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How to Eliminate Procrastination (The Surprising Strategy One Man Used)

How to Eliminate Procrastination (The Surprising Strategy One Man Used)

In 2009, Fred Stutzman was a graduate student at the University of North Carolina. He was trying to grind out some important work on his thesis. But there was a problem.

His favorite coffee shop, which had previously been a quiet sanctuary where he could escape distraction and get work done, had just added a new and very dangerous feature.

Wireless internet.

Now Stutzman found himself constantly distracted by the endless supply of entertainment and social media on the web — even if he really wanted to get something done. He tried disconnecting from the internet, but it wasn’t that simple. He was always clicking it back on to “take a break.” He was constantly fighting the urge to check his messages and updates.

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Thankfully, Stutzman happened to be a programmer studying Information Science. When he went home that night, he decided to create a software program that would solve his problem.

The program he created was simple. You turned the application on, told it how long you wanted to focus, and it prevented your computer from going online for that amount of time. If you wanted to get back on before your time was up, you had to turn your computer completely off and reboot.

The program was called Freedom. Not long after Stutzman created it, the application went viral. It was picked up by NPR, The Economist, The New York Times, Oprah Magazine, Time, and nearly every major news outlet you can imagine. More than 500,000 people downloaded it.

It seems that many people were struggling with online procrastination.

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Why did Freedom work so well? And what can it teach us about sticking to better habits and mastering our willpower?

The Power of Decision Elimination

Making decisions over and over again will drain your willpower. This is true even if it’s the same, tiny decision — like constantly resisting the urge to check your email. (Another example is continually trying to follow a new, strict diet.)

You might be able to resist for 5 minutes or an hour or maybe even a week, but eventually, your willpower will begin to fade and you’ll give in. This is known as decision fatigue. In a previous article I discussed how it has a measurable impact on your willpower and the choices you make throughout any given day.

The Freedom app that Stutzman designed is effective not only because it prevents you from reaching the web, but also because it reduces decision fatigue. It eliminates your options and, as a result, doing the right thing becomes much easier. In other words, the application places a constraint on your behavior.

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This brings us to an important point: constraints can make it easier to stick to good habits by eliminating the number of decisions you need to make to move forward.

Constraints are a Good Thing

People often say that they want options. When it comes to getting things done, however, options aren’t always a good thing. When everything is a possibility, it actually becomes harder to make the right choice (or any choice at all). This is the paradox of choice.

Meanwhile, when we place a constraint on ourselves, it can become much easier to get something done. This is especially true if it is a constraint that forces us to start small.

  • If you want to start exercising, set a rule for yourself where you are not allowed to exercise for more than five minutes. You have to stop exercising after five minutes. I talked with a reader named Mitch who used this strategy to make his first six weeks of exercise very easy and then gradually built up to doing more. He ended up losing over 100 pounds. (Nice work, Mitch!)
  • If you want to become more creative, you can use constraints to drive your creativity. For example, you could write a book by only using 50 different words. This is the strategy Dr. Seuss used to write Green Eggs and Ham. (Full story here.)
  • If you want to eat more vegetables, you could limit yourself to only one type of vegetable this week. By limiting the number of choices you have to make, it’s more likely that you’ll actually eat something healthy rather than get overwhelmed trying to figure out all of the details of the perfect diet.

We often think that we want an open road and the ability to choose any direction for ourselves. But sometimes, what we need is a tunnel that can reduce our choices and send us in a focused direction.

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How can you eliminate the need to make the same decisions over and over again? How can you use constraints to drive your habits forward — even if it’s in a very small way?

James Clear writes at JamesClear.com, where he shares science-based ideas for living a better life and building habits that stick. To get strategies for boosting your mental and physical performance by 10x, join his free newsletter.

This article was originally published on JamesClear.com.

