(Perhaps you’ve met?)
That oh-so familiar face in the mirror who knows you better than anyone else. On a good day, they’re your best friend. But on a bad day, the #1 reason you just can’t seem to make any headway.
Like Doctor Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, the ‘You’ in the mirror is a double-edge sword in disguise. With one swing they can cut through distraction, or slice back and be your leading productivity killer, bleeding you of life force as you while away the day binge-streaming or in a social media stupor.
But all’s not lost. Here are 9 Ways to Trick your Productivity so you can be the best you from now on.
1. Get Up Early (and Go to Bed Early)
True story — I used to be a night owl. I used to love staying up late. Really, really late. Because the world would be asleep, the emails would abate, the texts would stop, and I could just focus on the one major task I needed to do, without interruption. Weirdly, I felt my fatigue also acted as a ‘focusing factor’ of sorts, giving me just enough tunnel vision to hit one task hard while saving me from the extraneous other voices of task doubt the ‘day me’ proffered that would otherwise steer me off course. I got a lot done that way, and if any of you are familiar with Silicon Valley tech culture, you’ll know it’s the rationale behind such ludicrous ideas as caffeine-fueled hackathons, Red Bull stocked fridges and late-night junk food. The problem — as I’m sure most of you also know, is that staying up stupidly late is also a young person’s game and a power slide to burn out.
So what’s the alternative? It turns out (and this was a complete surprise to me at the time) that there’s this thing called ‘early mornings.’ Turns out if you get up early enough, it feels just like staying up stupid late, but on the other side of the clock. And it comes with the added benefit that you get to hit those hard personal focus tasks with a tank full of real energy (okay, maybe there’s a little coffee), so you don’t have to feel like a bag of poo the next day.
2. Meditate for Focus and Intention
Nowadays, if you wanna be hip and cool like Fonzi (and you want to write a productivity blog), you gotta tell everyone to meditate. Well, here I am a late lemming to that party saying the same darn thing. But here’s the hook, it works, and by my estimate, here’s why:
By starting your day with 5 or dare I say even 15 minutes of mindful nothingness (or thinking of 1 intention), you’re doing your morning (and mind) a starting solid. When you push yourself to focus on one thing; be it a sound, a feeling, a simple thought, or nothing – you’re really teaching your mind to attend to and hold on just a little longer. In other words: focus. In a world where the rest of the day might feel like constant notifications and distractions, doing the one thing, the no-thing is giving you the strength to focus and hammer down the situation induced ADHD that modern life loves to flog. While in this case n=1, being a long-term personal data tracker, I’ve found that my days feel more productive when I lead first thing with 15 minutes of meditation (either focusing on nothing and/or focusing on an intention for the day). Not really a spiritual person, for me, an intention can be something quantitative like imagining a task or tasks being completed fruitfully, or, maybe I’m just putting out that I don’t want to argue with my partner (because we’re married and own a company together. You do the math).
3. Limit your Coffee (or at least try morning exercise first … and then the coffee)
The modern world loves its coffee and caffeine. Like a brick on our collective gas pedal, most of us now can’t even start the day naturally without gaming and revving our adrenal system with the obligatory cup of morning Joe. Caffeine addiction is so prevalent and normalized, you likely aren’t even aware anymore what your natural caffeine-free mental state is actually like. Intrigued by what a mind without caffeine would be like (and inspired by Michael Pollan’s audio book: Caffeine: How Caffeine Created the Modern World), I decided to give a caffeine-free lifestyle a go (saving it as a 1 cup treat for my weekends). Here’s my personal net: it’s pretty amazing if you like mental peace, dreaming and not get angry.
