If we’re completely honest with ourselves, most of us are pretty lazy and extremely easily distracted. Yes, we get things done, but this is usually despite our natural tendencies. We probably work long hours, but if we had to account for all the hours we feel we’re working, it might be surprising how little we actually get done.
I’m a very driven person and have achieved some big things that make others think I’ve got my sh*t together. Yet on any given day, I can easily “start work” and then accidentally have most of the day go by with nothing to show for it but some new insights about a few corners of the internet I didn’t really need to know about, 40 tabs open with different things I’m suddenly interested in, and a huge feeling of frustration that I’ve got nothing important done.
And yet, there are other days where I can move mountains and blast through things that have been hanging over my head for weeks. So, what’s going on here? What does it take to be (relatively) consistently productive?
I’ve been researching some of the best thinkers on productivity and have come to the conclusion that a big part of success is the realization and acceptance that we cannot underestimate the amount of help we need in this area! Our brains are wired for the path of least resistance, and we are riddled with insecurities that often lead us to doing (or not doing) things that are contrary to our goals. Seth Godin famously refers to this as the “lizard brain” and Steven Pressfield named this force we need to overcome to do important work “the Resistance.” In short, we need to use every trick we can to get ourselves to do the work!
Since understanding this, I’ve realized that the games I play with myself to boost my productivity are actually extremely effective. Today, I thought I’d share some of these with you. Hopefully they can improve your productivity too!
So here are 6 tricks I play on myself to get myself to do the things I want to do…
1) Plan stupidly small actions to improve work efficiency
A long time ago, I realized to-do lists alone don’t work. Following the advice of many smart and productive people, I started using a Daily Action List and taking 10 minutes to plan my day. These changes helped immensely, but I needed a tweak… I noticed that if something was on my list that seemed hard or I wasn’t sure how to start, I’d avoid doing it.
I now have a rule that everything on my action list has to be stupidly small. In fact, I have to imagine I can do it in less than an hour. This means breaking things into tiny actions – the next action that will move it forward.
Some examples from my recent days:
- Instead of “Refresh website”, I’ll have several actions: “Decide on style for homepage,” “Draft copy for homepage,” “Prepare main image for homepage,” “Change menu,” etc.
- I’m soon to move houses, so instead of “Pack boxes,” I’ll have: “Pack 1 box of books,” or “Clean out kids’ top shelf.”
- Instead of “Guest blog post,” I’ll have: “Decide on topic for guest post,” “Draft first 300 words of guest blog post,” etc.
You can see how these actions seem so small and easy that the resistance to starting them disappears. And often, once I’ve started, I’ll keep going and get a lot more done towards the project. But even if I don’t, the important thing is to start, and to do something small that moves the project to the next day.
2) Set fake deadlines.
Have you heard of Parkinson’s Law? It says that,
“Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.”
It’s true! Have you ever noticed that the days before you leave for a vacation, you get an enormous amount of things done? It’s because you now have a hard deadline.
Setting fake deadlines ensures that I don’t give things more time than they deserve. The perfectionist tendencies in me don’t like this, but I go by the phrase, “done is better than perfect.
So, if there is no inherent deadline for a certain task, how do you create this urgency? Set a deadline by committing to have it done by a certain time. For instance, you can promise your team that you’ll send out the draft for the website by the end of the day. Or you can commit to a customer that you’ll have a feature released by a certain day. On a personal level, I’ll tip the clean washing onto my bed because then I can’t go to bed until it’s all folded and put away!
3) Bribe myself with rewards to increase productivity.
As well as deadlines, I’ll also use rewards. Yes, I realize this makes me sound like a child, but it works! For instance:
- I can get my first coffee after I’ve done my first action.
- I’ll make a phone call (something I like to do), only once I’ve done this other action.
- I’ll put music on once I’ve finished 2 actions.
- I’ll give myself 30 minutes on Facebook or to watch a video I’ve saved, after I’ve finished 2 actions.
- Recently, I’ve been practising intermittent fasting, so I’ll delay having my first meal until I’ve completed 3 actions.
4) Stick to a set of rules.
You can probably tell from the bribes that I find it useful to work from a set of personal rules to be more productive at work. Some of these relate to rewards, but there are others that are useful as well.
For instance, I realized that after I shower, I have a tendency to sit on my bed and stare aimlessly at my wardrobe, trying to decide what to wear. Not a great use of time! Now, I’ve created a rule that I must leave my towel in the bathroom (and yes, do a nudie run to the bedroom). This means I’m uncomfortably cold until I make a decision of what to wear and get dressed. You’ve probably heard of others that decide on a uniform for their days to avoid wasting time and energy making these kinds of decisions.
Another rule I use is to have less than one page of emails in my inbox. I can’t seem to manage “inbox zero,” but at the end of each day, I can get it down to 20 (the maximum number that my view shows without scrolling).
5) Just do the first bit.
Usually, the hardest part about getting something done is starting. To overcome this inertia, many experts recommend doing the preparation for a task before you need to do the task. A simple example is getting your gym clothes ready the night before and having them laid out and ready to go in the morning. Doing this removes some of the friction towards getting started.
Personally, when I don’t feel like going for a run, I tell myself I’ll just jog for 5 minutes and then I can finish. But inevitably, by the time I’ve done the first 5 minutes, it’s not so bad so I’ll keep going and do my full run.
With work, I use this to help get things started too. As well as setting incredibly small tasks, doing the first part in advance helps immensely. For instance, when I need to write a blog article, I’ll open up a new file, create a dummy headline, and just dump a few ideas for the article down. Then, when I come to work on it the next morning, the file is sitting there ready and it doesn’t feel so hard to get started. Crazy? I know.
6) Lower my expectations.
When I feel good about myself, I’m far more productive than when I’m frustrated and full of self-doubt. So I’ve realized that I need to set up a system that makes me feel like a winner. And what’s the best way to do that? Set the bar low!
So, as well as planning my day with “stupidly small actions,” I also try to have very few actions to do. In fact, 3-5 tend to work best – and yes, each of these is (in theory) less than an hour long. Does this mean that I only work 3 hours a day? No… due to two reasons.
Firstly, there are always other unexpected things that come up in the day – sometimes little emergencies, but also the admin of work and life that we usually don’t take into consideration.
The other thing is that everything takes longer than you think (see rule below).
Hofstadter’s Law: It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.
We are all susceptible to the planning fallacy, which means we base our estimates on the best-case scenarios and underestimate how much we don’t know and how long it will take us to fill those gaps. In short, we are hopeless at judging how long something will take.
So, by only having a few things on my daily action list, I can get them done more often than not and use that feeling of accomplishment to motivate me to do more things!
The psychology of productivity
Helping people get things done and achieve their goals is something I’m passionate about and spend many of my waking hours thinking about. When creating a system for yourself, keep in mind that a complicated tool with lots of ways of arranging tasks often won’t lead to great results. I’ve created a simple productivity tool that focuses on daily actions and builds in some of the psychological elements that help trick us into getting more done and increase efficiency, but you can also use an excel spreadsheet or manual system for similar results. Whatever system you use, try to build in some tricks that work for you to make it truly useful.