There’s no shortage of productivity advice out there on the Internet and self-help books. Not even the Google gods know just how many sites, tips, and self-proclaimed gurus pop up every day. Every article, ebook and tweet claims to have magical charms for warding off laziness, exhaustion, and distraction.
But how do we know what is sage advice and what is snake oil? And who has the time to read all of it?
Where should we start?
Productivity is something that I take very seriously — not because I’m an expert or a guru, but because productivity is something that I desperately need and depend upon. My creative flow is chaotic by nature and without a decent system holding everything together, I will instantly spin off a thousand miles into space.
But let’s be honest with ourselves: we can’t instantly do everything that productivity experts suggest. Most of us just don’t have the time right now to build (much less maintain) the Taj Mahal of productivity systems. Because of that, most of us just keep on doing things they way we already do them. We know we aren’t being the most efficient, but at least it works (or so we’ve convinced ourselves.)
Luckily, not all productivity advice is created equal. Instead of chasing after the latest life hacks, focus on a small number of key changes that will produce the vast majority of the results...
#1 Get to work
Let’s be honest: getting thing done is hard. After all, that’s why task management programs, calendars and day planners were created. It’s also the reason that most of us read articles like this.
And because of our great need, there are many, many techniques out there that attempt to battle our aversion to work. From the Priority Matrix to Eat That Frog to the Five Minute Miracle, each has its own way of channeling productivity, and, despite their differences, the goal of each is to get you started working.
That’s because, as I’m sure you know, the first step is the most important and the most difficult. In the words of American journalist Mary Heaton Vorse, “The art of writing is the art of applying the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.”
But as any writer, musician, artist, or entrepreneur can tell you, the most difficult thing when it comes to a project or idea is sitting down to actually do it. We sabotage ourselves with other less important tasks, allowing them to distract us from what it is that we really need to get done. When a deadline approaches, it becomes suddenly important to answer all of the emails in our inbox, or to finally unsubscribe from all the newsletters we get but never read, or to clean out our closets.
When we do these things, it’s always with the belief that they’re vital; that they’re time-sensitive. We convince ourselves that they must be done immediately and that they will save us valuable time in the future, but in reality all we’re doing is avoiding what we should be doing.
In his book Solving the Procrastination Puzzle, psychologist Tim Pychyl calls these “morally substitutable acts.” We gravitate toward them because they make us feel good about ourselves even though we’re avoiding what’s actually important, instead opting for mental appeasement and immediate gratification.
For example, mapping out a marketing plan for the next year may be our number one priority, but something about that urgency may also overwhelm us. Pressure equals aversion. We’re afraid that we’re gonna screw it up, so instead, we choose to substitute it with something simpler; something that we can’t screw up, like reorganizing our Evernote or getting the car detailed. We appease ourselves by saying things like, “at least I’m not doing nothing,” trying to convince ourselves that we’re still doing something productive. But we’re not — there’s nothing productive about this kind of substitution.
To be productive is to achieve something of significance. What we’re doing is allowing ourselves to defer things that are actually important, and in the process we’re allowing our goals to remain incomplete. We’re allowing ourselves to be distracted by thoughts of the next tab in our browsers, continually derailing ourselves with the “urgency” of every notification that dips into our screen or vibrates on our wrists.
So, how do battle this; how do we actually get started and avoid procrastinating actions?
We need to stop looking at our projects as one big thing. The size and scope of something complex intimidates us; it makes the entire thing seem completely insurmountable. Imagine if contractors only thought of the skyscraper and never took the time to break it down into the thousands of individual steps that it takes to complete the skyscraper — nothing would ever get built.
Projects viewed as one giant chunk are too abstract, too general. Our brains simply cannot process something in its entirety, so we have to break our projects down into small digestible chunks.
For example, here is the the process of writing this article, broken down:
Viewing a project like this, we can easily see how the abstract concept of “an article” becomes a simple series of tasks to complete. We don’t need to continually look at the monumental chore before us, only to look as far as the next step. With each complete task, we are able to track our progress and revel in the gratification that comes with every checkmark we make.
And if we are lucky, we will find ourselves carried away by enthusiasm and momentum, completing more tasks each day than we intended to when we started. Simply put, if we can clearly see the path, then our mind will compel us to find the end of the road. We’re just built that way.
#2 Get Habitual
How’s that project to clean out the garage coming? How many days do you avoid getting your taxes ready? What about that novel you’ve been talking about writing?
Many of us know that the desire to complete something is rarely enough to lead to completion, particularly when it comes to long-term projects. More than almost anything else, long-term projects cannot survive on will-power alone; we simply don’t have enough.
The only way to consistently fight avoidance is with the use of systems. A system is any series of actions or steps that we rely upon to consistently achieve a certain outcome. We use workout systems to build muscle, dietary systems to lose weight, and filing systems to stay organized. Systems give us a structure to rely upon when we know that our own desire to achieve something is not enough.
