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Navigating Productivity Advice: Finding What Actually Works

Navigating Productivity Advice: Finding What Actually Works

    I’ve been writing about productivity for years. I’ve reviewed books, audio courses and what feels like every piece of productivity advice out there. Along the way, I’ve discovered a secret: What works for David Allen doesn’t work for me, at least not exactly. The same goes for Steve Pavlina, Gina Trapani and every other productivity expert active online and in print. What’s more, they almost certainly don’t work perfectly for you, either.

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    Don’t get me wrong — odds are good that, over the years, you’ve found something that comes close. Maybe your system is very recognizable to someone who’s read up on your favorite productivity guru. But you’ve probably made a few tweaks and hacked the system a bit. It could be something small, like finding a way to force yourself to look at your task list on a regular schedule or giving your significant other a way to add tasks to your to-do list.

    Generalized Productivity Advice for Individuals

    While it may sound trite to say that we’re each unique snowflakes, it’s not entirely inaccurate when it comes to productivity advice. Different people process information differently, prioritize tasks differently, even procrastinate differently. That makes sorting through all the productivity advice out there both crucial and difficult. No one wants to try out every new system that comes along for organizing your task list — besides simply going crazy, you’d probably drop the ball on about half the tasks you wanted to complete as you shifted between systems.

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    The alternative seems to be finding something that generally works (although rarely works perfectly) and going with it, keeping the changes to a minimum. Making a major adjustment more than every year or so is too often. But that essentially means that most of us settle for the first half-way decent approach to managing tasks that comes along. There must be a reasonable compromise that doesn’t leave us limping along with a system that doesn’t quite work for us, but that we can’t afford to change.

    Narrowing Down the Hunt

    The first step to getting a grasp on everything you need to get done shouldn’t be to find a system that seems to work well for a lot of people. Instead, start with yourself. You have to know how you operate — how you think. Are you motivated by checking boxes off on your list? Do you need a physical reminder to check in on your next step? The more you know about how you function, the easier it is to be able to dismiss productivity advice that doesn’t work for you. The more you can dismiss, the better. It leaves far less to sort through.

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    You can also develop the ability to identify advice that will work without necessarily having to try it out. If you find a core system that allows you to function pretty well, you’ll be able to tweak it with the smaller pieces of productivity advice that comes along without having to scrap the whole system and start over. Finding the right core for your system lets you stay in charge, rather than letting an uppity organizer or web application run your life.

    Beyond the Standard Advice

    There is a certain amount of cross-pollination going on among the acknowledged productivity and self-development experts out there. One blogger may link to another’s post; one writer may use another’s idea as a principle in a new approach. That can be good, but it does mean that many of the systems out there look surprisingly similar when you get them out of the box and on to the table. If you can draw on ideas from outside the field, you can find some tips and help that may surprise you. Personally, I’ve found a lot of tricks that work well for my approach to getting my work done in how athletes train.

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    Be open to new perspectives on productivity, even when they don’t look like productivity on the surface. You may be surprised at how well new ideas will work.

    Image: Chirag D. Shah

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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