10 Ways to Be More Productive (Without Being Hard on Yourself)

I think we all wish we were more productive in some part of our lives…

  • Maybe you’re an aspiring fiction writer and wish you could stick with a habit of writing a few hundred words each morning
  • Maybe you’re trying to start a business and wish you could consistently carve out time to plan and strategize
  • Maybe you wish you could procrastinate less in your day job so that you could get home earlier and spend more time with your family

Unfortunately, the standard approach to being more productive usually involves some form of “getting tough” with yourself—which is usually just code for a bunch of self-criticism and negative self-talk. And while this can feel motivating in the moment, it actually makes you less productive (and more unhappy) in the long-run.

If you want to be more productive in the work that matters to you, try a few of these techniques…


1. Write down your ONE THING for the following day

One of the biggest reasons we procrastinate is a lack of clarity about what we should be doing.

Once your day has started, you’re likely to be bombarded with all sorts of competing tasks—many of which feel quite urgent. This leads to constantly ping-ponging back and forth between whatever seems important at the time, but all the while you’re not making much progress on the things that really matter.

So carve out five minutes at the end of each day to consider this question:

What’s the one thing I need to accomplish tomorrow that would make the day a success?

Once you’ve answered that question, write it down on a sticky note and put it wherever you work. Then figure out when the best time to accomplish that task would be and put it into your calendar the same as you would a doctor’s appointment or meeting with your boss.

Clarity creates confidence.


2. Work in stranger places

Novelty gets a bad rap when it comes to productivity…

People talk about getting distracted from their work by shiny object syndrome or having trouble staying focused on important tasks because they feel bored.

And while it’s true that constantly chasing new types of work makes it hard to stay focused and productive, that doesn’t mean novelty in general is bad…

One of the best ways to stay productive is to indulge novelty of context while staying consistent with the content of your work.

For example:

  • Suppose you’re trying to stay focused and finish up a report for work on Friday afternoon so you can make it home in time to catch your kid’s baseball game. But you find yourself really bored, and as a result, procrastinating.
  • Well, you can counteract some of that boredom by making the context or environment of your work more novel but still doing the same work.
  • So you might, for example, leave the office at 1:00 pm with 80% of the report unfinished. But then stop by your favorite coffee shop on the way home and finish the report in this new environment.

Working in a strange place can act as a powerful reset and help you resist unhelpful procrastination and boredom.


3. Update your productivity expectations

Expectations can be a powerful force driving your work. But they can also become a crushing burden that prevents you from doing the very work that matters…

  • Having an expectation of working our every day can be helpful in keeping your consistently productive with your workouts
  • But if your life changes in such a way that daily workouts just aren’t possible most of the time, that same expectation can lead to a lot of unproductive guilt and self-criticism.

The trick is to make sure you are examining and updating your productivity expectations on a regular basis.

Try this:

  • Identify your most important productivity goal.
  • Then spend a few minutes with pen and paper writing about your expectations of yourself when it comes to that goal.
  • Next, consider your current situation and constraints and ask yourself: Realistically, are my productivity goals compatible with my current situation?
  • If not, rephrase those productivity expectations. For example: Instead of “I will write 500 words every morning” you might update your expectation to be “I will write for 30 minutes at least a few times per week.”

It’s okay to have strict expectations for yourself as long as they’re flexible. Just make sure you’re checking in on your expectations frequently enough to adjust them if necessary.


4. Get serious about self-care

Imagine you were the coach of your country’s Olympic track and field team…

  • Your star sprinter comes up to you and says, “Coach, I don’t know what’s wrong… I’m training harder than ever, but I feel terrible and I’m not improving.”
  • So you ask them: “How’s your sleep?”
  • They look a bit bashful and reply: “Well, I have been staying up pretty late playing video games the last couple weeks…”
  • You follow-up with: “So how much sleep are you getting each night?”
  • They say: “Not much… maybe 5 hours per night.”

Hopefully you see where I’m going with this metaphor…

Hard work doesn’t work if you’re not taking care of yourself.

