How to get the mind-focusing effects of Ritalin – without taking the drug

How to get the mind-focusing effects of Ritalin – without taking the drug

I’ve done okay at university.

I’ve written two theses – a Master’s and a Ph.D. I received First Class Honors for my Master’s thesis and $6,000 for submitting a quality, timely  Ph.D. thesis.

The back story isn’t so pretty. 

I battled with procrastination

To achieve these results I had to overcome MASSIVE problems with procrastination.

Procrastination sucks. It triggers ‘overwhelm’, stress, guilt, anxiety, and feeling like a failure.

It also causes under-performance.

I know all too well the pain of procrastination. I also know how to beat it.

The top psychology tool for beating procrastination

While there are several interlinked strategies for fully dealing to procrastination, if I could only share one tactic for beating procrastination – that would help you study more effectively, get started on that project, or write that book already – then this is it.

This technique mimics the mind-focusing effects of ADHD drug Ritalin – but without needing to take the drug.

There are two reasons I assume you have problems with procrastination. One is that procrastination is really common. The second reason is that you are reading this blog post.

So, we have established you procrastinate. But have you noticed that you don’t procrastinate all the time?

We usually stop procrastinating and transform into focused work-demons when the deadline is almost upon us.

Why do deadlines kill procrastination?

Dr. Edward Hallowell, in his Harvard Business Review article, states that this increased focus is due to…

…the imminent deadline producing stress. The stress produces adrenaline. And adrenaline is chemically similar to the [amphetamine] drugs used to treat attention deficit disorder (ADD).

Regardless of whether you have ADD or ADHD, or are ‘merely’ suffering from overwhelm, or – more likely – suffering from anxiety induced by fear of failure, there is a simple technique that can produce the same powerful mind-focusing effect of taking amphetamines used to treat ADD.

(BTW if you can avoid taking these drugs, it’s probably a good thing. Ritalin and other stimulant drugs taken to treat ADHD, such as Adderall and Dexedrine, are amphetamines – a class of drugs that have high abuse potential and can be neurotoxic. I’m just sayin’)

How to manufacture our own amphetamines

Fortunately we can use the technique to manufacture our own adrenaline (or norepinephrine, for those in the U.S.A.) inside our skulls. It’s free, legal, and – at these levels – unlikely to have any side effects except becoming more efficient in our work and study habits.

I call the technique of deploying our own mind-focusing adrenaline Time to Task, aka T3.

This deceptively simple technique takes advantage of the fact that imminent deadlines produce mind-focusing, procrastination-busting, adrenaline.

In contrast to one HUGE deadline – that we ignore until we are swamped with paralyzing adrenaline – the T3 technique produces many small deadlines.

There are several advantages to many small deadlines over one huge one:

  • mini-deadlines only release a small amount of motivating, not paralyzing, adrenaline
  • There are lots of them. We can use them to stop procrastinating sooner and start working sooner – which may or may not equal better quality work but definitely equals less stress.

The T3 (Time to Task technique) involves;

  1. Decide which piece of work you want to work on. For example, you want to edit a blog post
  2. Decide how long you are going to spend on it, e.g. 40 minutes
  3. Set a timer
  4. Work
  5. Have a short break when the timer goes off
  6. Either spend another chunk of time editing the blog post, or switch to a different task

I told you it was simple.

This T3 technique creates a series of mini deadlines that produces small amounts of adrenaline and boosts our focus. This finally frees us to work steadily up until the deadline, rather than procrastinating for ages with a panicky sprint at the end.

In contrast, the opposite time management technique – favored by procrastinators – is allocating task to time. This means working on a task until it’s finished.

The problem is we rarely feel like it’s finished or good enough. Without the structure of deadlines we may do plenty of work, but typically it is unfocused, unproductive, and ineffective. This work style is also known as ‘workaholism’ and is just cunningly-disguised fancy procrastination.

Straight forward procrastination is easier to spot. We spend a lot of time on Facebook. Or even cleaning the toilet – things that we normally avoid become important and urgent.

Either way, without mini deadlines, procrastination tempts us all the way. By the end of the day we’ve made little progress. We haven’t had a proper guilt-free break and feel anxious and overwhelmed. We pledge to work harder tomorrow. But we all know tomorrow never comes.

It’s a hideous stressful procrastination-themed groundhog day. It’s also a recipe for chronic stress, burn-out, and under-performance.

However, the T3 tactic offers an effective antidote.


