As a writer, I get asked some variation of this question all the time. “How do you get things done?” It’s a reasonable question. All of us have, to some degree, time that we are completely in control of, and we generally have things we’d like to accomplish during that time. Then the ugly demon of procrastination sneaks in. Time flies, as they say (Tempus fugit, for our Roman readers out there) and the day goes by without any sort of productivity taking place.
How can we combat this unpleasant phenomenon?
I’m a firm believer that in order to best solve a problem, we first need to identify what the problem is. This sounds simple, but most of the time we skip this step when something’s wrong. So hold your horses, and let’s examine this problem.
The trouble with unrestrained time is not that anything is stopping us from getting work/projects/chores done- rather the opposite. The problem is one of motivation. How do we make ourselves productive when there are literally no imminent demands on our time? Continuing our analytical problem-solving, we can see that the problem of motivation is two-fold.
Internal Motivation: What Makes You Tick (Tock)
If you’re anything like me, besides offering you my deepest condolences (I joke), then you immediately think of internal motivation when you hear someone talk about motivation in general. This is only half of the equation. However, since it is the first half I thought of, we’ll deal with it first.
Despite what many gurus of our day imply, we are creatures who crave purpose. No one wants to dig a hole everyday only to see it filled in at sundown. (Insert Sisyphus reference of your choice here) I admit it, I had to check how to spell Sisyphus. Silly Greeks.
My point here is that generally speaking, we need to know why we’re doing something in order to do it well. To do it at all, even. Why are you trying to use your free time for xyz? What is your goal? What is the purpose? Knowing the answers to these questions will help you leave procrastination for later. (see what I did there?)
For me, I sit down and write every day because:
a.) I enjoy it immensely.
b.) I know that if I want to continue to be able to write full time I need to be productive and earn a living.
c.) I think that culture is driven by narrative, and I want to add my voice to the din. I hope to inject some good into this world through my writing.
You need purpose in what you do. Take some time and figure out why you want to do what you want to do. It’ll make all the difference.
For those of you not like me, when you hear “motivation” you think of external forces. External motivation can be immensely helpful for getting things done. In fact, this is arguably the main source of motivation in most people’s lives. People get up and go to work every day because their boss would yell at them if they went A.W.O.L. Or they might get fired. If they show up and work hard they might get a bonus! All of this is external motivation, and believe it or not, you can use this type of motivation to your advantage, even when no one is threatening to punish you or offering to reward you. Here’s how:
Set up parameters for yourself.
This is huge for me. When I’m working on a novel, I like to sit down at a specified time and write until a specified time. I also have a page quota that I like to accomplish each day. We’re creatures of habit, certainly, but we’re also creatures who like to play their roles correctly. All sorts of interesting psychological research has been done about this, but the point behind it all is simple. When you’re at your job at the bank you’re productive. Why? Because you’re at the bank. The bank is where you work. So you do work during your work hours. Imagine that.
Human beings want to be consistent. If I sit down at a desk with a pen and a notebook (I write all of my novels longhand before typing them up for editors) I feel pretty silly if I don’t start writing. Why? Because that’s what you do at a writing desk. You write. So I write.
What I’m saying here is two-fold. One, don’t try and do your taxes at Chuckie Cheese. It’ll be hard, in part because it feels inconsistent. (Also, why are you going to Chuckie Cheese? You’re an adult.) Two, set goals for yourself. If it helps you, tell someone your goal. That way you feel accountable. You’ve established the role you intend to fall into, both in terms of creating an environment consistent with productivity in whatever activity you take part in, as well as defining what it means to be a fill-in-the-blank through your goals. Your nature is to be consistent with these things. Use your natural tendencies to your advantage.
Go Do It
Finally, the biggest help in getting things done in your free time is realizing that you are responsible for yourself. You don’t have anyone to give excuses to. No one cares that you could have written an incredible symphony if only you had gotten around to it. Get around to it. Close is only good in horseshoes and hand grenades, as they say. It’s no good in habits.