This is the 30th article I’ve written for the RescueTime blog. An arbitrary milestone, to be sure, but it’s a nice round number, and sometimes it can be nice to mark the passage of time with nice round numbers and semi-anniversaries.
Over the course of those 30 posts, I’ve taken many different approaches to attacking the infinite and regenerating and constantly evolving question of optimal productivity. (And I have no intention of stopping anytime soon—you should see how self-reflective and navel-gazing I’m going to get for article #50.)
And, many many times, we’ve faced our collective enemy number one: procrastination.
I’ve written articles on self-motivating by way of setting your own deadlines, complete with fake imaginary bosses to disappoint. Different mental approaches to not being hard on yourself. Creating your schedule with intention. Cleaning out your email. Taking a day off.
Hopefully, those pieces helped the people that read them feel more prepared to work. But our brains are fickle things. They can bob and weave around the most powerful tools and logic to put us right back into a place of inaction again. This is the cycle for many of us. Resistance comes back. Doubt, fear, and laziness set in. We get tired. We stay tired for a long time. We fall into apathy. But we still have to work, and then the quality of that work suffers.
Just two weeks ago, I was sure I had a breakthrough. I wrote this post, a parable largely about myself, a note to myself. I considered it as representative of a turning point in my work life. A diagnosis addressing my very specific and personal problem with work. An accountability partner in the form of thousands of lovely readers that were now privy to some of my worst work habits. I even positioned it, hubristically, from the perspective of “I did it, so can you.”
Now I stand before you, in the same place as before. Dog tired. Under deadline. Struggling to appropriately schedule day devoted to “work.”
I needed something even simpler. Something that shot straight to the center of the brain.
So today, I offer you the simplest outlook on your work that I’ve come up with.
Whatever you have on your to-do list right now—homework, founding a startup, starting a YouTube channel, diversifying your stock portfolio, moving that box from one side of your house to the other, moving, changing careers, proposing to your partner—whatever you know you need to do but for whatever reason can’t, the answer is simple:
You have to do it.
You just have to do it.
We’ve waited long enough. We’ve mulled over the options, and the complications, and the better and worse uses of our time, and the consequences of action and inaction, long enough. It doesn’t matter anymore if you’re ready.
It’s time to go.
“I really should exercise more,” you tell yourself? You have to do it. Got a half-written screenplay gathering dust in your desk drawer? It’s useless to you until it’s done. You have to finish it.
It sounds a little dogmatic, and unsubtle, because it is. But think about it.
In simple terms, the alternative to not doing it now, when it would be prudent to do it, is a loss. A failure. Depending on the nature of your task, a personal or professional failure. Sometimes both. The size and the shape of it may vary. But the impact, in total, will end up the same.
Put it even more simply. The logical end of this inaction? Your dreams not coming true. Years of regret. Plain and simple.
But don’t worry. It doesn’t have to be that way There are actionable steps to avoid that fate. Here are a few ideas to get you started and into that wonderful place between 0 and 1.
Let’s get to work today. It’s time.
Sometimes, despite always having this productivity stuff swimming in my head, I find myself at a loss. I forget what tools are useful, or whether I should use tools at all. All those fun quotes I put at the top of the email newsletter just collapse into an unhelpful soup of “other people say things that are wiser and better.”
So I’ve taken to writing notes from my future self. I’ll leave sticky notes around the house whenever I have a good idea. Siri has been completely worn out with all the dictated reminders I speak at her.
It’s a window back to your past self—the one who was frustrated with current process and had resolved to make a change—or, better yet, actually had a plan. That person wanted to send word to the future, in case they ended up being led astray and needed guidance. And if you’re at a loss for a reminder to write, I’ll give you a wild guess what you could start with: “you have to do it.”
Clear out the traps
Even with the proper motivation and plan of attack, we can be felled by the world around us.
That’s why website blockers—like the one made here at RescueTime, or by the folks over at Freedom— are beautiful things. Hiding and trashing snacks, or just keeping them out of the house altogether, will give you a leg up on your goals so, for once, you don’t have to solely rely on willpower.
Our neural pathways are set to do the same things we’ve always done. For some reason, we are attracted to habit and sameness. So if last time you tried to do work, you actually piddled around on YouTube for three hours before starting on anything, there is a very real and powerful process in your brain that is motivated to recreate that scenario.
The way to get around that is harder than it sounds—you need to stay away from the usual pitfalls, not get comfortable and forget they’re there. Instead, we must actively work to not feed it what it needs to repeat that action, be it an iPhone 13 or a Black Friday Super Sale or a bag of Funyuns.
Set a timer
The Pomodoro Technique, outlined here, is one of the most effective, foolproof, and enduring strategies i’ve ever encountered to crushing inertia and starting a helpful avalanche of work. It’s the perfect little kick I need to lift myself out of lazy nothingness and jump on the train of productivity.
RescueTime has developed what I consider to be the most ideal version of a self-timer out there: the RescueTime Assistant. RescueTime will start a timer for you of any length you choose, and block distracting websites and apps for the length of your session. You can also choose to have the Assistant walk you through a helpful warm-up and priming for your work—getting your mind, body, even your eyes, in the optimal position to work effectively.
But whatever your timer, be it your phone or one of those tick-tick-tick kitchen timers, set it for a period of time you can reasonably see yourself working—even if it’s 15 minutes. Then, work as long as you can. If the timer goes off and you’re still in the zone, feel free to keep going. But if you’re already dying and praying for a reprieve, just repeat to yourself: “I just needed to do that task for that amount of time.” You’re allowed to stop. Take that break, and when you’re ready again, start over.
Now, hopefully you feel a bit more prepared, with some ground under you. You know what you have to do, and some tools to help you do it. Now, all that’s left is, surprise surprise…
Just do it.
This is, unfortunately, not a Nike ad. It’s a reality. Just like I’ve said a bunch of times in this article, and in its title: you have to do it.
I have no more words of wisdom for you.
The name of the game today is simple, right?
So sit down, set a timer, and start working. Three steps to perfection.
Have fun doing whatever you’re doing. Good luck making your dreams come true.