Your to-do list has become unmanageable. You might have trouble focusing or you have unfinished tasks, books, etc. In the long run, things pile up for even the most organized among us. Thankfully, a laundry list of different techniques and hacks helps me get through the tough stretches. Poor productivity and the lack of energy might be easily curable — and the benefits stretch beyond work.
If you are willing to dig deep enough you will notice that the way we approach tasks at work usually reflects on all other habits and all parts of our life. Including work tasks.
This means that you can improve your muscles for the habits and the skills in an easier part of your life and it will improve another part. For example, sticking to an exercise regimen can help you keep writing a challenging article. You have built your “grit” muscle.
There are four different skills and habits that are needed to get stuff done:
- Just start
- Overcome initial resistance
- Avoid perfectionism
- Learn to say “No”
Using one or more of these techniques in tandem offers better odds of overcoming your current creative blocks and problems.
Desperately stuck on a chapter in one of my books, I asked a professional writer how he overcame writer’s block. His response stunned me.
“I do everything I need to do to start writing.”
It seems counterintuitive. A “block” means an inability to perform a task. Yet the more hyper-productive people I speak with, the more I understand these “blocks” are actually imaginary byproducts of doubt, delusion, or a misunderstanding of how the brain works. Too often, we mistake the result with act itself.
Every undertaking has a procedure that starts way, way before the task.
For example: to write this post, I first had to stroll over to my desk, start up my laptop, set aside any open windows and apps, toss my phone aside, and fire up Google Docs.
Before I typed out a single word, I’d already begun everything necessary to write. In another sense, I was already writing. Typing out the first sentence was a continuation of the momentum I already built.
Too often we leave out the minutiae and small steps necessary to get a job done. But we can mentally redefine “work” to include the small, innocuous steps that build-up to the hard part.
This works especially well for tasks we dread. By breaking down the task into smaller steps, we can create a sense of momentum that carries us through the entire process.
Let’s try something really hard: preparing a speech or presentation.
Your first to-do list might look like this:
- Research topic
- Outline speech
- Prepare slideshow
A better solution: devote five minutes to breaking down each “big” step into smaller pieces. So step No. 3 “prepare slideshow” may include subtasks such as “find graphics” or “add five bullet points to slide #3.”
You can then add an extra motivator by assigning specific amounts of time, or deadlines, to each task. So “find graphics” might be a two-hour chunk of your workday.
This, importantly, gives the work you’re doing an endpoint.
If you have set your intentions and focus on some small part of the process, it will make sense while at the same time giving you a sense of accomplishment. By making the task a set of granular steps, you overcome seeing the enormity of the job and instead breeze through a sequence of easy to-do list items.
Overcome Initial Resistance
They say every journey begins with a first step. Which is dumb.
Every journey begins well before any steps. It begins with the choices, plans, and decisions made leading up to that first step.
The first step is, arguably, merely when your plans begin falling apart. The first step seems so momentous because often we know our best-laid plans can disintegrate in the face of reality, due to surprises, and just the usual course of life. This negative forecasting of hard times ahead often stops us from even starting a project or exploring an idea. It creates initial resistance, an evil little mental blockage that many writers often refer to as writer’s block.
Here’s the silly party: this self-sabotage is our own fault. And the only variable is time.
Namely, how we spend our time — doing vs. thinking about doing. Those stuck in place often spend more time on the latter than the former.
Thankfully, there are several easy ways to spend less time thinking and more time doing. It involves relying on your intuition rather than on your brain.
The best road to clarity involves simplicity: the ability to whittle down the morass of nonsense awaiting you and selecting the most important thing you can do right now to get closer to your goal. Ask yourself: What Would It Take?
Let’s take a banal example: you open your inbox to find 253 unread messages. Suddenly, a chunk of your otherwise-productive day is in jeopardy. You clearly don’t want this to take up that much time.
So ask yourself: What would it take to clear out these emails quickly?
Your first answer is the best one. If your intuition says “Start deleting indiscriminately according to subject line or sender,” don’t second-guess it. Go down the list and mercilessly delete the clutter.
You may find that the two minutes needed to filter out the inbox clutter leaves you with a manageable number of emails that need your attention.
Or let’s take a bigger problem: the higher-ups just slapped a big, time-intensive project on your desk and gave you a short deadline.
Asking “What would it take to get this done well, ahead of deadline?” in rapid succession will produce a chronological to-do list that’s both focused and manageable.
Cycle Through A Few Pomodoros
The renowned writer Joyce Carol Oates once said, “The great enemy of writing isn't your own lack of talent. It's being interrupted. Constant interruptions are the destruction of the imagination.” There's nothing worse than being in the middle of a project or sentence and having your attention drawn away from the screen. It's awful!
The most effective productivity hacks involve generating momentum. Whether generated through pure inspiration or artificial means, momentum can carry you through a project even if you are very lazy at the onset.
For example: A writer who has hammered out two paragraphs is much more likely to type out a third, even if the first two suck. In the end, they’ll have written much more than the writer staring at the blinking hash mark in a blank document, wondering what their first sentence should be.
So how do you generate momentum to overcome initial resistance?
The trick is to create artificial rules that reward action over quality. I’ve found the “Pomodoro Technique” useful.
The technique got its name from the tomato-shaped kitchen timer Francesco Cirillo used when he first developed the technique almost four decades ago. You can continue the tradition by using a similar kitchen timer. Or you can use one of the many apps or websites that help track your Pomodoros.
This productivity hack combines time management and focus, while also building in all-important breaks.
It’s a simple, three-step technique that works wonders. At its most-basic:
- Select a task.
