I used to think of myself as a master procrastinator.

Now I get things done.

That includes:

  • writing, recording and producing 100 tracks in one year when I still had a full-time office job with extensive travel around the world;
  • starting a profitable online business with no experience whatsoever in sales, marketing and other icky type activities I still don’t enjoy very much; and
  • teaching live classes at top schools in Paris to help fellow creatives and entrepreneurs build and optimize their websites even though I only created my first website 2 years ago!

In this post, I’m going to share the systems I use to trick myself into action and get things done.

Remember, this comes from a reformed master procrastinator…. I can guarantee you can do this even if you’re a liiiittle bit lazy 🙂

This is an EPIC 18 minute read but I still want you to take action so….

You can download a summary cheat sheet here, read the full post or skip around using the handy little index table below.

16 Practices Split in 4 Categories

1- Keeping Myself Accountable

2- Getting Out Of A Rut

3- Staying Focused On What’s Important

4- Giving Myself a Break

Let me know in the comments if you have some of your own.

1. Keeping Myself Accountable

The idea here is NOT to beat yourself up if you don’t do something. The goal is to help you NOTICE when you’re off track and provide you with a system to correct course as often as possible so that you don’t deviate too much from the general direction you want to go in.

Practice 1: Regular Reviews

What is the practice?

Every evening, I sit down, review my day and plan for the next.

Every week, I sit down, review my week and plan for the next.

Same every month. Same every quarter.

I do this with pen and paper, in a notebook that I carry around with me most of the time.

Why does this practice help me?

It gives me a sense of direction and reminds me to ask myself questions like:

What made me happy today? How can I do more of the same tomorrow?

What made me feel like crap? How can I avoid that tomorrow?

What did I enjoy doing? Who did I enjoy spending time with?

Why did I feel bad about myself? What could I have done differently?

Every day, I learn a little bit more about myself and what makes me tick.

The more I know myself, the better I perform.

Practice 2: Sharing My Experience With Accountability Partners

What is the practice?

Every Monday, I speak with Angelo who is based in Cleveland and once a month, I speak with Matthew who is based in Hong Kong.

Every week and every month, we talk and discuss what’s been working for us and what hasn’t been so great.

We also list our goals for the week or month ahead.

Why does this practice help me?

This is what I get from Angelo and Matthew: empathy, new ideas, outside points of view, support, encouragement, kindness.

They also challenge me when I feel sorry for myself….

But in a really kind and supportive way that I appreciate and that helps me keep going when working on my own gets tough 🙂

Practice 3: Index Card To Focus On Systems Instead Of Goals

What is the practice?

Every month, I decide what habits / activities I need to focus on to be happy and make progress in my personal and professional life.

Not goals, but activities.

For example, instead of focusing on goals like “learn 5 jazz standards on the piano”, I commit to playing the piano 13 times during the month ahead.

I’ll also make a commitment to spend time outside or share a moment with someone.

Then I write down my targets on an index card. What do I want to do this month? How many times?

Throughout the day, as I take action and do what’s important to me, I black out a box.

This is what March 2019 looks like so far.

On the other side of the index card, I have the 3 big reasons why I’m doing what I’m doing for extra motivation when I need it 😉

Why does this practice help me?

Having this index card and updating it every day is really helpful because, if I deviate from the general direction I want to go in, I notice immediately and I can course correct.

Other benefits of the index card that help me get things done:

1- It helps me focus on what I can control, my actions. Systems over goals.

2- Each month I tweak it a little depending on what’s been working or not working and what’s important to me RIGHT NOW. This ensures I keep things fresh and interesting.

3- It’s easy, visual and non-electronic which helps me think clearly.

Practice 4: Having Others Count On Me

What is the practice?

This is the practice of putting myself in situations where someone else is counting on me to do something.

There are lots of different ways to bring people in so that they help me get things done.

For example, I’ll tell my friends I’m working on a new album because I know next time I see them they’ll ask me about it and I’ll feel bad if I’ve got nothing new to tell them.

