The Lure of Solitaire
We’ve all been there. It’s three-thirty in the afternoon. You’re bored, maybe a little tired, and your computer is staring at you offering all the possibilities of the internet. You think about doing something productive: reading, writing, researching. But your hands take on a life of their own and before you know it, you’re wasting the day playing solitaire or some other distracting game. Several hours go by and you realize what you’ve just spent that chunk of your life on. Panic sets in when you recognize all the amazing potential you’ve just wasted and you start berating yourself for not being better focused and lazy.
Now take a deep breath. It’s ok. It really is. You’re not a bad person for being distracted on the computer and you’re certainly not a bad grad student because you played twenty games of solitaire in a row. It may not have been the most productive time of your life, but you’re certainly not going to get kicked out of university for it. But there is still that nagging guilt, isn’t there? That frustration that you weren’t more productive; the self-loathing because you know you have things to do but you just didn’t do them. Here’s the good news: it’s really not as bad as it seems. The bad news: it will take some effort to work on this habit, but that’s why you’re here, right? To become a better grad student!
Let us now take a look at the real driving force behind the distractions: procrastination. This noun is something that we have all experienced at one point or another. We rationalize that we don’t need to work about task A right now, and we might as well do something else real quick before hand. I’ve had the conversation many times in my head, “Oh, let me check so-and-so blog before working on that, it’ll just take a minute.” But in reality it doesn’t, and it winds up sucking down way more time than it should. So the question is, because this is something that we all experience and are familiar with, how can we recognize when procrastination is going to occur, and what can we do to minimize its effects?
First, though, you have to be realistic with yourself. You are not going to be able to be a perfect robot and never procrastinate. You should, however, be able to recognize these situations when they may occur, and control them to the point that they don’t take over your life (or afternoon as the case may be).
Step One: Recognize You can’t begin to have some sort of control over your procrastination if you don’t even recognize when it’s occurring or when it’s about to occur. Be honest with yourself about the times you have procrastinated. Think about the thoughts or actions that led you to that point. Did you just finish something and felt like you needed a break? Were you just bored or tired? Did a friend send you a link to something interesting? Recognize the catalyst for this behavior and you will have a better chance of dealing with it.
Step Two: Minimize Now that you are familiar with what has led you to procrastinate, think about steps that you can take to minimize this from occurring or limit the access to the distractions. If you just completed some task and you feel like you’re about to go waste time, why not go for a walk to clear your head and get refocused. If you’re really tired, perhaps a short nap would be the best bet, or if that’s not possible, a high-energy food like a banana or protein bar. If a friend sent you a link, why not turn off your IM client for a while. Take steps to limit access to distractions so that you can better focus.
Step Three: Prioritize If you have recognized the potential sources of distraction and you have been honest with yourself and minimized the potential for distraction, the next step is to prioritize your work. The whole reason behind doing this is that you have some tasks that you feel are important and you believe that your time would be better spent working than goofing off. So be honest with yourself and your work and figure out what is the next important task for you to do. What is the next assignment that, if you accomplish it, will make you feel like you have had a productive day. Figure that out and write it down.
Step Four: Time It If you’ve been able to really be honest with yourself and do these previous steps, the next step will be hardest for you: actually working on the task or project. Procrastination can really stem from a fear of working on a project. You may, subconsciously, be afraid of how you might perform while working on said project, and this fear can be almost paralyzing. Paralyzing to the point of procrastination. You’re going to have to trick yourself into working on this project. Set a timer for 15 minutes and make a deal with yourself: work hard on the task or project for 15 minutes, and after that time you can take a break or move on to something else. But you have to work for those 15 minutes. If after the allotted time you really feel the need to take a break, then do so. You have earned it. However, what generally happens is that you’ll get into a groove and you’ll continue working for longer than the timer. You’ll start to recognize that what you had built up in your head really isn’t that bad. Another aspect to this timing is recognizing when you’re best suited for doing certain tasks. Trying to force yourself to read a paper at three in the afternoon may not be the best thing. If you know that you’re a better writer or reading in the morning, then do that task in the morning; don’t force yourself to do something in the afternoon if you know it’s especially difficult to do.
Step Five: Reward It Now you should be on your way to minimizing your procrastination. You have recognized the problem, sought ways to minimize the problems effect on your work, you have prioritized the tasks that you want to do, and you have used time to your advantage. So what’s the next step? Reward yourself. Take that break. Play that game. Realize that you are human and that you are not perfect. You cannot be expected to work 100% all the time, it’s just not healthy. If you have been honest with yourself, and you’ve done the work that is expected of you, and you can be real and say that you are proud of the work you’ve done, then you definitely deserve a break! Take the time to clear your head and get refocused. Your mind and body will thank you.
These main steps are what I use all the time to really help me accomplish tasks. I’ve recognized that my biggest distraction is the internet. I love to read different gadget blogs or science news sites. I tried for a long time to use will power alone to fight this, but I finally became honest with myself. I could not focus, on my own, for more than 10 minutes at a time. So I took the steps to minimize my distraction. I downloaded an app for my mac that will block the internet completely for a certain amount of time. The only way to reset it before the time is up is to restart my computer. This forced away the distraction and because of it my productivity has shot way up. It doesn’t stress me out to use this program either because of how much I’m getting done and how good it feels to know that I’ve been productive. Once I have this distraction away from me, I generally have one specific task that I want to work on. My timer is basically built into this program and so I get to work for a little bit. As soon as I get into it, I really am able to start cranking out results and at the end of it, the feeling of having accomplished something really is great. Then, after I’ve accomplished something, I will allow myself a break to clear my thoughts, refocus, and perhaps beat one more game of solitaire.
Here are some more resources dealing with procrastination and other associated topics:
You are not so smart: Procrastination I love this blog because it really analyzes the tendencies of humans and why we do things.
Lifehacker Great blog for general productivity tips. Search for procrastination and you’re bound to find something.
Freedom This is the app I use to block internet access for a set amount of time. Works for both Windows and Mac.
4 Hour Workweek Very good book that deals with a lot of topics. The Elimination chapter is the most relevant to this topic.