As a management consultant I frequently relied on anxiety to drive myself to work – anxiety of feeling like a failure if I don’t get enough done, someone being mad at me, or not getting the promotion. Some common productivity advice seems to point into a similar direction, even if it is more deliberate – for example setting up accountability in the form of having to report to a friend, or even agreeing with the friend that you have to pay them money if you do not make enough progress. While using anxiety as a driver is to a certain degree effective, and might be a useful approach for people who find it easy to relax and switch off, it is not a very appealing way to live a life to me. In some instances it can even be counterproductive, since high degrees of stress increase productivity in simple and physical tasks, but for creative tasks may reduce effectiveness even in the short term. Here are some alternative approaches that helped me, starting with practical tools and moving on to deeper principles:
We can help get ourselves into the right mindset for the task at hand by separating the environments for work, play and sleep. For example I
- Try to work outside the home (i.e. in an office or cafe), or if lockdowns do not permit that, at least not in the bedroom
- Use different laptops for work and entertainment / social media
- Eliminate distractions where possible, e.g. by setting the phone to airplane mode
- Work during the daylight hours and play / rest when it is dark
- Either work alone or surround myself with people who also are in work mode
When encountering an energy slump, it can sometimes help to work in a new environment to be energized by the associated novelty. I used this technique frequently during my time studying physics, for example by switching to a new library, working in a park, or even on top of a historic tower. More on that here.
If we do something regularly enough, it becomes a habit that becomes automatic. If that behaviour is negative this is a downside – we continue the behaviour mindlessly, and once we realise it is a problem may need willpower to control it. But on the positive side, we can also automatically maintain positive behaviours. By deliberately turning all the desired activities that allow for regularity into habits, we can free up our willpower for work that is more variable. I find it easiest to keep a daily habit, as opposed to one say 4 times a week. For example by turning exercise into a daily habit (i.e. exercising every day, limiting it to stretching if my body really feels like it needs a rest), it does not take that much effort anymore and I can use my remaining willpower on tasks I do more irregularly, such as writing this article. Environmental engineering can also be thought of as a way of building a habit: The environment becomes a trigger for the habit or doing work, or relaxing, and so on. Atomic Habits by James Clear is a great introduction on all things habit.
In focus meditation we learn to maintain focus on some anchor, e.g. the breath or a visualisation, and gently bring the attention back to that anchor when the mind eventually drifts. Doing this gently is key – we want to maintain kindness rather than taking this exercise as an opportunity to practice beating ourselves up. While this has a number of important benefits unrelated to work, like directly reduced stress and insight about how the mind works, it also helps to maintain focus at work, with that spirit of gentleness. 15 minutes of breath watching per day has become one of the habits I stick to most consistently. The headspace app is a great place to get started.
Many people trying to achieve a high output work very long hours, sometimes even neglecting their sleep. However often energy, not time, is the limiting factor for goal achievement, with both periods of effort and recovery, instead of uninterrupted stretches of moderate effort, leading to optimal productivity and well-being. In addition, solutions to tough problems we have been working on often appear during rest time, and of course leisure is a value in itself. Genuine rest requires being satisfied that enough work has been done, for which I usually use one of two methods:
- Work until a set number of to dos is completed, then rest. This increases drive and encourages speed, especially if the task is not very enjoyable, but can reduce quality
- Work without allowing external distractions for a set period of time, potentially with pauses scheduled in. This is more relaxed, and encourages creativity and quality – often patience is the fastest or even only way to figure out the solution to a problem. Oliver Burkeman’s Four Thousand Weeks has some great examples of this effect in the chapter “The Impatience Spiral”.
- One can combine the two approaches, for example by
- Starting the day by finishing some to dos that need to be churned through, then doing more relaxed / creative work for a set period of time
- Finishing the workday either when a set number of to dos is done or a set time is reached, to maintain the incentive of finishing early, but avoid late nights that destroy productivity and wellbeing the next day
No matter the approach, we need to have a generous mindset with ourselves that recognizes what we have done in order to switch off in peace. When ending work for the day, it can help to look back and give gratitude to ourselves for everything we have done.
It can help to align tasks with the energy curve throughout the day: For many people that means doing the most energy demanding tasks first, and completing more routine ones later when tired. That way the satisfaction of having already completed the difficult task also improves satisfaction throughout the day. Furthermore, one can think of energy being separated into types, e.g. physical, emotional, mental. For example, one can use a period of exercise (physical effort) as recovery from mental effort and so on. Hence I like to have activities stretching different energies on most days, i.e. all of mental work, social activity and physical exercise. Often managing one energy type well supports work in the other realms, e.g. most obviously maintaining physical health makes both mental and emotional / social tasks easier. The Power of Full Engagement by Jim Loehr and Tony Schwartz focuses on such management of different energies.