Your ability to be productive depends on self-care—consistently following through on habits and routines that keep your tank full:

  • Eating and sleeping well
  • Regular exercise or physical activity
  • Spending quality time with friends
  • Making time to relax and be in the moment

It’s not sexy, but taking care of the basics of self-care will make you far more productive than reading yet another book about complex productivity frameworks or elaborate time management techniques.


5. Don’t think too much about your goals… Set ‘em and forget ‘em

A common productivity trap is thinking about your goals rather than working toward them.

Goals are fun, exciting, and sexy…

  • Imagining yourself crossing the finish line of a marathon with dozens of friends and family cheering you on
  • Or dreaming about all the fun travel adventures you’re going to do once your business is wildly profitable

But precisely because goals are so pleasurable—even in your imagination—they can become dangerous…

It’s easy to rationalize thinking about your goals as helpful when really you’re just using them as a way to procrastinate.

I recommend taking a set-it and forget-it approach to goals…

Do spend time up front contemplating and selecting good goals—ones that align with your values and make sense given your current abilities and constraints.

But once you’ve set your goal, forget about it. And instead, spend your time focused on the process and actions you need to take in order to reach the goal.


6. Surround yourself with supportive people

Jim John famously said:

You’re the average of the 5 people you spend the most time around.

And while we can quibble about details, the basic point here is powerful, but easy to forget….

For better or worse, you are profoundly influenced by the people you surround yourself with.

And this is true of productivity as well.

Think about it…

  • If you’re surrounded at work by colleagues with an extreme hustle or grind culture, you will find yourself feeling constantly compelled to hustle more or grind out more and more work despite dozens of internal warning signs flashing and telling you it’s not a good idea.
  • If you interact on a daily basis with a spouse who’s constantly criticizing your creative project, it’s not surprising that your own inner critic would grow louder and louder with time.

On the other hand…

  • If your work colleagues all have a healthy work life balance and never send you emails in the middle of the night or on weekends, you’re going to feel less pressure to do so yourself.
  • If your spouse is supportive and encouraging of your creative project, you’ll find it easier to be supportive and encouraging with yourself when you face setbacks and disappointments.

So while it’s not always easy to change the people you spend time around, that doesn’t change the fact that they are still extremely impactful. And it’s important to acknowledge this sincerely instead of pretending other people don’t (or shouldn’t) affect you.

Here’s one little tip: Even if you can’t remove people from your life who are bad influences, it’s often possible to add people who are positive influences.

For example: Even if your spouse is overly-critical of your creative projects, you could find and join a group of like-minded peers online who are supportive and commit to interacting there on a regular basis.


7. Create a success celebration ritual

Another productivity trap that’s easy to fall into is never making time to celebrate your successes.

A lot of us are well-trained problem-solvers, which means as soon as we successfully accomplish one task we’re instantly thinking about and moving on to the next problem to be solved.

And while that’s not necessarily a bad thing, if we do it without making time to celebrate and enjoy our successes, we’re actually depriving ourselves of a huge source of energy and motivation: Pride

The emotion of pride gets a bad reputation but it’s actually a perfectly healthy and productive emotion that’s the natural result of doing something well. And one of its functions is to energize and motivate us to continue doing meaningful and important things.

But if you never take the time to acknowledge and savor the feeling of pride after a job well-done, you’re missing out on all that motivating energy.

So try this…

Create a success celebration ritual.

This can be very small:

  • After you finish your daily workout, you pause, connect with your body and how it feels to be tired and sore in a good way, and say to yourself: “Getting stronger!”
  • After writing your 300 words per day for that book you’re working on, you plug in your nice headphones and listen to your favorite song.
  • Or here’s one I use: After I cross off an item from my to-do list, I don’t just cross it off with a single line… I do a couple wavy lines, a big thick line, and sometimes use a boringly colored marker.

The point is to do something that forces you to pause and acknowledge your success so that you can feel some healthy pride and capture the good energy and motivation that comes with it.


