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Here's one way to cure procrastination

Photo of a group of icelandic horses

Writing is something I enjoy doing, , but to be very candid, it is hard for me to sit down and start writing. It’s the same feeling I have about working out, for example, love the feeling while exercising and then after when I’m done, but it isn’t easy to start an exercise routine; starting is what’s difficult for me. Does that happen to you? Well, it happens to me, and one word for it is procrastination.

Procrastination is something that happens to everyone, we know we need to do certain things, but we push them to the back-burner until that decision comes to burn us one day. Why do we do this? Why do we procrastinate?

As procrastination builds, it can start to affect us severely. For example, I’ve missed several flights, hotel reservations, tax returns, and a lot of money due to this by procrastinating. Since wasting money is not enjoyable, I had to change my ways so one day I sat down and decided to do something about it – hey, at least I didn’t procrastinate on that!

The Plan

The first step of my plan involved finding and installing popular to-do apps like Todoist, Microsoft To Do, Wunderlist, etc. and while some of these apps are well designed and helpful (I still use Microsoft To Do for simple items), I continued to procrastinate. Then I tried writing these tasks using pen and paper, it didn’t work either, but at least I now own a neat journal and beautiful and inexpensive pens from Muji which I use for other things. I’ll share more about that on another post.

After these two failures, and thinking about it retrospectively, a moment of clarification appeared and a new idea was born. That process alone helped me figure out an important truth, I wasn’t giving these tasks the priority that they deserved. You see, I had it all wrong, I was attempting to create a to-do list but what I really needed was a dislike-but-still-need-to-do-it list. What’s the difference you might ask? Keep on reading dear friend, you’ll soon find out.

With this information in mind, I decided to experiment. What if I treated my other tasks with a higher priority and added them to a dislike-but-still-need-to-do-it list? The initial idea was to create this list in a spreadsheet and include a column listing the specific consequences of not getting these things done. It’s very innovative, I know.

The dislike-but-still-need-to-do-it list included items like the following:

  • Apply for the Nexus program for my kids
  • Replace car’s headlamps with new ones I already bought
  • Other personal items I do not care to list because they are for me and not for you dear reader.

These are a few items that I have been dragging for months, and I know they are important, but can’t get myself to remember them enough to do them. These items were the first ones that I added to my dislike-but-still-need-to-do-it list along with the consequences, and it looked like this:

To-doConsequences
Apply for the Nexus program for my kidsBecause if I don’t, the next time we travel to Canada we could end up waiting in line at the border for a long time as we did last time.
Replace car’s headlamps with new ones I already boughtBecause if I don’t, the driving visibility at night will not improve and then I might have to deal with more serious consequences.

Great, now I have a list of things I don’t want to do with a fearful description of what could happen if I don’t do it. Perfect? Not quite.

A better plan

While this was a bit more motivating than just have a simple to-do list, it still wasn’t enough. To keep these items top of mind, I decided to list a few benefits gained if I did these things; I am not driven by fear, so listing the consequences wasn’t enough for me.

To-doConsequencesBenefit
Apply for the Nexus program for my kidsBecause if I don’t, the next time we travel to Canada we could end up waiting in line at the border for a long time as we did last time.Reducing time by using Nexus or Global Entry kiosks when entering the United States. Saves a lot of time.
Replace car’s headlamps with new ones I already boughtBecause if I don’t, the driving visibility at night will not improve and then I might have to deal with more serious consequences.Increased night visibility.
The car looks better.
Increase car’s re-sell value.

Ta-da! At first look I was excited, I really thought I had it, in fact, just writing the benefits and negative consequences motivated me to the point I wanted to take care of these things as I was adding them to this dislike-but-still-need-to-do-it list. But after looking at it for a few minutes, I noticed something wrong, something very wrong in fact that I almost ditched the whole idea right away.

In my attempt to prioritize and motivate myself to do these things, I spent a great deal of time writing a lot of words to convince myself that this was a good idea, but it wasn’t. Some of the items in this list could have taken me only 5 minutes to complete, and instead of getting them done, I spent a great deal of time thinking and writing about the consequences and the benefits of getting them done. Fail. Big fail. Huge fail. So what now?

I really liked the list and how it made me feel, but I couldn’t possibly maintain such a to-do list with so much detail describing consequences and benefits because that wasn’t going to scale. If you want to stop procrastinating, you have to lower or remove all barriers between you and what you want to get done.

