Can you count the number of things you have accomplished all day today? I bet the number for a lot of you reading this is 0, and don’t worry that’s totally normal nowadays. In today’s society, it’s hard to be productive. With the average attention span of humans being less than goldfish, it’s hard to get anything done properly. But you want to be productive right? I mean who doesn’t want to get things done, whether it is getting your laundry done or starting that business you have been wanting to start for years. Nevertheless why can’t you get yourself to actually go turn your thoughts into action even though you really want to get them done? That’s a question a lot of people ponder about.
Here is a little secret, okay maybe not a secret but something not a lot of people realize: everything sounds like it works only in theory if you are not directly a part of it and are not seeing direct results. What I mean by that is when you read about people doing a bunch of things to be productive or tips and tricks on being productive, most people’s brain automatically categorizes them as something that works in theory only because they don’t apply those learnings in their life and don’t see the results. The only way to actually turn those theories to action is by doing. I know it sounds confusing right now but trust me you will get a better idea of what I mean by the end of this article.
I was having a conversation with a friend not too long ago and we came across the topic of productivity, which inspired me to write this blog post. I will try to gather my thoughts, tips and tricks that have helped me stay productive throughout the years in this article (not saying that I am a productivity god or anything, these are just things I try to apply on my life that have helped me go from a lazy serial procrastinator to a somewhat productive person). Lets get started with some abstract concepts that you can implement in your own ways and then we will get to some concrete ones.
How The Brain Works
It is important to understand how our brain works on a basic level to be able to properly maximize its usage for productivity. Our brain is one of the most powerful tools in the world. It can figure out how to do everything from counting how many cars passed by you while waiting at the bus station to looking at what’s going on on the other side of the universe, but why does it hesitate to allow you to do simple things like writing that email you were supposed to write or picking up those socks that have been in the corner of your room for days?
Our brain is very fidgety. It likes to wander around and switch contexts all the time. With the current generation drowning in useless information from social media for instant gratification, constant focus and concentration is a rare thing. Research shows that us humans are not as good at multitasking as we think, yet we use multitasking as an excuse to not focus on anything and switch between tasks distracting us from the main goal. One moment you are working on your work project and next moment you are laughing at the 50th funny YouTube video in a row.
We do not like doing big and difficult tasks. Every time our brain spots a difficult task, it pushes you to completely ignore the task instead of making an effort to even get it started. A research from a Lithuanian psychologist Bluma Zeigarnik shows a very interesting thing about human mind: we are better at remembering things that are partially done. This effect, named Zeigarnik Effect was was discovered after testing the memory of people by doing simple mental tasks like puzzles. The research found that people who were interrupted before they could finish their task could remember the details about the task 90% more than the people who got to finish the task. Another study by Kenneth McGraw found that when students were given a tricky puzzle with unlimited amount of time, and then were interrupted before being able to finish by being said that the study was over, more than 80% of the participants decided to continue and finish the puzzles anyways. What both of these experiments show is that the hardest part for our brain to do is to get something started. Once we start something, we get in a state where we are automatically motivated to finish the tasks as they stick around the back of our head till they are done.
I am sure most of us have heard about the concept of Snowball Effect. To put it in simple words, it is a concept that states that small things add up to make big differences. Think of a small snowball rolling down a mountain, even though the snowball starts small, as it is rolling down it keeps getting itself attached to more and more snow and by the time it gets to the bottom of the mountain, it turns into a huge mass of snow. The same concept applies to how our mind operates too. If you can accomplish small tasks earlier in your day, you will feel more motivated to finish up bigger and bigger tasks and that snowball keeps rolling and you will realize you have accomplished much bigger tasks.
Most people tend to give up on their goals and tasks before they get too far because they don’t see any results. What they do not realize is that getting to the first point of results is the hardest part of the whole task. Things get much easier after that and you will be able to roll through you tasks just like the snowball.
Let’s explore how we can use the built in reward system in our brain to be more productive.
Let’s talk about Dopamine. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that helps control the reward management system in our brain. It’s one of the key components in our body that makes us human. The rush of dopamine in our brain is what makes us feel good and happy. Dopamine is released by our brain every time we do something that gives us pleasure, as pleasure is basically the feeling our brain generates when it’s released.
