On Procrastination and Work

Hi All,

TLDR; What do you all do to stay focused and avoid procrastination? When do you know it’s time to just take that break instead of spending time in front of the computer.

In my line of work (professor at a university), I have very few hard deadlines. There are some (e.g. submitting a report on grant), but most are self-set deadline and very flexible. When I have a hard deadline, I focus and finish quickly, when I have a flexible deadline I take my time and find all sorts of distractions (e.g. if at home, cleaning, if at work, email, and often I spend too much time looking for and testing apps to improve my workflow).

Case in point. This morning I realized I had a report due for a small internal grant last Friday (oops!) so I focused and finished it within an hour. I could see myself dragging this for a whole half day.

I’ve also been trying to notice when I get in this procrastination mode so I can just take a walk or text a friend for a coffee or lunch. If I’m going to procrastinate I’d rather spend it doing something else than in front of my work computer. I have a hunch that my procrastination partially comes from wanting social interaction with people (like using this forum). I can spend a whole day at a coffee shop (awesome) but I may be alone that whole day (sometimes awesome, sometimes lonely).

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We use an agile scrum methodology, where I work so everything always in under some kind of time pressure, it works really well to get stuff done, but I am not overly a fan as, from my experience it leads people to feel a sense of burn out. (You don’t win marathons always sprinting)

Personally I decide my day up into three sections, the morning (6:30am-9am) which I use for personal educational and learning, the workday (9am-5pm) where I do work, I work from home most days so after my morning conference calls I like to take a shower and then dive into actual programming work. Lastly I have the evenings (5pm-9pm) where I try to relax, read or spend time with my wife.

During the day I do like to get up every hour or so to refil my water bottle, and stretch a bit. I also try to get out on a walk during my lunch.

Writing software, can often be a stop start process for me, rarely can I sit down and just work for several hours straight, so I do a bit, hit a bug, take a break to think about it and try not to get frustrated.

Personally I strongly dislike the culture that work only happens at a desk, my best thinking is done when I am up and about.

You might want to experiment with the Pomodoro Technique.

Focus is a nice App to support that, but there are plenty of others.


There are two Mac apps called Focus (which can get a bit confusing). I sometimes use the one that @rob recommended…and also use the other Focus app (by Brad Jasper). This app provides a convenient way to block distracting apps and websites during focus sessions. It can be purchased directly from the develop as included in Setapp.

I also find timeblocking is very helpful. I block off time for key projects and activities, health and fitness, fun activities, etc. and use colour-coding to help ensure that each area of my life is getting the appropriate amount of attention.

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I have to be pretty responsive to external deadlines which trickle in over the course of the day so there’s often no choice but to power through. When a deadline really tight - or is cyclical - I block time on my calendar. If I’m really desperate, I turn off my messaging app at work but unfortunately I don’t have the luxury turning off email. I do turn off notifications temporarily if things are URGENT.

I have a really basic approach to taking a break: water. I keep a full water bottle on my desk and aim to drink 800ml in the morning and another 800ml in the afternoon. Drinking this much forces me to get up a) to refill the water bottle and b) to go to the loo. I end up standing up and moving about once an hour.

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I like the idea of breaking up my day. I usually do 6 to 9am gym time 2x a week or writing/email. I write in the morning on the 3 other days, but maybe I should find other ways to do “me” time on those days? I try getting in a meditation time for 20 mins when I can, but I often find excuses to skip this part.

I used pomodoro back in grad school. I should tray that again. The nice thing is that I can set my email on silent. I only get notifications for VIP emails (my department chair and dean are two of the few people on that list). Luckily the rest of the faculty are so bad at email that me responding within 12-24 hours is seen as very responsive by the students.

I can shape my environment to have minimal distractions. I even have a door I can close when I don’t want to be bothered. It’s summer, so I have minimal people I have to respond to (faculty are technically employed 9 months out of the year, but most work through the summer to publish).

Maybe I’m just burnt out and need a break. I just finished teaching a summer course for the first time (5 hous twice a day plus about 15 hours more for prep and grading).

