To Do Tombola: combating procrastination

Around 20% of the population are chronic procrastinators, according to Dr Ferrari. It’s easy to joke about (I told people I was putting off writing this post, lol irony), but it’s a serious problem.

Have you ever missed out on an opportunity because you put it off?

Before you read any further, I strongly recommend that if you’re procrastinating a time-critical thing right now, go and do the thing instead of reading this. If it’s a big thing, do a step towards completing it. You’ll feel better.

I think my own procrastination comes in waves, but I’ve certainly had my moments, like learning to knit and creating an entire blanket rather than revising for end of first year uni exams… Over lockdown it’s crept back in and I stopped identifying as a person who “gets shit done”. Until now.

I strongly associate procrastination with that nagging feeling that I should be doing something else. At school and university, studying multiple subjects, I had it constantly (maybe also because Facebook and endless seasons of Shameless). I thought it would disappear on graduating but the new pending task was “GET A CAREER”, so…

A reasonable amount – not nearly enough – has been said about the psychology behind procrastination by academics and people who know things. My “idea” has been largely inspired by this Ologies podcast episode, the Being Honest With My Ex Working From Home podcast episode, consequently this blog post (rather fittingly it suggests you read this and this for background first – not required reading for this post but very interesting and closely related), and my friend Emma rolling a die to decide on her next household task.

This post isn’t about the science. It’s about a thing that I am doing, which is working for me at this specific moment in my life, ie furlough during the UK’s third Covid-19 lockdown. I hope it can inspire you to try it, come up with your own system, or at least just get one of those nagging things done.

Bit more background: I have had long to do lists for years, some days I write a sub list on paper or my phone (“drink coffee”, “write list”, anyone?) and recently I tried a “done” list (encouraging & recommended). The current list on my phone has things that date back at least two years. I like to write down things so I can a) remember them or b) get them out of my head, as in times of stress and anxiety I know I’m more forgetful.

So my “productivity” (remember: your worth is not determined by your productivity) levels have varied wiiiildly over lockdown. I’ve got a reasonable amount of stuff done but it’s felt pretty slow and painful. I recently consumed the above resources and thought of this idea (sorry getting clickbaity) in order to get more shit done in a more efficient manner. We’re talking small stuff – writing a blog post, emailing a person, cleaning a thing, fixing a thing. Stuff that’s been hanging over me and I’ve been adding to the list at a waaaay higher rate than completing.

Before starting with the faff, as I’m aware “productivity tips” are a great method of procrastination, I did the one super time-critical “icky” task (ie the kind of task you’re proper averse to doing, for whatever reason). It was actually a lot quicker than it would have usually been, as I was eager to get started on my:

To Do Tombola, a gamified to do list.
Disclaimer: this is a super simple idea so I imagine it is not original.

The important thing was to set it up reasonably swiftly, so as not to fall into Correct Order and Perfect Aesthetic Procrastination Traps. I grabbed four plastic containers for Q1, Q2, Q3 and Q4. I wrote each of my tasks on one piece of paper, folded and put into the appropriate box, based on the Eisenhower matrix.
Q1: Urgent and important
Q2: Non-urgent but important
Q3: Urgent but not important
Q4: Neither urgent nor important
Then there’s a pile of “done for the day” and a “total done” box.

Obviously the categories are very subjective and individual. I have very little that’s urgent right now, so Q1 is stretched to “has any sort of deadline” including “would ideally be done this week”, e.g. “bake bread”, “write birthday card”, “go to post office”. Anything super urgent gets priority and not put into a box.

Q2 is stuff I would like to be done. A lot of “icky” in there. It’s nominally stuff that enriches your life, advances your career, as there’s not a lot of that for me examples include “add elastic to mittens”, “clean oven”, “update CV” and “write a mental health red flag list inc prevention and solutions”.

My Q3 was empty, as I didn’t have a lot of urgent anyway. According to Wait But Why, this lot should be delegated anyway. I turned it into “stuff for my partner to do/things to be tackled together” (like that DIY problem that starts off super simple then you end up unravelling your carpet).

Q4 for me is fun stuff that doesn’t need doing but generally is nice, like “write a letter”, “play the piano”, “bake brownies”, “knit a dishcloth” (insight into how exciting my life is right now).

Somewhere I would like to be instead of faffing about with this right now

What I’ve learned after doing at least a task a day for two weeks:

  • Set low expectations and exceed them. My original plan was to alternate, one task from Q1 with Q4, maybe I’d manage another Q1, but I actually found it so satisfying to “tick off”/pick out tasks that I ended up emptying all nine from Q1 on the first day, with a few Q2s. On a full day at home I’m doing at least ten tasks and only occasionally adding another one!
  • I’ve been getting normal daily tasks done a lot quicker by just popping them back in Q1 at the end of the day, e.g. laundry, washing up, Duolingo, leg strength
  • It’s so nice to have a small break from making decisions (#selfcare). Of course we make them all the time but the ones I’ve made in lockdown have generally been so inconsequential and unimportant (what to have for dinner, which leggings to wear) that it’s been good to have surprises too.
  • Our brains love novelty. By day 2 I’d forgotten what was left in the boxes and I’m still fishing out surprises now.
  • Break it down into smaller chunks. “Clean the inside of windows” has a list of windows, so I can just do one then put it back in the next day. “Wipe all phones and get rid” turned out to be a big task, including plugging one in then just going for a run!
  • Having smaller tasks has meant if I’ve got half an hour before going out I can “just do one task”, because it’s actually kind of addictive.
  • I’ve got much faster at “icky” tasks. I’m less bothered about completing things perfectly, as I’m fully understanding that it’s better to be done than not at all (e.g. writing a bio for a website, something I’d normally agonise over)
  • I managed to get myself to clean the oven?!?!
  • Temptation bundling is still an important and much-loved tool. If I can complete a task whilst listening to a podcast or music or watching TV it feels more pleasant
  • I’m starting to reframe “tasks” as “activities”, to increase the fun factor (!!), and not see things like “Learn Frank Turner Little Changes dance” as a chore, once I get to Q4
  • Have an accountability buddy! Dom started his To Do Coconut Tombowla and Done Tomboater (applause for puns), so is a champion for the novelty containers, and likes to combine with a diary/time-use log for 1. Reviewing how long tasks take, 2. Highlighting how much one can fit in a day and 3. A more permanent form of done pile to increase end-of-day satisfaction. We periodically check in on each other which adds to the feel-good factor. (Side note: I’m a fan of the carrot not the stick; shame doesn’t help me achieve stuff, positive reinforcement does, so it’s important to be kind to yourself).

So there you have it. It’s not particularly photogenic or glamorous, but it’s working for now, which is all that matters. Let me know if you try the Tombola or the Done list and how you get on!


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