Stop Procrastinating: 32 Powerful Changes To 10x Your Focus

You have to stop it.

Seriously.

You just might kill yourself doing it.

I almost did.

This was my view when it happened:

Carpicipod

Here’s what SHOULD have been my view:

whatmyviewshouldhavebeen2

But it was too late. I felt it. The right front tire went over the white line. The car started vibrating as the tire hit the grass.

Instinctively, my left hand yanks the steering wheel all the way to the left, the car starts to skid.

Away from the ditch…and right into the opposite lane.

I can’t remember who gave me that drivers’ orientation and safety training for my 17th birthday, but whoever you are, I owe you one.

Because magically, just like in the training, I corrected it and caught the car before it spun or hit oncoming traffic.

drift

(roughly what it looked like, not me)

Forget cold showers. THAT’s a wake up call.

Trust me when I say: You have to stop procrastinating!

I learned my lesson.

And before you accidentally kill yourself like I almost did, I’ll show you how.

Today you’ll learn how to stop procrastinating and focus on what matters.

I wish I could take credit for this strategy, but unfortunately James Clear beat me to it.

Note:

This post is a 7606 word beast. It has car crashes, science, screenshots with arrows, video, music and tons of instructions. The whole 9 yards. If you wanna cut to the chase, just grab the checklist of all 32 environment changes you can make, along with some other bonuses (like a few cool ways to show you you can’t multitask and a report on the science behind it).

Jump to the front of the line by clicking here.

 

What kind of results can you expect from single-tasking?

Fast forward 4 years from my near-accident. Last Sunday I not only spent 0 minutes driving or almost crashing into things, but also focused for 6 hours on drafting, writing, editing, finishing and pitching an entire guest post – 2746 words.

These 6 hours of focus got me on Productivityist, a very popular productivity blog. Not too bad for a single day’s work.

Of course I’m only a small fish in the single-tasking universe. If you’ve ever read anything about self-improvement online, you probably ran into James Clear.

James is a single-tasking genius. He publicly admits to having only one anchor task each day. No matter what else he does that day, his anchor task MUST get done.

On Mondays and Thursdays that’s writing an article, which he publishes the same day on jamesclear.com.

For the past 2.5 years, James has stuck to this schedule without fail, resulting in 200+ published articles on his site, nearly 200,000 email subscribers and over 2.4 million unique visitors in 2014 alone.

Want these kinds of results? Focus on the important stuff and don’t multitask.

Note: Think you might be a special snowflake? Unless you pass this supertasker-test by the University of Newcastle (which is ridiculously hard), you’re not, so you’d best get on single-tasking.

Alright, so you’re ready to switch gears and become a single-tasker. But how do you do it?

The environment of inevitability

Let’s assume you’ve done everything right so far. You have a clear goal, you have tiny action items lined up, you go to bed early and you have a brilliant morning routine.

Now all you have to do is eat that damn frog in the morning.

Note: Here’s the rest of this productivity series, in case you need to catch up on any of these.

Having a good system in place helps you avoid long-term procrastination. It makes sure you get started. After getting started your biggest challenge becomes to keep going.

I get asked this a lot: “I want to focus on what matters, and I can get started, but I just keep getting distracted. How can I develop more willpower to force myself back on task after an interruption?”

This question puts the cart before the horse.

Your willpower is limited. And that’s fine. You have enough of it.

You don’t need more willpower, you need less interruptions.

You simply can’t resist distractions endlessly, or force yourself to start again.

And you don’t have to.

You just have to create an environment of inevitability, with as few distractions as possible and mechanisms to deal with the ones that arise instantly.

If you want your kid to stop eating candy, you don’t put the candy in front of it and tell the kid: “Don’t eat that candy!”.

You just lock away the candy. You remove access.

32 environment changes you can make today to stop procrastinating

That said, here are 32 changes you can make to create a single-tasker environment, which will help you prevent distractions or deal instantly with them when they arise.

I put them into 5 categories, going from inner distractions (your own thoughts) to outer distractions (your environment and other people).

To make this easier on you I’ve created a table of contents, so you can skip around to a category or change that sparks your interest.

1. Focus and willpower

Environment Change #1 – Have a collection bucket

The idea of a collection bucket comes from the book ‘Getting Things Done’ – by David Allen.

It’s supposed to be a place to catch your thoughts.

When it comes to focusing on the task right in front of you, you are your own worst enemy.

As I was typing this, I remembered having to call a friend back.

If you’ve ever had one of those “Oh I have to do X” moments, then you know how easy it is for your brain to spiral from there and go off on a tangent.

spiral

(not all spirals are as cool as this one)

The tangent part is annoying. You have to catch yourself after a minute or two and then get back on task.

