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Kick procrastination's butt with your iPhone

Georgia Dow is a therapist specializing in stress, anxiety, phobias, and procrastination. She's also an avid fan of technology who believes the hardware, software, and services we use every day can help us live better lives. In the debut of our new experts column, Georgia applies her experience to the topic of procrastination and how our gadgets can be transformed from distractions to powerful aids for getting things done.

Thanks to all our tech, Reddit, YouTube, and Candy Crush Soda — Oh, sweet, sweet Candy Crush Soda — are always right there, only a click or tap away... Yet our tech can also help us conquer procrastination and get things done. All it takes is the right strategy and the right apps!

We procrastinate when whatever we're supposed to be doing feels too scary, too daunting, too challenging, or just too much. We're adverse to negative emotions so we do everything we can to avoid them and seek out positive ones instead. We do it even if it puts us behind in the long run. Mortgaging our future for our present is something we're really, really good at.

Since most of us no longer have to hunt and gather, plant and harvest, we're no longer exceptionally good at dealing with suffering and boredom. Our technology has made for a safer, less strenuous world. As a result, life and death struggles with predators, blights, and the forces of nature have been replaced by more mundane struggles with taxes, work, and simple boredom.

That's made it so that even the mildest of stress can be too much for our milder resilience to handle. So, instead of laughing at the relatively trivial problems we encounter most days, we distract ourselves from them with things like video games and social networking.

A few years ago I might have cleaned my desk to avoid doing the laundry. Now I'm even more likely to check Twitter, iMessage with a friend, or play Crossy Roads.

But I'm not doing that right now. Right now I'm getting this article done, and I'm using the exact same technology to do it. So, how did I make that change?

Turn off notifications

If your iPhone is continually bleeping and buzzing it will continually be distracting you. Turn on Do Not Disturb mode and put your iPhone down, screen side on the table. That way you won't hear or see notifications.

Turning on Do Not Disturb, or turning off all but the most essential notifications in general, will let you stay calm and focused on the task at hand.

Real emergencies are few and far between and there are settings so that the people most important to you can still get through if they genuinely need to. Non-emergenices, however, are almost constant and if you're looking for an excuse to avoid what you're doing, you're going to want it to be more than just the next notification away.

Set reminders. A lot.

Trying to keep everything in mind all the time is impossible. You will get distracted. You will get interrupted. You will forget. Instead of using your technology to help with the distractions, get it to help you with the remembering. Use Siri to set up a reminder for what you need to do and when you need to get it done by. Siri works via voice control, which makes reminders quick and easy to set up, and the quicker and easier it is, the more likely we'll do it.

I actually set up multiple reminders so that if the first one doesn't stick, or something else comes up, it'll bug me repeatedly until it's done.

It's like putting notes on the refrigerator, the front door, and the computer display. The idea of being nagged becomes worse than the idea of getting things done, so we get them done.

Break big jobs up into small tasks

Big jobs are BIG JOBS. They're intimidating. They make us feel they're impossible to accomplish even before we try. To counteract that feeling, break big jobs down into smaller tasks. Make them manageable.

Take a job, open your favorite Notes or To-Do app, and break it down into 15 minute tasks. Make the first task: "Break big job down into 15 minute tasks". It's easy to accomplish and sets you up for success. Then set reminders for each task.

15 minutes is easy to do and even the staunchest of procrastinators will often keep working longer than 15 minutes because the sense of accomplishment it instills is emotionally rewarding.

I used this technique to get through my master's thesis and I can't recommend it enough.

Set timers. Also a lot.

It's not really the big things that get us. They're few and far between. It's the little thing. The ones that add up. The ones we get stuck on. The ones we begin to dread, or feel the need to get perfect, or find unworthy of our time.

The 15 minute task helps here to. It's short enough that we can easily see it being over. It's short enough that we can't overthink or overwork. It's short enough that we don't have to dwell on what we're doing, we can just focus on getting it done.

If you need extra motivation, or want to add some sense of competition, open the Clock app and set the timer for 15 minutes. That way you'll know there's no time to waste, only to work. It is fun to see how much you can get done in a small amount of time and that might even inspire you to keep at it. You'll impress your self with how much can be done in a small amount of time.

Get music and get moving

If you find yourself getting too tired, too bored, or too distracted to power through your 15 minutes, change it up. You can put on some inspirational music to rock out to while you work. If you find it helps, you can make an inspirational playlist in the Music app or iTunes.

