Focus and Procrastination

Photo by Antonio Guillem via Canva

There is always something that needs to get done but too often something pulls our focus. Before we know it, we’ve lost too much time and haven’t made the progress we want. Is there a way to make the two work together?

Sometimes procrastination can help and other times, not so much. When we choose to answer a phone call or an email as a way to not work on a task, it can be hard to get focused again. Then there are the times when you’re stuck during a project. You take a break. Perhaps go for a walk or even play a game of solitaire (my two favorites). When you return to work, somehow you have figured out what you need to do next. The procrastination became an aid not a deterrent.

What’s the difference? Usually it’s your attitude or mindset towards what you are doing. Are you taking the break intentionally or to avoid something? When you are not eager to dig into the task at hand, staying focused can be a challenge. You are more likely to succumb to the negative aspects of procrastination. The short break you give yourself stretches out. By the time you get back to work, more time has passed than you realized. Then we typically beat ourselves up for taking the break. You probably will get it done, but without the enthusiasm that produces your best work.

As part of a blog post on How to Remove Distractors from Your Workday, Naphtali Hoff shares six techniques to help you manage internally driven distractors from your day:

  1. Set Daily Goals – This is familiar advice. My suggestion is to limit the number of goals to two tasks. You can have more on your to-do list but keep your focus on one or two priorities. If you get to anything else, it’s a bonus.
  2. Set Deadlines – Most of your tasks probably have inherent deadlines, but it helps to be specific. Set a time by when you will finish the day’s top priority items. Having a “by when” will help you achieve it as you have a goal you are working toward.
  3. Break Project into Manageable Chunks – Big projects are intimidating. My method is to telescope, microscope, and periscope (see my blog post on this here). Use Telescope to identify by when the project must be completed. (Set your own internal deadline for before that date since life happens.) Microscope by determine a sequence of steps, including daily ones. Focus only on the one you need to complete today. Every so often, pop up your Periscope to see what is coming up. Do you need to alter your daily schedule?
  4. Practice Mindfulness – Meditation is not procrastination. Use all your tools to keep your outlook positive. Record your successes. Praise yourself for accomplishments. Hoff says, “practicing mindfulness meditation is associated with improvement in sustaining focus and attention.” When you feel good about yourself, it’s much easier to get work done – and stay focused at it.
  5. Set a Timer – This allows for what might be called “planned procrastination”. It’s like a workout for a specified period of time. How long do you want to work before taking a break?  Your body needs to move, your thoughts may need to focus elsewhere for a little while. It’s healthier if you get up each hour for a few minutes. After a second hour, you might plan a longer break – to take that walk or play that game. But set a timer for that, too.
  6. Switch Tasks – Sometimes you hit a brick wall. While some form of procrastination to refresh your brain cells might work, consider switching to task #2 on your to-do list. Some may find that doing this needs some transition time, but as long as you know you’re making this change, you’ll start the next task sooner.

Know how your mind and body behave. Identify what is happening when you lose focus or when you’re having trouble getting focused. How long can you work full-out at something before your focus begins to dwindle? Remember that you can welcome, allow, and even plan for procrastination as a tool in accomplishing tasks. When you do this – the time spent procrastinating is less likely to take over your day.

ON LIBRARIES: The Thief of Time

We have all heard that “procrastination is the thief of time,” and “don’t put off ‘til tomorrow what you can do today.”   And yet, we all procrastinate. Then we beat ourselves up for doing it.  Even on our busiest days, we almost always put off some things and waste valuable time. Why do we do it?  Is it possible not to procrastinate?

Newton’s first law of motion may be one part of it. “A body at rest tends to remain at rest…”  There is something challenging about starting.  For example, many of us have experienced staring at a blank page and not knowing what to write.  When Ruth Toor and I use to write The School Librarian’s Workshop, we sometimes agreed to write badly just to get started.