I second the Pomodoro Technique. While I don’t buy into the strict 25 minute block or the goal of getting to the point of predicting how many Pomodoros are needed for a particular project, I do think that I can do anything for 25 minutes. If I can start a pomodoro to focus on a project, then I can complete that pomodoro. If I can get focused for 25 minutes, then I may be able to get focused for another 25 mintues, and so on. Very often, 25 minutes turns into 2 hours of focused work for me. That’s a win in my book!

I just go with a simple 2-list approach. I tried other things, but they created more stress than they relieved for me!

Anything time sensitive or important goes on List A, anything else goes on List B (which typically means do in June-August).

I’m then content if I tick one thing off my list a day, but I do get focused if the list goes over about 8-10 items. As long as I look at my list every morning, my procrastination stays in check.
If something stays on List A too long I deal with it, possibly by bumping it to List B.
If something stays on List B too long (a year or so), I consider deleting it.
Oh, and if I have a big project, only the next one or two steps go in these lists.

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Nice! I like the simplicity. Do you use GTD software like Things or Omnifocus?

I did read up on GTD and what I do pinched a couple of elements.
I just use Apple Reminders (via Siri) to collect things into my Inbox, then I move some into my ‘Later’ List B.

Actually, now I think about it, I do have more than 2 as I split between home and school, both of which have their own 2-tier lists.

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Story of my life. I’m a PhD student, so not as far along as yourself, but have the same issues.

Below is the template I use every day. It’s part Tim Ferriss’ Five Minute Journal, plus a couple of additions of my own.
I’m working my way through Shaun Blanc’s focus course, which has helped me see what is important to me, and the kind of person I want to be. The template is a way to keep myself on track, and make concrete what it would be like to make progress today.
One important nuance that I’m learning is that productivity does not equal progress. The daily tasks I need to do go in NotePlan or Agenda above the template. They are important, but not necessarily things that will help me make progress. The things that move me forward go below the first heading that I added, What will I do to make progress today?
On a related note, the technology doesn’t really matter - this can be done with a crayon on a grocery bag. The important thing is thinking about who we are, who we want to become, the steps to take, and assessing the direction we are heading.
The Recap below is my addition, and helps me think about what I did today, progress I made, and setbacks that happened. This feedback is vital to improving ourselves.
Another feature of using the template, is it causes me to actually think about the days events, and provides a framework to guide that thought.

Hope you or others find it useful.

  • John

    What will I do to make progress today?

    To be answered in the morning:

    I am grateful for…

    What would make today great?

    Daily affirmations. I am …

    To be filled in at night:

    3 amazing things that happened today…

    How could I have made today better?



This is a wonderfully simple, sane philosophy of work that I can totally get behind. I think I might just give it a try going forward if I can.

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I used to use that too ! I set it up as a text expander snippet. I got it from panda planner only to realize later where it came from. I’m definitely going to go back to this. I was pretty religious about doing this every morning for my first 2 years as faculty.

The main thing I try to stick to is 15 mins of writing every morning and being in the moment rather than thinking of that next thing I to do (e.g. when meeting with a student focus on that rather than worry anout that deadline due later that day).

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This is what I had for my snippet. I need to shorten it.

Morning Review
Date %m-%d-%Y
Time %1I:%M:%S %p

#Journal/Morning Review#

Schedule for the Day:

What needs to get done today:

My accomplishments from Yesterday:

3 Things I’m grateful for:

I’m excited about:


My Focus For the Day:

Exercise I Plan to Do:

Right now I have seven things going on. Most of the time I spend procrastinating is time I’m spending on a different project or job. I’m forcing myself to make more of my time productive time.

A to-do list app is really helpful when I pile 'em on. I can keep tabbing over to it and going ‘oh! right! that’s next!’ and get to it. Some days I can feel a little scattered, but when I know I’ve got a major event in one of the projects coming up, it takes the spotlight. Things should be mostly calmed down for me in around 82 days, depending on what pops up between now and then.

If I don’t have a whole bunch of projects going on, and I keep not having them for a little while, I start to say yes to things.

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I do something similar with phone calls or other conversations I want to remember on TextExpander, I have a template that I use to make that possible. Glad to see I’m not alone!