Not all “rest” activity is helpful if emotionally easy productivity is the goal. We now have many ways to achieve the rewarding feeling of success in a fairly reliable way – video games for example are designed to have just the right difficulty for us to succeed with some effort. Social media is optimised to keep us engaged with short tidbits of information and social validation. In addition, the user experience is designed to be as low effort and intuitive as possible. This leads to two problems:
- Because the electronic entertainment is often stimulating, it is not optimal rest
- The sense of reward is so easily available that work towards our real-life goals seems difficult and less rewarding
By limiting our exposure to such highly motivating (though not necessarily actually enjoyable) artificial “achievements”, we obtain better rest, genuine achievements become more rewarding, and the associated work more appealing.
Batching and the associated task management system
Generally, it is much more effective to focus on one task until it is completed instead of switching, because the switching takes time and energy, and because progress when focusing on a single project at a time feels more tangible and immediate, hence encouraging further effort. There are two exceptions
- Switching between tasks that require different types of energy (see above) can be efficient
- If long term memory retention is the goal, spaced repetition (instead of batched cramming) is often very helpful. This can be formalized through something like a flashcard system, but can also include something like reading a self-improvement book in small batches, to help the attitude of the author gradually sink into the subconscious, if that is desired
Even if we intend to batch, the mind may still be racing around, wondering about what else might be more urgent that we are forgetting we need to do. To effectively batch and not worry about what else we could be doing, we need a set of tools and processes that allow us to determine which activity to focus on at any given time:
- A set of to do lists, grouped for example by context of work to be done, type of energy required and/or priority. I use Quire, which has good functionality for nested lists
- A calendar for tasks that need to be done on specific days. I use Google Calendar
- Somewhere to store potential actions we may or may not take (e.g. books to read, projects to undertake). I use Evernote, but it does have some bugs and I am not completely happy with it.
- Reference information stored in a way that makes us feel comfortable we can find it at the right time. Again, I use Evernote
- A habit to consistently enter all the actions / information in the system
- A habit of breaking down daunting large projects into smaller, manageable chunks
- A habit to regularly review the actions to determine what to do each day / week. For example, I like to write down at the end of the day any actions I already know I want to do the next day to get them out of my head, and in the morning may add more from my larger to do list
Such a system, if you learn that you can trust it, helps you fully focus on the task at hand, thereby increasing productivity and reducing anxiety. Getting Things Done by David Allen dives deeply into this.
Enjoyment and meaning
More deeply, being certain we are working on the right thing connects to meaning – even if the task management system makes us feel confident that we are not forgetting something urgent, being unconvinced on a more fundamental level about what we are doing can deeply hurt our concentration. We need to be convinced that what we are doing is in line with our most important values, and if that feels uncertain, a period of reflection may be in order. It obviously makes sense to choose work that we enjoy and connects with our inner nature. There will however generally be aspects we do not enjoy. This is where meaning comes in: If what we do helps others, or builds a better future for ourselves, we can look positively even at the unenjoyable aspects of our work.
Saying no and accepting there is a limit to what can be done
With the most effort and efficiency in the world, we would still only be able to do a tiny minority of the things that are available for us to do. Oliver Burkeman’s 4000 weeks even goes so far to describe productivity as a trap:
Rendering yourself more efficient – either by implementing various productivity techniques or driving yourself harder – won’t generally result in the feeling of having “enough time”, because all else being equal, the demands will increase to offset the benefits. Far from getting things done, you’ll be generating new things to do
An example of this is the popular “hack” to give urgent tasks to the most busy person in the office.
While I do still believe that productivity is very valuable, we do need to accept the fact that our capacities are severely limited. The implication is that we need to focus on what is most important to us, and eliminate the rest:
- Let go of internal goals that are only moderately important
- Push back on external demands not in line with our values
By doing this, and not waiting until we are so stressed that we have no choice but to deprioritize things (maybe because we think we need the business as an excuse for saying no), we set ourselves up for success and increase our self compassion – which ironically again, may increase our productivity, because self-flagellation and a sense of overwhelm can draw us towards distracting ourselves with those activities that are comforting in the short term but not in line with our values.
To be motivated to undertake a task we need to actually believe we can succeed. The more uncertain the outcome is, the more important it becomes to actively cultivate optimism. This does not mean believing failure is impossible: It just means also seeing that success is possible, and driving towards it. Vividly imagining the eventual potential payoff can deepen the motivational effect further. We may have to deal with disappointment eventually, but that can wait until it happens – and it may not actually happen. It also means expanding the definition of success: With hindsight, failure often becomes a great learning opportunity that points us in a better direction, and hence a success in its own way. The more we experience failure as something positive, or at least as not so bad, the less it paralyzes us, and the more optimistic we become that we can draw value from any outcome.