But that’s not the actual problem. The worst part is the nagging voice in the back of your head that stays even after you’ve returned back to your task.

Once you remembered to get milk, you can’t un-remember it.

“Milk, milk, milk, milk, milk, milk, milk….”

You have to get that thought of there!

Only when it’s out and written down somewhere can you truly forget it and fully concentrate on what’s in front of you again.

collectionbucket

(Dumbledore has an excellent collection bucket)

Your collection bucket can be a Trello list…

trellocollectionbucket

…a note…

collectionbucketnote

…or a simple piece of paper with a pen next to it.

Whenever you notice distracting thoughts, write them down in your collection bucket immediately.

This tiny change has been a massive productivity booster for me in the past 6 months and is definitely one of the top 3 on this list. In fact, if you only implement one change out of all these, this should be the one.

Environment Change #2 – Second order decisions

I was using this concept before, but only became really aware of it during James Clear’s Willpower Seminar (there’s a reason I’m one of the testimonials on the bottom).

Second order decisions are decisions you won’t have to make because you decided their outcome beforehand.

Consider this: Steve Jobs wore the same outfit every day for over 10 years. Look at any picture of him from the 2000’s or watch any Apple Keynote from the last 10 years. You’ll see him wearing blue jeans, New Balance sneakers and a black turtleneck.

focus-on-what-matters-wardrobe

(image source)

Why?

Because it conserves willpower. Imagine NEVER having to think about what to wear. You’d have tons of decision power stored up for important work and decisions that actually matter.

This decision power was the major driving force behind Steve’s ability to innovate again and again and again.

How much time and energy do you lose because you spend precious time debating in the moment over what to wear, what to eat or where to go?

If you waste your willpower on these kinds of things, you won’t have any when you need it, for example to return back to task after an interruption, or make an important decision where lots of time and money are on the line.

How can you make this change? Decide these 3 things the night before:

  • What will I wear tomorrow?
  • What will I eat for breakfast tomorrow?
  • What is my most important task for tomorrow?

Just deciding these 3 things in advance will save you tons of time and energy (and help you be disciplined enough to return to your task in case you do get distracted).

Environment Change #3 – JGS

JGS stands for Just Get Started (Slight nudge to Amy Hoy’s Just [email protected]#!ing Ship).

Want to know the difference between an amateur and a professional?

The amateur sits around and waits for motivation – which hardly ever comes. The professional just gets started, no matter how little she wants to – she does it anyway.

Sometimes you will, inevitably, procrastinate. You’ll procrastinate on starting or on getting back to work.

You’ll even think of other “great” things to do, just so you don’t have to return to what matters, like cleaning the house, mowing the lawn or cutting out coupons.

Well, here’s the solution to that:

how-to-stop-multitasking-timer

James Clear has referred to this as both the 2-minute rule and the sandtimer strategy.

When you catch yourself procrastinating, just turn around this timer and force yourself to get on task for 5 minutes.

After 5 minutes you’re free to do whatever. But you HAVE to spend these 5 minutes on your task. Even if you end up just staring at a blank screen.

Why?

Have you ever stopped eating half way through your plate? Or stopped on mile 2.5 of a 3 mile run?

Once you’re going, it’s much easier to keep going.

Any object’s resistance to motion is always highest when it’s not moving. After 1 or 2 minutes of work it’ll be much easier to keep working.

So Just Get Started.

Turn around that timer and GO!

Environment Change #4 – Song on repeat

Listening to one song on repeat can really get you in the zone and can help if you work in an environment that might be distracting, like a coffee shop. This works especially well when you’re doing work that doesn’t require you forming words like writing, for example design work.

You can also use some form of white noise, like rain sounds.

Tip: An instrumental usually works better than a song with lyrics, I like epic and motivational music from movies.

Here are some songs and noises I’ve used in the past:

Update 1/22/16: I recently found another great tool for creating your own custom productivity sound mix. It’s called Noisli and it’s completely free.

You can create white noise, train sounds, a coffee shop kind of environment, fire sounds, forest sounds, and mix them all together to suit your needs.

There’s even a Chrome extension. Highly recommended.

Environment Change #5 – Zoom out to the 40,000 feet view

Bad news: You will die.

Just like me or anyone else for that matter.

You only get to do so many things in life and when you do the right things (read: work that’s meaningful to you) you won’t have any regrets about the hours you spend working.

Zoom out for a second.

Think about what you’re doing in the context of the entire world. Does anyone give a crap what you do? Do you?

If the answer is no to the former and yes to the latter, you’re on to something.

Remembering that your time is finite is a great motivator to focus and especially to focus on what matters to YOU.

“Remembering that I’ll be dead soon is the most important tool I’ve ever encountered to help me make the big choices in life.

