Whether it’s living up to our potential, crushing our to-do list, or just trying to be our best selves, we all want to be more productive. But the idea of productivity can become a pit of guilt and self-recrimination.
There will always be more to do: more work, more steps toward our personal ambitions. You can stress yourself out for the sake of “being more productive,” while losing sight of what that really means.
So for the moment, forget being way more productive in the far future. How can you be a little more productive right now?
1. Have a (Short-Term) Plan
Put aside your one-year (or five-year, or ten-year) plan. How can you make a little more happen today? Take five minutes to craft a short-term plan for your day to boost your productivity. It might be as simple as making a simple to-do list or a schedule.
For the chronically overscheduled, a better step might be to plan for a bit of unstructured time, maybe to work on that ebook or continue planning the launch of your small business.
If you’re at the end of your day, take a few minutes to plan what you’re going to do tomorrow. You’ll sleep better knowing you already have a course of action the next morning.
2. Stop Procrastinating, Start Gamifying
Why is procrastination such a huge problem? Because our brains love it. Scientific studies have shown that putting off unpleasant tasks triggers the reward system in our brain. To quote Douglas Coupland, “hard work may pay off someday, but laziness pays off right now.”
Like it or not, our willpower is a limited resource, and it dwindles as the day goes on. Procrastination saps our willpower and makes it more difficult to get things done. We spend that willpower distracting ourselves from the things we need to do, and find ourselves in a cycle of avoidance.
So what’s the answer? Science points to gamification — turning repetitive or boring tasks into a game with a built-in reward. Our brains dislike unpleasant tasks, but they love games, and gamifying a task will release endorphins as a payoff.
Inbox Zero is one example of gamifying a task. Fitness trackers make health into a game by adding achievements, stats and badges. You don’t even need an app to gamify your own life. See how much work you can get done before your Spotify playlist finishes, or award yourself points for making healthy food choices. If you’re the competitive type, involve a friend.
3. Find Your Focus
If you’re a productivity nut, you may have heard of the Pomodoro Technique. It’s a simple approach to completing tasks: 25 minutes of work, followed by a 5-minute break; repeat. Some enthusiasts prefer 50 minutes of work and a 10-minute break.
The numbers don’t matter as much as getting into a rhythm and creating a smooth workflow. There are even browser extensions that will keep you from hitting Facebook or Twitter when you should be working. When it’s time for a break, you can catch up on your social media for a few minutes before getting back to work. Or you can work in that exercise you’ve been meaning to do (see above about gamification).
You don’t really need a browser extension or a set technique to sit down, be mindful, and find your focus before getting to work. Even a minute or two of setting your intention for the day can boost your productivity considerably.
4. Stop Worrying
It can be difficult to build up positive habits and avoid productivity pitfalls. There’s a reason helping people to “get more done” has become a multi-million dollar industry. But it doesn’t help to beat yourself up because you’re not getting as much done as you’d like.
Why not? Because worrying takes up time and energy with little to no benefit. It’s not just bad for your state of mind, it’s bad for your health.
A long-term plan for being more productive is great. But if you want to be more productive, the best time to start is right now.
Instead of worrying about the next week or next year, think about the next twenty minutes. Take a moment, pick a plan of action, and move forward. You might be surprised at what you can get done.
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