10-Step Anti-Procrastination Checklist

Despite recent strides in my productivity habits, I still catch myself procrastinating at work more often than I'd like.  It's not that I make a conscious decision to put off a project; it just feels as though I wake up 20 minutes later and realize that nothing got accomplished. (Or, to avoid the passive voice and take much-deserved responsibility, I "realize that I haven't accomplished anything".)

I've been looking for techniques to improve, and got a lot out of LukeProg's articles on How to Beat Procrastination and My Algorithm for Beating Procrastination, based on Piers Steel's The Procrastination Equation.

But I also wanted a way to put the principles to use with the lowest activation cost possible.  I can't expect unmotivated future-me to be too cooperative; I need to provide him with an easy path to get in flow.

So! I developed a 10-Step Productivity Checklist, pulling the concepts from Luke's articles and adding a couple points that are important for me.  Now whenever I notice myself being unproductive I have a much easier time following the steps one by one until I get back in a good mindset to work.

Productivity Checklist:

  1. What is the task? Make sure you're going to focus on one thing at a time.

  2. Do you have something to drink? Get yourself some tea, coffee, or water.

  3. Are distractions closed? Shut the door, quit Tweetdeck, close the Facebook and Gmail tabs, and set skype to "Do not disturb."

  4. What music will you listen to inspire yourself to be productive or get in flow? Put on a good instrumental playlist! (I love video game soundtracks, further notes in comments.)

  5. Why are you doing this task?  Trace the value until you feel the benefit.

  6. What are the parts to this task?  Break things down as much as you can, until they're physical actions if possible.

  7. What are some ways to gamify the task?  Try to have fun with it!

  8. What are some rewards you can offer yourself for completing sections of the task? Smiling, throwing your arms up in the air and proclaiming victory, or M&M's all count.

  9. What's an achievable goal for this sitting? Set a reasonable expectation for yourself.

  10. How long will you work until you take a break?  Set a timer and commit to focusing.

Get into flow!

I'd love to hear from you:

  • Whether these are useful
  • Any ideas for good ways to enact these steps
  • Steps that should be added/removed/tweaked
  • Whether there are other posts/resources that you've found valuable

I hope this helps you as much as it's helping me, and that together we can make it even better!

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Regarding the music: I found video game soundtracks to be especially perfect - after all, they're designed to be background music. But I think there's more to it than that. I've had years of conditioning such that when I hear the Warcraft II soundtrack I immediately get into a mindset of intense concentration and happiness.

Obviously it depends on your tastes and whether you have attachments to particular video games, but here are my favorites:

(non-video game music that go into the rotation)

Warcraft 2
Might and Magic VI: Mandate of Heaven
Heroes of Might and Magic IV
Planescape Torment

I endorse your taste in video games.

I've been experimenting with Rainy Mood recently (I think someone on LW linked to this but I don't remember who). Not exactly music but it's interesting. I don't know if it actually helps because I'm not being totally consistent about only playing it when I'm working. Also, some people might find the sound of rain depressing (I find it kind of comforting).

I use Rainy Mood too. I need something to block out background noise while I work, but music distracts me to the point that I become unproductive. Rain is comforting to me too, so that's an added plus. I also downloaded the audio from this video which allows me to listen on the go, without internet access.

I wasn't aware of Rainy Mood, but I think I'm going to like it. I'm in the same situation as Pearwood; work is noisy but music distracts me.

For anyone who, like me, can't leave a tab open with Flash running all the time, the audio file is here.

This link seems to be broken now. I don't suppose you still know where the file is available?

Link updated. It's possible it changes, though.

You're welcome. I also recently became aware of ChatterBlocker, which costs money, but has a demo and seems quite effective and less repetitive.

musicForProgramming(); is essentially video game music but slower. It's supposed to be just interesting enough to reduce boredom, without being interesting enough that you end up choosing between tuning it out so you can get work done and listening to it actively and not getting work done.

I do this too and will check out your tracks! I would add Morrowind and Final Fantasy 6.

Also, it's very easy to find game music on Youtube like you have. Just search " music, playlist".

Good call. I don't normally like Post-Rock, but when I'm studying, I can just plug it into Pandora and go.

Here's another one: Skyrim soundtrack (a bit over 3,5 hours of epic fantasy music, with the last ~40 minutes being purely atmospheric/ambient).