Warning: Two things you must do for this technique to work

  1. You must stop working when the timer goes off. Your brain isn’t stupid – if you don’t stop when the timer goes off, it will quickly realise that you are not serious about the mini-deadlines, and will stop producing the mind-focusing adrenaline. (there is an exception to this for experienced practitioners of the dark art of procrastination-busting)
  2. To really amplify the effectiveness of this technique – reward yourself. People who procrastinate typically ignore or put down their achievements. Their self-talk goes like this; “I should have done more”, “I only did a tiny amount and I have so much left to do”,  “I should have started sooner” etc., etc…… Sound familiar?To beat procrastination you must reward yourself for even tiny progress towards your goal.The reward can be a treat, or a simple mental pat on the back. “Yeah, I did good. That was hard, but I made a start”.

FAQ. How long should I set the timer for?

  • The similar, and traditional Pomodoro Technique is; work for 35 minutes, take a 3-5 minute break, and take a longer break after four 35 minute work sessions
  • I say use what works best for you – experiment.
    Personally, I like work sessions of 50 minutes, followed by a 10 minute break. If I’m doing focused work all day and evening, I’ll take a two hour break in the middle of the day for exercise, relaxing, or socialising.
  • If your procrastination is severe, then set your timer for 10 minutes only. You must stop after 10 minutes. Reward yourself.
  • As many procrastinators will tell you, getting started is often the hardest part. So just setting the timer for a small, non-scary, amount of time is a good technique to help you get started.

Congratulations! You have just finished Beating Procrastination 101.

The T3 technique can get you on the road to beating procrastination.

Try it. Make your success a whole lot easier.


Comment below:
This is such a common problem. I’d love to hear about your experiences with procrastination – what makes it worse and what helps you.

Related posts:
10 minutes to success
Brain orgasms! One of two things that I really didn’t expect from meditation

Comment below: It would be awesome if you shared your struggles and triumphs with overwhelm and procrastination below. I know I’m not the only one – and we are only as sick as our secrets.

FREE download with subscription: “How to safely use a dangerous – but powerful – psychology strategy to finish anything  How do you think I finished my Ph.D. thesis on time? This strategy is the big gun of behavior psychology. It provides powerful motivation – but can backfire if applied incorrectly. Subscribe and download the FREE step by step instructions and start finishing!  Click here to subscribe and get the free behavior psychology strategy for finishing anything

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2 Responses

  1. Samantha Jung-Fielding

    One of my clients has been reading a study which says 53mins is the optimal task-focused timing – whatever the number you use, I LOVE this approach and will definitely be giving it a go as I find I work especially well when I embrace routines and schedules.

    • Rebecca Stafford

      I absolutely agree Samantha – most of us tend to work more efficiently when we have established routines, aka HABITS! And this technique can help us establish those habits.

      And thanks for those interesting points re ‘time’.

      There’s a few things to consider when deciding the precise amount of time that we set the timer for.

      A. The main point is that the exact amount of time doesn’t really matter – just set the timer for something, and then with experience find out what works best for you in what circumstances.

      I agree, that in most contexts, around 50 minutes is probably the longest I’d want to spend doing focused work without even a short break, however sometimes, for me, 50 minutes is too long.

      Especially when I’m starting out on a big job, if I set the timer for 50 minutes, I find I can waste the start of that time. I tend to stuff around for the first 20 or 30 minutes, before realizing “Oh crap, I’ve only got 20 minutes left before I have to switch tasks. THEN the adrenaline kicks in and I work ‘focusedly’ for the remainder of the time.

      So I’ve figured out a wee mind-trick to avoid wasting those first 20-30 minutes. I start with 50 minutes, and ‘dial it back’ until I feel the adrenaline-producing mind-focusing time-scarcity, i.e. I reduce the time just until I feel “That’s not enough time to do x,y,z”. And that’s the perfect amount of time to set my timer.

      B. It may help to bear in mind that study results are usually reported in averages. 53 minutes won’t have been the optimal task-focusing time for every participant in the study. For some people it would have been more; for others, less.

      C. The optimal amount of time to set your timer is also context dependent. For example some tasks are more cognitively and/or physically demanding. People will only be able to do focused work on demanding tasks for shorter periods of time, compared with less demanding tasks. Likewise people’s ability to focus are affected by their energy and motivation levels. The Time to Task method helps with motivation by creating time-scarcity, but people are generally advised to do high-demand tasks when their energy levels are higher, and save the easier tasks for when their energy is flagging.

      D. And a very important point about procrastination is that often people have trouble getting started AT ALL. This is often because the task appears huge and scary and complicated and boring and tedious. Often once people start, they’re away. And just setting a small non-scary amount of time to work helps them make that start. I talk more about beating procrastination by ‘making a start’ in the “10 minutes to success” blog post.

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