What can be changed? I asked myself, what if I removed the consequences column, shortened the contents of the benefits column, and added a due date, after all, what’s a to-do list without a due date right? After those changes, the dislike-but-still-need-to-do-it list looked like this:

To-doBenefitDue date
Apply for the Nexus program for my kidsSaves a lot of time when entering the country.2/1/2020
Replace car’s headlamps with new ones I already boughtIncreased night visibility and car’s re-sell value.2/1/2020

Finally, a to-do list that is informative and manageable. It requires enough effort that keeps items top of mind by reminding me about the benefits of getting them done. Does it work? Only time will tell. So far I have been using this version of the list for almost a month, and since then many items have been completed, it seems to be working.

Conclusion

When going through the process of creating the dislike-but-still-need-to-do-it list list I learned something about myself I didn’t know. I’m driven and motivated by the potential benefits than by fear, knowing about a positive outcome moves me more than knowing the negative consequences of not doing something. I didn’t know this about myself. The process of writing the benefits along with my to-do items takes a little more time, but this extra time is well spent as it helps me understand better the reason I need to do it.

That’s it folks, hope that my experience with my dislike-but-still-need-to-do-it list helps some of you as it helped me to cure the procrastination and get more things done. Cheers.

Identify Bad Habits and Create Not-To-Do Lists

There are many to-do lists out there describing what you should do to be more productive. There are many techniques you can follow and tools you can use to be more productive. Yet, the easiest way to gain focus and get things done is to avoid certain things. Below is a list of things you should stop doing that will help you be more productive.

Sometimes is hard to follow to-do lists, too much to do! but not-to-do lists are usually smaller and easier to follow. It allows you to identify bad habits and then spend more time doing productive things.Continue Reading →

Remote employees: Best tools for collaboration and communication

Working remotely has become a common way of working for a lot of professionals, and while it is a lot easier to do this than years ago, working remotely still has some challenges. The one thing we can all agree with is that not having to worry about a busy and/or long commute is awesome (see photo above). The ability to stay connected to your peers and be able to collaborate seamlessly is necessary for remote teams to be successful. All companies use email and most use some sort of instant messaging tool, but this isn’t enough.

In recent years, many software companies have created multiple tools to make remote collaboration and communication easier and less intrusive, below are some of the tools I consider the most useful and enjoyable for the remote employee and remote teams.Continue Reading →

Use your time wisely, it is a finite resource

Everybody talks about productivity and optimization these days. The get things done (GTD) popularity has been around since I can remember and most of us are still suffering of constant distractions that affect our productivity and concentration to perform our professional or personal tasks effectively. Also, there are many tools these days that claim they can help you by organizing your email, helping with to-do lists, notes, etc… Some of those tools can be helpful but they require commitment and some of them have a learning curve, and so these GTD apps and tools just become part of the daily distractions.

I recently read a study in the journal Personal and Ubiquitous Computing that showed that most people have developed a habit of checking their smartphones multiple times a day without having a real need to do it.Continue Reading →

How to build a software product in your spare time

I have been writing code professionally since the early days of .NET although I remember doing lots of classic ASP as well. As a student, I did some C++, BASIC and even some Pascal but not enough to be good at it. I consider myself a great decent developer and very enthusiastic about coming up with ideas to use new frameworks and platforms to design and build new software products. It is my idea of fun and have been doing it for quite some time now. Sometimes with the idea and ambition of building companies around my product ideas.

My guess is that most software developers enjoy testing new technologies and some even do it in their spare time, outside of work and probably late at night (it’s the best time to code, especially if you have children!). However, one thing that I get asked often is where do I get the time to think about products and more specifically where do I find the time to do it. You see, to me is not about building the next killer app or anything like it, it is about thinking of how I could use that cool new JavaScript framework, experimenting with a new platform or perhaps some mobile app that will finally get me into mobile development… and it all sounds good until you start finding excuses and convince yourself that you just don’t have the time to do it. If you are in my age group you will likely find excuses involving the kids, the wife, the house chores, the full-time job, etc… and if you are much younger than me then your excuses are going to be the friends, games, parties, or even a job or school.

Excuses are evil, they offer an easy and sometimes pleasant way to avoid doing something new. I hope some of the tips provided below can help you avoid excuses and get you motivated to build a new app or try out some cool new framework.