Love, drugs, alcohol, sports etc. all release dopamine in your brain. It’s our brain’s way of saying “this feels good, keep doing it more”. But it is very important to control this flow of dopamine as it is easy to get addicted to it. This is how all addictions work, whether it is gambling, drugs or alcohol or even coffee. Let’s take drugs for example, they will release dopamine every time they are used and give you that good feeling. You will start craving that feeling more and more, which will make you use it more. Once you start doing more drugs, your brain will be producing more dopamine than normal, at which point your brain starts cutting down on the release of dopamine to balance things out. You will already be used to taking the drug to get that feeling so you think that taking more drugs will help you get that good feeling, so you increase the amount of drug usage. The cycle continues, the brain will adjust itself so that there is no overflow of dopamine and you will get to a point where your dopamine reserves deplete and you get in the state of depression. This is the state where you are always feeling down because your body’s happiness response system isn’t functioning they way it is supposed to, and the only way you can think of bringing that happiness back is drugs. Drugs is not the only things this example applies to though, the same process happens with any other addiction like gambling or even food.
Things that are very common in our society these days like depression and anxiety are directly a result of lack of dopamine in our system. It is possible to game our own reward system to make it help us push our productivity forward. This requires some discipline initially but once you get on the flow of things and once the system is set up, it pretty much works on auto pilot as long as you have the willpower to continue it.
First step towards this gamification of your rewards system is to not let your brain get rewarded for no reason. This is the hardest step to conquer. Lets take gaming addiction for example, as that is a very common problem with most teenagers these days. Instead of playing games all day, you can get in the habit of finishing the tasks you are supposed to do in the day and then reward yourself at the end of the day by playing games. I would not recommend doing this with hard addictions like drugs because no matter how many things you accomplish during the day, doing drugs at the end of the day as a reward for that is just not right.
Another common thing that people do is plan things and not follow their plans. When we are trying to accomplish something, we start planning things out. Then when you start telling other people about your plans, our body rewards us like we are actually executing the plans which takes all the motivation out of actually accomplishing the plans. Instead of getting into the habit of telling people about your plans before implementing them, get in the habit of telling people that you accomplished a plan after finishing it, it’s more rewarding this way.
Instant gratification is another trap that our society falls victim to. These days there are so many things that can provide you an sense of instant happiness that it is easy to get lost in those things. Social media has ruined us by giving us that dopamine rush in the form of likes, comments and hearts which distract us from doing things that can make you productive. It is important to keep ourself in check while using social media, my other blog post goes into more details about this topic.
Motivation is the biggest thing required to be productive. Lack of motivation and inspiration is a very common problem which makes most people not want to do anything productive. There are numerous ways of gaining motivation, whether it is through listening to motivational speakers on YouTube, Ted Talks or reading books. It is important to set yourself in an environment that motivates you constantly. Here are some ways that you can follow to gather motivation:
- Read motivational non fiction books. They don’t necessarily have to be motivational, anything that falls under the self improvement category is usually motivational to some extent. Some of my favorites are Flow and Rich Dad, Poor Dad.
- Watch YouTube videos that motivate you. YouTube has a vast library of self improvement and motivational videos. If you find yourself bored, spend few minutes watching some of these. One of my favorite YouTube channels for motivation is Primed. I would also recommend this video by Simon Sinek to get you started.
- Ted Talks are amazing. There is so much inspirational and motivational content there. I am trying to build a habit of watching at least one ted talk a day.
- Listening to podcasts is another way to get some extra motivation even when you are doing other tasks like cleaning your room, driving, working out at the gym etc. I like listening to podcasts with a lot of interviews as you can get to listen to different people’s perspectives. One of my favorite go-to podcasts is The Tim Ferris Show.
There are a lot of other ways to gather motivation too, like joining meetup groups or even just talking to your family members or friends that inspire you. The important thing to remember is that you don’t have to try to remember every detail or follow everything you hear or read in these resources, as long as you are interested in the topic, your mind tends to pick up the bits of information that you need at the right time even though you didn’t try to memorize them thoroughly.
It is also important to have mentors and idols you can follow. It can be anyone from celebrities to someone you work with, as long as they motivate you, inspire you and push you in the right path.
Start With The Little Things
One thing that not a lot of people realize is that being productivite is a skill that can be learnt. The more you practice, the better you get. Setting a habit, learning new things, getting tasks accomplished etc. are just skills that can be learnt with enough practice. I know some people that are addicted to progress and productivity and they treat it like it’s a sports that they are trying to get better at.
Even though most of us have been taught to work hard all our life, it is important to work smart as well. Sometimes you are better off spending time figuring out how to do a mundane repeated task more efficiently and fast instead of spending your time doing it the way you have always been doing. Efficiency is the key, if you can get into the mindset where you start enjoying the process of getting some work done as efficiently as possible, it will help you be even more productive in the long term.
