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Hack Yourself to Prevent Procrastination & Information Overload

Too busy multi-tasking to get anything done!

Did you know that more than 1/2 of the people sitting in the room with you blame lack of focus and multi-tasking as the #1 reason they are not getting their work done?

In a recent report on Developer Productivity that had over 1800 total surveyed, we found that 53% of respondents listed “Too Much Multi-tasking” as the main reason for anti-productivity. (btw, this report includes 30 pages of stats, analysis and interviews. Check it out!)

It was while considering this fact that I came across an article about focus and distractions that filtered to me through the lazyweb, so I decided to write about my own experiences in that area.

I have a confession: For some time, culminating in the last year, I have had issues with information-addiction and lack of focus.

I would spend way too much time answering emails, checking Twitter, going through the website/product stats and getting distracted in a thousand other ways. I was behind with the things that matter and I didn’t have any time to think deeply, instead of reacting immediately to issues as they arose.

A change was called for.

I am a great disbeliever in the Strength of Will Power. People are capable of having enormous momentum, but no will to change can last THAT long. There are studies that support this view, and I’ve been using it for a while to hack my behaviour.

Hacking yourself

I’ve discovered that the trick is to identify the impulses that are the hardest to change and replace them with behaviour, which is much easier to influence.

A classical example is that if you want to get on a diet, you should make sure that you are not constantly confronted with rich food. Purchase light groceries in the shop, and avoid restaurants that serve anything unhealthy.

What follows here are the main steps I did to reduce my information overload.

1. Disable most notifications.

This includes desktop, mobiles, sounds, popups, banners, notification center and so on. Pretty crazy that just a year ago I wrote a post advocating almost the opposite.

Almost everything wants to grab a piece of your attention today, but only a few of them are actually important or real-time. Most of the time you’re fine getting through email, Twitter, Facebook and so on only a few times a day (there are natural breaks in everyone’s day when such activities are not in any way a distraction).

There are also a few things to which you do want to react in real-time (for me it’s phone calls and SMS messages), so make sure these are still on and others are aware how to reach you.

This step removed the fake feeling that there are a lot of things demanding my attention, but it was just the start.

2. Make activities you want to avoid EASIER to avoid

So now I didn’t know when a new email comes along, but I was still checking it pretty often. So the next thing I did was to make checking email less comfortable.

On my iPhone I removed the Email app from the Dock bar and put it in a folder somewhere on the third page. Now instead of a single click, I needed to do two swipes and two clicks. This may seem like not a lot of difference, but it was just annoying enough to wean me off the constant check cycle.

On my Mac I went through a few ideas, including blocking GMail through /etc/hosts, but ended up with switching from Sparrow, which I loved, to Offline GMail, which was usable, but comparatively annoying. Switching from a great user experience to a worse one may sound like a crazy idea, but remember that I wanted to discourage myself from using that piece of software to avoid the cycle of checking.

3. Make activities you want to do easier to do.

The reverse side of the previous step, this means making things you use for productive work easily accessible. I never found great ways to achieve this, beyond the obvious like putting all work apps on the dock/first page.

Generally, if you have motivation it should be easy enough to fall into productive behaviour, once the non-productive actions are reduced. If you have problems with motivation, it’s a good idea to look at this excellent RSA cartoon and act accordingly.

4. Reduce distractions.

This one is a classic, but the important thing here is not to think just about external distractions. In fact, rather than talk just about decreasing distractions, it’s important to decrease the actual opportunities for distraction.

For example, if I need to read something long, I prefer to use my Kindle than any other device. Not just because it’s easy on the eyes, but also because the opportunity to switch to other activity on the device is effectively zero.

iPhone/iPad are great devices because they focus on only one application at a time. Mac is now heading in the same direction with the Full Screen apps introduced in Lion, and I used that mode whenever it’s possible (though ironically enough not while writing this post).

5. Generate peer pressure.

A long time ago I have learned not to undertake any larger projects alone. If you look at the list of my publications you will notice that only one of them has a single author, and it was by far the simplest to write.

This isn’t a coincidence. Not only does working with someone lead to productive feedback cycles, it also provides you with meaningful deadlines and motivation to make them.

Today, for any longer undertaking, I will always try to generate some peer pressure to drive myself, by either partnering with someone or just spreading the information around (the first works enormously better than the second).

6. Generate boredom.

This one is crazy, but bear with me. I don’t mean the kind of boredom that you get when you can do a thousand things, but none of them are particularly interesting.

This is a classical symptom of overload. What I mean is the kind of boredom where you don’t have anything to implement or respond to anything at all, but you are forced to think and reflect.

This isn’t just good for reducing overload and getting ideas, it will also greatly help your personal and social life. So what did I do to get there?

At some point I decided that I will start leaving my laptop at work. This made it essentially impossible for me to do serious amount of work outside the office. Surprisingly enough, it has mostly improved my productivity, because I had both time to rest, think and reflect. This leads to much greater focus and fewer distractions.

How did it work out for me?

Now, this isn’t a copout, but one thing you have to understand is that achieving productivity is a very personal thing. People can teach you some tricks and approaches, but mainly it’s all about self-reflection and tricks that trigger some behaviour while avoiding other behavior.