Choose music that you're very familiar with it and put it on a loop. New music is much more likely to distract you. (Tip from Matt Mullenweg, interviewed by Tim Ferriss.) That might be more significant than the type of music, although we'd expect instrumental music to be less distracting. I know a health professional (who has ADHD, and works with people who have ADHD) who finds that AC/DC is best for helping to concentrate. I'm not an AC/DC fan, but I'll try some fast heavy music one day when I need an extra concentration boost, and see if it works.

I find techno stuff also conducive to working - it aims for the right level of arousal without being too disruptive. Deadmau5, Daft Punk kind of stuff. (will appreciate other suggestions in this vein)

Splashdown. Archer and Mayan Pilot are my go-to songs for programming.

focus@will is pretty useful for me - I've never been into movie music, but the cinematic option was very inspiring for me. There is some science behind the project too.

My own anti-procrastination technique is to tell my wife that I'm going to be working on X project, and that I'll talk to her about what I've been doing when I'm done. After that, I find that all it takes to put myself back on task is a gentle reminder to myself that my options are:

  • Get some work done
  • Admit that I didn't actually get much done
  • Lie about my progress

My natural aversion to options two and three is usually enough to get me back on task.

Geoff Anders' procrastination advice includes a mild extension to 5, namely sometimes you ask yourself why you're doing the task and you legitimately don't have a good reason. In that case, you should wholeheartedly abandon the task instead of procrastinating. This should also happen occasionally.

Excellent point, thanks! I'd been using this mostly for work projects that I'd already decided were worth doing but found myself procrastinating, but that's a great addendum.

I'm in the process of learning more about Geoff and Leverage's Goal Factoring, so that might help me refine the list (or replace it with something better.)

So, have you come up with something better than this checklist ?

Do you have something to drink? Get yourself some tea, coffee, or water.

Also: Is your work area bright enough? Turn on your desk lamp.

Feels like a free concentration boost to me.

I defy the data. I am quite sure that personally I get lazier as it gets darker, and I doubt that this effect is completely personal.

I would add: Get those endorphins flowing! Set up for a positive success spiral or jump up and down and get your body moving, either way get the blood pumping and you will be more amendable to starting and finishing your task.

7: What are some ways to gamify the task? Try to have fun with it!

Does anyone actually regularly do this? I understand in theory why it makes sense to turn a boring task into a game, but I feel like it takes an inordinate amount of willpower to do so. When I'm procrastinating, I usually just feel way too lethargic to set up a bunch of self imposed rules and tell myself "okay instead of just processing one hundred widgets, I'm going to go really fast and try really hard to process two widgets every minute!" or whatever. Maybe I'm just thinking about it in the wrong way though.

Great post, by the way. I will probably end up using this at some point. Making a checklist like this is something I wanted to do eventually, now I don't have to. :)

When working in a textiles warehouse I would make it fun by imagining someone I'd met walking down a familiar street while showing off the shirt/hat/etc. I just sorted/tagged/profiled in a ridiculous fashion show montage, then turning to me with a smile and a wink or thumbs-up and saying, "Thanks, man!" or similar after I finished X items depending on the day's quota. The person would then step into a crowd behind me cheering me on, who I would imagine turning around and "hi-five"-ing one at a time after arbitrary milestones to celebrate my progress.

To come up with this idea I asked myself who would be disappointed if no one in the world were willing to do any job resembling mine anymore and what would they be losing, then optimized the generated examples for salience and awesomeness.

lolololol I love this!

I still wouldn't consider this "gamifying" a task because it doesn't seem like much of a game, there's no winning or losing or challenges involved. Maybe "gamifying " is just a misleading term?

The game aspect is trying to get a higher "score" of hi-fives at the end of each day. Sort of like Tetris or Bejeweled where you always run out of space/time eventually, but can play again to improve your score.

When I was in real procrastinational danger, I used Geoff Anders super duper complicated excel document for tracking my time, goals, commitments in 10 colors. Awesome two months those.

But more recently I needed something more like what the OP suggests, very low activation cost. So it is simple. I stand until I am doing the thing I have previously decided to be the most important thing I could be doing on the computer. If I have only the intention, it doesn't count. If I am about to open the relevant tab it doesn't count. If I am writing about it in a comment in lesswrong, it doesnt count, My legs shall only rest when the one and only tab open is (at this very moment) the cultural evolution paper that I'm Meta-kind-of-procrastinating here, and I have writen the first word about it. It helps that the chair is not right behind me, but turned around. The screen is also not at a good angle while standing.

