Working Hour by Hour: Balancing Procrastination and Progress

After the Orioles game on Friday night, I dropped by the office at around 10 pm to grab some things on my way to the parking garage. As I was leaving, I saw several students studying in the lobby and it reminded me of some of the late weekend nights I would spend preparing for a major Monday exam. If I only knew then what I do now…

When approaching a major task, whether it be studying for an exam or tackling a work-related project, most people choose one of two general time management strategies: setting aside large blocks of time to complete the task in as few sittings as possible (with one inevitably being right before the deadline), or making slow but steady progress gradually over time. I hope to convince you that the latter is probably a better way to work, and one that may even give you back some of your weekend.

First, maintaining focus on a single task over a long period of time can be a challenge. Attention peaks at the beginning of a task and steadily decreases over time, with the greatest drop in focus occurring at around an hour. Fortunately, taking a break for 10-15 minutes can restore this loss in attention and return you to peak productivity. According to a study highlighted in a 2014 piece in The Atlantic, the ideal formula is a 17-minute break for every 52 minutes of work, but few of you probably work in these increments, so breakdowns of 45 and 15 minutes or 50 and 10 minutes will probably be easier to remember.

Second, a lot of unfinished tasks are probably competing for your attention beyond the one with a looming deadline, and these intrusions can make it even more difficult to focus. This can be partially explained by the Zeigarnik effect, named after the Gestalt psychologist who first described the phenomenon in the 1920s. She postulated that unfinished tasks introduce a type of mental tension, leading you to persistently recall them until they can be effectively resolved. Attempting to focus on a single task over long periods of time can make you especially vulnerable to the Zeigarnik effect, as unfinished work will undoubtedly start to pile up. However, if you divide your time into smaller increments and dedicate each to a separate task, you can move forward on a variety of unfinished tasks over the course of a day.

Finally, trying to get everything done in one or two large blocks of time can actually impair some of the most valuable processes your brain undergoes when managing complex tasks. This is especially true for creative thinking, which rarely thrives in the shadows of a rapidly approaching deadline (although there are certainly exceptions). Striking a fine balance between procrastination and progress was the subject of a recent TED Talk by Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist and faculty member at the Wharton School. Based on research he performed as part of his book on original thinkers, he describes this balance as being crucial for fostering the creative thinking necessary for big ideas.

So how can you put these concepts to work for you? Here are a few simple steps:

  1. Allow yourself 45-50 minutes to focus on a single task. Set any mobile devices aside and use this time to its fullest (more on multitasking in a later blog).
  2. Next, take a break for 10-15 minutes. You can even use this time to reward yourself with the distractions you had to put away in #1 above.
  3. When you return, spend the next 45-50 minutes on a new task. If you’re really pressed for time with an upcoming deadline, you can return to the original task, but the goal is to make progress on all of your projects simultaneously.
  4. Continue to arrange your day in increments of 50 and 10 minutes (or 45 and 15). I automate this process by blocking off my calendar for an hour at a time (see below) and setting alerts for the next task to fire at the 45-minute mark by default. These alerts are a gentle nudge to finish up my current task in the next 3-5 minutes and prepare for a break.
  5. For simple tasks that are not part of a major project and may just take a few minutes to complete, bundle these together in a single block. I usually block these off as “Miscellaneous.”

Do you have additional suggestions? Want to share your workflow strategies? Please leave your thoughts in the comments section below!


Image credits: alarm clock adapted from Clocks / DP2s by Shoichi Masuhara (CC BY-SA 2.0)