Remembering that you are going to die is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.” – Steve Jobs

Watch a video if it helps you put things into perspective, I really like this one.

2. Your work environment

Environment Change #6 – Clean up your desk

There’s a famous quote by Albert Einstein people in Germany will throw at you when you point out their messy desk: “Order is for the stupid, the genius handles the chaos!”

Oddly enough, I have yet to meet someone wildly successful whose desk looks like a war zone.

All my desks are clean, here’s the one in my parents’ house…

deskhome

…and the one in my apartment:

deskma

To be honest most days I don’t even use one, I just put my laptop on my lap, sit on the couch and start working:

Studyzone2

Here’s a good way to clean your desk:

Pick up every single item that’s on it and ask yourself: Is this helping myself do the work I want to do?

If it’s not helping you do the work, it’s keeping you from it. Therefore, it has to go, whether to the trash or elsewhere in your house.

Environment Change #7 – Switch locations

If the location you work in doesn’t help you focus, just switch it. Some people thrive in coffee shops, others need complete silence and a neatly organized desk.

Tip: At your office, your cubicle is often the most distracting place. People know where you are and can interrupt you on all channels (phone, email, come to your desk). Your closest co-workers are right next to you, happy to chit-chat.

Take what you need to complete your task and move elsewhere. An empty conference room, the kitchen or even the smoker’s lounge outside. Having a quiet spot at work also helps when you really need to think.

Environment Change #8 – Light up the workplace

No, I don’t want you to set your desk on fire.

deskonfire

But you do need light. Natural light. Lots of it.

I have no idea why big corporations design their offices like walk-in refrigerators. Maybe they’re afraid their employees will be distracted by the sun or the birds singing.

It’s complete bogus. Some of my most productive days have been spent sitting outside on our back porch – like the one where I wrote this post.

The closer to nature, the better. Sunlight keeps you energized and fresh oxygen can’t hurt either.

Make sure you open the windows as often as possible and try to be in the sunlight while you work.

Environment Change #9 – Remove obvious distractions

Why is a coffee shop so much better than a sports bar? No televisions.

It’s the kid and the candy all over again.

Remove obvious and easily accessible distractions from the room, such as:

  • TV
  • phone (we’ll get to that)
  • Xbox
  • magazines
  • beamer
  • fancy sound system
  • iPad

Don’t make this hard on yourself by dangling your favorite temptations right in front of your nose.

The pope doesn’t live in the Playboy Mansion for a reason.

3. Your laptop

Environment Change #10 – Block distracting websites

Boy, I can really beat on that kid and candy metaphor today. I guess I just love removing access to things for myself. It’s such an easy win in terms of deliberately limiting yourself to reduce stress and overwhelm.

The worst and easiest distractions are only a click away online, so make sure you block those.

Here are 2 apps to help you do it:

StayFocusd:

A simple chrome extension that lets you specify and block websites for a set time. Once you install it just go to Settings -> Blocked Sites and hit the red “Check out this list” button. You can then add all your guilty pleasure sites to your blacklist with a few simple clicks.

stayfocusd

What’s cool about this app is it lets you set how much time you want to allow yourself to spend on distracting sites each day.

If you configure it under Max Time Allowed, you can cut yourself some slack – but once you’ve spent the total amount, no matter on which of the distracting pages, all are blocked at once.

stayfocusd2

SelfControl:

This is an app for self-discipline. It’s very similar to StayFocusd, except that you actively block websites for a specific time. The twist: Once you’ve started it, you can’t turn it off.

selfcontrolapp

This way you make sure you won’t have access to distractions for the time you set it.

Tip: Don’t set it for a too long time or you’ll get frustrated with it. Shoot for focused 1 hr blocks.

Note: If you’re on Windows or Linux, there are alternatives here.

Environment Change #11 – Reduce searching with Alfred

Alfred app is one of the best ways to reduce multitasking on your laptop. Why? Because it lets you go straight to where you need.

No more browsing through folders, looking at pictures, opening irrelevant files you just stumbled across, etc.

You download it, pick a shortcut for it (I use Control+Space) and are set.

Every time you use the shortcut, a neat little search bar opens, in which you can search any file, application or even the web.

alfred1

Use a single quote to access files directly (even if you only roughly know the file name).

alfred2

Note: Apple has built in some of these features into Spotlight by now, but I still like Alfred better. You can also use it to do math, preview files without opening them and accessing contacts directly.

Environment Change #12 – Never start a browsing session with multiple tabs

This might sound counterintuitive, because when you start right where you left off, you can just go on working, right?

Technically that’s true, but think about how many tabs really relate to work and how many are just distractions.

Start out just with one and open other ones as needed, you’ll build it up again faster than you think.