A couple of weeks ago, when I was struggling for inspiration and on a deadline, I asked people on Facebook and Twitter what they’d like me to write about.

Asking for help to get things done

Why does this practice help me?

Well…. we all know that procrastination comes fairly easily whereas action can be hard BUT….

By bringing people in and telling them about what I’m working on, asking for their help along the way, I make it harder for myself to do nothing!

Why?

Because I will NOT want to disappoint the people who support me.

I will feel COMPELLED to do the best I can and give them good news if they ask about my projects down the line.

When I asked for people’s input online, I knew if I got some answers it would help me find motivation to write and I’d feel obligated to keep them posted on my progress.

Getting help to get things done
Look at that! Not only did it get me out of my slump two weeks ago, asking for help gave me inspiration for today’s post too!

They were so kind in trying to help that I just HAD to publish something, anything.

Funnily enough, it led to a pretty raw and vulnerable post that resonated with many readers. Couldn’t have done it without such helpful and kind feedback 🙂

2. Getting Out Of A Rut

It’s easy to get stuck in your head when you do creative work, especially when you work on your own. The goal here is to get out of your head and into the real world to spur yourself into action.

Practice 5: Going For A Walk With Earphones

What is the practice?

When I’m feeling a little sad and uninspired, not sure what to do next, I like to go out for a walk and listen to a potentially inspirational podcast or audiobook.

Sometimes I have a place to go. Sometimes I just walk around the neighborhood until I’ve had enough.

Some of my favorite podcasts right now:

Podcasts I'm listening to these days
I also listen to a few podcasts about (European) football but that’s another story :p

Why does this practice help me?

It gets me outside of my own little unproductive bubble and exposes me to other people’s ideas.

Their creativity and insights usually helps me see something I hadn’t thought of before and fires me up to explore it when I get back home.

Alternative practice: sit for an hour in a café with a good non-fiction book 🙂

Practice 6: Going For A Walk WITHOUT Earphones

What is the practice?

When I’m feeling overwhelmed and have no clue where to start or how to make progress on a project, I like to go out for a walk WITHOUT listening to anything.

Not even music.

A short walk to the bakery will often do the trick.

Why does this practice help me?

As I walk purposefully to the bakery, without any audio crutches to fall back on and determined to purchase a fresh baguette, my brain starts ordering stuff around in my head.

It usually only takes a few minutes for what’s important to pop out and make the rest completely irrelevant.

Then it’s important I can either get home and get work done quickly OR write stuff down immediately.

Alternative practice: sit for an hour in a café with a good book, fiction this time. Let the brain work in metaphors 🙂

Practice 7: Brainstorming With Pen & Paper

What is the practice?

I pick up a pen and paper and write down everything I need to do.

Bullet point style.

Get stuff done with bullet points

I don’t prioritize, don’t categorize, don’t do anything except listing everything that comes to mind.

When I’ve had enough. I stop.

Why does this practice help me?

It frees up space in my brain.

Instead of having anxieties bouncing around in my head, I see them on paper in front of me.

They’re much less scary on paper 🙂

If I still feel overwhelmed, I’ve got practice 9 and practice 11 to find my laser focus.

Practice 8: Changing Location

What is the practice?

It’s pretty simple really. If I feel lost or unproductive, I move.

If I’ve been working from home for a while and it hasn’t quite been happening for a couple of days, I’ll go work from a café.

If I’ve been in the studio for a while and nothing’s happening, I’ll go home, use the commute to switch modes, maybe relax or work on some other stuff.

Why does this practice help me?

Changing locations means changing scenery, not having all your usual stuff with you, having to find solutions, talking to different people.

All of this usually helps me snap out of it and get back to work.

Having said that, if it’s a real big rut and a change of scenery doesn’t do it for me, maybe it’s time to give myself a break…. But more on that later….

3. Staying Focused On What’s Important

If you can focus on what’s important and get rid of the rest, you’ll be just fine and get things done. Once in a while, you might need a little 7-day challenge push to meet a big deadline but you’ll be fine.

