Experiments with Time: How to Take Back Your Day from the Grip of Procrastination

Belle Cooper
Belle Cooper / Published March 17, 2015

I love to experiment with my workday. The ability to do so, in fact, is one of the aspects I value most about working remotely.

These experiments are currently aimed at increasing my productivity, since I often feel like I don't get as much done as I'd hope to in a day. Moreover, I tend to procrastinate, so anything I can do to trick (preferably) or force myself (if necessary) to get more done is worth trying.

Lately, I've been testing the outcomes of restricting work to different parts of the day. I'm a morning person—I like to go to bed early and get up early. Research suggests that gives me an advantage when it comes to productivity, too. Night owls are on the other end of the spectrum—they get up late, go to bed late, and feel most productive at night. They also tend to be more creative than morning larks.

morning vs night people

Whether you're an early bird like me, a veritable night owl like French novelist Marcel Proust, or unsure of when you work best, you'll hopefully find something useful in my learnings so far.

Take Back Afternoons: Productivity After the Post-Lunch Slump

When lunchtime breaks up my day, I'm terrible at getting back into a productive flow. I'm not unique in struggling to work through the afternoons, though. Most of us tend to have a dip in energy in the early afternoon, often known as the "post-lunch slump". Research suggests that our bodies are designed to have a short sleep around this time to complement our nighttime sleep.

This regular slump in energy is obviously bad news for anyone, but it's especially bad when you work remotely (as I do) and need to discipline yourself to complete tasks.

The best way I've found for kicking myself into gear is to have a deadline to push up against. If you remember ever writing furiously at 11:45 p.m. to finish a school essay and submit it by midnight, you'll know exactly what I mean. There's something about deadlines that help us overcome our worst procrastination habits.

So I took this self knowledge and used it to hack my routine in such a way that I'm now getting significantly more done with less last-minute scrambling.

How I Took Back Afternoons

There are two parts to this approach. The first is that you must set a hard cut-off time for your workday. Since I work from home, I could keep going all night if I want to—I used to work whenever I felt like it. Sometimes, I'd leave things until after dinner even if they were due that same day, and end up staying up late to finish them. But now I have a stop time: 5:30 p.m. every day.

The second part is having something specific I need to do at 5:30 p.m.. This could be an appointment, cooking dinner, or going out to an event. Most days it's going for a run on my treadmill.

Google Calendar example

Why it Works

By the time I've had a run and showered, I'm ready to start preparing dinner and soon find myself in my unproductive hours, winding down for bed.

Since I'm aware I won't get any work accomplished in the evenings, it's important that anything critical on my to-do list be finished by 5:30 p.m. The hard deadline I implemented has been surprisingly helpful in keeping me on task and productive in the afternoons. I'll often look at the clock around 3 p.m. and realize I've been wasting time since lunch, but realizing that there are only two and half hours remaining in my work day, I kick back into gear.

When I've tried this without an event like exercise or dinner at 5:30, it doesn't work as well. The deadline becomes elastic and I end up working longer—”or just thinking I can, which means I don't get as much done.

Stopping right at 5:30 and going for a run forces me to stop working and switch modes completely. My brain and body both get a break from the screen and receive some different stimulation.

Putting a hard stop to my work day is an practice I picked up from Sean Ogle, who stops working at noon. Sean gets up early like I do, but has taken his workday end point to the extreme.

Sean had the same experience I did: when he gave himself permission to stop working at noon but didn't have anything scheduled to force him to stop, it didn't make much difference. Scheduling lunch dates or coffee catch-ups at noon was what really pushed him to get his work done in the mornings.

I always queue up some great podcasts before jumping on the treadmill so I look forward to catching up with my favorite shows, if not the exercise itself. Making my 5:30 event something to look forward to helps me stick to the schedule. It's much easier to walk away from my desk when I'm walking towards an activity I enjoy.

Try it Yourself

  • Set a hard deadline for the end of your most productive time of day.
  • Set an appointment or activity to follow that deadline. You could even just schedule something you love doing but otherwise wouldn't turn into a calendar event, like cooking or watching a movie.
  • Set a reminder for a couple of hours before your deadline. This will give you enough time to refocus and get things done.

Dig in First Thing: Get on Top of Your Day Before 10

Morning is my most focused time, but unfortunately that doesn't go hand-in-hand with productivity. Since I have all day ahead of me to get through my to-do list, I'm more likely to procrastinate in the mornings. Knowing it's my best time for focusing isn't enough to actually motivate me to get started.

Once again, deadlines come to the rescue.

How I Kick Myself into Gear

It's hard to throw deadlines into the middle of your day. What I'm trying at the moment, however, is just that: breaking my day up into chunks of focus on different areas.

First thing in the morning, until 10 a.m., I focus on writing, consulting, or other freelance work. This is my pay-the-bills work that has to be done by a deadline.

I've simplified my morning routine, which used to include reading, practicing French and playing piano, and sometimes going on a walk too. Now I simply get up, shower and dress, grab a hot drink and a small snack and get to work.