What can be avoided will be avoided. Fortunately, some very industrious and creative minds have attempted to tackle this problem by inventing their own foolproof productivity systems. Each has its own strengths and weaknesses, as every system is tailored to a specific problem, thought process, or personality type.
However, despite all of their differences, all productivity systems hinge upon the simple concept that there is something much more reliable than willpower. All productivity systems rely upon the strength of habit.
For better or worse, habits are incredibly hard to change:
“…every time you have an urge and you do something about it, the reward you get from it (whether it’s a tobacco high from smoking or the satisfaction of knowing you’re at inbox zero) creates a neurological pathway in your brain. When you repeat that action and experience the same reward again, that neurological pathway gets a little bit thicker; and the next time, even thicker. The thicker that pathway gets, the easier it is for impulses to travel down it. So when you try to extinguish a habit completely, you’re actually trying to use willpower to destroy a neural pathway. It’s possible, but it’s pretty darn difficult for most people.”
— Lindsay Kolowich, The Science of Productivity
Because of the strength and staying power of a habit, one of the best things that you can do for your productivity is to build ones that support your goals. But as anybody who’s tried to remember to take a pill or go for a morning jog knows, new habits aren’t easily created; they require building the good while simultaneously destroying the bad, fighting two battles at once. The odds are against us — so how do we do it? How do we use the almost inescapable power of habit to our advantage?
In his book The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg asserts that all habits consist of three parts: the cue, the activity, and the reward. Duhigg says that the easiest way to create a healthy habit is to insert the desired healthy activity into the preexisting formula of an unhealthy habit. In other words, we need to swap out the middle by using already established triggers and rewards. It’s like changing out the cars on a train: we keep the engine, we keep the caboose, and the tracks have already been laid.
Find a healthy habit that you want create. Do you want to write/code/create X hours every day? Or keep your to-do list organized and up-to-date?
Once you choose your habit, identify something you already do every day that you can attach your new healthy habit to. Ask yourself what the triggers are for that activity, then graft your new habit to the same event.
For example, if you find yourself procrastinating on writing every day, start sitting down to write for 30 minutes as soon as you’ve made your morning cup of coffee. If you tend to let your tasks pile up in your to-do list until they create more stress than relief, try making a habit of checking and re-organizing your tasks at the same times every day — after eating breakfast, before you break for lunch, and before you leave at the end of the day.
#3 Get Moody
In their 2007 paper “Waking Up on the Right or Wrong Side of the Bed,” researchers Nancy Rothbard and Steffanie Wilk shared the results of studies conducted on customer service representatives at The University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. They found that employees in higher-than-normal moods showed improvement in the quality of work and greater verbal fluency with customers on the phone, whereas employees in lower-than-normal moods did less work, answered fewer calls, and needed more breaks between customers.
“We become more successful when we are happier and more positive. For example, doctors put in a positive mood before making a diagnosis show almost three times more intelligence and creativity than doctors in a neutral state, and they make accurate diagnoses 19 percent faster. Optimistic salespeople outsell their pessimistic counterparts by 56 percent. Students primed to feel happy before taking math achievement tests far outperform their neutral peers. It turns out that our brains are literally hardwired to perform at their best not when they are negative or even neutral, but when they are positive.”
– Shawn Achor, The Happiness Advantage
While moods are often hard to predict or even manage, there may be a few tricks that we can employ:
In a study conducted at the University of Ottawa, researcher Teresa Lesiuk found that listening to music was consistently helpful in elevating the moods of her participants, which in turn kept the participants more on track than others who were deprived of music. Lesiuk also found that the he work of those exposed to music was also more complete and creative.
In a Boston Magazine article, psychiatrist Dr. Michael C. Miller says, “In some ways, exercise at a certain level can actually be, for some people, the equivalent to taking an antidepressant.” Something about physical exercise stimulates our brains, making us sharper and preventing the shrinkage of the hippocampus, where emotions are regulated. As Dr. Miller says, when looking at “images of the brain taken before and after exercise, there seems to be improvement in areas of the brain responsible for regulating mood.”
According to the world-renowned Mayo Clinic, laughter can effectively raise your mood and relieve stress. The short-term benefits of laughter include the stimulation of key organs and circulation, increased intake of oxygen, endorphin release, and muscle relaxation ,as well as activation and release of the body’s stress response. In the long-term, the Mayo Clinic claims that laughter leads to an improvement in immune response, pain relief, and personal satisfaction in addition to a decrease in depression and anxiety.
In his book Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-being, famed psychologist Martin Seligman suggests, every evening, taking a sheet of paper and writing down three things from the day that went well and why they went well. Seligman provides ample research to show that this exercise, a form of gratitude, will make you happier and less depressed. Similarly, Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile has done research showing that a feeling of progress, no matter how small, was the single most consistent factor contributing to “good days” at work. Take time at the end of each day to review the progress you’ve made rather than lament over all the work left to be done. (Here’s how to review your completed tasks in Todoist.)
