Completing a large project, like writing a book or starting a business, can seem like an impossibly daunting task. You know your project is important, but you may find that more current, seemingly-urgent things just keep getting in the way of your progress. Emails, calls, meetings, and chores can all pile up and make your project’s deadline slip from “soon” to “indefinite”. This is incredibly common; ask most people if they have a large goal they’re working towards, and you’ll usually get a yes. If you ask them how they’re coming along, though, you’ll probably receive a pessimistic or non-concrete answer. Life has a way of intervening and getting in between us and our goals. However, you can overcome this common problem; you actually have more time to make progress than you think. Use a few of these techniques, and in no time you’ll realize some real, concrete steps forward!
The Pomodoro Technique
The Pomodoro Technique is what I like to call a “20-Minute Sprint”. It is a way to focus your mind on a single task and make a lot of headway on it in a short time. The technique is simple; place a kitchen timer next to you and set it for anywhere between 10 and 25 minutes. During this time, you should focus solely on making as much progress on one task as possible. You focus on nothing else and allow nothing in your environment to distract you. The Pomodoro Technique works because it is an externalization exercise – an exercise that places control of your time in the external environment, which has a much greater influence on your level of motivation and focus than your internal decision-making capabilities do. It’s a good idea to customize your environment even further when using the Pomodoro technique. Work on your project at a time during the day when you are least likely to be distracted by phone calls, coworkers, buffalo stampedes, etc. Experiment with different work environments such as your home, a coffee shop, or a co-working facility. Some people get more done in isolation, while others will work better in a more public setting.
Eliminate Unnecessary Habits
Do you wake up in the morning and instantly spend half an hour going through your RSS and Twitter feeds? Do you spend a couple hours every night watching TV shows? There are probably a few slots of time during the day that you’ve unconsciously filled with unnecessary activities. Eliminating these habits from your daily routine can free up valuable time to work on your project, even if it’s just 30 minutes or an hour. Coupled with the Pomodoro Technique, this tip can help you make stunning daily progress.
Many of today’s younger workers believe that multitasking is a good way to increase their productivity. Unfortunately, that’s just not how our minds work. Rather, our minds are very good on focusing one one high-level task at a time. It then follows that, in order to maximize your productivity, you should minimize your distractions and try to focus only on the task at hand. This idea is at the heart of the concept of monoidealism, which is discussed at length in Josh Kaufman’s new book, The Personal MBA. In the book, Kaufman quotes programmer P. J. Eby, who laments that the phrase, “Just do it”, should really be thought of as, “Do nothing else.” The absence of other activities or thoughts is what you’re shooting for here.
Ride the Accomplishment High
Unlike Eddy Morra in Limitless, we don’t have NZT to keep us motivated and creative. We do, however, have another sort of “brain drug” – dopamine. While it’s not as convenient as popping a pill, we can trigger a productivity-boosting dopamine release by accomplishing something. You’re probably familiar with the feeling; after signing a contract with a new client, acing a test or certification exam, or getting some great feedback, you feel on top of the world. You feel like you could accomplish anything. This “accomplishment high” can help you make big progress on your projects. The dopamine release not only makes you feel great, but it also increases your motivation and creativity. The best part is you don’t need to accomplish something huge to trigger it. The accomplishment can be something as small as getting in a good workout (surprise, surprise – exercise also raises dopamine levels on its own), getting your list of small tasks done early, or simply meeting someone new and having a conversation.
Make Progress Every Day
Humans are creatures of habit; we tend to do today what we’ve done yesterday and the day before. Think of that friend you have who runs every day; it’s probably not very hard for her to work up the motivation to get out and run every morning – she’s been doing it for six months! On the other hand, think about that friend back in college (if you’re like me, this is right now) who sleeps until noon every day and never exercises. It’s a safe bet that he’s not likely to pop down to the gym without some significant coercion. You can apply your habitual nature to making progress on your project, but you have to get the habit started first. Since we know that external motivation is more effective than internal motivation, you should start a progress journal and make sure to write about your accomplishments in it every day. You can’t skip a day; even if you can only get a tiny bit done on a given day, do it and write about it. Soon you’ll end up with a journal full of daily entries, and you won’t want to have any blank pages. This will motivate you to press on every day, and you’ll find that your project gets finished in no time. These are just a few techniques you can use to avoid letting life pour molasses on your progress. For more ways to move forward with your goals, I highly recommend the chapter, “Working with Yourself”, from The Personal MBA, as well as Dave Allen’s Getting Things Done. Now, go get that project done!
Thomas Frank is a junior at Iowa State University studying MIS and speech communication, and is the founder of a college blog called College Info Geek. You can connect with him at his personal site or follow him on Twitter.