Fear of judgement and competition is another huge thing that hurts your productivity. Questions like “What if I can’t finish this?”, “What will they say if I fail at this?”, “Why can he get it done so quickly and I can’t?” etc. might sound familiar, but they hold you back for no reason. You just need to realize that you are doing what you are doing for yourself, and how others judge you won’t affect you. It is better to attempt something and fail at it than not attempt at all. You miss all the chances you don’t take. Most businesses fail because of fear of competition too.
Another little thing that I see that people do a lot is over plan something. Let’s say you are starting a new project, instead of spending all your energy, motivation and willpower planning, figure out the least amount of planning you can do to get you started on the task and then start doing it. Then you can adapt with the flow and make deeper plans as you work on the project. This works really well for me because I feel like I learn new things better if I learn as I go instead of trying to learn a lot at the beginning and them implement it.
Most people are stuck in their comfort zone. The moment you can step out of your comfort bubble is when you can start making drastic changes in your life. Yeah it might feel uncomfortable to go to gym after work instead of playing Call of Duty, or it might feel uncomfortable to practice guitar in the evening instead of watching your favorite show on Netflix, but you need to judge what task brings makes you a better person tomorrow and push yourself just a little more to accomplish those. Just like any other skill, getting out of comfort zone get easier the more you do it. You need to learn how to be comfortable being uncomfortable. Striving to be a better version of you tomorrow than today is the best motto you can live by.
Music is arguably one of the most amazing productivity tool that you can use today. Music can inspire people, motivate people, calm people down, make people happy, make people sad, get people angry and basically invoke any or all of your emotions. I know a lot of people that do not listen to any music at all, and personally feel like they are missing out a lot. Music helps me get in mood to do something even when i’m feeling lazy and do not want to do anything. Just pick out some tunes that you like and start playing them when you are trying to get tasks done. I usually try to avoid music that has lyrics when I am trying to do something that requires a lot of focus and concentration like programming or reading, but when I am folding my laundry or cooking, I play anything that gets me hyped up and energetic. I realized that when I started playing music while trying to accomplish my tasks, my mind slowly started associating those songs with getting something done, which in turn would make me more and more productive. I also like using ambient noise generating services like Noisli as a music replacement once in a while depending on the task I am working on.
We all have some bad habits, big or small. Some of us are addicted to social media, some of us like to sleep in late, some of us do not sleep till 5 am etc, so it is important to try to get in the habit of getting rid of those habits to be productive as those things are taking away your productive time. Lets touch more into habits.
Power Of Habits
Habits are very powerful, they make or break a person. It is important to break the bad ones and start good ones. There are a few habits I like to call “core habits” that have really helped me change things in my life.
One of the biggest core habit that has helped me is working out regularly. The biggest thing I gain from workouts is not the physical benefits like you might think, it’s the mental benefits. Most people start working out to either lose weight, start looking good, gain muscles or something similar. What I realized is that working out regularly also makes you disciplined and increases your willpower. I have noticed that ever since I started working out regularly I have been able to get through my task list much more easily and much more consistently to the point that if I miss my workouts for a day, the next day feels like something is off. My theory is that since working out requires immense effort and willpower on its own, every other task feels easy compared to that. I procrastinate a lot less on the days I workout.
Reading is another habit that has helped me a lot. Reading has not only been a source of motivation and inspiration and knowledge for me, it has also helped me focus and concentrate on other tasks much better. I was never a big reader till recently and I have noticed that my mental focus capabilities have gotten much stronger since I started reading at least 30 minutes regularly. I also like to listen to audiobooks when I am on the go which also helps quite a bit.
Meditating is another habit that helps me stay focused all day long. I only meditate for 10 minutes a day, and I use a guided meditation app called Calm to help me practice it. Like everything, meditation is a skill that can be learnt and it really helps with focus, concentration and productivity in general. It also helps you clear your mind and make more mental space for other things.
Talking about things that form discipline and willpower, there are a couple of other small habits that I would like to mention. First one is super simple: make your bed in the morning. You might be wondering why that would help you will productivity at all, but trust me it has been really effective in my life. Doing this helps you build willpower as it takes willpower to get up and make bed the first thing in the morning. Another habit is just keeping your room clean in general. I find myself much productive in a clean environment, so I try to spend some time during my day to clean things up. That sock that has been lying in the corner of your room for 3 days might take half a minute to get picked up, but will give you much more productive time in return. Another small habit that helps me with willpower is taking cold showers. I don’t take full cold showers, I just turn my cold water on when i get in the shower in the morning and just rinse myself with it for about 30 seconds before I turn on the hot water. This has helped my willpower immensely. It is a little difficult to start at first because I remember standing in the shower for 10 minutes scared to turn on the cold water the first time I tried it, although it got much easier after that. Another little habit is the 2 minute rule, where if something takes me less than 2 minutes to do, I will just get it started without thinking too much about it. This keeps me from procrastinating on doing small tasks like picking up things from around my room, filling up my water bottle etc. I also recommend using something like Pomodoro Technique if you have a hard time focusing on things.
