How to Work in Bursts to Get More Done
By Leo Babauta
If you’re like me — and if you’re a freelancer, you’re probably like this — you procrastinate on your assignment because, well, you just don’t feel like doing it right now. There are tons of reasons why: it’s an intimidating project, you’re not sure how to start, or simple inertia stops you from getting started.
A solution that works every time: break the job into smaller bits, and do those bits in bursts.
That may sound obvious, but not many people put this to optimal use. Too often they procrastinate because they’re stuck with a daunting task on their to-do list. If that’s you, try these 10 productive tips:
Granularize. Got a project? Just put the very next physical action on your to-do list, not everything on the list. Is that task still too intimidating? Break it down even further. For example, instead of writing a whole article, write the intro. Or do an outline. Instead of doing a whole graphic design, just do a sketch. Or start by brainstorming. Or searching the web for ideas (don’t get lost on the web).
Granularize further. If that’s still too big, just do 10 minutes of the task. You don’t need to finish it. Do 10 minutes, and at least you’ve gotten off to a good start. After 10 minutes, you can stop — or just as often, you may just keep going. Even if you stop, doing something in 10-minute bursts is a bit more likely to get it done than putting it off forever. Just a tad more likely.
Set a timer. OK, you’re going to do this in a 10-minute burst — now set a timer and do it. When the timer goes off, you can stop. Timers are great tools for working in bursts.
Clear distractions. Turn off email notifications, clear your desk, turn off the phone. If you’re going to do this in bursts, you can’t be distracted every 10 seconds. You’ve got to really work during that burst, or your burst will never happen.
Really focus. You’re doing your burst, and you cleared away distractions … and yet you still feel the pull of email, or other distractions. Resist. Pull yourself back. Now really focus. Getting pulled away? Pull yourself back once again. Now focus! Good focus will get the job done every time.
In-between time. Bursts are great for those in-between times when you can’t do larger tasks. Got 5-10 minutes before a meeting? Do a focused burst. This is one great way of doing a free-lance job while holding a real job — as long as your boss doesn’t find out. That’s how I do it — but my boss knows about it. As long as I get my job done, doing free-lance bursts in between tasks never hurts my productivity.
Keep a list. You’re most productive if you keep a list of small actions — bursts — that you can do at any time. Then, when you’re ready to do a burst, just choose something from the list and go at it. And checking it off when you’re done is super satisfying.
Next. Finished your burst? Check it off your list, sure, but don’t forget to write the next burst on your list. If you did 10 minutes of an assignment but aren’t done, be sure to put the next 10 minutes on your list, right when you checked the old one off. Always have the next task for an assignment on your list, so you don’t forget, until the assignment is completed.
Just start. I can put something off forever. I’m always finding something else to do. But when I really need to do something that I’ve been putting off, I take a deep breath, and just plunge into it. It doesn’t matter how long I do it, as long as I just get started. It’s like the way I force myself to do a run — I don’t think about the run itself, I just tell myself to put on my shoes and get out the door. The rest will flow naturally. Just get started, and the work will happen.
Enjoy the done. When you complete a burst, take a minute to enjoy the satisfaction of doing something. Doesn’t that feel good? Even better, give yourself a mini reward. Be sure the mini reward, if it’s a snack-sized candy bar, let’s say, doesn’t come too many times in the day, or your mini reward will turn into a major belly. This is when the running comes in handy. But find a variety of mini rewards, and you should be fine.
Still can’t get started? Try 20 Procrastination Hacks for other good tips.