Originating ideas

Believe it or not, coming up with ideas might be challenging sometimes, one thing I find very useful is to just take a moment, walk, and think of the things I do on a daily basis that I could do better. This task will take you probably a few minutes and you’ll be surprised with the number of ideas you will originate. Some examples of things I have built doing this are, a translation app, a spam blocker, a profile finder and a useful contact merge tool, etc… all of these were created based on this procedure.

Another great way is to ask people around you, or better yet, observe them and find out what things they struggle with while doing their work, using the computer, etc… For example, years ago while at a customer’s site I saw how some people were doing data entry on their computers and getting the information from a piece of paper, after that they scanned the piece of paper and then named it manually… one page at a time, yikes! From this came the idea of creating an application that would allow people to scan all documents at once, then display the scanned pages on the screen along with the data entry fields right next to the image so they could then do the data entry and indexing needed, reducing the task to just a few steps, much quicker and the data entry more accurate. This eventually became a product for a company. Just look around you and think… how can I do this better, how can I reduce the number of steps and if you are brave enough go out and ask people these same questions and you’ll get plenty of ideas!

Designing your product

You have an idea, now what? it is really easy as software developers to just start writing code, this is both fun and common but if you start your application from scratch then it will take you more time, especially if you are using a new framework, etc… The assumption is that you are trying to build this in your spare time at 2 AM in the morning, so you need to plan and optimize for it. The advice here is not to write any code just yet, instead search for open source projects that are using the technology or framework you want to try, download it and build on top of it. It is not cheating, it is a great way to get started and building on top of an existing open source application or software sample will get you ahead and save you a lot of time. Remember, the goal is to build something fast and useful.

Forget about adding any features, focus on the one thing you are trying to solve and nothing else… do not worry about the look or adding extra functionality, first, make sure what you build achieves what you are going after and then you can iterate and add features and improve the look and feel of it.

Finding the time to do it

This is by far the main reason people will never do something they say they want to do. The lack of time according to most is the reason a new language is not learned, a book is not read, a class is not taken and an app is not built! Time is a very valuable thing that we all protect because none of us seem to have enough of it. Let me tell you this, that is bull-crap. the idea of not enough time is overrated, we use it as an excuse to not do the things we need to be doing or worse, to avoid learning or doing something new. Also, I am against working super long hours, it is not healthy and not even productive, instead try to prioritize your tasks, and eliminate or avoid your time-wasters. All of us have a bag full of those.

I used to watch TV every evening, but haven’t had cable for about 5 years now and do not miss it. Yes, I do watch some shows but when I do it is usually using Netflix or Hulu and is usually playing in the background as I am writing or coding. The time I used to spend in front of the TV I now use to write blog postsbuild software, and organize meetups. I know many of you might say you lack the time to do any of this but I disagree, there are way too many hours in the day, spending just 2 hours every day to write that mobile app you’ve been thinking about for a while is very feasible. Above I mentioned I usually write software late at night, that is when my kids are in bed and the house is quiet – it is the perfect time! I don’t spend more than a few hours but sometimes I will spend more time learning about email marketing, writing blog posts, finding useful things on Twitter, etc… it is my hobby and I don’t see any of that as a task, it is enjoyable for me. At the same time, I help around the house, wash dishes, take the kids to school, to swimming lessons, etc. There is enough time to spend with the family since luckily I don’t have to travel much, having a balanced life is not only possible but very real, it is all about spending time on the things that really matter and avoiding the things that are neither useful nor productive.

There is also plenty of time while at work… and I am not suggesting you work in your personal projects during work hours but at times such as lunch. Yep, I love going to lunch with my co-workers but that does not mean I have to do it every day. At least twice a week I spent my lunch time eating a sandwich or cheap sushi and coding away (my own app), writing a blog post, or doing some marketing for some of my projects using email and social networks.

Are you in a different situation where you still cannot find the time to do this? if the answer is Yes then chances are you are not really motivated to do it… excuses are easy to come up with, and I am sure the next time you are watching a TV show, a movie or a game you’ll remember this and think… I guess I do have time if I really wanted to. Do not get me wrong… I love watching some TV shows and movies… maybe too much, but still find the time to do what I like which is developing software apps, sites and writing blog posts like this.

Finally, if you are lucky and use public transportation for your work commute… then use that time to do this, and perhaps, even more, things such as finish reading that book, learning that new language, etc…

Do you have any tips or ideas to add to the above post? please share them with everyone in the comments.