As a software developer, procrastination can be quite a big problem, especially when you are faced with difficult or new tasks and don't know where to start. You delay the inevitable and then end up with burnout when you try to fit a week's worth of work into a day. I started experimenting with techniques to help me overcome my procrastination and decided to share it. I hope that they can help other developers out there to deal with the same problems that I faced.
At first I didn't realise how bad procrastination was for my future. When I had a colleague who constantly motivated and pushed me to finish tasks in extremely short time periods, I realised how much procrastination was limiting my potential. It prevented me from finishing projects and often made me depressed. Overcoming it would improve the quality of my work tenfold and allow me to deliver twice as many projects, if not more.
I had to start somewhere, so I started watching countless videos on how to overcome procrastination (like this TED talk). There were a lot of techniques that people used to help them, so I decided to slowly experiment with them and see where it would lead me.
The main idea: Create a habit of focussing
When I first started to experiment with ways to overcome procrastination, I noticed that the biggest cause was that the smallest distraction would grab my attention. I would then tell myself "It's fine, there is enough time left" and continue with something other than the important work.
The first thing I tried was to improve my time management. I started planning my day with calendars and To Do lists with due dates. This wasn't very successful because I would fall back on my excuse of "There is enough time left" and simply ignore the calendar or tasks.
The next thing I tried was the Pomodoro Technique. This allowed me to focus without getting distracted, and it changed everything - at least for a few days. To my dismay, one week later, I was back to my old self. Focusing for a day or two wasn't too difficult, but after those, I started to become easily distracted again.
This made me realise that I needed to work on creating an environment that would help me create a habit of allowing myself to focus without interruptions. Creating a habit was the only way I could overcome procrastination in the long run. Three weeks later and it became easier and easier to keep focusing and suppress the procrastination. The more time passed the better I became at managing my focus. Here's how I did that.
Specific techniques that helped me
Break big, general tasks into smaller, more specific ones and write them down!
Key thought: It's less intimidating to start with smaller tasks.
I find that it's much harder for me to get started with tasks that seem big and abstract. To get around this, I started to take some time before work to break each big task into smaller sub-tasks. Having small, concrete tasks makes the transition into a focused work session much smoother, because it's easier to decide where to start. It also helps me understand the overall task better and thereby takes the "sting" out of it.
Say, for instance, that I need to create a login system. Doing this can be very intimidating if I've never done it before. Without the confidence to just jump in and focus, I'll end up procrastinating until I have no choice but to start somewhere. The thing is: I probably do know how to implement the building blocks for a login system, even if only in fuzzy terms. I would start by adding a simple page, then I would move on to adding the form controls and hooking it all up to validation and authentication. These smaller tasks suddenly seem a lot more manageable than the single, big one!
Here's how this would look in practice:
Scratch off your finished tasks
Key thought: Visually seeing tasks being completed is very motivating.
When working on larger projects it can easily become demotivating when there is no sense of progress. In my case, I often felt like I wasn't moving forward, even though I might have been halfway through a project. With a big task, it was either "not done" or "completely done" — I couldn't see the progress in between.
That's why I started using a project management tool called Trello. On my Trello board, I now have a list of all the tasks that I have to complete for a given project. Once I complete a task, I move them over to a "Completed" list. Seeing this in such a visual way gives me a feeling of progress and gets the dopamine flowing, which in turn motivates me to do more. It also gives me a better sense of what tasks remain, which helps me realise the urgency of completing them now rather than later.
Here are free project management tools that you can use to get this effect:
Change your work environment
Key thought: Remove all distractions — and don't get too comfortable!
Once I was able to get myself to start working on a task, I needed to keep myself focused and not get distracted by all the small things around me.
Here's what helped me to improve my workspace:
- Clean it: When my desk is dirty or messy, I find that it makes me feel slightly depressed, which in turn makes it harder to focus.
- Put your phone away: While I'm in a focus session, I hide my phone and put it on silent. Every time someone texts me, there is a natural urge to look at it; once I look at it, my focus is gone.
- Get dressed: When I work from home, I avoid the urge to just stay in my pyjamas. I can trick my brain into thinking that I'm in a work environment by wearing something semi-casual or even formal.
If that doesn't work, you might need to spice it up with one or more of the following ideas:
- Go to a coffee shop: Sitting at a coffee shop will help you remove yourself from the usual office environment and help you feel relaxed and fresh.
- Change workstation: Don't sit at the same desk, if there are open desks in the office try switching around every week. Doing this will give you the opportunity to you sit next to other colleagues who might help push you in the right direction. This also takes you out of your comfort zone, which can help you avoid feeling like you are just there waiting for the time go by.
- Get some air: Sit outside and get some fresh air. This will help you feel relaxed and fresh, it also might be a less busy environment that will help you to stay focused.
Use the Pomodoro Technique
Key thought: Work in short, focused sessions and take regular breaks as a reward.
Working for hours without taking a break fried my brain and caused me to lose out on productive work hours. It became harder to focus and be efficient as the day became longer. The Pomodoro Technique considerably helped me to manage my focus sessions by taking regular breaks in-between to keep me fresh.
So how does it work?
- Decide on the task that has to be done.
- Set a timer to 25 minutes.
- Work without interruptions until the timer rings.
- Take a short 5 minute break; now is the time to grab your phone or just relax.
- Take a 15-30 minute break after four 25-minute sessions.
This technique helps to keep your mind fresh and focused for the duration of the day, while also giving you a good excuse to reward yourself in between. After a month or so, you may find that you no longer need to use a timer to keep track of your sessions as you will have formed a habit of working in short focused sessions with regular breaks in between.
There are many of tools out there to help you keep track of the time, but here is a list of timers that I would recommend:
- Tomato Timer - A simple website with a built in pomodoro timer
- Ikytal Pomodoro - Addon for Visual Studio Code
- Pomodoro Tracker - A website with a pomodoro timer that allows you to add simple tasks
Listen to focus music
Key thought: Keep your mind clear with some soft background music.
During a pomodoro I sometimes found my mind all over the place; thinking of other things and eventually losing focus. What helped me clear my mind was playing some background music. This also helped eliminate distracting noise and stopped me from trying to listen to conversations in the office.
Speakers are great when working from home but earphones are a must if you work in an office with a lot of people who are constantly moving around and talking. Also, experiment with different genres of music to see what type of music helps you focus and what type of music you should avoid.
Tips and tricks to make this top more effective:
- Set the volume to about 30% or lower. It should only be used as background noise so that your mind is kept occupied while you focus on working.
- Find music that helps you get into auto-pilot during those easy tasks.
- Find music that motivates you for those difficult tasks.
- Wear comfortable earphones that don't hurt your ears or fall out easily.
- I use HP Doha In-Ear Headset at work as it is affordable and better than all the expensive earphones that I've tried before.
A list of songs that I listen to while working includes:
- Cafe Jazz: If you want a coffee shop vibe for longer focus sessions.
- Shakey Graves - Roll the bones: My personal motivator when fighting difficult tasks.
- Michael Kiwanuka - Love & Hate: Used while writing this article, these types of songs are perfect for background music that isn't too boring but also not distracting.
Often I find myself just letting YouTube pick the next song, but be careful if you don't have an ad-blocker as the ads can break your focus.
Johan Heymans is a software developer at SolarAfrica. He enjoys playing around with different technologies and development languages in his spare time.