Make a great playlist. Start going for walks at lunch or start biking to work. Watch more comedy. Journal at night. Pick something that you know boosts your mood and begin working it into your life. Make it a priority and a habit (see STEP 2) and become an active participant in elevating your own moods.
#4 Get Rhythmic
“Pomodoro technique” is a phrase that gets brought up by experts and amateurs alike, but it seems to get thrown around without any mention of whether or why it works. So let me set the record straight: it works. As it turns out, there is some actual science behind the Pomodoro technique.
Many of us have heard of circadian rhythms (particularly in articles about how cell phones and computer screens contribute to insomnia.) Circadian rhythms are the cycles that our body experiences in a 24-hour period. This cycle is mostly tied to levels of light and darkness. We are made to wake with the sun and sleep after it sets. And while the invention of artificial light has allowed us to deviate, the majority of us generally still wake in the morning and sleep at night.
But Circadian rhythms aren’t the only rhythms that our body experiences. Lesser known (and possibly more crucial to productivity) are ultradian rhythms. In his 1939 book Sleep and Wakefulness, physiologist Nathaniel Kleitman, now considered the father of modern sleep research, shared his discovery of these rhythms after years of careful sleep studies. And while the Sleep part of his book’s title is more often focused upon, it is the Wakefulness that’s important to us here.
Ultradian rhythms are the cycles of alertness that our brain goes through: 90-minute waves of higher alertness followed by 20 minutes of lower. These rhythms happen to us in our sleep, but, as Kleitman discovered, they also occur to us throughout the day. Through his research, Kleitman showed that our alertness is not as constant as we believed it to be — it’s wavy, not a straight line.
Fighting these cycles, as we are often taught to do by “powering through,” has us actually working against our own bodies and minds. The results of these battles are often mental fatigue, anxiety, and exhaustion, for which the only cure is coffee. Unfortunately, while useful in getting us over small slumps in attentiveness, imbibing increasingly large amounts of caffeine is fighting a losing battle. We cannot change the way our body functions; we have to instead learn how to to work in conjunction with our natural rhythms.
The Pomodoro technique addresses this problem by suggesting that we work in 25-minute bursts separated by 5 minutes of rest. It is a highly recommended technique that’s been continually modified over the years. Some people find that the 25-minute blocks are too short and they double everything to 50 minutes of work with 10-minute breaks. In his paper “The role of deliberate practice in the acquisition of expert performance,” researcher Ander Ericsson found that elite violinists tended to practice in 90-minute increments followed by 15- to 20-minute breaks. Looking at the DeskTime results of her fellow The Muse employees, writer Julia Gifford discovered that the most productive employees tended to work in 52-minute chunks while taking 17-minute breaks in between.
So the question is: which is the right way? What time interval should we all be using?
The truth is that all of these are completely valid. Each body and its rhythm is unique. The important thing is to find a pattern that works best for you because, regardless of the actual numbers, taking regular breaks is what matters.
The reason for this is best conveyed in Steven R. Covey’s The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People:
Suppose you were to come upon someone in the woods working feverishly to saw down a tree.
“What are you doing?” you ask.
“Can’t you see?” comes the impatient reply. “I’m sawing down this tree.”
“You look exhausted!” you exclaim. “How long have you been at it?”
“Over five hours,” he returns, “and I’m beat! This is hard work.”
“Well, why don’t you take a break for a few minutes and sharpen the saw?” you inquire. “I’m sure it would go a lot faster.”
“I don’t have time to sharpen the saw,” the man says emphatically. “I’m too busy sawing!”
For the next week, keep a piece of paper next to you while you work. Every time that you begin to feel distracted or tired, or you find yourself spacing out, write the time down on that piece of paper. At the end of the week look at all the times you have written down.
Do you see any patterns? Do your dips happen an hour apart? Or 45 minutes? Or every 30? Well, these are likely your ultradian rhythms. Based on those times, set up a Pomodoro system for yourself: give yourself a break when your body and mind need it. Over time you will probably learn to perfect it to the minute, but I suspect that even using this technique at its roughest will help you see a spike in productivity…and you’ll probably feel better at the end of every day.
Nothing of value is ever achieved without effort, but we don’t have to set impossible goals for ourselves either. In fact, it’s this kind of thinking that leads to the greatest amount of failure: biting off more than we can chew.
These suggestions are proven strategies that you can try right now. They don’t require purchases or seminars or complex architecture. They aren’t quick fixes, but they will improve your productivity in a meaningful way. Choose just one and get started today. As we learned in the first section of this article, progress only begins after the first foot steps onto the path.
Looking to put these suggestions into practice? See how Todoist can help keep you focused on the right things to move your goals forward. (It’s free, forever.)
Chad, a San Francisco Bay Area native, spends much of his time rediscovering the power of dialog through his podcast, though his true passion has always been writing. He is currently years-deep into a novel which he hopes to finish soon, and he channels much of his other writing into short journals on his Patreon and every so often, into something longer on Medium.