Breakfast, games, and reading news or RSS feeds all wait until after 10 a.m.

After I've stopped for a break at 10, I switch modes to work on some of my own projects that don't pay the bills. I might be working on some iOS development or theater rehearsals or working on a writing project of my own. Having the main chunk of my day free to work on whatever I like—and to get appointments or errands done without cutting into my work time—motivates me to stay focused during those early morning hours.

Why it Works

I usually get to my desk around 8 a.m., which means I only have two hours to complete tasks before my deadline. This forces me to carefully prioritize what to get done. I always choose one or two big, hard tasks, such as writing a new draft or editing a draft I already wrote and submitting it to my editor. It's whatever work has a deadline coming up that also requires lots of brain power.

If I get through the big tasks I set for myself, I move down my to-do list to the other, smaller tasks, like replying to emails, outlining future content, or publishing a blog post that's waiting to go live.

I've always known that I should work on my hardest tasks first, but this confined period of focus time and the promise of working on fun projects after 10 a.m. has finally helped me put this into practice.

The relief of having those big tasks finished at 10 a.m. is huge.

Even if I don't get through all the smaller tasks and need to work later in the day, I can relax knowing that I'm on top of my schedule for client work.

If you've ever tried getting up early to write or work on other creative pursuits, you'll know that there's nothing quite like that quiet alone time to get things done. Some people find staying up late at night works just as well.

I love the feeling of being the only one awake in the house while I'm working. I usually don't notice it at the time, but once the world wakes up and there's noise throughout the house and outside, I realize how much I appreciate that early morning uninterrupted time.

Try it Yourself

  • Set your morning deadline based on when you work. If you're up at 5 a.m., maybe 9 a.m. works for you. If you don't get started until after lunch, maybe 4 p.m. is your "morning" deadline.
  • Choose an event to help enforce the deadline. Regular mealtimes can work if you're motivated by hunger (I know I am).
  • Before you get started, prioritize your to-do list. Pick the one or two tasks you really want to avoid—the ones that force you to think and work hard. Save the easier stuff for after your morning deadline.

Catch up Before Bed: Why This Early Bird Works Late

A true early bird likes to go to bed early, too, ready to get up before sunrise the next day. So it should be no surprise I'm often in bed by 9 p.m. I don't, however, always go to sleep that early—instead, I like to get into bed and relax. After dinner, I've found, my mind isn't switched on the same way it is in the mornings.

The strange thing is, I tend to get bursts of motivation when I'm in bed at night. This is when all the guilt of the tasks I didn't get done during the day creeps up on me. I often find myself thinking about work at night, and listing in my head the tasks I'm going tackle in the morning.

But of course, that motivation doesn't last through the night. First thing in the morning, all I can think about is how heavy my eyes are, and how warm and cosy my bed is.

How I Started Using my Night Hours Better

A couple of weeks ago when this happened yet again, I was thinking about writing this very post. I'd hoped to get the first draft done during the day but didn't get around to it. Laying in bed I was annoyed that I would have to carry that task over to the next day, and I found myself wishing I'd had this spark of motivation earlier in the day.

Rather than brush it off and hope I'd feel the inspiration to get stuck in the following morning, I grabbed my laptop and wrote up the draft in bed. I still felt relaxed and comfy, and I wasn't worried about getting the work done, but I felt a whole lot better when it was finished.

I went to sleep knowing I completed my to-do list for the day, and I could start tomorrow not only with a fresh list of tasks, but be able to build on the work I'd done the day before rather than playing catch-up.

Whenever motivation hits me in the hours between dinner and sleep, I now grab my laptop and have a go at whatever I didn't get done during the day. I don't worry about whether I'll complete it or not, but I try to make a dent in those unfinished tasks while I possess the motivation.

Why it Works

It might seem like a subtle change I've made, but there's a very important ingredient at play here: my mood. During the day when I'm working to a deadline, I don't have the freedom to work with my mood. I need to get my work done regardless of how I feel. I bet you've been there yourself.

But at night I tend to have flashes of motivation. Rather than hoping I can hold onto them until the next day when I start work (which I've not managed even once), I'm taking advantage of those moods and working with them.

Try it Yourself

  • Take note of when you feel bursts of energy to get work done. Is it after talking to someone in particular, or listening to a certain podcast? Morning, afternoon, or night?
  • Find a way to take advantage of those energy bursts, even if it's simply planning new projects or taking notes. When the energy is there, use it.

Finding What Works

Experimenting with my workflow has taught me that not everyone works the same. And more importantly, I don't work the same every single day. But the more I take advantage of patterns in my moods and behavior, the more I accomplish.

My work days look pretty strange lately. I'm working early in the morning, stopping immediately at 5:30 p.m., and playing catch-up some nights right before bed. But it does maximize my productivity, achieving the initial aim of these behavior experiments.

If any of these methods work for you, I'd love to hear about it. Let me know how you go in the comments.

Credits: Clock photo courtesy Jlhopgood on Flickr. Morning and night people graphic courtesy Harvard Business Review.

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