You know that trying to be productive can be a grueling process. But forcing yourself to be constantly busy only increased the pressure, leading to more resistance. This is one of the problems with the hustle culture. It doesn’t pay attention to your mental health. It is always saying to do more and be more productive. But pushing yourself too hard can lead to burnout. Burning out your motivation is a major problem that is difficult to fix. It’s better to avoid burnout in the first place.
So, what should you do? Being productive over an extended period of time can wear you down. You can get so used to sitting at a desk and working that you forget how to relax. Taking time to relax and recharge can make you a more productive person. There is a balance of work and relaxation that will increase your overall productivity.
Taking breaks might seem counter-productive, but it’s not. Taking a break will refresh your mind. You will return feeling more energized and ready to do good work. Don’t keep yourself stuck working on a project all day long every day, or you’ll start to hate the work.
If your motivation is faltering, take a break from your work. When you return to your work, after taking time to decompress you will be more efficient and content while getting things done.
There is a time for being productive, and there’s a time for taking breaks. You can’t be always pushing yourself to do more all the time. Setting standards for a daily routine will help prevent the dreaded burnout.
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The 80/20 Rule, AKA The Pareto Principle
The 80/20 rule is a common principle where 20% of the effort yields 80% of the result.
This is not always true, but it is accurate more often than not. Sometimes the difference can be even greater. Some tasks follow more of a 90/10 rule. It is important to know which 20% of your work is the most important. Which 20% will grow your business the most? Which 20% will bring in the most money?
If you want to be productive, your goal should be to focus on the 20% of tasks which give 80% of the result. This will help you accomplish more in less time. On those days where your motivation is low, at least do some work on the most important tasks.
Most people opt to work on 80% of tasks that aren’t important such as, answering emails, looking at statistics, and other things that aren’t nearly as important for real productivity.
I was one of these people. I responded to emails when I should have been working on what mattered most. The problem is that you ‘feel’ productive when doing those 80% tasks. It feels okay to ignore the important work that deserves your attention.
I’m not alone either; this is common practice. Most people find themselves working on things that aren’t important for productivity rather than the things that matter.
How do you change this? Easy – stop trying to be productive when you aren’t really being effective at all.
Be Efficient and Cut Out Distractions
To be more efficient you must only work on one task at a time. Multi-tasking is nonsense. You can only work effectively on one thing at a time. Trying to handle multiple tasks at the same time will only ensure that you get poor results on each task. Each other task that you tack on is a distraction for your most important task at the moment. Stop watering down your work by multi-tasking.
You also need to make sure that you aren’t distracted from your work by social media, other projects, your phone, etc. The fact is that there’s a lot of potential distractions in your environment which are likely to make you procrastinate on the task at hand.
This happens because the human brain is wired to be distracted by things that are more enjoyable or less demanding of its attention. Our brains aren’t wired to do difficult things. We are wired to conserve energy and do the easy things instead. Training our brain and being disciplined about our work is how we counteract this instinct.
When you get closer to finishing a task, your brain will release dopamine which makes you feel satisfied with what you’ve done. That’s why finishing tasks feels so good. It’s all in our heads! That’s why we love to cross items off of our to-do lists, even if the task is tiny and required minimal effort.
The Pomodoro technique is the time management technique I use when I am feeling lazy and just don’t feel like working. It gives me a simple formula to follow and I can use an app to track my work and break periods. This lets me push through on those days when I would rather be goofing off than getting my work done for the day.
The method uses a timer to break up work into short periods, normally 25 minutes, separated by a 5-minute break.
After a Pomodoro, you take a 5-minute break, then repeat. The simple plan is that you work on your task until the 25-minute timer goes off. Then, take a break for five minutes before resuming. On break, you should completely stop what you are working on a get away from the work for the whole 5 minutes. You can walk around, listen to music, do pushups, whatever. As long as you stop work when the timer goes off, you’re fine. The next work period begins after the break ends and you go back to your task. You should aim to do four or five Pomodoro cycles and then take a longer break. This gives you around 2 to 2.5 hours of focused work. The average person working an 8-hour workday only does 2-3 hours of real work. You might even be done for the day after just the 4-5 cycles. Either way, this technique will make your 2 hours of work at least as good as the average guy’s 8 hours of work. Not bad, eh?