- Set a dedicated interval of time you’ll spend focused on the task (typically 25 minutes), as well as an accompanying (shorter) break (often five minutes).
- Work on the task for the allotted amount of time — no interruptions, no distractions — then reward yourself with a break (social media, stretching, meditation, a short walk etc.)
Want to make it a bit more challenging and effective? Reset the timer every time you glance away from your work to check your email, or respond to a text, or scroll a social media feed.
Over time, you’ll see how much a distraction-free hour means for your productivity. You’ll then treat a Pomodoro Interval as sacred. Because the more you accomplish in compressed bursts of distraction-free work, the more time and energy you will free up for other projects — or even better, something other than work.
A more advanced use of the technique sets a “goal” for each day, with a set amount of intervals for each task.
The Pomodoro Technique only truly works if the outside world doesn’t exist during those 25 minutes. That means: no water, no restroom, no interruptions from pets, children, or significant others.
There are several other techniques that generate momentum artificially while overcoming procrastination, such as the five-second rule (or ignoring hesitation and surrendering to your intuition).
The point of all these techniques is to get started on a project and…
Here’s the messed up part about getting caught up in perfection: you’re chasing an illusion. Perfection is an ideal cooked up by the brain, not to strive towards but to sabotage the value of minor accomplishments. It’s mental poison.
Every great writer, artist and entrepreneur has their own tale about the perils of chasing perfection. But here’s one of my favorite quotes, by the English essayist William Hazlitt:
“No one ever approaches perfection except by stealth, and unknown to himself.”
Those works we consider masterpieces or flawless designs… nearly all of them occurred by accident. Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa, perhaps the most famous painting in the world, was a banal portrait for the artist.
Too often, we don’t let ourselves finish a task, hoping to achieve some otherwise unattainable goal. But our perfect, unattainable goal is merely a reflection of our ego. Besides, there’s a major flaw in perfectionism: it destroys the joy of the work itself.
Improvement and approaching mastery should be the reward, not the result of the effort. Whenever you’re finding yourself fretting over the results of your work, and your effort, ask yourself, “What am I doing this for?” The answer should always circle back to the work itself, rather than the results.
I know that may sound a bit baffling, especially since most work is done to generate income. But I’ve found that over time, the work you do for its own sake also tends to be the most profitable.
Learn To Say “No”
I turned down a lunch invitation to write a draft of this blog post.
It’s not that I didn’t want to see my friend. I wasn’t trying to set an example for this blog post. Nor did I already have other plans for lunch. At the moment the lunch invitation arrived, this work was more important.
I know that may sound militant. It isn’t.
A person’s schedule — how they choose to spend their time — is the most accurate reflection of their priorities. And at the moment of the lunch invite, this blog post was more important.
Many people think the trick to getting things done is getting started on the tasks which dodge them. But more often, it’s avoiding the distractions and excuses we give ourselves for going astray and doing something pointless.
I disagree with the self-blaming that goes on with these productivity hacks. The whole “I spend too much time not working” affliction we all allegedly suffer from. Especially since studies show more energy and attention is devoted to work now than ever before, thanks to our devices and always-connected society.
I don't know many people who devote hours of their day to social media on their devices. Just quick five minute scrolls, the way people used to sneak off for cigarette breaks decades ago.
I do know a lot of people with half-read books. Who fall asleep during most movies. Why? Because they’re tired from working all day and the movies often suck.
These are the sort of nonsensical obligations we saddle ourselves with that we should be saying “no” to. A “canonical” classic movie that bores you into snoozing isn’t worth your time. That bestseller you’re muddling through shouldn’t bore you. It’s ok if you didn’t watch “Game of Thrones” (I didn’t).
Avoid the hamster wheel of keeping up with the zeitgeist and maintaining social connections for the sake of appearance.
Instead, say “No” to irrelevant tasks and distractions that come either from people, mass media, and tech. It may be as much of a productivity boost as any other hack.
Say “No” To The Tyranny Of Your Phone
Of course, there’s a cost to saying “No.” Some clients and projects do have attachments and expectations. Some relationships need constant nourishment and feedback in order to be fruitful and healthy over the long term — depending on the means of interaction.
A phone call or in-person cup of coffee trumps a “like” on Facebook or text message.
It seems like we've all made this insane social contract to barge into each other's lives at random and without repercussion. So much so that we have to convince ourselves and others that time away from our devices is somehow merited and then construct elaborate systems to enforce that time.
I can't tell you how many returned phone calls start with “Sorry I didn't answer.” Or a gap in responding to a text or email has a preamble about what they were doing instead of responding to me. Why the apologies and explanations?!
I think we've become accustomed to letting our gadgets interrupt us, and are generally suspicious of people who seem immune to their pings and vibrations.
I did a step-by-step reduction. First I silenced news notifications. Meaning they show up on my phone, but I don't know about them until I pick it up and look at the screen. The world didn't end. Then I silenced emails completely. Meaning my phone doesn't alert me to new messages at all. I survived.
Then I went on to silence texts, so I only see them when I pick up my phone. This is a bit harder, and my friends had a hard time adjusting. But still, I haven't lost a client or friend.
The perverse part is that I have had more real-life calamities interrupting me, which negated any time and concentration I might have gained by shutting up my stupid phone. But even then, I at least wasn't interrupted by some breaking news item of no consequence.
These are just some of the main tools I use myself every day to get things done. It takes time to recognize the cognitive tricks and habits which transform you into a productive person. Take the time to discover them, nurture and then establish these tricks. Over time, they’ll grow into indispensable tools in your productivity arsenal.