The caffeine in a regular cup of coffee has a quarter life of 12 hours. By my grade 3 math, that means you need to go at least 2 days with no caffeine (I’m looking at you: tea, chocolate, pop and of course coffee), to experience the first disconcerting whiff of the real caffeine-less you. Now make no mistake, caffeine is a drug. There will be withdrawal symptoms if you wish to curb the habit. After the second day caffeine free, I had headaches (which I attributed to dehydration but likely was the lack of morning go juice), and it took 2 weeks to normalize into something I could live with. The first thing I noticed was that I slept more and better and that I had dreams. The other thing I noticed (and the thing that has kept me embracing the lifestyle shift) is that I got angry less frequently and seemed to develop a more nuanced emotional range, almost as if my little Fisher Price Piano of emotions had upgraded to a full Grand Piano. Suddenly perspective seemed more available to me, and the things people were fretting about took on new clarity so that I could prioritize without stressing. This latter pay-off came after about 2 weeks caffeine free. These were big wins, but I missed the coffee rocket or tea lift that I once had, so I made one meaningful moderation. Habit-wise, for me personally, coffee makes a ‘guest appearance’ on Fridays (what I now call ‘French Press Friday’s) and only happens after hydration and exercise. Sometimes I try a Nespresso on the weekends, but it I don’t feel like I want nor need the coffee like I once did and I’ve gotten used to my unadulterated, slightly slower mind. I’ve also discovered that exercise by itself (as once commented by Youtuber Casey Neistat) is a viable alternative to caffeine if you have the time. So instead of jumping into coffee even on a ‘free day,’ sometimes I find the exercise is enough to sprint me into the new day with gusto.
4. Granny’s Rules (Do the hardest, most important thing first)
Speaking of which, if you’re going to be getting up early anyway, after you’ve done the ‘me-centric’ things that ‘pay’ you first, why not start your day by doing the hard thing first? Long extolled by Charlie Munger, Warren Buffett’s bestie and business partner supreme, Granny’s rules simply says to use your best, most abundant energy to do the hardest thing first. Perhaps unsurprisingly, most of us don’t do that, or if we attempt to, it is only after we’ve built our confidence on a few smaller, inconsequential things first. However, if we get in the habit of doing the hardest, most important thing first each day, you’ll find that the returns for your life and work are much better (even if you don’t get everything else done).
5. Block out Time to Whine (and then Organize)
The modern person spends an awful lot of time consuming other people’s thoughts and very little time constructively being meta about their own. You hop on social media. You listen to audio books or podcasts on the way to and from work. You watch YouTube or Netflix or Disney or, or, or, while washing dishes. Spoiled by immediate, on hand, dopaminergically-thrilling filler, most of us don’t give our own minds the time they need to just think and organize for themselves. Instead of Human Beings, we become Human Doings, following the lists of others without checking in to gauge what is actually working for ourselves.
Before you start your day, and/or for bonus points when you end your day, take a few minutes to write 1-3 pages in a small or medium-sized journal. Once there, pen in hand, write 3 things you feel grateful for, 3 things you want to improve and any thoughts that come to mind (thanks Tim Ferris!). Allow everything, but keep your journal safe to you if you worry about sneaky peepers in the vicinity. You want to get comfortable with your own inner voice and get used to being okay about getting the whining (if there is any) out. In so doing, the world’s cheapest, most easy to schedule shrink is now at your disposal, and after a few seemingly meaningless (but free) sessions of journal meandering, a natural structure will accrete. Now many ‘modern’ techy-types (I myself have 6 monitors in front of me
and radiation burns) would say you should use your phone, but years of experimentation journalling in databases, apps, devices and paper emboldens me to tell you to avoid your phone like the plague. The thing that is trapping you should not be the same device you are using to try to escape entrapment; it’s like asking your prison guard to help you dig. Instead, be ‘newtro’ (ie. be new while embracing retro ideals; a Korean concept) and use a pen and paper and that printing or handwriting you’ve nearly forgotten how to do from grade school.
The rationale is this: writing on paper slows you down and will cause you to think your whole sentences out. It will also cut back on the self-editing, and second guessing that naturally happens (as it sucks to scratch out a whole page you just put down). A trick that works for me to get out of my head and ‘into the page,’ is to loosen my grip on the pen (almost to the point I nearly drop it) and listen to the pen scratch the paper as I write. This removes much of the writing anxiety that many of us first timers feel when we haven’t touched paper in a long time. Now, instead of whining to friends and family and anyone in earshot (I’m looking at you Amazon delivery guy), and feeling like you’ve accomplished something but haven’t —whine to the page and watch as gradually and naturally you find your own way to order and answers.
6. Schedule It
My wife is a master at this. If something’s important to you, even it’s personal, schedule it in your daily calendar so that it happens and allow sufficient buffer between your scheduled blocks to prep, travel or transition to the next thing. You don’t have to beat yourself up if something you do regularly takes longer than you thought, just adjust it accordingly in the daily calendar to reflect that so that when you plan your next day you can be more accurate. Scheduling is simple, it works and it’s definitely the first place I go when I need to get myself back on the rails.