I usually start my writing in the morning with one tab where I write in and a tab for my Pomodoro timer, but as of writing this, 3 minutes in, I already have a third one open.

3tabs

(had to look up “counterintuitive” to see if I spelled it correctly)

In Chrome, you can set your start page to a single new tab by hitting Cmd+; (semicolon) and then selecting this:

tabs

This works the same in almost all browsers, just go to settings and it’ll be one of the first options you see.

Environment Change #13 – Use Calendly to avoid spam and scheduling meetings

Calendly is awesome. It’s free and it takes you entirely out of scheduling a meeting. Whoever wants something from you can do everything and all you get is a notification of a new event in your calendar.

When you sign up you’ll get a walkthrough, but here are the basics. Once you’re in and have connected your calendar, go to “Event Types”. The free version lets you set only one type of event, I like the 30 minute meeting. Hit the little gear icon on the right and click “Settings”.

Calendly1

You can customize the event to any length and add some instructions, but really the user just has to follow the interface, there’s not much to instruct.

calendly2

Your event link is the custom URL you can send to people when they want to schedule a meeting with you. You can also double check the timezone of your calendar here (bottom right).

Below you can then customize your availability.

Calendly3

Set an interval for which you want to be available (you can even add several intervals in one day). You can automatically update all days of the week to have the same interval by checking them below.

Calendly4

The “Events start every” sets whether you’re available just on the hour, every 30 minutes or every quarter (for example can people book you only at 9 am, 10 am etc. or 9 am, 9:15, 9:30, 9:45 and 10 am).

Take at least 2 days off the menu where you’re not available for meetings. If you tend to have a lot of people asking for your time, make it even less (removing supply will make the demand go up, so make yourself scarce + you need more maker time).

Be stingy with your time, have 1 or 2 meeting days a week and batch them, if possible.

Next up you can set how far out people can book you. 60 rolling days is fine usually (people always see 60 days into the future of your calendar, not more). Adjust if need be.

Calendly5

Something I highly recommend is adding a buffer after events under “More availability options”.

You don’t want two back-to-back meetings or even more. Give yourself some time to recover and prepare for the next meeting or call.

Calendly6

One last thing, under “Add custom links”, leave a way to contact you before the meeting. People will get this link after confirming a meeting with you. Give them a way of getting in touch if they need to.

Calendly7

Hit “Save changes” and you’re good to go! You can just send your custom URL to anyone who wants to book a meeting with you.

A good way to reduce spam in your inbox is to put the Calendly link on your contact page, instead of a form which spammers happily plaster with nonsense.

The hurdle to schedule a meeting is much higher, whatever you have to say better be important.

calendly8

You can still leave your email address on there, if you like (but remove the @ and . in it and replace them with words, so bots won’t catch your email as easily).

calendly9

Environment Change #14 – Answer emails right away – or postpone them

Speaking of email, you probably already know there are only 2 approaches that work:

  1. Deal with all of them
  2. Deal with none of them

It’s not called Inbox 17.

I’m going to show you how you can deal with all of them every day, without answering all of them.

Use this: FollowUp.cc

With this, you’ll never forget to reply to any email, ever again.

Imagine you get a long email from a colleague, explaining a project and what she needs help with in all detail.

You open it. You read it. You realize you don’t have time to answer it right now.

What happens then? You either forget it, because it’s marked as read, or you go back 2-3 times, reading the whole thing again and on the 3rd time you’ll finally reply.

Huuuuuge waste of time.

With FollowUp.cc it looks like this:

Open. Reply.

Open. Reply.

Open. Postpone.

Open. Postpone.

…etc.

For every email you get you can decide instantly whether you want to reply to it, or be reminded of it in a few days.

followupcc

That long email you opened and either didn’t want to answer, or couldn’t answer because you were missing some info would have instantly been dealt with with FollowUp.cc.

You schedule a reminder, the email is marked as read and a few days later you get a new email, with the old one inside of it. You can even just let yourself be reminded again:

followupcc2

(what the reminder email looks like)

This is very similar to the collection bucket idea. You have to process your email to get it out of your head. Close the loop on each one.

Environment Change #15 – Open the doors to your inbox only 3 times per day

Now you have a way of dealing with all emails instantly. Great. I spoiled you.

Because now you’ll deal with all emails instantly all the time.

No!

Your inbox is someone else’s agenda. Think about it. It’s literally 99% requests and 1% replies from people to your requests.

Remember the kid and the candy? (Of course you do, I’m annoying you with it all the time now.)

INBOX PAUSE is another way for you to remove access to something you don’t really want to use.

inboxpause

It moves your email to your inbox only at specific times. As long as your inbox is paused, no new emails will show up.

This is wonderful, because no matter how much of an email addict you are, you won’t see anything new, so you’ll just return to focus on what matters.

