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Your Skill Training Plan for Productivity

Your Skill Training Plan for Productivity

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    I’ve said it before: the best approach to productivity is a simple one, and that approach is to know what needs doing, and then do what needs doing. I’m not talking systems. How you manage the knowing and doing is another issue. But approaching productivity on this simple level is important. In our effort to become more productive, our strange human minds can sometimes turn it into an almost mystical and ethereal concept with hidden treasures and secrets waiting for those who explore it enough.

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    But at the end of the day, all this business about getting productive is mundane. It’s dirty. It’s about just doing what needs doing. There are other things that deserve to be put on the philosophical pedestal and considered deeply, such as how we make meaning from what we do and discover the things we’re passionate about. These are the things that make greater productivity a pursuit that’s worthwhile in the first place.

    Because on its own, being productive means nothing, and it’s such a mundane thing that I occasionally wonder if we’re creating much ado about nothing. But the truth is that we’re not and that increasing our skill in furthering our goals through action is indeed worthwhile; without it, those more important things in life can’t stand on their own two legs. Productivity is a pillar and a propellant for them.

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    Reading about productivity and lifehacking can be a hobby. But it can also be a way to feel better about the fact we’re not getting anything done or making significant improvements in our life, just as some people find that overeating can help ease (or temporarily erase) emotional pain. Use it like a crutch, and it’ll become more than it really is and more complicated than it really is, because you depend on the crutch, exacerbating the problem you had in the first place with facing your dreams head on and figuring out how to make them happen.

    I’ll admit that I’m a bit of a geek and in what little spare time I can gather after work and family are satisfied, I play a bit of EVE Online. In this game you must advance and improve your character and his or her abilities by training skills, and because it’s such an intellectual and complicated game there are even third party applications that can help you create a skill training plan that spans years.

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    What’s that got to do with anything? Well, I think sometimes we need to stop talking about productivity all day like it’s some fluffy cloud in the sky, sit down and look at what’s really stopping us from getting things done. A lot of the time it’s because we simply don’t have the skills required to be productive. Like speaking a language, cooking, playing chess or even EVE, being productive is not an instinctual thing we’re born with. It’s something you learn, and you get good at with time. And you won’t get anywhere without some sort of skill training plan.

    There’s an old saying that everyone has heard hundreds of times: practice makes perfect. But what they forget to add is that if you’re not practicing the right things, you don’t get any better. If all you practice on the guitar or piano are the same scales you could already pull off flawlessly a year ago, you’re not learning anything new. You’re not getting any better at playing. Or, if you’re practicing with bad finger placement and flawed technique, you could actually be getting worse and creating health issues for yourself.

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    What’s needed is a path to improvement. A path that doesn’t go in circles covering the same ground and a path that doesn’t reinforce the negative behavior patterns we’ve learned over the years. Ever tried to look busy even though you’d done all the work you could for the day, just so your corporate overlords wouldn’t ask you why you weren’t working? That’s a negative behavior pattern caused by the society we live in and it can slip into all areas of your life without you even realizing it. Instead of staying where you are surrounded by bad habits and circular thinking, decide where you need to be in order to work past those things and get the real work done. You might start by focusing on a few core skills for productive thinking:

    • Discipline. 95% of getting things done is in doing the things that need to be done.
    • Evaluation. You need to be able to step above the day-to-day minutiae and evaluate whether you’re getting closer to your goals; if you’re not, you’re not getting the right things done.
    • Discrimination. It’s sometimes a word with negative connotations, but you need to be able to discriminate between the important things — productive work — and the busywork.
    • Discipline.
    • Foresight. You need to able to see your big-picture goals and the tomorrow you intend to create in the first place. Being productive without direction is pointless.

    There are many skills that factor into being competently productive and these are just a few of them. The point is not to tell you what you need to handle. The point is that you should be thinking about what you need to handle and working towards being better at productivity in a proactive way. Reading about productivity in order to gain knowledge about it is a good thing, but too often it becomes the end of the path.

    This will be my last post on Lifehack for a while as I adapt to a new and fairly significant role over the coming weeks. I wanted to leave you with something that got you thinking about where you’re going with productivity, why you read blogs like Lifehack, and what you’re getting out of it. I hope I succeeded, and if I did get you thinking I’d love to hear about in the comments.

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    Joel Falconer

    Editor, content marketer, product manager and writer with 12+ years of experience in the startup, design and tech digital media industries.

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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

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