Psychology is the real secret to consistently doing your best work.
As W. Timothy Gallwey wrote in his classic book on peak performance, The Inner Game of Tennis:
Neither mastery nor satisfaction can be found in the playing of any game without giving some attention to the relatively neglected skills of the inner game. This is the game that takes place in the mind of the player, and it is played against such obstacles as lapses in concentration, nervousness, self-doubt and self-condemnation. In short, it is played to overcome all habits of mind which inhibit excellence in performance.
In other words, you can learn all the best productivity frameworks, techniques, and strategies in the world, but if you’re at war with your own mind, you’ll always struggle to get things done.
Genuine productivity comes from training your mind and emotions to support your work, not more productivity hacks.
If you want to stop procrastinating and become more consistently productive, work to build these 4 psychological habits.
Nothing will kill your productivity faster than a habit of judgmentalness and self-criticism.
Unfortunately, most of us grow up learning that the only way to motivate yourself to get things done and be productive is to be hard on ourselves.
I call this the Drill Sergeant Theory of Motivation. Like the hard-ass drill sergeant hurling insults and put-downs at his new recruits in order to “make men out of them,” most of us learn that if we’re not tough on ourselves about our work, we’ll end up slacking off or not getting things done.
So, from a young age, we develop a nasty habit of negative self-talk around our work:
- After getting an “A” on a test, you focus on the one question you missed and tell yourself, God, you’re such an idiot—how did you miss that one?!
- While preparing for a big presentation at work, your mind constantly worries about all the negative reactions your boss and coworkers might have.
- After thinking to yourself that you should pick up your old watercolor hobby, your mind immediately starts telling you’ll Who am I kidding… I’ve tried forever to get back into painting and I never stick with it.
Here’s the thing, though:
Most productive people are successful despite their negative self-talk, not because of it.
And even though most of us manage to stay reasonably productive despite our awful negative self-talk, it comes with a lot of side effects: anxiety, stress, low self-esteem, etc.
But when worse than all that is this:
Negative self-talk holds us back from our creative and productive potential.
Here are a few examples:
- Procrastination. Sure you’re getting your work done eventually. But all that negative self-talk—and the stress and lack of focus it leads to—means you procrastinate a lot and it takes you far more time than it should to get things done.
- Low-Quality Work. Again, you probably get most of your work done, but all the self-criticism and anxiety probably leads to a lower standard of work. Think about it: Do you produce higher quality work when you’re in the zone and working consistently distraction-free, or when your concentration is constantly interrupted by negative self-talk and self-judgment?
- Straight up avoidance. Especially when it comes to creative work, often our negative self-talk prevents us from even getting started. How many years worth of New Year’s resolutions remain unrealized because of fear and self-doubt? How many creative projects and goals never see the light of day because of anxiety and fear of failure?
If you really want to be more productive and creative in your work, you need to trust yourself to work without beating yourself up.
Unfortunately, for many of us, the habit of negative self-talk and self-judgment is difficult to shake because it’s been our standard operating procedure for years.
But there is an antidote: Self-compassion.
Self-compassion simply means that, in moments of struggle, you treat yourself like you would treat a good friend who was struggling—with support, encouragement, and perspective.
- Instead of focusing on the one or two flaws in your work, remind yourself of the dozens of parts that worked really well.
- Instead of catastrophizing and worrying about the worst-case-scenario, visualize the project going really well.
- Instead of reminding yourself of past failures, remind yourself of past successes.
Fear and negativity are not sustainable strategies for genuine productivity.
Give self-compassion a shot instead. I think you’ll find that not only do you feel a lot better while you work, but you’ll end up doing a lot better work as well.
2. Expectation Updating
Flexibility is the most underrated characteristic of truly productive people.
When we think of the term “productive,” other words and ideas that come to mind are probably things like “strong,” “self-disciplined,” “focused,” “mentally tough,” Etc.
And while all of those traits are important for productivity, they often obscure a trait that’s at least as important for achieving consistently high levels of productivity: flexibility.
Flexibility is the capacity to change and adapt our behavior and mindset in response to changes in our goals or environment.
For the last few months, you’ve been working on your own on a particular project at work. This suits you as you’re a bit of an introvert and find working with other people easily distracting and confusing. But because of a shift in the objectives for the project, you’re now required to work on a team…
- How will you handle that?
- Can you adapt and figure out how to stay productive despite having to work alongside others?
- Or will you drag your feet and lose steam because you’re so frustrated and annoyed at this recent change?
One particularly important aspect of productivity where this ability to be flexible and adapt comes into play is our own expectations.
Expectations are your beliefs about how people or things should work.
And while expectations have their uses, they can be a major source of friction and low productivity if you’re not careful.
Say you’re working on starting up a side business on the weekends. You’ve got a bunch of the pieces in place, and this Saturday you’re planning to take your website live and really get going. Unfortunately, your two-year-old kid is up all night sick. And when you finally roll out of bed on Saturday morning, you feel terrible.