The fact that no one seems to be immune to procrastination suggests it is normal. According to an article on The Neuroscience of Procrastination—Why It’s So Hard to Get Things Done, we have been doing this since civilization began (although it’s a little hard to picture cavemen/women sitting around drawing with coal rather than getting work done). The neuroscience explanation is:

“procrastination happens when the primitive,  pleasure-seeking and pain-avoiding limbic system acts too quickly for the rational pre-frontal cortex to catch up. In this way, procrastination is described as the art of making intentions that get overridden even if this is disadvantageous.”

Apparently, my limbic system loves to play Klondike, but there is work to be done.  What is necessary is to find some balance, giving ourselves some time for procrastination but not so much that we find we are scrambling to meet deadlines.

It helps to know yourself.  What tasks are you most likely to put off? Which ones do you get to with no problem.?  I teach an online course for pre-service school librarians. I love starting my day checking my university email (not many messages), reviewing my students’ posts on the Discussion Board, and grading their papers because I enjoy the “conversation” with them.

I am more likely to put off starting this blog. As with all writing, it requires a degree of creativity. And again, there is that blank document staring at me, waiting for me to put something on it.  Maybe if I play one more game of Klondike, I will know where to get started.  Or I can look at my Gmail account….. Guess what?  That never really works.

It’s usually the bigger more serious tasks we put off.  Partially because it is big. Sometimes it carries with it an element of uncertainty.  We don’t know exactly how to get it done.  And then there is the low-level (or high-level) fear of failure, so our ego protects us by avoidance. What we need are strategies that get us past that “body at rest” stage and the sudden desire to see if there is anything important in your email or on social media.

The internet has loads of articles on the topic.  Business is always concerned by this issue since procrastination reduces productivity.  Of all the ones I looked at, I found that MindTools offered the best suggestions on How to Stop Procrastinating: Overcoming the Habit of Delaying Important Tasks.

The first two steps, Recognize You Are Procrastinating, and Work Out WHY You Are Procrastinating are important, but easy to get clarity.  I think most of you know when you are procrastinating, and the why’s are usually connected to fear, uncertainty, newness, levels of importance and our own insecurities. The clearer you can get on the why, the easier these next strategies will be for you.

The eight strategies listed under Adopt Anti-Procrastination Strategies are:

  • Forgive yourself for procrastinating in the past – As you notice you are procrastinating, don’t start beating yourself up. That will just spiral you down. Tell yourself what you are doing and then move on to the task at hand.
  • Commit to the task – Write it down. If you keep a To-Do list, it’s already there but give yourself a realistic amount of time to work on it. When it’s a writing task, I vary between giving myself a certain amount of time or a number of words.  Very often I exceed what I set which gives me a boost.
  • Ask someone to check-up on you – When we tell someone we will get something done, we are much more likely to accomplish the task. In my Weight Watchers group, we have noted that people who have a “partner” do much better. Accountability can be very motivating
  • Act as you go – It’s easier to get a task done as soon as it’s given. Back to “Don’t put off until tomorrow ….” First determine the priority, however. Don’t do something that will cause you to put off something that should be done now.
  • Rephrase your internal dialogue – This is about mindset. If you are thinking, “I have to…” you are taking on a burden. Instead, say “I want to …” or “I choose to….” When we notice how our actions support us, it becomes easier to follow through.
  • Minimize distractions – Oh, there are so many of these. Put your phone away so you don’t get distracted by incoming messages. If you have a television on, turn it off.  Work on a desk with no computer. If you can, turn off your social media and email.
  • Aim to “eat an elephant beetle” first thing, every day! – Look at the picture of one of those! They’re kind of horrifying. Do the most difficult, uncomfortable or least desirable job first. Then you can feel positive about yourself and go on to complete whatever else is waiting for you. When you have eaten that beetle, congratulate yourself and consider some reward. (A bit of procrastination can help you to switch gears.)

And when your favorite procrastination behavior surfaces, remember fact that it’s normal. Take a breath, refocus and get on with the tasks that will help you feel great at the end of the day. There will be time for Klondike (or Candy Crush, or Words With Friends…) later.