When you first install it, hit the blue pause button and set it up like this:

inboxpause2

Move email to your inbox max. 3 times per day. I have a rule to not do any email before 11 am. I think it’s the best thing since sliced bread.

Together with the collection bucket, this is the biggest productivity booster I’ve found in the past 6 months.

Hiding the label while paused will stop you from being sneaky and peeking ahead of time. You can even set an auto-responder if you like.

FollowUp.cc + INBOX PAUSE = deal with ALL emails, but ONLY at specific times.

That’s what you want.

Environment Change #16 – Kill your facebook feed

Since the whole “oops, nothing to see here” works so well with email, that probably translates to other apps, right?

Right!

Newsfeed Eradicator is a simple Chrome Extension, that will remove your facebook feed, and replace it with awesome quotes.

newsfeederadicator

You give in to temptation, you go there, you see nothing except a reminder to go back to work and – you go back to work.

Fantastic!

Note: For all of you not on Chrome, there’s an alternative called Quiet Facebook that works for Firefox and Safari as well (German developer, woop woop!).

Environment Change #17 – Don’t get lost on Twitter with Tweetdeck

I think Twitter might be worse than facebook by now – you get distracted in real time, as new tweets pop up.

I’ve got a solution for that and it’s called Tweetdeck.

Once you sign up, you get a more user-friendly version of Twitter (it’s part of their platform) with multiple feeds.

It looks like this:

tweetdeck1

Right now it’s even worse than Twitter, but here’s how to make it great.

In each column, click the icon in the top right corner:

TweetDeck2

Then remove the column.

TweetDeck3

Do this for all columns. Clean the deck, if you will.

Then, when it’s all empty and sad, hit the plus symbol on the left.

TweetDeck4

Choose ‘notifications’.

TweetDeck5

Add column.

TweetDeck6

Boom. All you need. A one-column Twitter feed that shows the only thing that matters: your notifications.

TweetDeck7

No mentions, no activity feed, no trending topics, none of that crap.

If you do want to use Twitter to actively promote something you can add those columns in as needed, but when you work, Twitter should be as little of a distraction as possible.

Tip: You can of course also kill ALL columns and add none, then you’d have that “Oops, nothing to do here” effect again.

Lastly add tweetdeck.twitter.com as a shortcut in your favorites bar, to replace the original.

Note: I recently found that adding those distracting sites as favorites, but with the right setup, is better than just removing them from the shortcuts altogether. If I remove them, I’ll type the URL into the browser bar and land on the homepage, which is usually very distracting. Having them as favorites makes it just as easy for me to go there, but I’ll land on my customized, less distracting version of the page.

Environment Change #18 – Make Youtube boring

Yup, we’re going through all of them. Do you also have this love/hate-relationship with Youtube?

On the one hand, I’ve learned GREAT things on Youtube. Seriously. Google Ads. How to make a WordPress website. TED talks. Car mechanics.

On the other hand, they seem to want me to watch their great, educational and funny videos 24/7/365.

Youtube’s homepage is productivity hell.

YouTube1

Here’s a simple way to make it boring.

Go to your own video channel.

YouTube3

Then click videos.

Youtube4

Save the resulting page as your Youtube shortcut in your favorites bar.

Youtube5

Tip: Don’t give shortcuts a name, that way just the symbol will show up in your navbar, giving you room for much more shortcuts.

The URL should look something like this:

https://www.youtube.com/user/YOURACCOUNTSNAME/videos

So why this setup? Because now, every time you go to Youtube, all you will see is your same old, lame videos, giving you enough time to remember you’re not supposed to watch cat videos.

Here’s what mine looks like:

Youtube2

Do I wanna watch 2 year old videos of myself? Hell no. I’d rather work!

Environment Change #19 – Use K9 Web Protection to discipline yourself

This is a big one. If you really can’t get a grip on yourself at all, use this. It’s a software to protect your kids, but you might just as well protect yourself.

Go to K9 Web Protection, and request a free license.

k91

Go to your email, copy your license key and click the link to access the software.

k92

As you go through the installation process, enter your license key and set an administrator password:

k93

Once you have installed it, go to your applications and pick “Configure K9 Web Protection” (use Alfred!).

k94

A web page in your browser will open, choose setup here.

k95

Enter your password.

k96

You will then see different options what categories of sites to block. Default is usually good enough.

k97

Hit save.

k98

Now, when you go to sites from the selected categories, you will receive a block screen, like this:

k99

See the bottom section of the page that gives you the option to allow the site anyway by entering your password? You want to get rid of that.

