How to Get Sh*t Done; The Psychology of Productivity from a Behavior Change Expert
Productivity is a huge challenge in our highly demanding, input saturated lives. And if you’re working from home, like most of us, it poses an additional challenge to our focus.
These tips are coming to you from the queen of procrastination herself — me! I’ve developed these helpful insights after years of data research, continuing education, client trials, and most of all — personal experience. And it’s all condensed and compiled here to help you get shit DONE.
My old mindset had me working 80+ (fruitless) hours a week, with maybe 10 hours of actual productivity. MAYBE. I put in huge amounts of time for little to no payoff; burning myself out and still not progressing in my career. Whack.
Once I anchored down these habits, my productivity level skyrocketed. I’ve become a self-published author & built my own company, while working for a non-profit and traveling the country; all for an average of 14–20 hours a week.
Keep in mind, these practices take time to truly integrate into your daily routine. It took a lot of trial, error, and refinement before I got to this point.
I fell off the wagon more times than I could count, but eventually the new habits became more familiar than the old — so stick with it and go at a comfortable pace! The best plan is the one you stick to.
- Set a timer and hold yourself to it.
If you have to go to the bathroom, get a snack, stretch, check your phone, etc — pause the timer! This is especially helpful when working from home or with your own self-imposed deadlines. It forces you to be mindful of your distractions and how often you break focus.
I work in 2 hour blocks — this is what research currently deems as the max amount of productive focus time for humans. A 2 hour block of complete focus almost always harbors more results than 6–8 hours of distracted, broken up activity.
Plus, 2 hours sounds so attainable and easy to us, which means were more motivated to start and really commit since we don’t have the luxury of spreading out our work over 8 hours.
2. Schedule out your independent tasks.
Mark out your whole day, not just meetings with others! Designate a certain time frame for each task and you'll be more likely to stay focused. Every hour of your work day should be assigned to something. Be sure to overshoot how much time you think you’ll need — this will help you avoid extra pressure if you need to rush, or create discouraging disappointment if you fall behind!
By scheduling out how much time you need for each task, you’ll be able to see what's realistic for the day. We often WANT to achieve far more in the day than is even possible, allotting 12 hours worth of tasks for an 8 hour window. Then, when we can’t achieve the impossible, we breed feelings of overwhelm, pressure, panic, and failure which counteract productivity!
Plus, these impeding emotions usually spill over into the next day and perpetuate the cycle over and over. In essence, being more realistic with smaller goals helps you get more done on the whole.
3. Make it measurable and decide how you can quantify being “finished”—
Give it a number! Our brain can more easily grasp on to something tangible. You need to be able to gauge how much work you have ahead so you can prepare, and you need to know when you’d be finished! This is especially important when working on bigger projects that are broken up over multiple days, weeks, or months.
Get creative! What measurement makes the most sense for what you need to get done? It could be a number of sentences or pages completed, a certain number of clients contacted, emails answered, documents checked, or connections made. It doesn’t matter! You’ll feel good reaching that (realistic) goal and it will motivate you to check off the next.
If you’re feeling stuck or overwhelmed just to start, try giving yourself a small time frame of “work” — maybe 15 or 30 minutes with no results-oriented goals. This way, you can simply mark “progress”. It still feels great without the added pressure. Chances are, once you start, you’ll be on a roll.
4. Be clear on the specific goal and make it as small as possible.
Set the smallest goal possible that will still allow you to feel like you made any significant progress. Again, this aids in attainability which boosts motivation. Bigger tasks feel daunting as their whole and we are more likely to procrastinate or feel hopeless in being able to achieve something so big.
Sometimes I set goals as small as 10 lines. I know I can do that, “that’s nothing!” I think. So I get right to it and crank it out. Then, If I write 30, or 50, I’m feeling ahead of the curve and more inspired to continue with my positive momentum.
5. Dig into the true intention and find a way to personally invest in the task.
Figuring out how the work or task serves us personally and the things we care about will help us develop intrinsic motivation to get it done! It’s hard to put in a lot of effort into something that isn't going give you back half as much (or any) of what you’re putting in, which breeds procrastination and low focus. Try to ask yourself: “What is the big-picture goal here?”
