How can I be better at my job, faster at completing the work, and more economical with my time?
I’ve read hundreds of articles on productivity. I’ve identified and tested lots of techniques and adopted my favorites into a daily routine. But I’ve realized that the techniques themselves are not all that important. It is more useful to understand the science of procrastination and the biological and psychological mechanisms behind the techniques that help your brain overcome said procrastination. This knowledge is what gets me up in the morning on those days where I feel rooted to the bed by inertia. In this article, I’ve laid out easy tricks that will vamp up your productive output and have explained the science behind why they work.
1. Put on (real) pants
When you work from home, it can be especially tempting to work in whatever you wear to bed. You justify this by saying to yourself that it saves time, or that it makes no difference because no one will see you. Wrong. What you wear can actually makes a huge difference on your productivity output. What you wear is a reflection of your self-identity. Social psychologists say that your mindset is associated with your clothing. For the same reason you dress up to impress others, you need to dress up to convince yourself that are ready to take on the day. So, when you want to feel confident, dress the part. Even just putting on a pair of real pants (sweats don’t count!) will help your brain distinguish between your relaxed self and your focused, get-shit-done self.
2. Time travel
Although you can’t actually see into the future, you can practice visualization techniques that help you focus and develop clear aims. I use a technique referred to as the funeral exercise for which Kate has created a worksheet to get you started. Imagine your funeral three years from today. How do you want to be remembered? This thought exercise forces you to dig deep, be honest with yourself and prioritize your goals. What can you do now to help you become the person you hope to become?
Although visualization isn’t a substitute for hard work, it can help you overcome the fear, anxiety or uncertainty that may be blocking your progress. Brain imaging shows that visualization creates new neural pathways in our brain that prime our body to react in a way consistent to what we imagine. This is why many world-class athletes are taught to visualize themselves performing movements related to their sport. In my own experience, visualization has brought clarity and increased motivation to achieve a specific goal.
3. Have a plan
Now that you have a clear vision of where you want to be down the road, how do you make sure to stay on track? This is where excellent planning skills are crucial. Good planning involves setting small goals, being realistic about what you can actually achieve in a given day or week, and scheduling your time accordingly and in advance. There are several planning tools and tips that promise productivity, but my three favorites are super simple. First, I break up my goals into tasks that can be achieved in 15-30 minutes. I focus my attention on each task one at a time. Doing so reduces your cognitive load–the amount of information your brain has to process at one time. Neuroscientists estimate that our brains can only store a fraction of the information we process, which is why breaking a large task into chunks actually increases our productivity by tricking the brain into starting what would otherwise be a daunting project. For instance, a goal of writing one page per day is much less intimidating than writing the whole book. Having a series of small tasks also means I’m always able to chip away at my to do list when I have limited time.
Next, I make sure that my to-do list is not overzealous. Having a couple of “stretch goals” is a good thing. Having a mountain of tasks that you can not possibly accomplish is not. Why? Because you’re not actually prioritizing anything. You end up exerting more energy thinking about which of the tasks to work on than you do on actually accomplishing that task. An unrealistic to-do list can also induce feelings of anxiety or depression when items cannot be crossed off.
It turns out, our brains are very bad at “winging it,” so I always schedule my week in advance by blocking out chunks of time. This time-blocking technique forces me to focus on top priorities for an amount of time that reflects their importance. I start with pre-existing meetings or commitments before blocking out time for deep, focused work. By having my schedule planned and prioritized in advance, I don’t have to keep cycling the reminder of upcoming tasks through my working memory, which detracts from my ability to focus on the more complex work at hand.
4. Put pen to paper
There are a number of reasons why writing things down by hand helps improve memory, focus and motivation. For instance, writing something down provides a visual cue to link with the concept you heard or are thinking. The more ways you can present the information, the more opportunities you have to remember. Psychologists call this encoding variability. By reviewing the information at well-spaced intervals, you see even greater gains in memory.
Writing things down can also help you focus and fine-tune an idea. Imagine writing down a brief account of your morning while thinking about the plot of last week’s episode of Scandal. It’s nearly impossible to do either task well (Don’t believe me? I dare you to try!). Writing things down can also guide you back from a distraction. Interrupted by an important phone call? Scribble down a quick memo to yourself so that when you return, you are able to pick up exactly where you left off.
