4 tactics to avoid procrastination and get started

StaircaseFinishing a large project is hard. There are many shiny objects that grabs your attention and prevent you from getting to your goal. To be able to finish projects, you must be able to get a good amount of work done in the long term without being distracted. You’ll get a burst of motivation when you start something new, but this fades quickly. Even if you’re tempted to procrastinate, you still need to do the work if you want to finish at some point.

If you’re learning new technologies and growing your skills on the side, you’ll need to use the small gaps of free time in your day to make progress. When time is scarce, every extra minute can help you go forward. You must learn to get started immediately when you’re in one of those gaps instead of messing around on social media and losing precious time. This way, you’ll accumulate many small wins and end up finishing your project instead of stalling. It’s hard to make progress if you need to have many hours of free time in front of you to get the messing around out of your system and get started working.

But, how can you learn how to start and work effectively when you have a bit of extra time in your day? Here are 4 tactics to make your starting muscle stronger and avoid procrastination :

Building good habits

Habits are a powerful thing. You must learn to build habits that helps you go forward instead of living with habits that work against you.

According to the excellent book The Power of Habit, an habit is made of three parts: a cue, a routine and a reward. The cue is the trigger that starts the habit, the routine is the action itself and the reward is the positive thing that happens as a result of doing the habit. If you pay attention, you’ll notice this pattern repeating itself multiple times in your own day. Once you understand how it use, you cans use this pattern to create your own habits, or to modify existing habits by modify the action you take in response to a cue.

For example, to build an habit of learning something new every night, you can bring a cup of your favorite tea to your computer at the same time every night and sit down to learn for 30 minute. Over time, you’ll come to strongly associate the cup of tea with learning. You’ll start thinking about learning as soon as you start preparing your tea, and when you sit down you’ll be ready to get going. It’ll become part of your regular day, like brushing your teeth, and you won’t be able to do without.

Giving yourself goals

Goals will give you the focus to work on things that are important to you. You’re not limited to one large goal for each project: you must have many smaller milestones on the way.

Trying to work on something in your cave for a year without having any other milestone on the way is hard and demotivating, which leads to procrastination. Not every day or every task is exciting, and you have to put your head down and do the work at some point. But if you never check your progress, you can easily get distracted and work on things that don’t really help you reach your huge goal without even noticing it.

When you’re planning milestones, they shouldn’t be so far away that it feels like you have an eternity to work on them. Make them short enough so it’s a bit of a challenge and you have to put in some effort to complete them. People generally overestimate what can be done over a short period like a week or two, and underestimate what can be done in a year.

If you make your milestones in chunks that are a few months long, they’ll be in the sweet spot between too short and too long. You’ll have many quick wins and validate that you’re making progress. When you sit down, you’ll know that you must work on a concrete task that helps advance to the next milestone, and not some vague and humongous goals that’s hard to grasp, so you can work more effectively.

Timeboxing tasks

Timeboxing means constraining a task to a specific time frame. It’s like a mini-deadline to help you finish a task faster.

Most of us works faster and more efficiently when we have constraints. When time seems unlimited, it’s easy to slack and leave time undone, but when a due date is looming the works magically gets done. You can use this to your advantage: give yourself limited time to complete something when you sit down, and work only on that thing.

The Pomodoro Technique is a popular method to do this. It suggests 25 minutes work sessions, followed by a 5 minutes break. You start a timer, get cranking on your task until the time is up, take a break, and start over again. If you’re working for a longer period, the method suggests taking a 15 minutes break after 4 cycles.

Another way to do this is to use music. If you listen to music while coding, you can build playlists that last just long enough for a work session. When the music stops, it means that you reached the end of your period. You can then take a small break and start over with another playlist if you have more time.

Planning tasks in advance

When you only have a bit of time free, it’s important to know which tasks you can work on.

If you must spend time figuring out what to do next every time you get started, you’ll loose precious time. You should keep a list of tasks handy so you can drop by and do something as soon as you have some free time. Planning and working require different mindsets: you should deliberately choose which one of the two your are currently doing.

Planning doesn’t need to be complicated: a Trello board with a card for each task is enough. First, do a planning session to fill out your board. After you have a good buffer of tasks, you can just write down new tasks as they come up. As a bonus, writing down your tasks will stop them from going around in your head, helping you save willpower and brain cycles for more important things.

What are your favorite tactic to make the most of the free time you have?