Go to blocking effects in the sidebar:

k912

Then unselect “Show admin options” and save.

k911

Now your block page will only show you that the page is blocked:

k913

You can also turn off your internet access altogether for certain periods of time, for example at night. You can do this under time restrictions.

k910

Choose NightGuard, then set the time you want the internet to be disabled and hit save.

k914

This works really well to only allow yourself to use the internet the way you’re supposed to.

Pro tip: Change the password and have a friend or relative put in a password you don’t know, so there’s no way for you to meddle with the settings.

Environment Change #20 – Block ads, duh!

Do I have to explain anything? I don’t think so.

Get AdBlock Plus.

adblockplus

(I love how it automatically detects your browser)

And AdBlock. Two are better than one.

ablock

Environment Change #21 – Don’t read! Save articles for later

When I said you should read right in the morning, because it becomes an easy distraction during the day, I meant it.

But you will inevitably come across great articles and tools and resources and videos during your day.

What to do?

Save everything for later. Everything.

I like to use the Evernote Web Clipper for this. As they say it’s “the save button for the web”.

Let’s say you come across a great blog post. Like my guest post on Successful Blogging about how you can create a daily writing habit. 🙂

When you have the Web Clipper installed, you just hit the backtick button (or grave accent = `) on any web page to trigger it.

keyboard1

‘Simplified article’ is the best option for saving blog posts. Choose that. Pick a notebook you want to save it to. You can even insert some tags. Then hit save.

webclipper1

The article will be saved to your Evernote and you can read it any time. But not now. See it as part of your collection bucket.

Tip: Save everything that’s not an article as a bookmark. Such as apps, learning platforms, deal websites etc. You’ll have it all in one place, instead of collecting tons of bookmarks in Chrome and not knowing where to search for what.

Environment Change #22 – Use full screen mode

A simple tweak, but it helps. Especially if you have a crammed dock or toolbar on the bottom of your desktop, where lots of notifications pop up, like this one:

fullscreen4

This is what it normally looks like:

fullscreen1

To switch to full screen, just hit the opposite arrow symbol in the top right corner of each application.

fullscreen2

Boom, there you have it, less distractions at the simple click of a button.

fullscreen3

Environment Change #23 – Wipe out all files from your desktop

The desktop on your laptop is just a digital version of your desk. It’s no better to have a cluttered desktop, than it is to have a cluttered, physical desk.

Imagine seeing this:

focus-on-what-matters-desktop

(i had to artificially junk it up for this)

And then compare it to this:

desktop-clean

You tell me which one helps you more to focus on what matters.

The proper way to do this is to file all the icons from your desktop accordingly. But if you’re lazy, the least you can do to start out is to simply create a new folder, mark everything, and drop it in there.

wipe-out-files-desktop

It’s not perfect, but it’s a start. 1 icon is better than 137. You can do the rest later.

Environment Change #24 – Clean up your dock/toolbar

Speaking of your dock or toolbar, it’s about time you cleaned that up as well. The only apps, that belong in there, are the ones you are currently using.

You know what apps you have and you can use Alfred to access them, so no need to survey them every few seconds.

Look at this guy’s dock:

dock1

(who watches an 18 minute video of someone explaining what’s in their dock?!)

I guess I owe him a thank you: He perfectly proves my point right at the 3 minute mark, where he realizes how unnecessary LaunchPad is and removes it.

Here’s how to clean up your dock:

Close all applications.

dock2

You’ll know the app is closed when the tiny light below it fades.

dock3

Once the app is closed, hit right click on it, go to options and “remove from dock”.

dock4

Do this for all apps (except Finder, can’t get that one out of there).

Here’s what my dock looks like when I boot my laptop:

dock5

That’s it. The only apps I open on startup are TimeEdition, my time tracker and Stickies, so I see my MIT (most important task) for the day.

Similar to browser tabs, it’s best to start with one and then open others as needed, the rest will only distract you.

4. Your phone

Environment Change #25 – Silence your phone (like REALLY silence it)

I never understood the difference between vibration and text tones.

Both are the same.

There’s an annoying sound that interrupts you, and it’s often loud enough for everyone around you to hear, even when you have your phone just vibrating in your pocket or bag.

What do they power these modern day phones with, plutonium?

The only time your phone should make a peep (or bzzzzt) and interrupt you is when someone really important wants something really important from you.

I can’t remember the exact day I realized that, but I just went and turned off all sounds and vibration and I never went back. A silent phone feels great.

First, go to settings, then hit sounds:

Silent1

First, turn off the “vibrate on silent” feature:

Silent2

Then scroll down and set all the sounds and vibration patterns to “None”, except for your ringtone.

Silent3

You can do so by tapping each one and changing both vibration and alert tones to “None”.

Silent4

Now, when you turn that knob on your phone that means silent, it will actually mean silent.