7. Just Start (i.e. don’t over-think)
Many, many moons ago, when I was in my first years of university, I was paralyzingly shy and tongue-tied. At the time, it felt nearly impossible to meet friends, let alone talk to people of the opposite sex. I was like Raj Koothrappali from the show ‘Big Bang Theory,’ except with everyone regardless of gender. And contrary to Raj, alcohol did not help. Journaling about this for long lamentable hours between classes on the 8th floor of the Archaeology building (yes, that’s the early me, an Archaeologist without the whip, charm, or hair of Indiana), I came to a startling conclusion: I ‘pedestalled’ things. What do I mean by that? I mean that if ever there was someone or something of perceived value to me, I would construct elaborate narratives of their importance to me (ie. pedestalling them). Then I would construct narratives and counter arguments of how to meet (the person) or achieve an objective (say get into a class, buy a thing, etc.) and just massively over think it for days, weeks and months raising the inertial pedestal. And if anyone I knew was in earshot would listen to me, I would massively over talk about the thing I wanted to do, the person I want to meet or the thing I wanted to attain – raising the pedestal further through my inaction, while thinking I was constructively ‘strategizing’ when in actuality I was pede-stalling. In short, I was massively annoying. There’s a reason they say, ‘talk is cheap’ and for my early years, I was the poster child.
The thing that changed everything was when I resolved that if ever someone or something of perceived value came into my life, I would do something right then and there about it, no matter how small, ham-fisted or silly, as long as I was authentic and polite. Even if the action was as simple as introducing myself. This removed the inertia and friction that rose the pedestals of impossibility, and made me okay with the occasional rejection because I did something about it before the pedestal was even raised. And win or lose, that always feels good, and it makes a better you. Everyone is scared to one extent or another to pursue new things or meet people, but by being the first ‘Hi’ (even an awkward one) rather than the last, I got better at it, made many friends, actually got dates and it led to me taking other risks throughout my life.
The thing to remember about the modern world is that it’s actually pretty darn safe. Failure is where the best learning is. Often times, if you’re polite there are backsies. And even if you suck at something, we all have secret admiration for people having the balls or ovaries to pursue something they care about or speak their mind.
8. 10 Minutes and Then Quit
You need to do something but you don’t want to? Great. Set a timer for 10 minutes and just start (see point #4 Granny’s Rules). If after 10 minutes you can’t get into it, no problem? Reset the timer, choose door #2 (the next hard task) and move on.
Starting and getting going is always the hardest part of doing anything. Adjusting to what we’re already in the midst of doing is easy. This is no surprise, most of the fuel a rocket burns is to just get off the launch pad. With momentum achieved, the rest of the journey is easier.
9. Stop Avoiding Discomfort. Instead, embrace the self-chosen kind.
In the comfy, padded walls of modern life, there is pain and there is self-chosen discomfort — and we often confuse the two. Pain is an abrupt, purposeful signal to stop what we are doing. But endurable discomfort (the self-chosen kind) is usually worth the effort, because it signals that there is significant learning or lasting happiness if we can just get to the other side.
One of the big problems with modern life is that everything is geared to pleasure or discomfort avoidance. We have credit cards to give us (potentially) what we can’t afford and so we don’t have to save. We have seat selection, so we don’t have to line up. We have dating apps so we don’t have to fully risk meeting people in person. These are simplifications, but that is the effect.
By making discomfort a bad thing in general and confusing it with pain, we lose the opportunity to grow and find lasting pleasure and enlightenment on the other side of discomforts’ endurance.
Children love candy. One of the first experiences we all have as kids is the joy of eating something sweet. But as we get older and wiser, we start to see that there are consequences for immediate gratification and often bigger pay-offs for the self-chosen discomforts we choose to endure instead.
Find a discomfort (say a book you’ve been putting off, a new course, or a project you’ve been wanting to do) and do a ridiculously small 10-minute portion of it (see tip #8 above). Then, treat yourself nice, mark it on the calendar with an X and show up again tomorrow. Rinse and repeat. It’ll get done and, on the other side, you’ll be closer to the person you always felt you should be.