If the work is for your self: make sure you’ve deduced the true mission of the project and keep the impact at the forefront of your mind. Suddenly “I have to write this long article” becomes “it’s so important to me to get my words out there to reach whoever need the advice”. It may sound cheesy, but if it’s something that truly fires you up, it will get you going!
If the work is for someone else: discover congruence between your task and your bigger personal goals. Try to spin each challenge into a “training” for whatever role you want to take on in the future. No matter how menial or frustrating the task may seem, you could be cultivating skills like patience, communication, problem solving, efficiency, organization, etc by overcoming the challenge. Its all for the betterment of your character!
6. Let go of the feelings associated with motivation.
We love to feel fully engaged in our work, its a prime component of being in a flow state. But the reality is, we’re not always going to feel like doing what we have to. I know it doesn’t make it any easier, but I used to wait until I felt like it to get things done and usually, that never happened!
Prioritize discipline, and make that the point of the practice. Purposely aim to execute ESPECIALLY when you don’t feel like it. Make that the challenge instead of just the task itself — doing it when you don’t want to is the success.
This one goes deeper into our own narrative and we really have to interrupt that thought process of “I don’t want to”, “I’m too tired”, and “I’m not motivated enough”. These narratives are crippling enablers that validate our lack of productivity and give us permission to stay in our comfort zone (could be physically or mentally!).
Now, when I hear myself trying to excuse myself by claiming a lack of motivation, I simply retort with “That’s nice. Doesn’t matter one bit, though”. Take your feelings with you — you can hate every single minute of the process and still get it done, and know that that’s okay!
7. Make it as enjoyable as possible
This is the other component of the last point. Create an ambiance or treat yourself when you’re producing with special snacks, working outside, burning nice smelling candles, etc. It’s totally okay to make agreements with yourself and setup (healthy and positive) rewards for accomplishing a difficult task: “If I finish this article by Friday, I’ll get myself that new dress I’ve been eyeing”.
What you choose will depend on what’s available to you and your work setup, but do your best to work within your parameters! Even a little gesture can create a positive correlation with “heading to work” and gives us a little something to look forward to. Sometimes that’s just the little push we need to get started! That, and my caffeine dependence.
8. Deconstruct expectations and eliminate the perfectionist mindset!
This is another one that’s easier said than done, and sometimes perfectionism can be deeply rooted in our self-worth and worrying if we’re “good enough”. Do your best to work away from perfectionism a little at a time! Keep in mind that our fear of “failure”, often interpreted as “anything less than perfect” is a major source of procrastination.
We tend to avoid trying, because as long as we avoid the attempt, we avoid the opportunity to fail at it. We also tend to believe that if we wait a little longer, we’ll somehow be more prepared, more intelligent, etc and will put off starting until we feel we’re ready or more “well equipped”.
If starting is the hardest part, then embrace the rough draft! Decide that the first go will not be the final version and there’s plenty of room for messy mistakes and half-baked ideas. Once we have the rough draft, the hardest part is done! Now we can just revise and rework.
Keep in mind that completed work that’s at 90% of your capability is better than no work at all — which would be at 0% of your capability. Plus, we are our own worst critics — what we consider to be a catastrophe is often a brilliant contribution to those who would be at zero without our insight all together.
9. Make an outline first or a create a primary & secondary task list. Knowing where you’re headed and breaking it up into steps or pieces makes it feel more attainable and you have a clearer path. The work won’t seem so daunting and you wont get lost. As humans, we’re innately averse to the unknown. Mapping it out gives us a feeling of comfort because we know what expect. Know your preference, though! If that cramps your style, go free flow!
10. Start with the smallest, easiest task first to create success momentum.
That tiny little rush of accomplishment can be enough to motivate you and propel you forward. This could be washing the mug in your sink, getting dressed, answering one email…anything, really! Once you get started, it will be easier to continue.
In the laws of inertia, it takes far more energy to start something in motion from a dead stop than to continue. Why? Because of momentum! The smallest task will be the easiest to “move”, then it will only get easier from there with the momentum you’ve created.