getting into the flow - fish out of water

Getting into the flow.

It is Monday and your list of “to do” items is so long, and you are sure there are at least 10 things missing.

You know that you should fix those bugs, complete the half-finished project, and respond to a handful of email messages; and you should handle these items as soon as possible.

But even with so much to do you can’t seem to motivate yourself to take action.  You find yourself searching the web, or browsing sites and you start to wonder – why am I procrastinating?  Where is my motivation?

I know all about this feeling, since it has taken me years to develop all kinds of tricks and hacks to support my current level of productivity.

At work it is so much easier to check Facebook (since I wouldn’t want to miss a birthday), research “procrastination” or “productivity” (since I clearly need better tools to fight my lack of action), or maybe just go get another cup of tea (or coffee) from the kitchen.  You know what you should do, but for some reason you are unable to get over that hump to get started and make forward progress.  I know what this feeling is like, because until 5 years ago, this described my life at the office (although without Facebook, since I was more into MySpace then).

My favorite days are the ones, when I am a hurricane; when everything falls into place and I rip through tasks like a whirlwind.  There is nothing that can stand in my way.   Chances are you have had these days too, when you are in the flow, and making progress almost seems effortless.

getting into the flow - fish out of water

In the past the hurricane days were exception.  And when those days were over, I would be amazed at my achievements and ponder: “If only I could do this everyday, how organized/successful/happy would I be?”  I would find my weekends had gone by and I hadn’t really done anything.  I needed to make a change.

Thankfully I had done a lot of research (see comment earlier about my procrastination activities). And since I have developed a lot of tricks that have helped me get into the flow and achieve everything I set out to do:

Set goals.

On any journey, from a promotion to a clean house, having clearly defined goals will help keep you focused.  And just like new years resolutions, goals only work if they are really important to you, and you define them in a way that is both attainable and measurable.  There is plenty of information on goal setting, but for me, I need to write them down and revisit them regularly.  It helps to have a reminder of  your purpose, and gives you’re a reason to skip [insert something you like to do for fun] (i.e. a night of raiding on World of Warcraft).  And when you complete a goal (or make progress toward completing a goal), this should give you ample reason to celebrate.

Know your motives.

If you set your goals and purpose, it also helps to analyze the motives behind them.  All of us have things we have to do, but if you can find a reason this task will make a difference to you personally.  What do you have to gain from doing the work?  Motivation to complete a task can come from extrinsic (based on the results, or output of the task) or intrinsic (based on the process or journey of completing the work) rewards, understanding these can help you identify and uncover what makes this task important.

Break big things into small pieces.

When it comes to procrastination one of my biggest culprits is fear and doubt of the unknown.  I am hesitant to tackle large items because they are too big. I make excuses like “I only have an hour, and so I guess I will wait to start when I have more time.”  The reality is, sometimes I will only ever get an hour, or sometimes I just don’t want to start because the work is hard.  The best way I have found to combat these feelings is to start creating a list of the steps I need to take to make progress.  I list out what I would do to understand the problem (even if I don’t know what the solution looks like yet), making the unknown known.   For example, instead of “Implement improved search”, I would start with a list like: “research existing open source solutions” and “create metrics to measure current quality.”  A good rule of thumb is to break up the project into 15-30 minute tasks, then when you only have an hour, you still can move forward.  Plus with smaller tasks each seems less daunting and more manageable.

Carve out time, and let everyone know.

One of the things that plagues most software engineers (or any technologist for that matter) is that when it comes to writing code there is always more that can be done.  No software or program is ever really complete.  It is like art, you can always keep perfecting, refactoring, or adding documentation.   However a lot of these things can get in the way of your larger and more important goals.  If this happens to you, then set aside time on the weekend or during the week that is dedicated to your projects and progress.  Plan with your spouse, children, or baby sitter that you need to go and focus, and then do it.  Make this a regular part of your routine.amateurs sit and wait for inspiration, the rest of us just get up and go to work.   stephen king quote

Just do something.

This was one the best pieces of advice I was given when it came to my work.  If you set aside time (step 3), then when that time occurs, start working.  If you really don’t feel like it, set a timer for 10 minutes, and work for just 10 minutes – and then if you still don’t feel like working, stop.  Sometimes there is so much inertia it is hard to get started, so by forcing yourself to do something productive, even if you only work for a short period, it will help.  For me, I find that once I get started, it is almost always easy to keep going.

Make yourself accountable to someone else.

If your work allows find a teammate and tackle things together (maybe your kids, a coworker, or a friend with a similar project).  Or if the things you have to do are not team activities, you can share your goals and plans with someone else.  As time goes by ask them to check your progress, and be proactive about keeping them in the loop.  Although choose wisely; I have one of my coworkers keep me accountable, not my spouse, this is because my husband (and family) tend to be one of the things that I use as a distraction.

Create contingency plans.

If there are situations or circumstances that typically stand in the way of progress one trick that works well for me, is to set up contingency plans.  I will actually write what I plan to do should these trigger situations arise.  I like to use “if/then” statements for these sorts of plans.  For example, I have the most difficult times on Monday mornings.  I am not sure if my procrastination is worse because after the fun weekend I would need to transition into being productive; or maybe it was because the amount of work piled up on Monday is overwhelming.  Regardless of the reasons though, one of the most useful things I do is writing out my plan for Monday mornings (sometime before Monday).  Such that, if it was Monday morning, then I had a plan of things to tackle.   By having this plan in place then it makes it easier to succumb to any obstacles between achievements and me.

Change location.

If you are feeling in a rut, try changing your work environment.  I used to have a coworker that would sit under his desk to code.  When he was working on a hard problem, he would change location and he swore it helped him tackle thorny issues.  For me, when I have a creative block I try working from a new place – maybe a coffee shop, or perhaps another room in my house.  I don’t think I could sit comfortably under a desk, but I do think that a change of scenery can be invigorating and stimulate change.  Here are some tips to help you create a more productive and compelling workspace.

Keep at it.

In many ways will power, tenacity, and work ethic are like muscles.  The more you work it out, the stronger it can become.  One of the things I have noticed is that the more disciplined I am about carving out time and making progress on my goals, that my discipline and consistent progress has grown easier.  So if you feel the urge to procrastinate, sleep a little longer, or maybe just watch TV instead of working on something important to your goals – resist a little more.  In time you will get better and build the motivation you need to take action.

I know these tips and ideas have really helped me move forward, and hopefully they will also help you.

If you have other ideas or suggestions leave them in the comments – since goodness knows I still find myself trapped on my couch looking for my motivation.


[top swimming fish image courtesy of the lovely and talented photographer, Vanessa Johnston]


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