Sometimes procrastination stems from anxiety over the unknown. I lost hours yesterday in trying to adopt Google Documents for my article writing. A simple product review turned into an all-day affair. It took me most of the day to pinpoint the source of my procrastination; then it became obvious that I was splitting my attention between the content of the article and the learning curve of writing in Web 2.0. So I dumped Google Docs, switched back to writing in Q10, and scheduled a study session for Google Docs at a later date.
A more common source of procrastination is serial digression. To understand how this form of procrastination works, consider the difference between an item on a To Do list and a well formatted Next Action.
Many To Do items that people write down are multiaction tasks, like “Set up Dell,” as opposed to a genuine next action like “Read Dell Quick Start Guide.” The aim of a next action is to keep your attention on the most immediate physical task instead of the outcome. A To Do like the one in the example is overloaded, conflating what needs to be accomplished with what needs to be done.
Any project, no matter how large or complex, can be parsed into at least one next action that’s simple to do. Not everyone can get into Harvard, but anyone can download the admission form.
Procrastination is more than not doing priority tasks; it’s doing non-priority tasks. It just so happens that non-priority tasks usually have the same granularity as next actions.
People in the midst of a high-leverage project don’t consciously tell themselves, “I’m going to spend the next three hours surfing the web.” They encounter something that prompts them to think, “I need to check this on Wikipedia.” Naturally the Wikipedia article contains some less relevant but more interesting link: “Let me take a look at this.”
Three hours later, they’ve accomplished quite a bit; it’s just not tied to a meaningful outcome. To push an analogy, surfing the web for three hours is like getting into Harvard. Clicking an interesting link is like downloading an admission form. Consciously surfing the web for three hours is actually hard, but going to “just one” website is easy. Checking email for “a few minutes” is easy.
We all have crutch activities — behaviors we default to that relieve tension but leech our attention. Reading RSS feeds, deliberating over playlists in iTunes, watching TV, burning airtime on our cell phones are all potential substitutions for high-impact activities.
No task exists in isolation. A key consideration of any activity is not what the activity is, but what it leads to. Going to the library to study leads to different outcomes than going to a café. Toggling from a text editor to a browser leads to other pathways of attention.
But the reality is that sometimes we do have to switch to a browser. Sometimes we do have to go to the café. There’s a practical limit to how far we can firewall our attention. But there are a few ways to mitigate the risk of distraction.
Write down any tasks that takes longer than two minutes. As per the Two Minute Rule, if something occurs to you that you feel compelled to act on immediately, consciously ask yourself, “Can I do this in less than two minutes?” If it’s reasonably likely that the answer is yes, do it right then to prevent it from consuming further attention; if not write it down to prevent it from consuming further attention. You can review it for later action when you’ve completed your capital task. What if doing the two-minute task leads to another task? Do exactly the same thing — apply the Two Minute Rule.
Create a Crutch Activities checklist. Checklists are terrific tools to reinforce our awareness of habits, both those we want to develop and those we want to reduce or eliminate. Instead of cursing yourself each time you find that you’ve spent 90 minutes in your inbox when you meant to check email for 10 minutes, add “Checking email” to your Crutch Activities checklist. Review and update the checklist regularly, and develop protocols, like batching, for controlling these impulses.
Use delimiting phrases. If you need to break the flow of one task for another, ensure that the task is well defined before switching: “I need to look up the capital of Zambia in order to finish this sentence. The delimiter, “to finish this sentence,” reminds you of the objective behind the task switch, making it easier to return to the document you’re drafting. Without the delimiter, you wind up switching tasks with the sole objective of looking up the capital of Zambia, leaving you open to reading about the country’s history and culture.
If you’re working off of written next actions, this isn’t necessary, since you’ve already worked out the outcome that lead to the next action. But for impromptu task switching, it’s a good idea to establish boundaries in advance to prevent runs down rabbit trails.