For me this approach works fairly well, though I’m sure with time I’ll develop a new style of unproductive behaviour and will need to go through another cycle of changes. As our roles, responsibilities and environment change, so does the our work style and we need to keep altering the tricks we use to keep our lazier self in check :)

Let me know what’s worked for you by leaving a comment below! Thanks, Jevgeni.

  • http://www.facebook.com/margus.niitsoo Margus Niitsoo

    Great ideas, all of them. In hindsight, seems I have implemented most of them to some degree, but one can always do better and productivity improvement is essentially a proceess, not a single step you take once in your career. 

    What I like doing is procrastinating one important thing by doing something other that is important but perhaps not as urgent. At some point, the motivation NOT to do something you have to becomes so strong that instead of fighting it, is is often best to just switch to something else and wait until that thing gets boring so you actually want to switch back to the thing you had to be doing. 

    NB! this doesn’t work if you tend to work under very close deadlines, as then the deadline will be past before the boredom kicks in.

  • http://zeroturnaround.com Jevgeni Kabanov

    Yeah, it’s all about figuring out shortcuts and paths of least resistance instead of fighting habit outright.

  • Priit Liivak

    This is very similar to what Shawn Acor talks about in his book “Happiness Advantage” –  (good thing to listen while on a road).
    From that book I’ve learned that peer pressure can also be generated by telling numerous people what are you up to. Not always it is possible to pair up and then it is good to share your plans and deadlines you have set for yourself. It is most likely that some of these people will come back to you asking how is you private project moving on and I don’t want to tell them I failed.

    I also liked how he pointed out the bad influence of the word “deadline”. Unfortunately I cannot remember the term he suggested to use instead. In some cases deadline itself can become a distraction.

  • Non-productive guest

    Great article thank you. You confirm a great podcast from the RSA on self-control and willpower: avoiding temptations is far more effective than having strong will-power :), although doing both is best of course!
    http://www.thersa.org/events/audio-and-past-events/2012/willpower-self-control,-decision-fatigue,-and-energy 

  • http://ahtik.com Ahti Kitsik

    The breakthrough for me came when I realized that the laser sharp focus is not about focus itself. It’s 90% about taking away everything else. I just constantly apply deliberate practice to eliminate aspects that ruin focus.

    It’s always about distractions. You might have a good shopping list for the grocery but as soon as you step in without a list – you’re lost. At least for me managing to remember even five items while looking around in a store is close to impossible.

    Working with a computer is like working in a candy store. It’s easy to get lost as soon as you forget your current task. For that I added an always-on-top notification window to my task management app TimeGT (http://timegt.com). It annoys with smaller screens just a bit but at least I remember that I should be working on X and NOT check my e-mail or twitter or read that wicked new CSS button generator source. Keep your current task clearly written somewhere visible, it has helped me way more than I thought.

    Margus Niitsoo suggested in a comment here to work on important but not urgent things if procrastination kicks in. It sounds like a good short-term solution but I try to avoid it as much as possible. If there is an important AND urgent task waiting then doing unurgent is not the best thing to do. I better stay calm, go out and take a walk — clears my mind and helps to reevaluate priorities and motivation. Maybe the urgent task is unimportant and then it should be never done.At least according to Eisenhower matrix.

    Jevgeni, great article, thank you!

  • zartc

    You should try the Pomodoro Technique (http://www.pomodorotechnique.com/). It is an excellent technique to get things done in chunks of 25 minutes focused work and 5 minutes break.
    I use it for all my professional tasks (reading technical books, going through tutorials, developing applications, writing technical specs, etc) and I get excellent results. It allow me to set aside any urge to check mail or check web, for 25 minutes, the duration of one pomodoro. Then when a pomodoro is done, i have 5 minutes minutes before the next pomorodo begins to do the non productive things that I have postponed. That’s a great productivity booster.The fact that a pomodor has a 25 minute duration is also a way to cut down to procrastination because it is always easier to commit to a 25 minutes working efforts rather than multiple strait hours.

  • http://zeroturnaround.com Jevgeni Kabanov

    I’ve tried it. It actually annoys me more than helps, as when I get in the flow I’m productive for many hours at a time. This just distracted me when I was in the flow and annoyed me when I wasn’t.

  • guest

     Honestly,I can theorize on how to be more productive ad infintum but lack of focus and a weak will have made my life miserable when I was so so good and so successful(for 8 years only)at what I did -stock market investing.Prioritizing and following up on lists is absolutely essential to happiness.

  • AkhilAnil

    Thats great adive. I use the ” Do not break the Chain ” method.. you could google for it. It works!
    http://akhilspassion.blogspot.com

  • bn

    “iPhone/iPad are great devices because they focus on only one application at a time. Mac is now heading in the same direction with the Full Screen apps introduced in Lion, and I used that mode whenever it’s possible (though ironically enough not while writing this post).”

    What kind of tasks you’re doing you can use just single application? If this is your case you shouldn’t have much problems with distractions… try coding, debugging, chatting with Operations, customer, your developers; monitoring logs – all in the same time… THIS is a problem, not focusing on some text editor at time ;) And actually you’d have to multitask just to do the work… 
    Also – please, don’t make jokes about the greatness of Lion ;) I am just waiting for Apple to patent this single-app-on-screen thing  :)