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Trick your lazy brain into being more productive

How often do you do only one thing at a time? Find out how your brain keeps you from checking things off your to-do list, and how to trick yourself into getting more done.

Sharon Vaknin/CNET

Be honest with yourself. How often do you do only one thing at a time?

Do you check e-mail on your phone during meetings? Do you suddenly find yourself checking Facebook and Twitter instead of catching up on work?

Even now, while I try my hardest to write this piece by giving the task my full attention, my brain begs me to check Facebook, refresh my inbox, check my Twitter @mentions, and reply to the text message I don't really want to answer anyhow.

How your brain works against you

Though some are confident they are perfectly good multitaskers, you are more likely to complete a task if you make a commitment to do one thing at a time.

Focus isn't the only issue, however -- struggling to complete tasks thoroughly and on time can often be attributed to something almost every person can relate to: procrastination.

According to a recently published 10-year study by a professor in the Haskayne School of Business, distractibility, task averseness, and impulsiveness are all major predictors of procrastination.

Sound familar? The culprit is a close friend of yours -- it's called the Internet.

Those who do much of their work at a desk and on the computer constantly cope with the urge to escape work-related tasks and run away to a colorful world of YouTube videos, real-time news, social clubs, and any other activity that would provide instant happiness over the comparably negative tasks begging to be completed.

The problem is, you are perfectly aware that it would most benefit you to check that item off your to-do list immediately, but you still don't start.

Seconds, minutes, hours pass until the clock strikes two and you have yet to thoroughly complete a task. And it's not just work -- household chores, errands, and side projects also take a hit from these unsavory habits.

Laura Shin of Lifehacker recently addressed this topic and preached the logic none of us wants to hear:

"...when we look at people who are able to 'do more' than we do, often it's simply because they manage their time better. One of our biggest challenges when it comes to capitalizing on time: We don't really know how we spend it."

The three-step approach to being more productive

Simply deciding to manage your time better is not enough. As discovered, a good bunch of us are wired to put off tasks -- including the task to manage time more effectively.

The best method to spending time more effectively can be broken down into a three-prong approach that fights off some of the issues associated with unhealthy multitasking and procrastination: task management, focus, and mindful use of time.

Screenshot by Sharon Vaknin/CNET

Step 1: Use to-do lists the right way
There is endless advice about the "right" way to create and manage to-do lists. These systems -- which can be as simple as a sticky note, or as complex as the "GTD" method -- are never a magic bullet, but many are often based on the same principles:

Write it down. Be specific. Acknowledge (and sometimes, reward) success.

The only problem is that oftentimes, we get so caught up in composing our to-do lists, that even that activity becomes a ways to procrastinate.

Wunderlist (Mac, iOS, and Android) is a clean, well-designed to-do list app that allows you to achieve all of the above, without the paper trail.

When a task is entered, you'll also be asked to also include subtasks. Use these subtasks as action items. So, for example, if your primary item is "make the house spotless," your subitems might include "mop floors," "change sheets," and "put away the dishes."

By outlining the specific action you need to accomplish to complete a task, you are much more likely to do it.

As you complete these subtasks, check them off in Wunderlist, until you can finally cross out the master task. When it's all said and done, the app will archive your completed to-dos, allowing you to acknowledge your successes at a glance.

Step 2: Time each and every task
How long does it really take you to clean your inbox in the morning, or write that proposal? If you're one of many who allow to-do list items to compete with distractions, you could be wasting hours of productivity.

Google Play Store

To combat these habits, track how much time you spend on each and every task. Doing so will create just enough pressure to force you to focus on the task, and allow you judge how efficiently you're using your time. Here are a few easy and accessible ways to track time spent:

  • Keep a simple spreadsheet. To use this method, make a basic two-column table in something like Google Docs, Evernote, or even Excel. Then, using the built-in stopwatch on your phone, log the time it takes you to complete each task. Alternatively, make a three-column table and log the start and end times.
  • Use an app like Toggl. This free app for iOS, Android, and your desktop streamlines the process of tracking time. The interface is minimal, giving you the tools to describe the activity and initiate a timer. When you've completed the task, stop it, and it will be added to the log.
  • The all-in-one: RescueTime. This robust desktop and mobile app eliminates much of the manual work, automatically tracking and logging how you spend your time. The service, which has paid and free versions, even goes as far as allowing you to block distracting Web sites while you tackle an important project.

Step 3: Trick your brain into focusing
Time and time again, science has shown that though you may not be tuned into the noises in your workplace, those ambient sounds are chronic stressors over time. Chatter, munching, and typing can all negatively affect your ability to be productive and focus on a task.

That's where an app like White Noise (Android, iOS) comes in. By filling your ears with ambient noise (like pink noise, white noise, or even sounds like water running), other noises are washed out, allowing you to focus on your task.

Interestingly enough, the software company Autodesk experimented with emitting pink noise over the loudspeakers in its offices. Though it's unclear if productivity increased, office chatter was much more apparent when the pink noise was temporarily disabled.

So, try this: each time you begin a task, tune in to ambient noise using an app like White Noise or a Web site like Then, when you're done with the task, mute the sound.

Screenshot by Sharon Vaknin

Not only will you reap the benefits of shutting out office noises, but the pink noise will cue your brain, letting it know it's time to be productive.

Now's your turn

By no means is this a formula or magic system that promises to solve all your time management problems. But some combination or adaptation of the above suggestions should seriously improve your productivity. Experiment with different methods, and don't be afraid to try something new -- just don't waste too much time on it.

Do you have any best practices for maximizing your productivity? Share your methods in the comments.