Now, your expectation was that you were going to work most of the day Saturday to get your big launch done. If that expectation remains, it’s not hard to see how things might get problematic…
You sit down to work but have a hard time focusing because you’re so tired. Which leads to a bunch of negative self-talk about how you need to just suck it up and push through. As you keep pushing, you end up making more and more mistakes, which leads to frustration, which leads to more mistakes, etc. Now it’s lunchtime, you’ve only made a fraction of the progress you hoped for, and you just forget the whole thing and watch TV for the rest of the day mad and disappointed in yourself.
Alternatively, you could pause, reevaluate your expectations, and adjust them in light of the circumstances…
You tell yourself that it’s probably more realistic if you hold off on the launch till next weekend. But, you identify two or three small but important things that, if you got them done this weekend, would make the launch next weekend a lot easier and better overall. So you make a plan to get one of them done today and the other two tomorrow. As a result, you take it easy in the morning and rest up. Then spend an hour of focused work and get your task done, feeling good about your success.
Life will always throw you curveballs. But if you’re not flexible enough to adapt, your work (and sense of self) will suffer.
So, give yourself permission to be flexible with your expectations. Make a little time periodically to:
- Identify what your expectations of your work actually are.
- Assess how realistic and helpful they are.
- Be willing to change or modify them as the circumstances demand.
Get in the habit of updating your expectations and you’ll stay far more flexible and productive in whatever projects you’re working on.
3. Values Clarification
Unsurprisingly, procrastination is one of the biggest causes of poor productivity.
And what should be equally unsurprising is that one of the biggest causes of productivity is that we don’t actually value the thing we’re working on.
I say this should not be surprising and yet, I’m always struck by how many people assume they should be able to be hyperproductive regardless of the thing they’re working on.
But here’s the thing….
Why wouldn’t you want to procrastinate when you’re working on something you don’t really care about?
Look, obviously we all need to do some things whether we want to or value the things or not (homework, weekly reports, taxes, etc).
But to expect that we should be able to do these things full of energy and motivation and without the slightest hint of procrastination is insane! Of course you’re going to want to procrastinate when you’re working on things you don’t value!
That doesn’t mean there’s something wrong with you. It means you’re a normal human being! And in fact, the urge to procrastinate is actually a good thing because it gives you information…
See, when you want to procrastinate on your work, that’s often your mind telling you that this work isn’t meaningful. And while you always have the choice to keep working despite the urge to procrastinate, it might be worth your time to listen to your procrastination instead of attacking it.
If you find that you keep procrastinating on the same things consistently, that might well be a sign that you need to do some hard thinking about the type of work you’re doing and whether it really aligns with your values.
Obviously, this could lead to some big, scary questions—Should I think about changing careers?—but just because they’re scary doesn’t mean they’re not important.
You have one life. Do you really want to spend it doing things you don’t value and find meaningful if you don’t have to?
Rather than treating procrastination as the enemy, try listening to it instead.
Procrastination is often a sign that we need to make more time in our life to think about and get clarity on our values—our goals, dreams, aspirations, and the things that matter most to us.
So make a little time every month or two to get to know your values.
Let’s say you took the advice from the previous point and used your procrastination as an opportunity to identify and clarify your values and what types of things you actually want to be working on:
- You’re in engineering, but maybe your real passion is social justice and you’re considering a career switch
- You work in the marketing department, but in reality, both your skills and preference make you a better fit for sales
- You love to write but for years haven’t made time for it because of the demands of work and family
While this is an excellent first step, it’s only half of the equation…
Once you’ve identified your values and the work you really want to be doing, you still have to go after it and make it happen.
Even if you know that the work you’re doing isn’t valuable, and even if you’ve identified a new type of work you’d rather be doing, actually making that change can be intimidating, to say the least…
- What will my spouse and family say if I suggested leaving my stable and lucrative career as an engineer to work for a social justice non-profit?
- Do I really have the experience required to work in sales? My manager will never go for it…
- I’m too busy as it is… There’s no way I could carve out time to rebuild my writing hobby.
All the worries and insecurities that go along with making a major change to the kind of work we’re doing create a lot of fear and anxiety. And that fear and anxiety can keep us stuck, paralyzed into inaction.
The antidote to all this fear and paralysis is assertiveness.
Assertiveness is the courage to go after the things you really want, despite your fears and insecurities.
- Even if you’re not ready to quit your job, you might assertively bring it up with your spouse and let them know this is something you’re seriously considering.
- Assertiveness might mean sending your manager an email expressing your interest in making a switch to a new department.
- Assertiveness might mean saying no to your habit of watching the news for an hour each evening and dedicating that to writing time instead.
Of course, easier said than done.
The key to becoming more assertive is to start small and slowly work your way up.
Suppose you were thinking about leaving your job and transitioning to a new career, but telling your spouse felt too scary… You might start by periodically bringing up the fact that you’re dissatisfied with your work. Then, once you’ve built up some confidence there, start bringing up your passion for a different type of work. Then, once the topic is more comfortable, you could broach the idea of actually leaving your job.
It’s hard to be productive when you’re not doing work that matters. And it’s hard to do the work that really matters if you can’t be assertive about what you actually want.
This means that one of the best ways to become more productive is to learn to be more assertive.
All You Need to Know
If you want to be more consistently productive and effective in your work, focus on building these four psychological habits.