8. Clarify the values behind your work

There are two extremely common reasons why we lose focus, procrastinate, and generally have a hard time being productive:

  1. We’re not working on the right things.
  2. We’re not motivated.

But it turns out, these are actually two sides of the same coin: When you’re working on things that truly matter—and you’re clear about why they matter to you—motivation is rarely a problem.

Put another way…

Motivation problems are usually values problems in disguise.

If you’re having a hard time staying productive it’s likely because you’re either working on something that isn’t meaningful or important to you. Or it is important and meaningful in a vague, abstract sense, but you’re not clear about the specifics.

In either case, the solution is to clarify the values behind your work. So ask yourself this question sincerely:

Why does this work matter to me?

The more authentically and specifically you can answer that question, the more motivated you will be to work on it (or drop it and work on something that does matter).

Learn more: 7 Ways to Discover and Clarify Your Personal Values →


9. Optimize for energy

Throughout the days, weeks, and months, we face an endless number of decision points about what to work on…

  • Should I answer emails first thing in the morning to get ahead or spend time journaling about pig-picture issues with my work?
  • Do I workout first thing in the morning or save that time for creative projects?
  • Is it better to get a little extra work done in the evening after the kids go to bed or just relax and watch TV?

One glaring problem with this predicament is that if you had to go through an in-depth decision-making process for each of these moments, you’d spend all your time and energy deciding what to do and not have anything left to actually do it!

This deciding what to do and how to do it is sometimes called meta-work. And while some amount of it is unavoidable and important, too much of it can lead to paralysis and procrastination.

To avoid all the decision-fatigue and overthinking that comes from emts-work, it’s useful to have a heuristic for what to work on—a simple rule-of-thumb that you can apply to most work decisions that quickly tells you what to do so you don’t have to spend much time or energy deciding.

And the best heuristic I’ve found is this:

Optimize for energy

This means that 9 times out of 10, when I’m not sure what to do, I work on the thing that will be most energizing.

Rather than think about what needs to get done, I try to ask myself:

What task will boost my energy rather than drain it?

Of course, there will always be things we need to do that are energy-draining. But if you start off doing things that give you energy, you’ll be much better positioned to get through the draining stuff with a minimum of distraction or procrastination.


10. Don’t wait for inspiration. Create it.

I came across this quote from author Madeleine L’Engle recently:

Inspiration usually comes during work, rather than before it.

What I find lovely about it is that it contains one of the most important ideas in all of human psychology inside it:

Motivation leads to behavior, but behavior also leads to motivation.

See, most of us intuitively see the road between motivation and behavior as a one way street: I need to feel motivated in order to do the work.

This is almost true because motivation does indeed make doing the work easier…

  • It’s easier to go for an early morning run when you’re feeling energized and excited.
  • It’s easier to dust off your easel and start painting when you feel inspired.
  • It’s easier to have that difficult conversation with your manager when you’re feeling confident.

But just because motivation makes action easier doesn’t mean it’s required…

It’s possible to do hard things despite not feeling like it.

Luckily, as L’Engle’s quote suggests, you only need to work without motivation for a brief period of time—just enough to get started. Because then the behavior-motivation mechanism kicks in…

Once you start doing meaningful work, you generate motivation, which makes it much easier to keep going.

So try to get in the habit of seeing motivation and action as a two-way street: Take advantage of motivation when you have it, but don’t rely on it. Learn to generate it yourself by just getting started.


All You Need to Know

Much of productivity advice boils down to getting tough on yourself or willing your way through difficult work. But this is rarely effective long-term (and can reinforce some pretty nasty habits of negative self-talk and self-criticism).

Luckily, there are plenty of strategies for getting and staying productive that don’t involve beating yourself up:

  1. Write down your ONE THING for the following day
  2. Work in stranger places
  3. Update your productivity expectations
  4. Get serious about self-care
  5. Don’t think too much about your goals… Set ‘em and forget ‘em
  6. Surround yourself with supportive people
  7. Create a success celebration ritual
  8. Clarify the values behind your work
  9. Optimize for energy
  10. Don’t wait for inspiration. Create it.

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One easy way to be more productive is to use a task management tool. I recommend kanbantool.com, I find it helpful.

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