If you want to seriously improve your personal productivity, your mantra should be: Less but better.
Most people who want to be more productive waste their time and energy on cheap productivity hacks and silly time management techniques.
Like the writer who spends hours reading articles and books about how to be a writer instead of sitting their butts in a chair and writing, it’s all too easy to get addicted to productivity porn.
Constantly tinkering with a steady stream of tips and tricks may feel good in the moment, but it ultimately leads nowhere.
What you really need is better habits.
If you’re ready to get serious about becoming more productive, here are 4 psychologically-sophisticated habits that will dramatically boost your productivity and focus.
1. Stop fighting procrastination and learn to validate it.
Everybody feels the urge to procrastinate—it’s how we respond to that urge that separates those who are consistently productive.
The desire to procrastinate is normal, healthy even. It’s your mind expressing its natural desire for novelty and curiosity. And no matter how committed to a particular task or piece of work, you will occasionally feel the urge to put off getting to work in favor of something more immediately enjoyable or interesting.
To stay productive, you must change the way you think about procrastination.
Often the people who struggle the most with procrastination have strict, judgmental beliefs about what it means to even feel like procrastinating. And these beliefs come out in the form of negative self-talk toward themselves:
- What’s wrong with me?! Why can’t I just get my shit together and focus!
- There I go again… I wish I wasn’t such a procrastinator!
- Look at Tom. He’s such a machine. He just sits down and gets to work. I wish I was as disciplined as he is.
The trouble with all the judgmental negative self-talk is that it adds a second layer of negative emotion onto your experience: Instead of just feeling like you don’t want to work, you also feel ashamed or angry or disappointed in yourself.
Now the urge to procrastinate is even stronger because distracting yourself with some cheap pleasure or entertainment is also a quick way to avoid the negative feels that came from your nasty self-talk.
The way out of this vicious cycle is to fundamentally change the way you think about and respond to the urge to procrastinate. You need to change your default, automatic response to procrastination into something helpful rather than destructive:
- Simply observe and notice your urge to procrastinate. Also, watch for any thoughts and feeling that automatically spring up in response to it. This is called meta-cognition—thinking about your thinking. It’s beneficial because it slows you down and helps short-circuit the default behavior of negative self-talk or immediate distraction.
- Label and accept your urge to procrastinate non-judgmentally. Simply acknowledge that you are in fact feeling the urge to procrastinate. But distinguish for yourself that just because you feel the urge doesn’t mean you have to follow through on it.
- Validate the urge to procrastinate. Remind yourself that it’s normal and valid to feel like procrastinating. It’s just your brain’s natural desire for novelty and diversity. You can also tell yourself that everybody feels the urge to procrastinate and that you’re not alone. Finally, if it helps, remind yourself of a time when you successfully got to work despite feeling like procrastinating. This will increase your confidence and self-efficacy and make it more likely that you choose to get to work despite your desire to procrastinate.
- Invite your procrastination along for the ride. Literally tell your urge to procrastinate that you’re willing for it to stick around as you get to work. By approaching (rather than avoiding) the desire to procrastinate, you’re training your brain to see it as something neutral rather than a threat. This will help lessen its intensity in the future.
By habitually criticizing yourself for your tendency to procrastinate, you’re making it harder to resit and training your brain to treat it as something dangerous in the future—both of which make it that much harder to simply get to work.
Instead of fighting with your procrastination, practice validating it and be willing to live with it.
2. Ruthlessly eliminate digital distractions.
It’s not all in your head. Often the biggest obstacles to genuine productivity are on our desks, in our pockets, or inside the browser on our computer.
If you’re the kind of person reading an article like this one on how to be more productive, you probably have an internal locus of control bias. That’s technical psych jargon for the idea that you like the idea that being more productive is something within you—how you think, how you behave, what you want, etc.
But often the biggest reason we procrastinate and lose focus in our environment, and increasingly, our digital environment:
- The Twitter notification that just dinged
- The email that just popped up on your desktop
- That new game you just installed on your phone yesterday
Losing focus doesn’t necessarily mean our willpower muscle was weak; it may simply mean that the distractions in your environment are strong. And that before you even have time to consider engaging your will-power or self-control muscle, your attention has already gravitated toward a distraction and you’ve lost focus.
Willpower should be a last resort. Better to design your environment so that you don’t need it in the first place.
Before you sit down to work, make sure you’ve done everything you can to make sure your environment is conducive to work and focus rather than distracting:
- Implement the 4:55 Drill. The 4:55 Drill is a little technique I use to eliminate distractions and help me dive right into my most important and creative. Often, we end up procrastinating because of the prep work needed just to figure out what we should be working on. Digging around in our email for something is a great way to get sidetracked into the depths of the internet. Instead, at the end of each workday (hence the 4:55 Drill), take 5 minutes and get yourself organized for the following day. Decide on the one or two things you’d like to accomplish first thing and assemble everything you need now so that’s you can hit the ground running tomorrow morning.
- Quarantine your phone. Face it: as powerful and wonderful as smartphones are, they’re also our biggest source of procrastination and loss of focus. I suggest not even trying to resist them, and instead, turn them off and put them out of sight. When I sit down to do serious work, I power down my phone completely and put in out of sight in a drawer. This means that not only will I not get distracted by notifications, but the mere sight of my phone won’t even be there as a distraction. What’s more, knowing that it’s powered off, means that there’s a lot more friction to simply checking my email or twitter—I would have to spend the extra 30 seconds to power on my phone. Often this is enough friction to make that temptation unattractive.
