I used to read a lot of articles about productivity. New apps, productivity systems, tiny hacks, or experimental techniques—I sought anything that could help me get more done.
And yet, it didn't actually make a difference in my productivity. I knew I could be more productive, but didn't know why I was struggling in the first place. I was instead trying any possible productivity trick, without diagnosing the core problem.
If you're struggling to be more efficient and effective at work, it's a good bet your to-do list app or productivity strategy isn't the real problem. Instead, you're likely suffering from one of these productivity impairments.
Here's how to get stuff done when:
When you really want to do your work but can't get started, that's a motivation problem. When you're actively avoiding work, that's procrastination.
We procrastinate to avoid unpleasant feelings. That could be boredom, frustration, or just the discomfort of doing something that's difficult. When we think a task is going to be unpleasant, we tend to look for more pleasant things to do instead, so we can avoid it—even if those things are other types of work. So long as it's not that one uncomfortable task, we'll do anything else--even cleaning the kitchen.
To overcome procrastination, you need to focus on one goal: make the task seem less uncomfortable. Anything you can do to make that task more enticing will ease the temptation to avoid it.
One way of doing this is what behavioral economist Dan Ariely calls reward substitution, or "getting yourself to do the right thing for the wrong reason." Ariely gives the example of driving a Toyota Prius because it makes you feel like a good person and signals to others that you're a good person. Those are the wrong reasons to drive a hybrid car, but doing so is the right thing to help stop global warming.
Finding a "wrong reason" to enjoy your work can make a task more enticing. I've done this with my research process. I used to put off researching new articles because it's a very involved, time-consuming process. So, I stocked up on new stationery and started sketchnoting my research., That gave me a way to look forward to researching new articles, since I enjoy creating new sketchnotes, and article research is the only time I get to do it.
I've also used this approach to encourage myself to exercise more. When the first season of the Serial podcast was being released weekly, I only listened to new episodes while running. I usually found running extremely boring, but would look forward to that run every week when I knew I'd get to listen to Serial.
You're Unsure How to Start
I've often run into this problem: I'm ready to work and want to get things done, but am not sure exactly what to work on. Instead, I end up wasting time browsing social media or reading articles because I don't want to go through the effort of making a decision.
It's a lot easier to get started when there's no question about what to work on. There are two things that can especially help with this roadblock.
The first is to pile up your to do list by listing every possible thing you need to do. While this won't work for everyone, it's surprisingly effective for procrastinators like myself.
It might seem that the best idea is to cut down your to-do list so you're forced to work on your most important task. That doesn't stop procrastination, unfortunately. Rather, it gives you nothing else to work on while procrastinating, so you end up doing nothing (or wasting time watching animal videos and reading listicles).
John Perry, creator of structuredprocrastination.com and author of The Art of Procrastination: A Guide to Effective Dawdling, Lollygagging and Postponing, calls minimizing your to do list "a way to become a couch potato, not an effective human being."
It might sound counterintuitive, but piling up your to-do list can be an incredibly effective way to get more done. When I did this myself, I found my productivity increased. Having a long to-do list means I can always find something to work on. It doesn't matter what mood I'm in or which of the tasks on my list I'm avoiding—there's always something else on the list I can do right now.
This has effectively put an end to my time-wasting that came from not knowing what to work on next. It's made me accomplish a lot more in a day, rather than wasting time in between the few time-sensitive tasks I know I have to get done.
Then, there's one other way to solve the problem of not knowing what to work next: Use a schedule instead of a task list. University professor and author Cal Newport approaches his tasks this way. Newport uses a calendar to schedule time to work on all of his important tasks, saying it "reduces the urge to procrastinate" by taking away the need to decide what to work on at any time.
The decision of what you should be working on is always made in advance, by scheduling work into your calendar. As Newport says, "you are no longer deciding whether or not to work during a given period; the decision is already made."
Next time you find yourself struggling to get through your most important tasks, try scheduling them into your calendar for the next couple of workdays, and see if that helps you avoid the paralysis of choice. While you're at it, add every other task you need to do, and you'll be more likely to get them done in between those most critical tasks.
You're Not Motivated
If you want to get your work done and are not actively avoiding it, but just can't get yourself to sit down at your desk, you might need some extra motivation. Motivation helps you start work sooner and keep working longer, without even trying. It's a great—but fleeting—feeling, one that tends to disappear right when we need it most.
Increasing your motivation is not always clear-cut. Depending on the type of work you're doing, different approaches will work best.
If you need to get through mechanical work that simply requires time and effort, but doesn't need much in the way of creative thinking, external motivators (or rewards) can work really well. In particular, "if, then" rewards are a perfect way to stay motivated with repetitive tasks. Take something you really enjoy—a cheeky snack, the next episode of a TV show you love, or some time with your favorite video game—and use it as a reward so that if you get your work done, then you get the treat.
It sounds simple, but when all we need is motivation to put in mechanical effort, a reward we really want can work wonders as an external motivator.
Another way to increase your motivation using external factors is to put something at risk. If you agree to lose something—a possession, a right, some cash—if you don't complete your work, this can be the kicker you need to get it done.
This works because we have a built-in bias called loss aversion. We feel loss more strongly than we feel the joy of earning or winning something. So if you believe that by not completing your work you'll lose something you value, even if it's just cash, you'll be motivated to stop that loss from happening.
These kind of external motivators aren't perfect in every situation, though. For creative work, when you're required to innovate, and think outside the box, external rewards have actually worsen performance. Creative tasks require internal motivation—which is why art or creative projects made for the joy of making them often turn out better than anything created on a deadline.
To increase your internal motivation, it's important to have three things, according to author Dan Pink: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. When you feel all three of these in relation to your work, you'll find your motivation comes naturally and you'll get more done without trying. If you're struggling to find the motivation needed to complete creative work, start by examining these three areas to see which ones you can improve.
I still find myself reading about productivity on a regular basis. I can't help it: I'm just drawn to ideas about how to work more—and better.
But these days I try to remember to check first what the problem is before I try to solve it. Understanding what's holding you back will help you find the most effective systems, hacks, and apps to improve your own productivity.
Next time you're wondering why you can't get more checked off your to do list, start with the why before applying a solution. You just might actually solve the problem this time.
Learn More Ways to Increase Your Productivity
Once you've found ways to motivate yourself, get started working on something, and quit procrastinating on those most important tasks, you're ready for some tricks to help you start getting even more done. Here are some that might help:
Need a fun way to increase your motivation? Try these gamification productivity apps that turn your to-do list into a game—one that just might punish your character if you're not productive.
Is your workplace distracting you, or hurting your health? Here's how to set up your workplace for productivity.
Then, try eliminating the 9 things that hurt productivity from your life, including notifications, perfectionism, and even bad air.
And, for fun, learn productivity tips from America's presidents, including prioritizing tasks, exercising regularly, and setting rules for your life.