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Forget to-do lists. Here are 4 tips on how to stop procrastinating

Learning how to harness our attention is the “skill of the century,” says behavioral design expert Nir Eyal.

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Information overload. From music and games to social media and endless hours of entertainment, easy access to technology has meant that humans are perpetually distracted.

“The cost of living in a world with so much abundance, the price of progress, is that we have to learn how to deal with all this information,” according to Nir Eyal, best-selling author of “Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life.”

“The skill of the century is being able to harness your attention,” Eyal, an expert in behavioral design, told CNBC Make It. “It doesn’t matter that you have the world’s information at your fingertips … if you can’t sit down and focus on it long enough to actually turn that information to wisdom, then it might as well be garbage.”

Technology can be useful to humanity, but it can also be a distraction and lead to procrastination.

In a world where technology is advancing at a breakneck pace, here are 4 principles to follow in order to become “indistractable,” according to Eyal.

Master your internal triggers

When people feel bored, they check Instagram. When they’re uncertain, they check Google. The action of being distracted is often preceded by a feeling of discomfort, or an “internal trigger,” says Eyal.

To stay focused, people should first identify the feeling that precedes the distraction and create a plan of action for the next time that feeling comes knocking.

People tend to blame their devices for distracting them from the task at hand, but studies show that humans are checking their phones due to a “ping, ding or ring” for only 10% of the time, said Eyal. The other 90% of the time, they are checking their devices due to an internal feeling — or to avoid pain or discomfort.

Ultimately, devices are tools that carry no moral distinction. They are neither good, nor bad, but they can be used in productive or counterproductive ways. It is therefore important to learn how to harness the power of technology to serve us, instead of blaming it for distracting us from work and life.

Make time for tasks

It is crucial to make time to perform the tasks at hand.

“If you don’t have time for exercise, time with your family, time with your friends, time for focused work, it’s not going to get done,” Eyal told CNBC Make It.

“I used to believe [in] this to-do list myth,” said Eyal, but this is “one of the worst things you can do for your personal productivity.” While these lists provide the opportunity to unscramble thoughts and put goals on paper, it doesn’t create the constraint that’s necessary for prolonged productivity and focus.

This method of planning is “harmful,” said Eyal, because without intentionally designating the time to perform the task, it can often end up taking longer than expected — or worse, set people up for failure.

Instead, he suggests using a “timebox calendar.” It’s a technique where instead of working on a task until it is complete, you set a fixed amount of time in your calendar for a particular task, according to Spica International, a workforce management software solution company.

For example, a timebox calendar can look like this:

  • 7-9 a.m. — Focused working time
  • 9-10 a.m. — Breakfast and get ready for the day
  • 10 a.m.-12 p.m. — Reply to emails and miscellaneous work
  • 12 -1 p.m. — Lunch
  • 1-3 p.m. — Work meetings
  • 3-5 p.m. — Focused work time
  • 5-6 p.m. — Reply to emails and plan for tomorrow
  • 6-7 p.m. — Exercise
  • 7-9 p.m. — Dinner and family time

With a timebox calendar, “the goal is not to finish anything, the goal is to work on a task without distraction,” said Eyal.

Not only does this help prevent procrastination, it can also prevent burnout by creating the dedicated time for other activities. It can help people prioritize their relationships, maintain their health, and overall, lead a more balanced life.

‘Hack back’ the external triggers

While people have become very reliant on devices, “being dependent is not the same thing as being addicted,” wrote Eyal in his book.

Eyal suggested “hacking back” the external triggers on our devices, which is very quick and easy to do.

They include purging apps that don’t serve you, disabling notifications, as well as wearing a watch instead of looking at your phone to check the time.

“What’s much more important that people don’t talk about, are the meetings that didn’t need to be called [and] the emails that didn’t need to be sent,” he added. Becoming pickier and more thoughtful with how we work can help prevent unnecessary time wasted.

Make a pact

A pact is a type of pre-commitment or decision made with yourself or a trusted friend, with the goal of binding your future self to something, according to Eyal.

There are different types of personal pacts one can make to becoming “indistractable” and prevent procrastination. For example, one can make an “effort pact” which “prevents distraction by making unwanted behaviors more difficult to do,” Eyal wrote in his book.

There are online tools that aid in this, such as apps that block access to distracting websites or online timers that can encourage people to stay focused on one single task.

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