Productivity: The psychology and strategy behind getting more done.

Laura Pryor 04/18/18 - 8:03 pm

Productivity: The psychology and strategy behind getting more done.

We all know the feeling: you get to the end of the day and realize you’ve accomplished about half of what you were planning to do. Or less. Maybe you procrastinated, or maybe you just couldn’t focus. No matter what problem stops you from getting things done, there are things you can do to solve it.

First, it helps to know the factors that go into being productive. Here are three of the biggest:

  1. Motivation. If you don’t feel like doing something, it usually takes longer to get it done. So we think we need motivation to get started – a pep talk from a dynamic speaker or a poster full of motivational quotes.

    According to Jeff Haden, author of The Motivation Myth, that idea is backwards. Motivation comes AFTER we start, Haden says; with each small step of a project or task that we complete, we become more motivated to continue. Breaking a goal into smaller steps and then giving ourselves a pat on the back after each step is accomplished will keep us motivated until the project is done.

    But here’s the catch-22: if we need to start to get motivated, how do we get ourselves started?

  2. Willpower. When we aren’t motivated to begin a task, willpower comes into play. (Fear and deadlines also play a role, but anyone who’s ever filed their taxes at 11:59 on April 15 knows this kind of motivation kicks in a little too late for comfort).

    According to research psychologist and willpower expert Roy Baumeister, we all have a finite amount of willpower each day. And anything we need willpower for comes from the same willpower supply. There aren’t separate reserves of work willpower and exercise willpower and wash-the-dishes willpower. Which means that as the day wears on, your supply gets lower and lower.

    So how can you make the most of your supply?

    • Do your hardest tasks early. You don’t have to step in the door and immediately throw yourself into an unpleasant task, but don’t save the worst for last. You’ll have less willpower to get started at 3:00 in the afternoon than at 10:00 in the morning.

    • Eliminate unnecessary decision making. Making decisions takes willpower, but you can eliminate many decisions with regular habits and structure. If you always answer emails at the same time each day, or always concentrate on a certain client just after lunch, you don’t have to decide what to do. This strategy has been proven to work well for dieters: Those who eat almost the same thing, day in and day out, lose more weight than those who eat a wider variety of foods. The very act of deciding what to eat, meal after meal, depletes willpower.

  3. Focus. Perhaps the most important component of productivity (and most elusive) is focus. Here are two enemies of focus to watch out for:

    • Enemy #1: Multi-tasking. Researchers have found that there really is no such thing as multi-tasking; it’s actually “rapid task switching.” When you think you’re focusing on two things at once, your brain is really toggling back and forth between the two tasks hundreds of times per minute. The American Psychological Association has estimated that we lose 40% of our productivity when we attempt to multi-task.

    • Enemy #2: Interruptions. Interruptions are more than just nuisances. They’re productivity assassins. According to researchers at the University of California – Irvine, once you are interrupted while deep in concentration, it takes an average of 23 minutes to regain that same level of focus.

How can you avoid these concentration killers? First, just stop trying to multi-task – it doesn’t work. Second, try blocking off time on your calendar to focus without interruption. Put a do-not-disturb sign on your office door. If you have to, lie and say you have an important client call; co-workers are less likely to interrupt if they think you’re dealing with a client.

Making it fun: Gamifying productivity.

Moms know this trick. That’s why they put hampers in their kids’ rooms that look like basketball hoops, and post chore charts with colorful sticker rewards.

Here are a few ways to follow Mom’s lead at work:

  • Sticky Notes. Use a sticky note for each hour of time you have available during the day. Write a task on each note, and then focus on that task exclusively. If you succeed in focusing for the full hour, rip the sticky note off your desk and throw it away. See how many sticky notes you can get through in a day, then try to break your record the next day.

  • Apps. There are a lot of productivity apps you can get – apps to help you form good habits, apps to keep track of to-dos and projects, etc. The Be Focused app lets you input tasks and set a timer for how long you want to focus on each of them. If you like video games, the Bounty Tasker app gives you a warrior avatar and lets you score experience points for each to-do you check off. Checking off tasks will also help you defeat monsters and earn gear along the way as you level up.

And don’t forget the power of rewards, whether it’s a latte after a short project or a new iPad at the end of an epic feat. After all, games have prizes, right?

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