Environment Change #26 – Leave your phone in another room

Guess what’s even better than a silent phone? A silent phone in another room! Just leave it in your bedroom when you go to another room to work at home.

If you’re at work, put it in a locker or a coworker’s desk and have them lock it.

Since your phone is silent now, there won’t be any running to grab it while it rings.

The motto here is: Out of sight, out of mind.

That’s also the least you can do. If you “must” keep it in the same room, hide it under a magazine, a couch pillow or under a pile of crackers. Just make sure you can’t see it.

The difference between having it next to you on your couch and hidden under a pillow 1 foot away is huge.

Here’s where I hide mine recently:

hidecellphone

Environment Change #27 – Remove all apps from your home screen

What works on your laptop also works on your phone. Bear with me.

Here’s what the home screen of my iPhone looks like:

Home1

But wait, don’t you have any apps? Come on, even I am not THAT much of a minimalist. One swipe to the right and:

Home2

What’s the point of moving your home screen one screen to the right? It’s the “Oops, nothing to do here” effect again.

When I unlock my phone and see the empty home screen, it gives me time to think: Hm, what did I want to do here?

Now you have to form an intention to use a certain app, then knowingly swipe to the right and start the app.

Entirely different than just seeing a home screen full of apps and mindlessly clicking on the first one that you haven’t checked in a while.

It’s as simple as dragging all of your apps one screen over.

Environment Change #28 – Turn off notifications

You know which app has become the biggest thief of my time over the past 3-4 years?

WhatsApp.

I remember it being more popular in Germany than in the US, before it took over the world.

Eventually everyone started tons of groups on there. If you’re in 2 groups with 10 or 20 people, your phone will never stop vibrating.

The same day I silenced my phone, I also turned off almost all notifications. Not being interrupted by noises is one thing, but actually checking your phone and seeing there’s nothing new (or at least not much) there is the most calming thing in the world.

Just yesterday at the Frankfurt airport I saw a guy using two iPhones at once. Two!

So here’s the 3rd biggest thing (apart from establishing a collection bucket and not checking email in the morning) you can do to achieve peace of mind and focus on what matters.

Go to settings on your phone and pick “notifications”:

Notifications1

Then go to each app that’s not absolutely necessary to notify you immediately and turn off notifications:

Notifications5

Here’s a list of all the apps I allow notifications for (and what kind) to give you an idea:

Notifications2

We turned off sounds for all of these except your phone app before, so they’ll still be silent. This is about the visual cues you get from each one.

Notice how WhatsApp is just allowed to show badges – that’s the red number on the top right corner of the app, like here:

badges

That way I’ll see that I have new messages when I go to the screen where the app is, but I won’t receive or see previews of any of them in my home screen or lock screen.

Here’s how you have to set it up to achieve this:

Notifications4

The only thing I allow to show up on my lock screen is my phone, reminder and calendar events and iMessages.

Make sure you turn off sounds and lock screen notifications or alerts for all of your other, unimportant apps.

Tip: Try to get important people to message you on a separate app or channel to give them preferred access. For example my girlfriend, family and best friend always message me on iMessages where I get their messages faster, for the rest of the world WhatsApp is good enough.

5. Other people

Environment Change #29 – Wear headphones

While he certainly wasn’t the first to have the idea, I definitely recall Tim Ferriss pointing me towards this in ‘The 4-Hour Workweek’.

If you’re working in an environment where others are around and likely to interrupt you, wear headphones.

They’ll think you can’t hear them and the barrier to interrupt you is much higher.

24-02-13

(they don’t have to be that big, ear buds will do)

Note: If you have your own office what works even better is a “Do not disturb” sign, but this won’t be respected if you have a cubicle.

Environment Change #30 – Train your coworkers

If people come to you with all kinds of mundane and time-consuming requests, guess whose fault that is? Yours!

Most people freely give away their time, so if you’re not protecting it like a bulldog, then how should people know not to bother you and respect your time?

Especially small to medium-sized companies LOVE in-person meetings. “Let’s drive for hours to meet in one place, then sit together, drink lots of coffee, and waste a few hours so we can get dinner afterwards.”

This can’t be you.

Steer all communication towards email (which you only check at set times), then use the phone as a backup solution, and only then let people schedule in-person meetings with you.

Make it a necessity to give you an agenda before phone calls and in-person meetings. Don’t give people easy outs.

When someone interrupts you at your desk, always respond with: “I’m working on something right now, can you send me an email to remind me later?”

Define the end time for all meetings and phone calls. Schedule something else afterwards, if you have to, but make it clear in every way possible that your time is limited.

Environment Change #31 – Say “I’ll have to check” – a LOT

If you’re like me you’re much too likely to say yes, especially when asked on the spot.