I'm doing that right now. I'm listening to Take me to Church by Hozier and it is been on repeat the entire time I've been writing this. It's drowning out my inner critic and preventing me from perseverating about things that don't need to be done right now.

If music isn't your thing, try exercise. Get up, do 5 minutes of jumping jacks or dancing or whatever cardio it takes to get your heart rate up. Cardio not only eats stress, it improves focus and retention. That makes it especially great for studying, but it can really benefit anything that needs you concentrated on the task at hand.

When you're done, take a breath, and then get to work.

Keep on rolling

Tech is neither good nor bad. Yes, our iPhones, iPads, and Macs can distract us and let us procrastinate, but they can also help focus us and keep us on task. Get your 15 minutes done, then get the next 15 minutes done. Soon you'll be on a roll and the momentum will make it easier to keep on rolling.

Best of all, the feeling you get from your accomplishment will turn your old, vicious cycle into a shiny new virtuous one.

Give it a try and let me know how it works for you!

Senior Editor at iMore and a practicing therapist specializing in stress and anxiety. She speaks everywhere from conferences to corporations, co-host of Vector and Isometric podcasts, follow her on Twitter @Georgia_Dow and check out her series at anxiety-videos.com.

16 Comments
  • Good article, Georgia. I do put my phone in Airplane mode or turn off the wifi & cellular data while sleeping or sometimes while doing something REALLY important. I think turning off the internet is the best way. If there's an emergency, the person would definitely call you rather than dropping a text on Whatsapp! Sent from the iMore App
  • "Set reminders. A lot.
    Trying to keep everything in mind all the time is impossible. You will get distracted. You will get interrupted. You will forget. " I agree with most of the article, but I'm not sure about the reminders. It can be counterproductive. I was setting a lots of reminders (in outlook for example), but if you will get reminder in the middle of the work, you can't act anyway. You will get distracted a lot. So you will probably snooze it. Then you will have a lot of reminders stacked - as you can see in many people's outlook reminders.
    So I would be careful with reminders, and set them only in case, it is really, really something, that needs to be done at that moment (meeting, bus/train...).
    As suggested in GTD.
  • That is exactly why I like the system of Things so much, no time nagging reminders, easy scheduling, so nothing falls down the cracks. Only the few tasks that are timecritical and I really need to be nagged about I put in Due. Before I used Things I noticed that too much bleeping eventually just made me ignore the reminders and made me feel guilty and overwhelmed. Now I use one Reminders Inbox for all reminders and they are pulled in by Things' Inbox for daily review and deciding what app is best to handle them.
  • There's an app for that... sort of;
    http://www.forestapp.cc/
  • So why should I use the reminders app instead of the calendars app? So what is the difference between the calendars and reminders app?
  • Calendars: Appointments Reminders: Non-appointment-based. (i.e. "Remind me to write this article sometime today" or "pick up milk").
  • Another great feature built into reminders is that it is location aware. I use Siri to remind me to put the trash and recycling out on the curb when I get home from work on the designated days. As soon as I pull up to my house I get a reminder. If you put addresses in your phone to all your frequent locations you can have Siri remind you to do, get, say, etc. any number of things. Sent from the iMore App
  • I find that the "remind me at location" doesn't work well for me. Perhaps it's user error but I've tried several times (both with and without wifi). Other than that, I use the reminders app quite often.
    Georgia - I really enjoy these type of topics discussed in iMore. How each of use use our tech.
  • That's a wonderful picture for the article!
  • Remainders !!! of course I have the habit of adding lot. For all little things. Most important thing I say to myself is please check Cal everyday !! DING
  • Hello imore crew, on your latest " expert advice" I have no need " no iPhone, actually no cell phone" but I really enjoy reading the presentation as I do all other imore casts. I support you guys thanks.
  • Good job Georgia. I do use Siri daily to set reminders, timers, alarms. I will use DND more often now. Good idea.
  • Too much work. Maybe I'll try it tomorrow. Sent from the iMore App
  • I like to use the Pomodoro technique to work in small, 25 minute, focused work periods with a small break between each. After four work periods, take a longer break. I even wrote an iOS app to help with the technique: https://appsto.re/gb/a83N3.i
  • No amount of alarms, reminders or electric shocks will help a true procrastinater. They will just put all of that off until tomorrow. I know because I am one.
  • Already use EfficientPIM on my windows, gonna try this way on my phone. Thanks