Erica Buist | Contributor | Tuesday, 10 February 2015

Ask An Adult: How Do I Get Shit Done?

The Debrief: How to procrastinating and actually do what you're supposed to be doing, goddammit.

Illustration by Karol Banach

Did you know you can record your browser window and watch what you did later? I’ve never done it because it would be horrifying.

I am well aware of how I flip from tab to tab, how the importance of deleting all those unopened Upworthy emails can inexplicably dwarf that of meeting a deadline in half an hour, or that I can be halfway through reading a fascinating and heartbreaking expose on modern-day slavery and suddenly MUST Google ‘Do Scottish fold kittens get arthritis in later life?’ (The answer, just to save you a Google, is ‘Yes, sometimes’. So phew, fellow non-owners of Scottish fold kittens, now we know.)

What I’m saying is, holy mother of Hades, is it’s hard to get shit done. So here are a few techniques to beat down the evils of procrastination. Oh, do you now need to go and look at Costa Rica on street view first, to see if the people look as happy as they’re always saying they are in polls? It’s fine, go ahead. I think it might be a psych, too. Get back to me when you’re done.

Welcome back! As I was saying: here are some anti-procrastination techniques.

The Pomodoro Technique

Yes, fellow Italian learners, this is ‘the tomato technique’ and no, it’s not some bogus study that says eating tomatoes will give you superhuman focusing powers. Seriously, put down the tomatoes, you look like a vampire. 

The Pomodoro Technique is a time-management strategy: you budget your time into 25-minute bursts then take a five-minute break. The 25-minute stretch of work is called a ‘pomodoro’ because when developing the technique, Francesco Cirillo used a kitchen timer shaped like a tomato. After four pomodoros, you take a 15-20 minute break.

The idea is that by working for only slightly longer than an episode of Friends, you get maximum focus and freshness, minimum mental fatigue and less likelihood of needing to recuperate by putting on an episode of Friends.

The Pomodoro website says ‘true mastery of the technique takes from seven to 20 days of constant use’, after which you’ll hopefully have fewer procrastination tugs or desire to switch projects seven times a minute.

The 10-minute hack

They say the first hurdle is always the hardest. It’s not true, but it sounds good, and it captures the sleeve-gnawing nightmare of getting started. A lovely tip from lifehacker.com is the 10-minute hack, which is: choose one task and work on it for 10 minutes straight, no stopping.

What do you achieve in 10 minutes? Well, nothing major – but you’ve made a start. And hey, if getting started is the hardest hurdle (the hardle?), you may as well carry on now you’ve cleared it!

Put the right things in your face

You need the right fuel to be productive. You wouldn’t put bananas in your car, so don’t put petrol in, um, yourself. OK, dietitian Kirsten Crothers can explain this better than me: she says high sugar foods and drinks such as chocolate, sweets, cake, coke, and even large amounts of fruit juice are a productivity no-no.

‘These will cause your blood sugars to spike, giving you a temporary energy high, followed by a crash.’

She says you should also avoid loading up on carbs and salt, as ‘they leave you feeling bloated and tired’ – although including bread, pasta, potatoes or rice in your evening meal ‘will actually help you sleep better that night so you have more energy the next day.’

Eat three actual meals a day, she also advises, or your blood sugar, and focus, will bounce up and down like Tigger.

Also, please drink water. It’s the elixir of concentration, and the lack of it is probably responsible for most of your headaches. Crothers gives a great tip: ‘Keep a 1-litre bottle of water and aim to finish it (on top of other fluids) by the end of the day.’

Seinfeld’s Productivity Calendar

Whether or not you like Jerry Seinfeld’s ‘What’s that all about?’ jokes, you have to admit the man gets shit done. When software developer Brad Isaac ran into Seinfeld at a comedy club, he asked him how to develop his comic craft. Seinfeld told him: ‘The way to be a better comic is to create better jokes, and the way to create better jokes is to write every day.’

Then, in the style of the man who knows what the hell he’s talking about, he hit Isaac with a productivity technique he’s since sworn by. ‘He told me to get a big wall calendar that has a whole year on one page and hang it on a prominent wall. The next step was to get a big red magic marker. He said for each day that I do my task of writing, I get to put a big red X over that day.’

Seinfeld told Isaac: ‘After a few days you’ll have a chain.’

So this will work if you’re the kind of person who gets satisfaction from visual representations of productivity – and who isn’t?

‘Just keep at it and the chain will grow longer every day. You’ll like seeing that chain, especially when you get a few weeks under your belt. Your only job next is to not break the chain.’

Drug yourself

Seinfeld also gave us all another productivity tip in a 2011 tweet: ‘I love how you just make coffee and then somehow something gets done.’ 

Note: beware of using coffee as just another way to procrastinate. Making coffee is a lovely way to take a break, and once you drink it you will hopefully find the energy to get shit done. But making coffee every time you feel like procrastinating can lead to a caffeine overload, which makes you about as productive as a toddler on too much Ritalin, and only half as cute.

The right soundtrack

No, Miley Cyrus is not helpful when you’re trying to be productive – and there is no human on the planet for whom that statement is untrue. Apparently, white noise is the most focusing soundtrack – supposedly, it can also ease stress, and even puts infants to sleep.

There are white noise generator apps for both iPhone and Android, or here’s a YouTube video of 10 hours of ‘celestial white noise’. And, because I am a method writer, I will listen to it while typing the rest of this article. If you’re seeing this published, it didn’t suck.

Look at cute pictures of baby animals on the internet. I AM SERIOUS.

Japanese researcher Hiroshi Nittono, who deserves a medal or at least a series of very sincere cuddles, concluded that looking at adorable pictures of baby animals improves productivity. That’s right – your procrastination literally improves productivity!

Participants completed various tasks twice, the second time after looking at pictures. One group looked at pictures of adorable baby animals, the other at pictures of adult animals or food. And guess what? The people who had looked at baby animal pictures WAY outperformed the others.

Why? Is it that they had ‘a narrowed attentional focus induced by the cuteness-triggered positive emotion that is associated with approach motivation and the tendency towards systematic processing’?

Or did they just have a refreshing break – you know, the ones mentioned in the Pomodoro technique? The real question is, do you even care? 

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Follow Erica on Twitter: @ericabuist

Illustration: Karol Banach 

Tags: Life Hacks