No matter what task, seemingly awesome project or opportunity people seem to have for you, never agree instantly.

Over time I found that 99% of them are really the same as others asking: “Can you help me with this?”

No one just throws around great opportunities for others to make money without caring about themselves first, so be wary.

Just by saying “I’ll have to check if I’m available” you give yourself enough time to think about it and an easy transition into a no.

Is this really moving you in the right direction? Does it get you closer to your dream? Or is it just a way of helping someone else build theirs?

Environment Change #32 – The 2 minute rule

We started with an idea from ‘Getting Things Done’ – by David Allen (the collection bucket), so we might as well end with one.

If it takes less than 2 minutes, do it now.

Often requests from coworkers and friends won’t take up more than 2 minutes of your time, so you’re best off just doing them right now, like:

  • Sending a document per email
  • Handing them your stapler
  • Giving them an address or contact
  • Helping them grab something from their car
  • Looking up a number for them
  • Making a coffee for a big shot guest
  • etc.

That said, everything that takes longer than 2 minutes should be redirected towards a reminder email people have to send you or eventually turned down altogether (especially if it has nothing to do with your role at work).

Recap: How to stop procrastinating and focus on what matters

That was a lot. Even by my standards 😀

The takeaway? The key to being productive is to reduce interruptions wherever you can.

Your willpower is limited. Do not let people, phones, tools, gadgets, or even your own thoughts interrupt you.

What can you do right now? Simple: Pick one of these changes, implement it right now, and let me know in the comments which one it was.

PS: Didn’t think I’d leave you hanging did you? The bonuses for this post are:

  • 3 fun games you can play, that will actually show you you can’t multitask
  • A checklist of all 32 changes so you can quickly refer back to them and check them off one by one
  • The Science of Multitasking – a report I’ve written that explains why multitasking is so problematic in the first place and what happens in your brain when you do it

Grab all the bonuses below (no email needed):

Stop Procrastinating Bonuses


Niklas Goeke

I am a German student on his way to becoming an entrepreneur!

  • lucianu

    Great post again, Niklas! I tried downloading the time tracking application that you mentioned. They only seem to have a version for Android though. Did you paste the wrong link?

  • Tobias Johansson

    You’d been linking 5 readers to my site simplifiedsocialskills.com, so I came to simply say thanks, I guess. Most of all, your site looked interesting and I luckily found this article.

    DAMN this is useful, especially with your endless abundance of graphics! Keep it going. 🙂

    • Hey man, sure thing, glad it’s been helpful, I guess that happened through SumoMe 🙂 I’m happy the article has been useful to you, will definitely keep it up!

    • Thanks Tobias 🙂

  • Amazing post Niklas.

    Finding singular focus has been one of my biggest challenges in these past years and it’s amazing to see you’ve integrated many of the things I found to be super useful. I love restricting email and the 2 minute rule of GTD.

    You might find the ‘Kill FB newsfeed’ script useful for completely eliminating the Facebook feed. Big time saver for me: https://chrome.google.com/webstore/detail/kill-news-feed/hjobfcedfgohjkaieocljfcppjbkglfd?hl=en

    Another thing I’ve started doing is to plan a ‘NO MEETING DAY’ every Wednesday. Lovely to be able to work without distractions.

    • Dammit, my reply to this never went through. The kill FB feed is one of the changes in there, love that app 🙂 No meeting day’s are great, I should add those. I have “no skype call” days for the same reason 🙂

  • This was great! Though I think I justified multi-tasking so I could go and implement some steps, like cleaning up my desktop and apps. This all starts tomorrow! 😉

    • Ha, yeah, but implementing them compounds fast, so I guess that bit of multitasking is worth it 😉

  • Azim Anderson

    Awesome tips! I also decided to set custom keyboard shortcuts to things like gmail, calendar, wunderlist etc. so it doesn’t take as long to access if they aren’t opening automatically on my home page!

    • That’s really smart, I hadn’t thought of that, but I think you can do that with Alfred too, I’ll have to look into that! Thanks for the tip!

      • Azim Anderson

        You probably can! I use Launchy which is similar, and it is fast but not as fast a single keypress… unless Alfred does that? I think it’s MAC only so I don’t know!

        • No I think Alfred always requires 2+ keys!

          • Azim Anderson

            Well 1 extra key is 1 extra millisecond XD

            • Yeah I can live with that too haha. I think 1 key shortcuts mostly don’t work (unless you replace the F keys), because every time you’d write you’d start a ton of apps 😀

              • Azim Anderson

                Haha true 😀 it’s why I use a gaming keyboard with “g keys”, but Alfred sounds better for people wanting normal keyboards and don’t want to over-geek out

                • I mostly use it to open folders and launch stuff anyways 🙂