The best thing about habits is that you only have to push yourself at first to form them, after that everything just works in auto pilot. I don’t even have to think about most of the habits I mentioned above, I just do them. Try to create a chain of habits, get a paper calendar and a bunch of different colored markers and every day when you finish whatever habit you are trying to form, mark the calendar with a color that corresponds to that habit. Soon you will see a visual chain of habits that you were trying to form which will help you push the habits even more because you will not want to break the chain.
It is easy to get discouraged and just stop everything if you break the chain though. For example, if you have been going to the gym for 4 days straight and miss the 5th day, you might feel like you failed and it will feel much harder to get back to the gym the next day. Don’t get discouraged though, that’s just how our brain works. The best way to deal with this is to prepare for worst case scenarios from the beginning. In the case of gym, you can tell yourself that if you miss the gym, you will do an extra set of every workout the next day you go or run on the treadmill for 20 more minutes to make it up and sort of as a punishment. This will prepare you for failure before they happen and keep you in the right path.
Keeping track of your diet is another habit that affects every part of my day. Now this one totally depends on your body type so take this in consideration if you are thinking about following what I do. I avoid things that have too much fats in them. This is because I feel like I cannot concentrate and focus properly after eating anything fat heavy. The same goes with anything with too much sugar. I get a huge rush of energy from sugar and after a while all of my focus and productivity goes out of the window. It might sound weird but the only time I eat sugary is towards the end of the day. This is because the sugar crash actually helps me fall asleep.
Lets touch a bit on task management next.
Most of us do not have a habit of making task list but it is a very powerful tool to keep your productivity in check. It’s probably one of the oldest methods of being productive. I use a little notebook that fits in my back pocket to keep a task list. I know there are probably about a million different online todo list tools but i found out that physically writing down tasks on paper helps me visualize them better and keeps them in the back of my head for longer as well.
Here is the secret to task management, you need to break down the task into as small bits as possible. For example, let’s say the task you are trying to accomplish is to design a logo. Instead of just writing “design the logo” on the paper, here is what my task list would look like:
- Create new file for the logo and set the dimensions.
- Create general outline.
- Pick the font and add text.
- Choose the colors.
- Polish the logo.
- Finalize and export logo.
- Email it to the client.
Now you might be wondering why you would want to put in so much work and break down such a simple task into so many little steps (although I might have exaggerated things a bit for this example). The reason goes back to how our brains reward system works. Our brain resists big tasks, so when you put “make logo” your brain will start analyzing how big the task is and when it finds out how time consuming it is will put some resistance in place. This is what we typically call procrastination. Breaking tasks down makes your brain want to not resist it as much making it easier to start that task. Now where this all connects to the reward system is that when you break things down in small lists you can check off things off your list even if you haven’t finished the full task. This gives you a dopamine rush which turns into motivation allowing you to finish more things off your list more easily.
I know most people are organization freaks, but I do not try to organize my tasks. I just keep a big list that keeps growing and I keep checking things off as i know. This helps me not feel pressured to finish something off one category before starting another. I also start by doing the easiest task from the list and then go up the the more difficult ones once i finish them.
At the end of the day everyone is different and just because something works for me doesn’t mean it might necessarily work for you the same way. It goes the other way around too, there might be other things that might work better for you than me. Self improvement is all about experimenting with things and finding out what works best for you. Do not take things I have mentioned in this blog post as a concrete guide to increasing your productivity, instead take it as a collection of ideas that you might be able to fit in your framework for productivity.
Also, I would like to mention that even though it is good to strive to be better and push your productivity, sometimes people tend to push things too far and forget that they are human. It’s okay to give yourself a break, that todo list can wait. Don’t forget to have some time for yourself and enjoy life without getting lost in the sea of productivity. It’s okay to procrastinate sometimes, it’s okay to sleep in sometimes, it’s okay to go out and get drinks with friends sometimes. You will burn out and hurt your productivity if all you are trying to do is get things done. Self improvement is about balance, not about pushing limits.
Last but not the least, I would like to shamelessly plug a project I have been working on called TimeSkirt. It’s an online productivity platform I am building to help people be more productive, please sign up for the beta list on the homepage if you are interested. I would also love to hear feedback about any of the things I mentioned or any other productivity tips that might have helped you be productive on the comments below. Thank you for taking your time to read this blog post, and have a great productive day!