In 2008, Simon & Schuster wrote a $200,000 check for Emily Gould to finish a book she’d already started. For the next two years, not much happened. Her husband knew why:
“You’ll sell your book for a million dollars,” he said, over and over again. But there was one thing he wouldn’t tolerate, and that was all the time I spent clicking and scrolling. He didn’t buy the line about it being a form of creativity. He called it an addiction.
Procrastination is the creative’s curse and today, all jobs require creativity. One of the most common ways we procrastinate is by looking for ways to procrastinate less. Over the past three years, I have too.
I even tried lots of stuff. Only to arrive at the disillusioning, yet oddly satisfying realization that just four productivity hacks have stuck — because they’re all I need.
Here’s the 80/20 of productivity hacks that will make you focused. Not all of the time, but enough of the time. So you may do your work and do it well.
1. Choose one, non-negotiable task that must get done each day.
Until 1900 the word ‘priority’ was rarely used in the English language. That’s because it stems from the Latin ‘prior,’ which means ‘first’— and there can only ever be one ‘first’ of anything. Multiple priorities are a paradox.
Hence, James Clear suggests picking an anchor task:
“One of the major improvements I’ve made recently is to assign one (and only one) priority to each work day. Although I plan to complete other tasks during the day, my priority task is the one non-negotiable thing that must get done.”
Your anchor task is your life’s mission, if only for a day. Unless your office burns down or your laptop spontaneously disintegrates, you MUST finish it.
Choosing your anchor task should hurt. If it doesn’t, it’s not important enough. For example, my anchor task today is to send out a newsletter. If I fail to finish this post, that would really suck, but the newsletter is the most important thing.
The easiest way to consistently pick an anchor task is to use the Momentum extension. When you first open your browser, it automatically prompts you:
2. Make checking your email a conscious choice that’s only possible at certain times.
An email is a to-do sent by another person. It’s not a phone call, so it’s never urgent. Checking our inbox is part of the dopamine chase Gould’s husband described. We’re not doing it to work. We’re doing it to get our fix.
We talk about “cleaning our inbox.” That’s literally what it is. Digging through the dirt, sorting, organizing. As with your home, if you sweep once a day it’s a soothing, transformative experience. Sweep all the time and you’re OCD. A neat freak.
The calmness I feel from ignoring my email for 23 out of 24 hours each day is unprecedented. The tool I use to do it is Inbox Pause. It adds a little button to your Gmail that says ‘Pause.’ Press it and no new emails will show up in your inbox until you say so. Now, sweeping is a conscious choice.
I have two rules for un-pausing:
- Never do it before 11 AM.
- Only do it once a day.
It doesn’t always work, but it’s made my life a lot better.
Note: With the paid version, you can even set a schedule by which your email is moved to your inbox automatically.
3. Make sure your phone is actually silent when you set it to be and hide it from view.
Apple’s official name for the toggle switch on the side of your iPhone is Ring/Silent. Then why isn’t my iPhone silent when I press it?
The only difference between a ringing phone and a vibrating one is that the latter is less annoying for the people around you. For you, they’re equally distracting. It only takes one adjustment in ‘Settings’ to fix that.
Go to ‘Sounds’ and uncheck ‘Vibrate on Silent.’ Done.
You can now eliminate your phone’s audible attacks on your senses at the switch of a button. If you also remove your phone as a visible distraction itself, you’ll be golden. How?
Place your phone somewhere hidden from view. It could be in your desk drawer, backpack, behind your laptop or in your jacket. As long as you can’t see it, you won’t grab it.
Welcome to iPhone heaven.
4. Set up places to store your distracting thoughts.
This last tweak to your environment will address the most powerful distractor of all: your mind. In the torrential storm of up to 50,000 thoughts that passes through our brain each day, it’s normal for a lot of them to be unrelated to your current task. The problem is letting them pass through.
The Zeigarnik Effect is what keeps sending distracting thoughts to the top of your mind. The way to beat it is to externalize these thoughts. Just like Dumbledore stores some of his memories in his pensieve.
All you need to pull this off is a go-to place where you can store these thoughts as they occur. David Allen calls these places collection buckets in Getting Things Done. While his system captures everything that’s incomplete, it seems daunting to set it up.
So here’s the trick: Set up just one collection bucket. It can be a note on your phone, a physical storing tray, a notebook or a collection of post-its. Now, whenever you remember you need to buy milk, or a movie you want to watch, or to call Tom for his birthday, you can drop it in there and the thought will stop pestering you.
Over time, you’ll automatically add more buckets as needed. For example, I started with a single note in my phone for administrative to do’s, like taxes and paper work, which slowly developed into a bigger system to manage my income, expenses, college classes, writing and projects.
The Path to Perfection
As she told her publicist to, the Amazon description of her book calls Emily “the voice of her generation.” With 8,000 copies sold after three years, that’s hardly the case. Even a master chef’s stew tastes stale when it boils too long.
Right this second, people are tweeting about working on their novel, which means they’re not working on their novel. I get it. Them, Emily, me, you. We want it to be perfect.
But sometimes, the only path to perfection leads right through ‘good enough.’
Now go do some work.