I found a bit less inertia starting to write by having a scratch file for my ideas or approaches while experimenting. It helps to later piece up the information and filter out unecessary ones much faster, with the downside of having a lot of scratch files, but the cost of storage for a little bit of text is way less than the loss of opportunity to produce an article that might be of value to someone… that being said, let’s see if I can break out the cycle of writing only once a year and into a more regular cadence2. If it does succeed, then maybe my inertia of doing isn’t so much the writing, but the preparation that goes into the writing, re-finding references, finding links and diagrams to illustrate my point, or to refine an idea, as much as the actual writing. Kind of like software development in a large company. The coding is often the last bit for some of the larger projects. Rather it is the design, the doc writing, the diagrams, the data wrangling to present your case, the discussion, the follow-ups, the ‘sign offs’ that may be required.
Maybe never actually doing it might be that you never had enough motivation to actually work on the idea, it just sounded good in your head. But I believe there’s more. While humans may be inherently lazy (the cliche that the opposite of no pain, no gain is ‘no pain, no pain’), very often the difference between 2 people that want to write a book is often just 1 person thinking about it all year and have written no pages, versus a person that may have written 1 page every day, even if crappy, they have 365 pages.. and they sure have had a lot more practice writing than
So, Just do it? To have started is better than not starting at all.
I know GIFs are somewhat considered ‘so last decade’ but I love GIF-based memes still!
Some highlights from HN on productivity:
- Ask HN: Struggling with Productivity and Procrastination
- Ask HN: How to be more productive?https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=26449835)
- The Anti Productivity Manifesto
- Getting Things Done Productivity System