Featured photo credit: Lynn Friedman via flickr.com

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Last Updated on September 11, 2019

Why To-Do Lists Don’t Work (And How to Change That)

Why To-Do Lists Don’t Work (And How to Change That)

How often do you feel overwhelmed and disorganized in life, whether at work or home? We all seem to struggle with time management in some area of our life; one of the most common phrases besides “I love you” is “I don’t have time”. Everyone suggests working from a to-do list to start getting your life more organized, but why do these lists also have a negative connotation to them?

Let’s say you have a strong desire to turn this situation around with all your good intentions—you may then take out a piece of paper and pen to start tackling this intangible mess with a to-do list. What usually happens, is that you either get so overwhelmed seeing everything on your list, which leaves you feeling worse than you did before, or you make the list but are completely stuck on how to execute it effectively.

To-do lists can work for you, but if you are not using them effectively, they can actually leave you feeling more disillusioned and stressed than you did before. Think of a filing system: the concept is good, but if you merely file papers away with no structure or system, the filing system will have an adverse effect. It’s the same with to-do lists—you can put one together, but if you don’t do it right, it is a fruitless exercise.

Why Some People Find That General To-Do Lists Don’t Work?

Most people find that general to-do lists don’t work because:

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  • They get so overwhelmed just by looking at all the things they need to do.
  • They don’t know how to prioritize the items on list.
  • They feel that they are continuously adding to their list but not reducing it.
  • There’s a sense of confusion seeing home tasks mixed with work tasks.

Benefits of Using a To-Do List

However, there are many advantages working from a to-do list:

  • You have clarity on what you need to get done.
  • You will feel less stressed because all your ‘to do’s are on paper and out of your mind.
  • It helps you to prioritize your actions.
  • You don’t overlook so many tasks and forget anything.
  • You feel more organized.
  • It helps you with planning.

4 Golden Rules to Make a To-Do List Work

Here are my golden rules for making a “to-do” list work:

1. Categorize

Studies have shown that your brain gets overwhelmed when it sees a list of 7 or 8 options; it wants to shut down.[1] For this reason, you need to work from different lists. Separate them into different categories and don’t have more than 7 or 8 tasks on each one.

It might work well for you to have a “project” list, a “follow-up” list, and a “don’t forget” list; you will know what will work best for you, as these titles will be different for everybody.

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2. Add Estimations

You don’t merely need to know what has to be done, but how long it will take as well in order to plan effectively.

Imagine on your list you have one task that will take 30 minutes, another that could take 1 hour, and another that could take 4 hours. You need to know the moment you look at the task, otherwise you undermine your planning, so add an extra column to your list and include your estimation of how long you think the task will take, and be realistic!

Tip: If you find it a challenge to estimate accurately, then start by building this skill on a daily basis. Estimate how long it will take to get ready, cook dinner, go for a walk, etc., and then compare this to the actual time it took you. You will start to get more accurate in your estimations.

3. Prioritize

To effectively select what you should work on, you need to take into consideration: priority, sequence and estimated time. Add another column to your list for priority. Divide your tasks into four categories:

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  • Important and urgent
  • Not urgent but important
  • Not important but urgent
  • Not important or urgent

You want to work on tasks that are urgent and important of course, but also, select some tasks that are important and not urgent. Why? Because these tasks are normally related to long-term goals, and when you only work on tasks that are urgent and important, you’ll feel like your day is spent putting out fires. You’ll end up neglecting other important areas which most often end up having negative consequences.

Most of your time should be spent on the first two categories.

4.  Review

To make this list work effectively for you, it needs to become a daily tool that you use to manage your time and you review it regularly. There is no point in only having the list to record everything that you need to do, but you don’t utilize it as part of your bigger time management plan.

For example: At the end of every week, review the list and use it to plan the week ahead. Select what you want to work on taking into consideration priority, time and sequence and then schedule these items into your calendar. Golden rule in planning: don’t schedule more than 75% of your time.

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Bottom Line

So grab a pen and paper and give yourself the gift of a calm and clear mind by unloading everything in there and onto a list as now, you have all the tools you need for it to work. Knowledge is useless unless it is applied—how badly do you want more time?

To your success!

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Featured photo credit: Emma Matthews via unsplash.com

Reference

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