Procrastination. We all do it, and know the feeling of remorse after we set out do something but end up completely off-task. You would think we’d learn after the first – or at least the 5th – time of procrastinating that it’s not in our best interest. It’s a classic example of our impulses beating out forethought, like when you eat that whole bag of potato chips or skip the gym even though you know you’ll regret it later. We don’t usually learn from past detrimental behaviors when the immediate gratification precedes the distant, more favorable payoff.
The two key features that determine payoffs are the actual reward and the temporal contiguity. The temporal contiguity is how soon the payoff comes after a certain behavior is exhibited. For example, you eat a potato chip and feel pretty satisfied the moment the salt and oil touches your taste buds. These immediate payoffs are incredibly hard to resist. This is similar to choosing to get on Facebook instead of write that essay: you pretty much feel satisfied immediately after logging on, where as the essay may take hours to finish. But hopping on Facebook before chipping away at the essay means it will be even longer before you feel the satisfaction of having your work done, and why would you want to delay that satisfaction? Here are five concepts to help you stay on track and earn the greater yet often delayed reward.
1. Pomodoro Technique
The Pomodoro Technique is great for people who like to work in short productive bursts. Usually you work in 25 minutes intervals with about 5 minutes breaks between each work session. Then after four work sessions, you get a longer 20 or 30 minute break. It’s a good idea to set out the tasks you need to accomplish and set goals for each 25 minute chunk of time: The limited amount of time in each interval can make you more productive.
2. Parkinson’s Law
The idea behind Parkinson’s Law is that work fills the amount of time you allow it to. Now, this idea may actually fuel procrastination if you think you can leave something to the last minute and get it done, but the idea is to use it in the reverse way. For example, give yourself a start and end time to work in a focused, rather than an ambiguous, time frame to avoid distractions from seeping in.
3. Pareto Principle
According to the Pareto principle, 20% of your time is used to fill the majority of your important goals. If you can get the majority of your work done with only 20% of your time, this is incentive to structure your time so you don’t waste it. If you feel you won’t be productive, don’t force yourself to slug through a task you could do more efficiently in a better state. Efficiency should always be put first. If you’re feeling sick or hungover, use the first part of time to do less mentally draining yet necessary tasks like e-mails, scheduling and reading the news. Then use your most alert time to get through the most challenging tasks.
4. Quadrant Method
This is also known as the Eisenhower method. With the Quadrant Method, you categorize tasks into one of four quadrants. The top two columns are labeled “Urgent” and “Not Urgent,” and the first two rows are labeled “Important and “Not Important.” Once you have tasks categorized, focus all your energy on the Urgent and Important tasks. Then once those are, done focus on the not Urgent but Important tasks. Not Urgent and Not Important should really be avoided while the Not Important but Urgent should not be allowed to take up more than a small portion of your time.
5. Time chunking
Time chunking is a more general concept, but can be useful if you want more flexibility with your work time. The idea is to dedicate certain times of the day or certain days of the week to different task categories. You can even add in “Waste Time” as a category so you can plan on doing all that would normally serve as distractions during work time. At least with this method you actively decide how you spend your time rather than getting sucked into unintentional behaviors.
While we cannot focus all of our mental energy 100% of the time, we can actively decide how our time is spent and ultimately maximize this limited time.