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3 Harsh Truths About Your Productivity — and What to Do About Them

3 Harsh Truths About Your Productivity — and What to Do About Them
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As the father of a four-year-old, I often find myself in conversations with other parents complaining they no longer have time to get anything done. They have to get the little ones dressed and fed in the morning, drive them to school, then bolt out of work to pick them up, shuttle them off to an activity and back home, prepare dinner, and finally get them bathed and into bed. Lights out. Day over. No time left to be productive. All right, all right — it’s usually me complaining. And I’m dead wrong.

Ready for some harsh truths?

How to Overcome 3 of the Real Reasons You’re Not as Productive as You’d Like to Be

1. You’re not a “victim” of “distractions” — you’re choosing to avoid the work

There’s a new narrative spreading so far and fast that it’s becoming a full-blown cultural meme. It goes like this: In the digital age, information is “coming at us” all the time, and we’re all but powerless to stop it.

You hear it in our language: With smart phones, tablets, and social media, we’re “bombarded” with information. It’s “everywhere.” Most of us can barely “keep up.” How are we supposed to “deal with it all?”

Sorry, but that’s called… [censored for publication].

Being productive is a choice. So is being unproductive.

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You want to constantly stop working (or not start at all) so you can check email, read headlines, or browse your friends’ Facebook status updates? Or maybe read a blog post, or 10? Okay. But please understand that these things are not “distractions,” nor are they “coming at you.” You’re selecting them — and you’re doing so, often, as a way of procrastinating.

What to do about it:

Two suggestions, both of them easier than you’d think:

First: Fight back! Reclaim your productive time. Yes, today you have constant and immediate access to every conceivable entertainment and distraction you can think of on any number of electronic devices on your desk or in your pocket. Leave them there. Set aside enough time for the real task at hand — whether that’s your job or a creative project or whatever you want to accomplish — and “single task” the hell out of it.

Second suggestion: Trick yourself. Sometimes you put off starting a new project because it seems overwhelming. Don’t think about tackling the whole thing at once. Simply promise yourself you’ll put in 15 minutes before you take a break. Can you guess what will happen?

In most cases, the very act of digging into the project, getting started, putting some energy into it, will get your creative and productive juices flowing — and you’ll keep right on producing well beyond that 15-minute goal you set. (And all the incoming emails or tweets won’t distract you at all.)

The late Roger Ebert wrote, “The muse visits during the act of creation, not before.” That’s Ebert’s ingenious way of saying that the great ideas and productive energy don’t fall out of the sky. You have to earn them — by starting.

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2. You’re avoiding the work… because you’re depressed

By this I don’t mean you’re experiencing clinical depression; I mean that you are in a negative emotional state. But when it comes to your productivity, feeling even slightly depressed can have the stopping power of a cannon.

In the brilliant book Finding Flow, a follow-up to his groundbreaking psychological work Flow, author and professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, notes that when you think about yourself, you tend to drift into negative emotions.

Indeed, the main concept of “flow” is that when you engage in certain complex, all-consuming activities (playing the piano, rock climbing), you lose all sense of yourself — and as you become fully engrossed in the flow activity, you experience more joy and productivity.

What to do about it:

Get out of your head.

A well-established principal in psychology states that you can’t experience two opposite emotional states at the same time. What a great thing to know!

If you’re feeling down, chances are you’re focusing on some aspect of yourself — your problems, your shortcomings, your frustrations. Luckily, there’s a simple, but not easy, way to climb out of this trap. Find something else, something positive, to focus on. As long as you can hold on to that positive feeling, you can’t — literally, cannot — fall back into a depression.

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Sounds difficult, right? It will be. But keep in mind that you need to switch your focus from whatever is bothering you only long enough to get started on your project. Maybe you can think about how great it will feel to finally be done with the task. Or maybe you need to put on some uplifting music. (Movie scores are a great choice here; as you work the background tunes will make it seem like you’re conquering an army!)

A few minutes into the task, and your natural positive energy will start to take over (see tip 1), and you’ll leave those feelings of depression behind.

3. You’re afraid to start the work… because you might make a mistake

Why when deer see car headlights coming at them — or a human being, for that matter — will they freeze instead of running off the road to safety? Because often in a terrifying situation, they’re so afraid of doing the wrong thing that they instead do nothing. Running this way might be a mistake. Running that way might be a mistake. Splat. Humans sometimes make the same choice.

One reason you might not be as productive as you’d like is that you’re feeling anxiety. The fear of going in the wrong direction, making a bad choice about the project you’re tackling, stops you from moving forward at all.

What to do about it:

Embrace mistakes. They mean you’re making progress.

Take writing as an example. Do you think any novelist or playwright has ever sat down to a blank sheet of paper, began writing, and just kept on going in one shot to a complete final draft? No deletions? No edits? No way!

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Don’t let anxiety win. Accept that you will make mistakes… start anyway.

Bottom line: The reason you’re not as productive as you’d like to be is not that you’re too busy. And it’s not my kid’s fault (oops — I mean it’s not your kid’s fault). We all make a choice in every minute of every day, either to push forward on the projects and goals that matter to us, or not.

So set aside the distractions (even the really fun ones); tell yourself you’ll give the big task just a few minutes at first (you’ll keep going, I promise); and then get out of your own head so you can focus on the work. And don’t waste time worrying about making mistakes. Of course you’ll make them, and then you’ll fix them.

To your productivity!

Featured photo credit: Unproductive man at work/Robbie Hyman via Shutterstock

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robbie hyman

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Last Updated on July 21, 2021

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)

The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work)
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No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system.”[1]

A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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From Creating Reminders to Building Habits

A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being 6 hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

The Wonderful Thing About Triggers — Reminders

A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

How to Make a Reminder Works for You

Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

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Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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Reference

[1] Getting Things Done: Trusted System

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