I Learned How to Stop Procrastinating by Letting Experts Analyze My Distraction Diary

I shared the full journal with Carlton University’s Timothy A. Pychyl, Ph.D., author of Solving the Procrastination Puzzle, and Christine Li, Ph.D., founder of the Procrastination Coach. Both told me that while this level of procrastination isn’t the worst they’ve seen, there are simple skills I could learn to stop the bad behavior all together. And after following their advice, I was able to pay better attention to the tasks at hand, which meant articles written faster and, for the first time ever, inbox zero.

Below, Pychyl and Li share their tried-and-true methods to drown out distractions and get work done—whether or not the polar vortex has iced out your attention span.

Turn off your notifications.

Between the CNN alerts we get on our phones, the Slack messages we receive at all hours on our computers, and the countless new emails that hit our inbox every day, we’re inundated with notifications. While it’s important to be on top of communication, the incessant “pings” can slow your pace at work. “You shouldn’t have notifications active when you’re working on other tasks,” Pychyl says. “We simply don’t have that much willpower and self-control, so we shouldn’t rely on it. We need to set up the environment to work in our favor, not against us.”

For the true radical, Pychyl recommends turning phones off or putting them far away from your workspace. I’m a cell phone junkie, which is why I’ve tried to force myself to test this out. Yesterday I left my phone in my bag for over two hours—embarrassingly, a record—and all I missed were a couple texts from my mom that said things like, “How’s your day, sweetie?” Which is nice, but not urgent.

Don’t toggle between assignments.

How many tabs are open on your computer right now? Between email, that article you wanted to read, a presentation you’re in the middle of preparing, and the Google Doc you’re contributing to, there’s so much going on on your screen, it’s hard to pay attention to just one task at a time. But if you’re catching up on a few messages, and only adding one paragraph at a time to that project—it can feel like you have so much to do, but you aren’t making any progress.

Focus on one task at a time. “Train yourself to focus completely when you are doing your big work, and then save the smaller tasks for another block of time,” says Li. “Commit to working with this type of single-minded focus by writing your plans down in a time block format, where each task gets a particular block of time on your calendar—and don’t switch between assignments for the entirety of that time period.” Li also recommends using a paper planner. “The act of writing tasks down helps us feel more committed to doing them.” I’ve always been loyal to the classic Moleskine, but lately I’ve been eying this one from Ashley Mary.

Practice mindfulness.

No matter how hard a worker you are, you’re bound to hit a slump. Everybody’s attention wanders at some point. What’s most important is that you’re able to bring your focus back to the task at hand. A practice that Pychyl has found helpful for strengthening this skill is mindfulness meditation. “As soon as we sit to meditate, our minds wander. We think about everything and anything else,” he says. “But mindfulness meditation involves acknowledging that our minds have wandered, that we have thoughts and feelings, and then just bringing our attention back to the breath. This practice is a strong foundation for our everyday lives, as we learn that our attention does wane, but that we can bring our attention back to where we want it to be.” You can test it out for a few minutes on a lunch break or before you go to bed.

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