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Eccentric Tips for Becoming Productive

Eccentric Tips for Becoming Productive
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From the way it’s talked about on sites like this, you’d think productivity was a long-lost secret of the ages. Really, though, there’s quite literally nothing to productivity: for the most part, it’s just a matter of staying on task and working hard. The problems tend to arise more when self-motivation is required: when there are no deadlines, working consistently isn’t easy.

This guide won’t make you productive: only you can really do that for yourself. Rather, here are some little, specific tips you can follow that might speed up your day without any excessive effort from yourself.

Keep things offline. The easiest way to avoid getting something done is this: set up a to-do on some web site, then close the web site down. You might not even mean to do this: the site might close by accident. But once you’ve removed your source of keeping on task, getting sidetracked is far easier than it should be.

Instead, find a dark marker and a piece of paper. Write down your tasks in a single place, and put it close by your desk. Make sure you can’t avoid seeing that list. Update it when you’re done, though, or the whole list is just one big waste.

Shorten your task lists. The more detailed the tasks you set for yourself are, the less likely you are to be able to get through them. Hopefully, you know more or less what it is you’re supposed to be doing. When you write a task list, it’s to get you focused, not to remind you of what to do.

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Right now, for instance, my list consists of three things: “Write post, Write post, Write prompt, Ask question.” The first is a reminder to write what you’re reading now. The next is a reminder for a different blog. The third involves creating something for a literary magazine. The fourth tells me to ask some site like Yahoo! a question about programming. But I don’t even need that level of detail. I just need something telling me what’s on my agenda.

Stay minimalist. Let’s say you’re a music enthusiast. You use something like Songbird to find music, VLC to play it, Audacity to capture online audio, Last.fm to find new artists, and iTunes to add music to your iPod. It might be a wonderful set-up for when you’re in a music mood. When you’re trying to work on something else… perhaps there’s a better solution.

When you’re working, try to do things not in your to-do pile as quickly and efficiently as possible. If you have to listen to music, don’t even bother calling up your library. Call up an internet service like Pandora and start listening to a band, so you don’t need to micromanage anything. (And if you don’t know where to start, a subtle electronica band like Daft Punk might be a good way to start.) Do you like playing games while you’re brainstorming? That’s probably not the best idea. But if you don’t have the willpower necessary to avoid it, at least settle for a source like Orisinal, which has quick, low-maintenance games for you to play. Not only does it let you actually think while you’re playing, the lack of complexity doesn’t threaten to immerse you nearly as quickly as a more advanced arcade site.

Time yourself. If you have three things to do in a day, expect to work on all three of them that day. Set up an alarm for yourself partway through your worktime. (And if you’re too lazy to set up an alarm near your workplace, take the lazy way out and just click here to get a quick timer for yourself.) Once your alarm goes off, switch to whatever your next task is. If you haven’t finished what you’re working on by now, it might be time to try working on something else instead.

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Use applications. Don’t let them use you. Email, RSS feeds, and Instant Messenger applications are designed so that you can use them to make your life easier. It’s easy to get caught up, however, and let any one of them take over your work life. None of them are designed (so far) to stop you from abusing them, so controlling their use is entirely up to you.

When you open an RSS feed reader and see over a thousand posts waiting for you; when you find yourself refreshing your email inbox every ten minutes to check for new messages; when you turn on IM and five friends start talking to you about a party on Saturday… Stop. Oftentimes, it helps to just set up a schedule for usage: check email only once or twice a day, only turn on IM after 6 PM. The service itself can help, in some situations: Streamy, the site I use as an RSS reader, doesn’t prominently list how many unread feeds I have, so I don’t feel compelled to read many things.

Make a list of dreams. On a sheet of paper, make a list of things you’ve always wanted to try but never had the time for: learning to blog, for instance, or learning PHP. When you find yourself staring at your computer screen, don’t check your email again: instead, look at your list and really try to accomplish one of the items on your list. Don’t do it halfheartedly, either: research it, experiment with it, try to actually learn it. You might not accomplish what you set out to do, but it certainly beats doing nothing.

Or, exercise. If you’re in a position to do it (i.e. not in a cubicle), walk away from your computer, do a set or two of sit-ups or push-ups, and see if it doesn’t help you. Physical activity often helps concentration, and it has the wonderful added benefit of helping you stay (slightly) fit.

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If you have the time, get out of your workplace entirely, be it your home or your office. Try jogging a block or two. The change in scenery certainly won’t hurt things, and you’ll often find yourself able to go back and start working.

Don’t do everything yourself. This applies especially for larger projects. You are not excellent at everything: if you need a variety of things done, don’t try to get everything done and perfected yourself. Work on what absolutely needs to be done; focus on what you’re most able to finish well. If you’re working with others, managing your work will help each group member focus individually.

If you’re working on your own, you have to manage everything yourself. That doesn’t mean you need to do all the work yourself. When you’re working on computer projects in particular, there are many ways of quickly hashing things up without your direct involvement. If you’re starting to blog, use a premade theme for a site (and an engine) yourself: don’t design one for yourself until you’ve actually written in your blog. By focusing on what really matters, you’ll be able to get much more work done than if you micromanage.

Avoid swivel chairs. There’s not much to explain here. I have sat at desks with swivel chairs, and I have sat at desks incapable of revolving at all. I have found that I’m always more productive when I’m not in a swivel chair.

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Is there a reason why this is? No clue. Sitting on a couch or lying on the floor arguably provides more room to move than even a swivel chair, but either one is usually a more productive position to work from. There’s something about the ability to spin in place rather than type on a keyboard that makes swivel chairs almost malevolently unproductive.

Rory Marinich bought the web domain omegaseye.com two years ago. Right before writing this article, he finally got around to writing his first blog post there.

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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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