Non-Zero Every Day

I’ll be brief, because you’re probably reading this article either as a means to procrastinate, or in desperation because you procrastinate so much. Or both. It’s too easy to get caught up in other things and end up with yet another day when you haven’t made progress towards your goals. That’s a very familiar feeling. I call those days Zero Days, because my daily word count for whatever novel I’m working on will be zero. It’s a bad feeling.

Here’s a solution that works very well for me, and it’s intended for users of Apple devices. I assume a similar thing will work on Android, Windows, etc. It’s also really easy.

First, set up a Focus mode for work. You do this in the Settings app on iOS, and presumably in System Preferences on macOS. There’s a pre-made Work focus, so all you need to do is configure it to disallow notifications from all but your most truly essential apps and contacts. I allow messages and calls from my wife, my son’s nursery, and our tenants. I also allow notifications from the calendar and reminders apps, any apps related to parcel delivery so I know when things are arriving, and also our car (so that, say, if my wife or I go out somewhere with our son and accidentally forget to lock it — which is all too easy with a young child — the car will ping me a minute or two later, and I can lock it from wherever I am, whether I’m nearby or still at home).

Second, set a schedule for your Work focus. This is part of the settings for each focus. I have mine set to be on between 09:00 and 12:00, and between 13:00 and 17:00, every weekday. Don’t rely on yourself to remember when to switch it on and off; let the computer do it.

Third, set up an automation for starting work. You do this in the Shortcuts app, in the Automation section, not in the regular list of shortcuts. One of the available triggers is when a specified focus is switched on and/or off, and it applies to automatically-scheduled focus times too. This is the key part of this productivity strategy. Configure your automations as follows.

  1. When your Work focus turns on, do two things: disable wi-fi, and start a two-minute timer.
  2. When your Work focus turns off, re-enable wi-fi (if you want to).

This is designed to help you. Hear me out.

You’re procrastinating because you’re human, and work is less pleasurable than distraction, at least in the short term. Distraction is the facilitator of procrastination, and it’s much easier to deal with the symptom than the cause. Taking your device offline entirely is incredibly effective in making you focus via sheer isolation and boredom, and if your type of work is even remotely feasible without an internet connection on the same machine you’re working on, then you really ought to try it. Remember: we were all working on computers for a long time before ubiquitous internet access.

The other thing about working is that it’s subject to inertia. It’s hard to get started, but it’s easier to continue once you have. This is where the two-minute timer comes in: your only goal is to start your work before the timer elapses. If you’re a writer, write a sentence, the crappier the better. Or fill in the appropriate activity for your own job if you’re not a writer. You’re offline, there’s no social media or web browsing, and you’re not getting any new emails or messages. If you start right now, before the timer goes off, then in less than two minutes you already have a non-zero day — a day when you made progress towards your goals.

That’s the essence of it, and it’s been a huge help when writing my books. If you commit to starting each morning, and indeed each afternoon, in that way then it’ll make a difference. Just try.