- Turn your computer into a single-tasking machine. If you’re any kind of knowledge worker, chances are your work is primarily done on a computer—writing documents, drafting reports, assembling presentations, etc. Unfortunately for your productivity, your computer is capable of doing all sorts of other fun and interesting tasks, especially if you have multiple browser windows, apps, and programs all running simultaneously. Try this: before you start working, close down every application, window, program, and service except for the one or two that are absolutely essential to your work. Make your computer into a word processor and nothing else, for example. Make your computer into a tool that only does one thing, and you’ll be far less tempted to use it to do other things.
Most digital distractions shroud themselves in a cloak of harmlessness and usefulness. As a result, we allow them to linger while we work.
But underneath that shallow veneer are powerful forces pulling you toward distraction and procrastination. And if you exert all your energy trying to resist these distractions, you’re cutting into the energy that should be dedicated to doing your best, most creative work.
All of which means you need to get ruthless about eliminating distractions during your most important work—especially digital distractions.
3. Cultivate a deep work routine.
Cal Newport coined the phrase deep work in his book of the same name and describes it like this:
Professional activities performed in a state of distraction-free concentration that push your cognitive capabilities to their limit. These efforts create new value, improve your skill, and are hard to replicate.
Deep work is your mind in high-gear. It’s when you are working at close to your full potential, producing creative, high-quality work efficiently. It’s the holy grain of productivity.
The problem is, because it’s so mentally taxing, it’s hard to do. And it’s very hard to do consistently. Which is where the term routine comes in…
The first problem is, you can’t just sit down and expect your mind to jump to 100% capacity and crank out an hour of highly-focused, creative work. You have to build up to it gradually. You need to train your mind to adjust to deep work, which is a very different way of operating than our standard, semi-distracted way of working.
Second, you need a system for keeping you consistent with your deep work. If you’re constantly being interrupted by coworkers or tempted to procrastinate by social media, you’ll never stay consistent with deep work.
The solution is to create a deep work routine:
- Decide on a consistent time for your deep work. Ideally, it’s a consistent time several days per week. First thing in the morning when I get to the office, for example. Whatever you chose, you must make that time sacred.
- Start small with a duration and gradually work up. Initially, I recommend doing deep work in 20-minute bursts. After a week or so, you can up it to 30 minutes. Ideal results tend to come when you can work in stretches of 45 to 60 minutes.
- Ruthlessly eliminate distractions. See section #2 above. Importantly, it’s not enough to simply remove the distraction itself (e.g. Twitter notifications turned off). You should try your best to remove even the temptation to get distracted (e.g. leave your phone in your car or another room).
- Track and reward yourself. Create a simple tracking system to measure progress and reward yourself. I like the Seinfeld Strategy, which involves marking off days on a calendar after I’ve completed my deep work and trying not to “break the chain.” I also, reward myself for finishing by making a fancy cup of coffee afterward.
Without much exaggeration, deep work is a productivity and creativity superpower. But to harness it and make it a consistent part of your life, you must create an airtight routine to help you stay consistent with it.
4. Harness the power of forcing functions
A forcing function is a mechanism that forces you to take some kind of action.
When a pop-up takes over your screen and asks if you want to save 50% on this month’s newest styles, it forces you into one of two decisions—click the big green “YES” button or spend 3 minutes hunting for the tiny, barely-visible “x” to close out of the popup. Marketers and salespeople use forcing functions all the time to increase the odds that a potential customer becomes an actual customer.
But forcing functions can be just as useful for personal productivity.
Suppose I really wanted to get this article done by Monday, but I kept procrastinating on writing it. I could write a check for $100 and make it out to my buddy Todd, telling him that if I hadn’t emailed him a completed draft of this article by Monday at 5:00 am, he should immediately cash the check and buy himself something.
That’s a forcing function. By putting $100 dollars on the line, I’m forcing (or at least strongly encouraging) myself to follow through on my goals instead of getting distracted by short-term desires.
Exceptionally productive people are masters of self-imposed forcing functions. They have the humility to realize that distractions are prevalent, motivation sometimes wanes, and in general, we’re all a lot less disciplined than we’d like to be. So, instead of hoping for the best, they assume the worst and plan accordingly.
Here are a few good examples of forcing functions you can use to improve your productivity:
- If you want to get a lot of work done quickly, take your laptop but no charger and work at the coffee shop (hat tip: Dan Martell).
- If you want to get more work done in your home office, remove the TV and uninstall all apps from your computer that aren’t directly related to your work.
- Hire a coach and pre-pay for several months worth of sessions.
- Tell your assistant or spouse to change your social media passwords until the beginning of each month and not tell you the new ones until you’ve completed a particular goal or project (hat tip: James Clear in Atomic Habits).
Don’t rely on willpower or motivation to do your most important work. Design systems that incentivize you to do the work no matter how you feel.
All you need to know
If you want to dramatically improve your personal productivity, stop fiddling around with trivial hacks and get serious about building solid habits to boost your motivation, concentration, and discipline:
Stop fighting procrastination and learn to validate it.
Ruthlessly eliminate digital distractions.
Cultivate a deep work routine.
Harness the power of forcing functions.