How to achieve healthier productivity ?

17 minutes read —
Why should we even be productive ?

There’s nothing natural about working the way we do in our modern cultures. The human brain and body were never designed to sit at a desk and work all day long and there’s a real possibility that we are asking too much of it. The statistics for depression and anxiety have done nothing but rise since the industrial revolution. For people aged 18 to 24 ; the rates of anxiety have doubled in the last decade alone. It’s staggering. It seems the surge in productivity we kept asking for in the OCDE came at a cost. We are increasingly overfed, malnourished, sedentary, sunlight-deficient, sleep-deprived, and socially-isolated ; all of which are risk factors for mental health problems. Burnout is a thing. Tim Urban pointed out in his talk about procrastination that if you were born a dog, doing nothing but eating when hungry and sleeping when tired would have meant you were a pretty successful dog. Why should we act any different ?

Well the thing is ; we’re not dogs. We somehow managed to develop awareness of the future. And given the huge mess we’re perpetually in, this is causing us anxiety. It ensues that a lack of productivity is a common and massive source of suffering for many as it invites more chaos into our lives. We’re surrounded by those constraints and we feel that in order to survive them, we need to up our game and tackle all problems one by one without a frown. There seemingly aren’t enough hours in the day to meet all the demands that fall upon us nor those we impose on ourselves. Speeding-up it seems, might get us out of a perpetual state of overwhelm by helping us manage our work-lives better.

And beside sheer surviving our circumstances ; we also understand that we can expect around 29 000 living days if all goes according to plan ; about 9 500 of which have already been consumed in my case. That’s almost a third of my life expectancy gone already. Then we start considering the implications of that thought. We have aspirations, an ideal self we strive to become, things we feel we need to do before we pass. We might need a little push on the accelerator if we truly want to get the most out of our earthly time.

Recognizing that, the question becomes ; how to become more productive while simultaneously managing the risks associated with it ? What is an healthy way to get the most out of ourselves ? We certainly do not want to brute force our way to productivity like those guys in japan who end up dying on their work place from some sort of heart failure or suicide, but still we can’t realistically nor aspirationally keep staring at clouds all days either. So what’s the plan ?

Work capacity and happiness go together

First of all ; we should acknowledge that being productive while remaining happy and healthy is possible. In fact it might even be downright necessary. Research tells us Happy people are more productive by as much as 12%. But it goes further than that and is probably more like a two way street : conscientiousness could equally lead to a state of being happier as it allows one to mitigate the uncertainties that come with life. The big five trait Conscientiousness is all about things such as “grit” and “work-ethic”. Conscientious people tend to be the more productive people in our society. Here are some of the things conscientious people are more likely to do ; exercise, maintain proper sleep and diet, do not miss bill payments, keep their promises, show up on time. They are less likely to engage in risky behaviors such a smoking and heavy drinking. They are good at self-regulation and impulse control. You could easily see how that could lead to a happier life, especially on the long run.

Although the five big traits are different enough so as to grant them different labels ; there exist some correlation between different traits which result in various clusters. One such cluster bas been nicknamed “the role model”. People falling in that category are high in agreeableness, high in conscientiousness, low in neuroticism, high in extroversion and high in openness to experience. It turns out scorings on the Conscientiousness and the Agreeableness scale increase with age ; to some small degree they work in tandem. Neuroticism decreases with age. The personality cluster we call the role model could just as well be called Wisdom as we are more likely to fit into that category as we age. Now, there is of course such a thing as too much Conscientiousness ; and it paradoxically correlates with poor success at work. Decisions take longer, the ability to improvise and prioritize is lost. Those people are no fun, that’s for sure. It might even start to resemble obsessive compulsive disorder past a certain threshold. That being said ; the more complex jobs require and tolerate more conscientiousness than simpler jobs ; in part because they are also the jobs with the greater degree of freedom and thus the employee’s personality impacts the outcome way more. For artistic jobs ; especially for those traveling the independent road ; you probably could benefit from some more work-ethic.

Willpower alone doesn’t work

But please keep in mind ; Conscientiousness is not about flogging yourself day in and day out.

Truth is ; we are and will remain fallible. The planning and monitoring part of you really isn’t anywhere close to omnipotent. It is subjected to distractions and moods. Therefore you cannot rely on it to prevent the slips. As strong as you are at battling your various urges ; you cannot fight your way to productivity indefinitely. You’ll get tired. It’s only a matter of time before you get derailed. I’d go as far as saying that if discipline feels painful ; you are most likely doing it wrong. There are ways to work 12 hours work days where you’re enjoying every minute of it. I’m sure you had some of those days. You were flowing through the whole thing and then woke up early the next morning with your head still filled with ideas to pursue the run even further. It was agreeable. Blissful even. Were you brute-forcing your way through productivity then ? I doubt so. Conversely, there were also times where even 30 minutes of focused attention felt like utmost torture. How did going harder on yourself went ? For me it resulted in headaches and barely any more work done. It might even produce a deep hatred for the work itself from which one may never recover. After all, why should you keep working on stuff that’s hurting you every single time ? Is it conceivable that maybe the hyper-productive people among us are not doing it through self-abuse ? Our minds wouldn’t comply to that.

In fact they don’t : that’s how burnouts come into existence. Although you can will yourself into working hard for a time, unless the work starts to feel good and rewarding at some point ; there’s no way this is going on indefinitely. You will lose motivation, your willpower will fail, and all will ultimately crash. Denying and rejecting your emotions simply won’t work. What about acknowledging instead that you truly don’t fucking want to sit and work your ass-off right now. That you are distractible. That you have a tendency to not finish stuff. That you aren’t that great at following through with your longer plans. That you do prevent yourself from asking the help you need. And then prevent yourself from going after your own mind with a fork and from shouting all sorts of insults at it. Respect your challenges. Avoid thinking that somehow you’re fucked-up for falling short on such an “easy task”. They are not easy tasks by any mean. You need to work with your emotions rather than against them. An healthy approach to productivity is based on self-acceptance. And yeah. Achieving that is way more complicated than it sounds.