Practice 9: Remembering What Really Matters

What is the practice?

Every now and then, usually when I’m feeling overwhelmed, I sit down and list aaaaall the things I have to do (see practice 7).

That practice alone helps but sometimes, I need an extra step to refocus my brain and remember what matters.

Then, for each item on that list, I ask myself a few questions like:

Does this really matter? If it does matter that much, why haven’t I done it already?

I’ve found that when I keep putting off something it’s either too scary or unimportant (or both!).

If it’s too scary but essential, I’ll break it down and make it less scary.

But if I realize it’s non-essential, I’ll simply discard the idea of doing it completely.

Will I be happy when it’s done or will I have to scramble and do it again in a week’s time?

Whenever possible, I favor evergreen activities to what I call “hamster-wheel activities”.

Evergreen = essential to what I do and will still be valuable in 6 months time

For me: writing high-quality timeless content; building strong relationships with people I care about; practicing the piano; spending time in the studio to make my music sound better.

Hamster-wheel = may help but loses value quickly and requires constant attention to keep the momentum.

For me: social media posts; publishing articles on trendy topics; networking events; buying new recording equipment to make my music sound better.

Here are some of the questions I ask myself to determine if something is important or not.

If it really matters or if I’m just getting myself worked up.

Will I get in trouble if I don’t do it? Will it be painful or very unpleasant if I don’t do it? Will there be consequences I’m not willing to face?

Why does this practice help me?

This practice helps me remember to spend time with my family and friends and have fun.

When I get worked up or feel overwhelmed because of stuff that doesn’t matter, this practice helps me take a step back and reminds me not to take everything so seriously 🙂

It cuts through the crap and helps me focus on what really matters at home and at work.

Practice 10: Smartphone Clean-Up

What is the practice?

Simple.

  • No news or social media apps on my phone.
  • All notifications off except calls, text messages and a handful of What’s App groups.
  • Phone in silent mode 90% of the time.

Do I miss some calls and emails and tweets. Yep.

Does it ever matter? Nope.

Why does this practice help me?

I cannot understate just how much this practice keeps me sane!

A couple of months ago, I bought a new phone with lots of storage space. So I went ahead and downloaded Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Messenger.

It did NOT go well.

I ended up checking my phone wayyyy too much, even with the notifications turned off.

After a couple of days, I felt miserable and deleted everything.

Not saying you should do the same. Just saying it makes a huge difference in my life 😉

Practice 11: Doing Things In The Right Order

What is the practice?

Ok so I have a long list of stuff (I think) I need to do from practice 7 and I’ve cut out the crap to focus only what matters in practice 9.

Now I regularly ask myself 2 questions to make sure I do things in the right order.

One is from The ONE Thing by Gary Keller and Jay Papasan:

“What is the ONE thing that I could do that would make all the other things either EASIER or UNNECESSARY?”

The other is from The Personal MBA by Josh Kaufman:

“What are the things that – if I got them done today – would make a huge difference?”

Why does this practice help me?

When you’re working on your own projects, figuring out where to start can be a little difficult. I find these 2 questions help me find the answer.

They help me focus on what I can do NOW to make progress.

Practice 12: Seven Day Challenges

What is the practice?

In my experience, daily habits work for some things but not for others.

Every now and then, I’ll want to make headway on a project that requires a big burst of energy on my part.

For example, I’ll commit to spending one hour sending out submissions to music libraries every day for 7 days straight.

Or I’ll commit to recording a new song every day for the next 7 days.

Why does this practice help me?

  1. Seven days is short enough that I can’t make excuses and I just have to do the work, building confidence in myself along the way 😉

  2. And short enough that I don’t have to worry about putting everything else on the back-burner while I focus on the challenge at hand.

  3. But long enough that I can make a lot of progress on a single project.

4. Giving Myself A Break

You can’t always be at the top of your game. If you’re too hard on yourself and don’t get enough rest and recovery time, you’ll RARELY be at the top of your game.