I like to write things down because it motivates me to be more productive. Seeing my goals spelled out reminds me of what is important–what all this hard work is moving me toward. It is the first step toward making them feel real. Because when they are staring up at me from the pages of my notebook, I am suddenly accountable. They are a record of my successes and failures, and ultimately, I want to succeed. The idea that my sense of self is tied up in what I write down plays into the cognitive consistency principle–that we seek consistency in our beliefs and attitudes in any situation where two cognitions are inconsistent. In other words, when you are acting in a way that differs from the goals you have written down, you experience discomfort and an urge to reconcile the difference.
For me, the process of writing things down on paper is important. Some studies have shown that handwritten notes had an advantage over typed notes for applied thinking. This is certainly true for me. Especially when I’m brainstorming a new idea, I like to slow down my thought process by mapping things out and literally draw connecting lines between concepts. But I think that writing things down on paper has other useful advantages. For instance, it can be inappropriate to take notes on your phone in a business meeting. By writing them down by hand, you demonstrate professionalism and respect for the speaker.
5. Move your butt
You’re probably not surprised to see exercise on this list, but it’s absolutely true that working out has cognitive benefits. Thirty minutes of heart-pumping activity three times a week can not only strengthen fine motor skills, but it can reduce stress, improve your mood, sharpen your focus and increase your memory. How can this be? It turns out that when you work out, your brain is flooded with blood and oxygen that fuels its function. Moreover, your body produces natural chemicals serotonin, dopamine, norepinephrine and BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor). Each of these hormones contributes to cognitive functions such as attention and arousal, and the precise mechanism by which this happens is explained beautifully in this article. What is truly amazing is that the benefits of exercise are not only immediate. Studies have shown that mood can be improved for up to 12 hours after exercise. And, it turns out that regular exercise actually increases the size of your hippocampus, the area of the brain that controls learning. So while you’re building muscle, you’re brain is bulking up too.
6. Find a change of scenery
The moment I find myself staring at a blank screen or rereading the same sentence three times in a row, I know I need to get out. Every now and then my mind and body crave the diversity of a new environment. Sometimes that means packing up my laptop and heading to the nearest coffee shop, or sometimes that simply means moving from my desk to my kitchen counter. Even a small change in scenery can help get me out of a rut because the brain is forced to fire along new neural pathways. This extra brain work doesn’t always lead to increased productivity, but it does often boost creativity. You will have to decide for yourself whether the tradeoff is beneficial.
7. Delete your Reddit bookmark
Do I really have to write this one down? Yes, because we convince ourselves that we have the mental fortitude not to fall prey to the mental distraction that has become second nature. But the moment your let your brain go on autopilot, you’re likely to click the bookmark at the top left of your browser window, and before you know it, you’re deep into a random subredit entitled, “Baby Elephant Gifts” and you have no idea how you got there. Or is that just me?
Habits like these are formed when the brain circuit for movement becomes more active than the brain circuit that controls cognitive thinking, which is why we react instinctively. By deleting the bookmarks to sites that are likely to distract, you disrupt the circuit controlling movement, making it a little bit harder to succumb to checking social media.
8. Do the dishes
I love this technique from Yaro Starak, which I use to trick my brain into building momentum. Doing the dishes is a simple task that does not require a lot of mental effort but does offer great satisfaction when completed. The taste of satisfaction is almost addicting, and it motivates you to get started on other tasks. This tendency is described by the Zeigarnik Effect–once you start something, you’re more likely to follow it through to completion. Because procrastination hits hardest when faced with a large task you don’t want to do, starting small with an easy chore can get you over that hump.
9. Write for 15 minutes
For the same reason that doing the dishes can kick that initial inertia, writing for 15 minutes can get you over that initial hurdle and spark renewed motivation. If writing is one of your professional goals, don’t set a timer. Note at what time your 15 minutes will be up. The first few minutes may be painful as you glance at the clock every 30 seconds. But by the end of your allotted time, you’re likely to have found your flow, and you’ll be able to keep at it.
Even if writing’s not your end goal, the practice has other wonderful benefits. For instance, I like to spend the 15 minutes responding to the week’s inspiration prompt in my Volt Planner. This free association usually leads me to create solutions for problems I’ve been struggling with at work. Ultimately, these 15 minutes of writing save me countless hours of unproductive work. Journaling also helps me unload the thoughts cluttering my mind. By getting them out on paper, I’m able to move on and dedicate more of my focus to the task at hand.
If you want even more help dividing up your work, I created this free downloadable worksheet that would allow you to divide and conquer those really important goals and tasks.