Disclaimer: On normal days I don’t use this method because I like to get into a flow and work until my task is done. The breaks can take me out of my deep work flow when I would prefer to keep working. But, if I’m not feeling especially motivated to do my work for the day, I will use this method to keep me on track. It works because I know that I only have to work for 25 minutes until I am required to take a break. I can force myself to do 25 minutes of work even when I don’t feel like it. 25 minutes chunks are easy.
There are several free apps for your phone or web browser. Try a few and choose one that you like. They aren’t all that different so just pick any one of them and use it.
Here is a short, 6-minute video that explains the Pomodoro method if you prefer a visual explanation.
Cal Newport talks about this concept, “Deep Work” in his book (linked below this section.) Newport says that deep work is a special skill and it needs to be nurtured. If you’re constantly thrown out of your flow state by distractions and interruptions and struggle to deeply concentrate, your brain becomes less effective and it is hard to get quality work done. The deep work skill is developed over time and mastering it will bring out your potential in your work.
Becoming immune to distractions allows us to sink into our work and keep our attention 100% focused which allows us to produce higher quality than we would when operating at less than our best. The more this skill is practiced, the more time we can spend in deep work mode and put out more of our best quality work.
When you get into a deep work mental state, you are no longer actually trying to be productive. You just are. Your brain allows the work to flow through you and you are able to work that outshines your average.
Building a Work Habit
I used to be one of those people who would wake up and stare at my phone for an hour and waste the best part of my day instead of using it wisely. Every day was a trudge of putting off what I knew should be done. I was an expert at procrastination.
I’ve found that building a work habit has been one of my best tools for fighting off this time vortex. Now, I’ve scheduled in time for my work each morning, and when it’s time to work, I know I have to focus on that – no more wasting time, thinking about what else to do. Once my work is done, I can play on my phone or do whatever I want. But the work comes first.
A bonus is that I no longer have these moments where I wake up and don’t know what to do with my day. It’s all planned out, so whatever happens, I’ll always have something productive to do. Even though I’m still tempted to revert back to my old ways, the work habit is entrenched in my mind now and I am able to stick to my plan.
Make Sure Your Work Routine is Sustainable
Work-life balance is a tricky thing to manage, but breaking down your routine into what parts are work and what parts are life can help. Excessive working is fine for limited amounts of time but not for extended periods.
Know When to Take Breaks
Taking breaks is critical to preventing burnout. But keep in mind, breaks are totally different from distractions. Distractions are anything that takes your attention away from the task at hand without actually improving your focus. Distractions can be external, such as email notifications, text messages, or phone calls. Or they can also be internal, such as a random memory that pops into your head or an idea for another project.
When these distractions arise it can be tempting to abandon your current task and tend to the distraction. So we have to think ahead and mitigate as much as we can before these distractions pop up.
You can silence your phone and put it out of view. You can schedule set times that you will check email. This handles the big external distractions. For the internal stuff, I like to jot down the idea (in the case of the ideas or important things I’ll want to deal with later).
Find What Works for You and Your Productivity
If you’ve been struggling to be productive, try out whichever of these tactics applies to you. Test out the Pomodoro Method if you just don’t feel like working today. Or read Deep Work and build the skills taught in the book. Make sure to build a work habit so that you don’t waste your mornings like I used to. And schedule in breaks because they can help you avoid burnout. Longevity is more important than overworking and wanting to quit.
In the end, certain techniques will work better for you than others. You know your weaknesses so implement what makes sense for you. Test these ideas and decide which ones to add to your productivity toolkit. In the end, it’s not worth it to try and force yourself to be productive. Stop trying to be productive by using bad unsustainable methods. Use the right methods that resonate with you and you’ll productive without all the wasted effort.