Practice 13: The Five Minute Rule

What is the practice?

When I’m low-energy and don’t feel like doing anything, I’ll go through my long to-do list from practice 7 and look at what I might be able to start on.

I’ll pick one, set the timer to 5 minutes and get started.

When the timer goes off, I either stop or keep going.

If I stop before the task is finished, I cross out the item and add it back at the bottom of my to-do list.

Why does this practice help me?

First off, the 5 minute timer helps me get started.

Second, crossing off the item even if it’s not finished reminds me that I did something which is not nothing.

Third, this practice actually helps me get things done. Sometimes I’ll stop when the timer goes off but very often I’ll keep going.

The key is in allowing myself to stop, guilt-free.

Because it’s human to grossly underestimate how much time and energy it’ll take us to get things done, we have a tendency to beat ourself up when we don’t deliver on our impossibly high ambitions.

This is my system to try to counter-balance that tendency.

I worked for 5 minutes? Good for me! Well done! 🙂

Practice 14: Tiny Daily Commitment

What is the practice?

I commit to doing something every day for a little while.

The key here is that the commitment should be small enough that you can’t make excuses and get out of it.

Whenever you commit and fall short, make the next commitment smaller until you find the right fit for you.

So if you’re working full-time and have kids, committing to spending 2 hours in the music studio every day is probably NOT a good idea….

It’s a sure-fire way to fail and feel bad about yourself.

Here are some tiny daily commitments that worked for me:

  • Staring at my DAW for a minimum of 30 minutes every morning before going to the office
  • Practice the piano 10 minutes every day
  • Read 30 minutes every evening before going to bed
  • Exercise for 12 minutes every morning
  • Block out 2 hours to work at the computer every day.

Why does this practice help me?

It builds confidence slowly but surely.

Made me realize I wasn’t a procrastinator. I just had really unrealistic goals sometimes!

It’s a great exercise to build more realistic habits and slowly gain confidence in your ability to follow-through.

If you see yourself as a flaky master-procrastinator who never delivers when it matters, try this!! There’s still hope for you 🙂

Practice 15: Built-In Recovery Time

What is the practice?

I try to keep a fairly “normal” 9 to 5 schedule so that I can live a “normal” life with my friends and family.

With no boss to tell me what to do and when to do it, that can get a bit messy! :/

In theory, I’m not allowed to work after 8pm and I’m not allowed to work during the weekends.

To help me with that, I have my index cards and weekly group activities like football, yoga and choir practice. Again, having others depend on me helps 😉

In practice, I still work during the evening or weekends fairly regularly BUT, if I didn’t have those arbitrary rules, my life would be a complete mess with no order whatsoever.

Why does this practice help me?

It gives me structure. Prevents me from getting completely out of sync with the outside world and my friends.

It’s really not easy to stay on a regular schedule when no one’s really asking you to but I feel like it’s absolutely essential to maintain a healthy lifestyle and avoid burnout.

Whenever I start going to bed late and sleeping in, the difference in mood and productivity is stark. So if I can avoid it, I do.

Practice 16: Calling It A Day

What is the practice?

When I’m low-energy and none of the above spur me into action, I quit.

I just give myself a day-off or two or more and move on.

No guilt.

No second-guessing myself and worrying about the future.

Just time off.

I just make sure that I decide on the date I’ll be back so that I can actually switch off in the meantime and enjoy the time off.

Why does this practice help me?

Calling it a day and taking time off helps me take a step back and come up with new ideas, new insights.

The rest allows me to turn-off my brain a little bit and let it do it’s thing in the background.

Some of my best ideas come up during my time off. When that happens, I just write them down and go back to resting….

And on that note, I’m off to Malta on holidays! 🙂

When I get back, I’d love to read your comments on your own productivity tips.

What helps YOU get things done??

This blog post will NOT be very helpful if you don’t take action so here’s a CHECKLIST YOU CAN PRINT and keep on your desk for a reminder of stuff you can try next time you catch yourself procrastinating 😉