How to stop procrastinating and get in 'the zone'

You'll only be productive if you're truly present at work, says Natalie Campbell.

by Natalie Campbell
Last Updated: 24 Apr 2015

I have never been one to follow dogma or play by the rules. Even when I create them I’ll find ways to sabotage my own thinking. I call it evolution of thought (and ego).

One such idea or rule I am trying to pick apart at the moment is ‘productivity’. It has been a favourite concept of mine for a while: ‘if you do this, your team will be more productive’ or ‘if you try that, then you’ll be more productive’.

Over the Christmas break I started to think about what I had achieved in the last quarter of the year and when I felt the most ‘productive’. As with nearly all of my reflective moments I had an ‘ah ha’ at the end (ah ha’s often arrive while showering, at the end of a bottle of red or in boring meetings).

I am most productive when I am present.

It’s quite a simple idea actually. When I am fully engaged in what I am doing, not thinking about yesterday, tomorrow, next week or year but that moment and the task at hand, I get much more done. Some of you might be thinking, ‘this is not revolutionary, this is how I work all the time,’ but I challenge you to think about it. Are you really present? Are you really in the moment when you’re working? Do you really know how much you can achieve if you tried to place yourself physically and mentally in the now?

Being present is almost like being in a trance or ‘the zone’. For my fellow gym-goers (I have to go to balance out the carbs and fat from wine, cheese and chips) it’s that section of your workout where your body is relaxed, you’re in your stride, the music is moving through your veins and you feel great. As a result of reaching this state you have an all round better workout, because you push yourself further.

For artists and creatives, it’s the second you start working on something and the visual or words just melt from brain and hand onto the canvas, screen or material. There is no thinking, pushing, trying or stopping. You are in the zone and present.

At my desk, I know I have had a spell of being present because the clock has moved on by a couple of hours and I look back at the work I’ve done and wonder who wrote it. That’s partly because I can’t really remember doing it, but mainly because I never think I try very hard on anything. Therefore, the piece of work that my client now loves simply cannot have been produced by me. But that’s the secret: when present there is no trying.

I accept this all sounds a bit new-age - I admit I spent the holidays reading books by Indian guru Osho - but the more I try to calm my mind and get into the zone in order to start (and complete) a task, the more I think presence is the key to success and getting things done. It’s not necessarily about trying to be ‘productive’. It’s not about rules and setting up processes to catch yourself out or shame you back into doing work when our friend Procrastination comes a-calling. It’s about just doing the thing that needs to be done and focusing on it, with as much of yourself as you can.

I am a fan of Eckhart Tolle and his books about being in ‘the now’ (although of course I change his model to suit myself when the mood arises) and this quote sums everything I’ve said up nicely: ‘The power for creating a better future is contained in the present moment: You create a good future by creating a good present.’ Based on that equation I can stop worrying about what 2015 holds by staying in the present moment and making whatever it is that I am doing good.

So, in the spirit of sharing, here are my three tips for getting into ‘the zone’ and staying present.

1. Decide the one single thing you can do each day that gets you closer to your overarching goal or mission. This is the task you should focus on, because you know completing it has a pay off.

2. Make the space around you comfortable or creatively inviting, I pay jazz or 60s soul music when I am writing and instrumental house music when I am reading or taking in new information. At home I light candles, even in the daytime, as both the flickering and smells get me in the right headspace. When working in my own office I light them too - never with clients (although I might try one day…).

3. Visualise yourself starting the task, think about how you feel when you are mid-way through it and picture the moment you finish it. Take a deep breath on the last thought and make a start.

Okay, I will step off the fluffy soap box now, but I’ll be back on it (in a less fluffy guise) on February 4 at the Management Today Live conference in Edinburgh. Make sure you join us and definitely stop to say hi if you see me hovering by the buffet table debating the number of carbs in a canapé.

Natalie Campbell is the founder of A Very Good Company and is speaking at MT Live Edinburgh on February 4. Other speakers include Gleneagles Hotels chairman Peter Lederer and Aberdeen Asset Management deputy chief executive Andrew Laing. Check out the programme and get 25% off tickets until January 27.

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