3 Hacks to Increase Your Productivity (When All You Want to Do Is Procrastinate)

by Emily Guy Birken · 9 comments

There’s plenty of advice about how to use your time more wisely — everything from creating routines to planning out your day the night before. But when you’re in the trenches and you feel the siren song of Candy Crush (or your distraction of choice) calling your name, no routine or well-planned to-do list can save you from yourself.

Those are the times when you need a great productivity hack to put you back on track. Do you want some help? Here are three ways you can force yourself to be more productive on your most procrastination-prone days:

1. Just start already (even if only for five minutes)

This first tip is one I picked up years ago from the home cleaning guru FlyLady (a.k.a. Marla Cilley). She tells her followers to commit to a daily five-minute room rescue and to do it now! We have all experienced the overwhelming sensation of seeing a sink piled with dishes or an overflowing inbox and deciding to deal with it “later.” FlyLady says to just commit to five minutes on whatever it is you’re dreading — and to do it right this minute.

Cilley’s advice is based on human psychology: just starting a project makes it easier to finish it.

That’s because of something called the Zeigarnik Effect, a phenomenon where your brain sends signals telling you to finish a project you have left undone. According to the psychologists who discovered it: “It seems to be human nature to finish what we start and, if it is not finished, we experience dissonance.”

In addition, Cilley’s admonition to do a five-minute cleanup of a room helps to overcome our natural disinclination to start an overwhelming project. If we tell ourselves we only need to work for five minutes, we’re much more likely to get started. And once we’ve started, the Zeigarnik Effect kicks in, and we have our own brains nagging us to keep going until we’ve finished.

2. Work in bursts

When you have a huge project hanging over your head, it may seem as though you need to clear entire days to get some work done on it. After all, a big project requires a big chunk of time to complete.

Except research has shown this thinking is simply not true. We do better when we concentrate on difficult tasks in short, focused bursts followed by short rests instead of devoting an entire day to a difficult activity. Basically, working on something difficult for a short amount of time is much more productive than filling a longer period of time with busy work.

To implement this method in your own career, I personally recommend the Pomodoro Technique: set a timer and work for 25 minutes, then take a five-minute break. The planned breaks allow you the space to use your work time as productively as possible.

3. Procrastinate constructively

When I was in college, I would often spend days leading up to a major project’s due date working on homework for other classes. I’d always get the project done on time, but I’d end up spending a great deal of time getting ahead in other classes first.

This was a form of constructive procrastination. Basically, you can either procrastinate by doing important (but less time-sensitive) tasks, or by doing completely unproductive tasks, like checking Facebook or playing video games. Constructive procrastinators may be avoiding the top item on their to-do list, but at least they’re getting something done.

Chris Bailey of A Year of Productivity suggests taking my old college habit one step further: create a procrastination list of items you’re allowed to work on if you find yourself procrastinating.

Creating such a list offers two important benefits. First, if you do end up procrastinating on the time-sensitive work you’re avoiding, you’ll at least be using your time productively. Second, you may find that nothing on your list is more appealing than just getting to work on the dreaded task.

The Bottom Line

While we are each given the same 24 hours each day, the most productive of us are able to do more with it. Using these three tips can help you make the most of your work time — which will make your time off feel that much sweeter.

What’s your #1 productivity tip? Share it with us in the comments!

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{ read the comments below or add one }

  • Ted C says:

    When did the word “tips” get replaced with the word “hack”? The bigger question is why? Just stop already. Enough with the word “hack”.

    • David @ MoneyNing.com says:

      Your criticism is duly noted. She was trying to be creative, but I’ll let the editor know to be more careful about the choice of words in the future.

  • Bry says:

    My number #1 productivity tip is to make sure you get enough sleep…at least 8 hours, preferably 8.5 or 9 and visit ayearofproductivity.com which has some amazing tips from a gentleman who studied productivity for a year. Lack of sleep causes us to make more mistakes, impacts our health and decreases our energy. I used to wake up at 7am with only about 6 hours of sleep. I wake up now at 9am. That 2 hours has made so much of a difference in my life that it is incalculable.

    • David @ MoneyNing.com says:

      Man that’s such a simple but incredibly effective tip, especially when I just woke up after a 6 and a half hour sleep!

      It’s amazing how much of a difference you feel with just an hour or two of more sleep. I never want to go to sleep as I want to get more done, but sometimes I feel like I can do more even if I use some time to sleep since I’ll much more efficient!

  • Aldo says:

    I find that the most difficult part is to start, at least for me. But once I start I do a pretty good job at trying to finish the task. I haven’t tried working in burst, but this might be a good thing to try. I guess a break is always good.

    • David @ MoneyNing.com says:

      I just realized I wrote pretty much the exact same thing as you did. I guess we are similar this way. Starting is definitely difficult!

  • John C says:

    I Love tip #2, I do that frequently for writing and working on projects around the house. The little breaks in between allow me to step back and analyze what I have done so far and where I have to go, which often leads to new ideas and approaches.

    • David @ MoneyNing.com says:

      It’s always good to take a step back and look at the direction you are going. You will waste less effort this way and get more done!

  • David @ MoneyNing.com says:

    Starting is always the hardest part for me. Exercising is like that for me (and washing dishes for that matter!). Once I start though, I don’t mind spending more time on the task but it’s difficult to get going.

    Sometimes, you just have to get your muscles to start and not wait for your mind for encouragement because it ain’t gonna happen!

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