I am a horrible procrastinator. Starting up new tasks can be next to impossible. My mind’s ability to unconsciously switch from problem-solving to Reddit-browsing mode continues to astound me. For a long time, I had no way to counter my bad habits. I felt bad, and got a lot less done than I would have liked, even for projects where I was very motivated.
I haven’t completely defeated my procrastinator tendencies, but after years of battling against them, I have at least found a few effective weapons. Well, really, just one. Break big tasks down in to small ones. Really small ones. Like, sometimes can be done in a few seconds small. Here’s how it works.
Most people agree that getting started on a project is perhaps the hardest part of finishing. It’s obvious why: every possible outcome, every possible task stares back at you from your blank sheet of paper or empty text editor. You could be done in five minutes, or you could have to invent a whole new branch in your field to finish. There’s no way to know. That’s a scary thought, better just read a few online news articles.
The good news is you don’t have to consider every possible step to get started on something. You just have to consider the first step. So what is it? It’s definitely not to build one whole part of your project. The first step is to simply get to the right place where you can get work done. Close Hacker News, and just open your text editor. You can’t possibly make progress from your web browser. Now, you need to open whatever file you’re working in. Now find the right part of that file. What you have to do might be no more clear, but at least your in the place where you can actually work on it.
Now the trick is just to stay there. Every time you come to another unconquerably large task, you’re going to default to going back into distraction mode. It’s amazing how quickly and subconsciously that can be done. Maybe you are stuck immediately, maybe you’ve been working along just fine for a while and then hit a wall.
Either way, the trick is to concentrate on the problem at hand, and break it into little pieces. The easiest way to do this is to not worry about coming up to the solution to why your stuck, but just concentrate on the question of why you’re stuck.
I literally write down a complete sentence: what question I’m going to have to answer. After that I start writing down all the possible ways I could solve that problem. I list the tradeoffs, I list the solutions I know would probably be bad.
About half the time, this is enough to keep me going. I knew what the right way to proceed was after all, but was letting a little uncertainty derail my productivity.
Sometimes I’m not as lucky. Maybe the problem is really hard, or maybe I just don’t know how all the pieces fit together yet. Fortunately, I just wrote down my plan of attack. I can investigate each possible solution and decide which one to go with.
On my most productive days, I stay in this cycle for hours. I’m not always making progress, but I’m always making progress on making progress. Try it out and see how it works for you. You know you’ve been successful when at the end of the day you finally open Reddit and see that there’s whole pages of new stuff that you haven’t seen. Dive in, you’ve earned it.