I’m not a former procrastinator. I’m not a recovering procrastinator. I’m deep in the unsatisfying slump of routine laziness and ineffective boredom. I’ve talked to doctors – it’s incurable. I’m not, and will probably never be, the poster child for making the most of what time I have.
On the other hand, this means when I notice something works for me, I really notice. I don’t like answers that sound like they’re selling me a self-help book, so here’s just what helps my disease out.
1) Go to bed early, get up early. And have a routine for the morning.
Giving myself time in the morning to get some tasks of personal importance to me really helps with motivation. The overwhelming stress of the afternoon, where time crunches seem to happen much more frequently, is nowhere to be found in the morning. Make plans the night before. If you have two hours, devote one to working out and one to making a healthy breakfast. So many goals can be completed before you need to go to work.
2) Give yourself at least a half-hour of boredom per day.
This sounds weird, I know. But the brain is given such easy stimulus so frequently, through social media, through entertainment, and through simplistic tasks at work or school or wherever, that it frequently gets sluggish. The same way your energy levels tend to drop if you subsist on a diet of Snickers and Mountain Dew, your brain slows down without something substantial and meaty. Without focus, it’s impossible to channel your energy and intelligence into something productive.
I used to try to overcome this by attempting to work on hard problems, like accounting homework or reading dense books. This had the exact opposite effect, though, as I would lose focus and get frustrated, my mind wandering even more than before. Almost inevitably, my free time would be consumed by Netflix binging or video games, as I simply couldn’t focus on anything more demanding.
Giving yourself a period of time where you can simply not be stimulated is nothing less than amazing, at least for me. This is best to do in the morning, when the world is quieter, stress is lower, and the things that demand your attention vanish. I sit on my dorm room couch. I don’t lie down – sleeping isn’t the point here. I usually grab a notebook, because as soon as you take away all the stimulus from your brain, it ironically becomes much more active.
If I knew anything at all about meditation, I might say the same principles apply here. Regardless, I almost always get my best ideas just sitting and letting my mind wander, and even if I don’t, I always go back to my life with much more energy and enthusiasm.
3) Like tasks go together.
There’s a concept psychologists call “flow.” It’s essentially becoming absorbed and invested in a task to the point where you are no longer conscious of the world outside you. Think of it like the feeling you get when you read a book, look up, and see that two hours have passed. If you have a job that requires a lot of continual focus and is at least somewhat mentally stimulating, you’ll probably recognize this state. This is the point at which you are almost inevitably your most productive.
It’s difficult to find flow, and very easy to break. We all have small tasks that can’t be ignored, and if one of these has to be done in the middle of another larger one, our flow is broken. If I stop writing a term paper to send an email, it’s going to be hard to get back to that fascinating treatise on the value of FASB codification.
As best you can, group all the small tasks together in one block of time, and save your larger chunks of available time to perform the larger tasks without interruption.
4) As soon as you think you should get to work, get to work.
I can’t tell you how much time I’ve wasted in the Reddit/Wikipedia/YouTube wormhole. And if every time I heard it I had simply listened to the voice in my head that said, “You know, 15 minutes is probably enough,” I would probably have accomplished a lot more by now.
That’s it. If you hear that voice, listen to it.
5) Know what needs to be done.
Prep work is king. Motivation sinks when you have no idea what you should be doing. Make a list, ask someone, draw up a planner, just do something to have a guide for yourself. Some people can effectively fly by the seat of their pants. The fact that I’m writing this and you’re reading it proves that we can’t. Make sure you have instructions, required materials, dates and times, and anything else that will help you avoid confusion later. Remove as many roadblocks as you can.
I can’t guarantee this will change everything for you – I don’t think motivation is a one size fits all issue. But hopefully it helps you figure out your own personal improvement regimen.
This question originally appeared on Quora: I am ambitious, talented and intelligent, but I lack willpower, discipline, and organization. I am an impulsive procrastinator of the highest order. What can I do to improve?
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