Just this comment got me tired enough.

Are distractions closed? Shut the door, quit Tweetdeck, close the Facebook and Gmail tabs, and set skype to "Do not disturb."

This is the most useful point for me. Generally when I "wake up" and realize that I drifted into procrastinating, at the beginning, I started focused and on task. But if I have easy access to the internet, my concentration will gradually lessen, and I drift off. Then I find myself looking at pictures of cats on Reddit.

Distractions on the internet are also a way that I prevent myself from ever even starting my tasks - I just start browsing and never begin the work. I've made a routine for myself, so that I am only allowed to visit the same things (email, APOD, Bloglines). The instant I'm done, I turn off the laptop and put it out of immediate reach, in a place that I would have to get up and walk to.

Rewards might be good for short-term do-once tasks, but if it's a task you'll be repeating frequently, you may be reinforcing your procrastination behavior rather than eliminating it.

I use a very similar formula, and it works pretty well.. One thing i also do: spend 5 minutes clearing my mind before jumping into a 25-minute Pomodoro cycle. It helps shut down the feelings triggered by an Ugh field and I find myself more concentrated.

Additionally, lazy-me LOVES having an excuse to do nothing for 5 more minutes.

Regarding background music... I enjoy Classic Guitar Sky.fm on iTunes Radio (I don't know how to link to an iTunes station) which is mostly instrumental, but the songs that aren't are in a language I don't speak so it has the same effect.

I also listen to Coffitivity which is the background noise of a coffee shop.

Regarding distractions... I have a problem with focus. If I'm coding and have to wait 15-60 seconds for something to run, I have a hard time not switching to another task (ie checking the news, Facebook, personal e-mail) which is costly when returning to the original task.

I do use Leechblock and Chrome Nanny which help marginally. However, I recently purchased a used treadmill, set up a board across the handles and put my laptop on it. $200 treadmill desk. I set a Pomodoro timer and start working and walking. It helps me because it seems the walking satisfies the need that checking the news also does, but without the cost.

Also, it keeps me from sitting all day, which is correlated with bad health.

I'd like to hear more solutions to the 15-60 second break problem. Options less extreme than working on a treadmill.

I've had some success with having a second task that is light on wetware ram on hand to jump back and forth with, ie. proof-reading for clerical errors or formatting documents. But this is not ideal, these boring tasks have their own weak ugh fields that can derail the whole plan.

I have had some success with this by reading a few lines of a physical book. Interesting poetry (I had EUNOIA by Christian Bok handy) is better suited to this, as you can complete an entire passage or page in this short span.

It's similar to checking news or Facebook, but much less likely to suck you in.

With coding, at least, I find that I can stay focused if I put console outputs in the program. Debug info, or progress updates.

For example, I had some encoded text to decipher in my crypto class, and I knew the method of encoding used, so all I had to do was check every character's input with the ciphertext to see the answer... so I made it print every character, and then delete the character if it was wrong (or move on to the next if right), so it looked a bit like Hollywood-style decoding. Definitely kept me interested.

Thanks for sharing. How long have you been using this?

You're welcome! I've been using this checklist for a few months, though I've been on the road traveling for much of it. I finally applied the checklist steps to posting the checklist to LessWrong.

I've gone through it enough that I can usually remember each of the 10 steps even when I'm not at my desk. That seems like a good sign that it can carry over to other contexts. (Though I acknowledge that the process of having created it myself probably made it easier for me to remember.)

Does anyone know of a program that blocks the Entire internet for a set period of time, like the program Freedom? But for Linux, and preferably cheap/free

Yes, one could just take the cables away and put them in a drawer. Problem? Activation cost.

This might be enough for your purpose... combined with a little unix script magic. E.g. make a script with the following and sudo it. (untested)

ifconfig eth0 down
sleep 30m
ifconfig eth0 up

What music will you listen to inspire yourself to be productive or get in flow?

Anti-Procrastination Song by Stormtroopers of Death.

This looks like it might be helpful for me. I shall report back in a few days with some data points. Thanks for this!

Meh. Found that I was doing most of these things without even noticing it consciously anyway.