Self-criticism has its limits

The idea of giving yourself the benefit of the doubt and sticking to your own side even when you’re under-performing can feel a little scary and for good reasons. Would you remain productive if you stopped spending so much energy condemning your bad behaviors ? Certainly if you weren’t bullying yourself all the time you would become contempt and stop moving forward all together. If you admitted to be the way you are ; what do you fear would happen ?

I would object that first of all ; self-criticism isn’t as good a motivator as we made it to be. Self-critics are much more likely to be anxious and/or depressed. The most prominent symptom of depression is a lack of motivation and will to do ; a bias towards inaction. One way to manage anxiety is to procrastinate ; which is another bias towards inaction. An other way to manage anxiety is through excess of control ; and that admittedly could get you going as far as productivity goes ; but it also shatters resilience should anything go wrong. And for sure things will go wrong. And then you would hard stop through lower self-efficacy beliefs and a growing fear of failure ; an other path to inaction. Ultimately self-critics just stop trying to achieve their goals when they can’t take the self abuse anymore.

To understand all this jumble clearly ; picture a parent dealing with the problem of his kid not doing so great at math. It’s well established by now that the harsh and critical approach doesn’t work well enough. You won’t motivate the kid by telling him how stupid and useless he is. The fatal line would be to tell him how hopeless he is, leaving him no room for improvement even in imagination. “Why even bother?”, asks the kid, resigned and now ready to give up math altogether.

Self-compassion has merits

A better path would be to act understanding and supportive. Not bullying the kid for his failings ; as it is a fact of life that everybody fails at some things some times. It’s instead about displaying confidence in the kid’s ability to rise to the challenge. Offer help, look for solutions to accommodate him. This approach is NOT about ignoring the problem and letting it slide. When problems need attention, they need attention ; there’s no way around that. You’re still doing what needs to be done. That being said ; aggravating the child’s suffering is not going to help. So let’s alleviate it instead. Give him back some much needed strength in the form of hope. That’s a great gift to grant someone.

If you reflect back on your own history ; you might find, maybe, that the time periods where you felt the more motivated and driven where also periods where you’ve had family members, friends or significant others put faith in you despite knowing all about your flaws and shortcomings. They believed in you when you yourself weren’t even sure if you were worth believing in. Such encouragements ; they can last you for years. These are the purest energy pills you’ll ever find.

Self-compassion is the same, except in that story you are both the child and the parent responsible for helping the child. It’s a completely different story than that of the boss and the employee. Now all parts of yourself are working in the same team rather than one against each other. If you can pull it off, it’s a killer team.

In fact there is growing research suggesting that people who have developed a solid sense of self compassion set high-standards for themselves yet aren’t upset when they fail to meet them. They are more likely to set new goals for themselves after failure rather than wallowing in feelings of frustration. They’re fueled with more intrinsic motivation ; they try hard because they want to grow and enjoy the process rather than to impress themselves or others. They take responsibility for past mistakes while not getting bugged down by them. They have an easier time sticking to healthier behaviors such as not smoking or exercising, which have the potential to kickstart positive loops. That’s all good and well as far as I’m concerned.

Your challenges should be respected

Plus, I might add that you know perfectly well that it’s not fair to bash yourself this much.

I’d like to remind you that studies have shown that people typically manage around 3 to 4 hours of truly focused productive time. Everything above should be taken as a bonus rather than a must. If you’ve ever tried to maximize the amount of hours working on your personal projects ; you might have noticed a very noticeable and brutal drop in concentration past a certain point. This is not something to lose sleep over. It is perfectly normal and working while in the midst of brain fog can even be counter-productive at time ; adding to your pile of future work the necessity to rewrite, repaint, rerecord all the crap you mind-numbingly produced earlier. The fact that you can’t produce anything worthwhile and you’ve been at it for hours already and your brain is fried is fine in my book.

Moreover it takes a long time to turn intentional behaviors into second nature. Even when you build yourself good routines ; they can easily revert back to their previous state should a negative event occur. It is a protective mechanism ; we have a tendency to crawl back to what we know when our learned behaviors fail. If you get punished after you tried working hard for a while in the form of say a lack of results ; you would have a natural tendency to let go of the reins for a while. It is normal and to be expected. You need to be patient with yourself and try again without dwelling on the past slip.

Beside you’re operating against a whole world of internet companies and other entertainment industries that are doing nothing but conspiring on how to steal as much of your focused attention as they possibly can. They are many and you are one.

Not everyone is dealt the same hand at life. Whatever it is that is pushing you back ; you can’t put this much expectations on your shoulders. We all have our unique sets of strengths and challenges and they both need to be equally respected. Just because some behaviors come easier to others do not make them trivial the least bit. You need to celebrate every win on the path and not get discouraged. Just play your cards the best you can and keep trying. No cursing.

Oh and there’s also that other little trap that we need to avoid : we shouldn’t judge ourselves for not being self-compassionate enough ! Funny how our minds work sometimes, isn’t it ? It is what it is ; just accept it ; move from there.

Help yourself the way you do others

So ; how do you get better at all this self-compassion crap ? Maybe the parent in you isn’t well developed and you do not know where to start. Here is a take on the issue : try putting other people first for a while. Helping other people almost certainly comes at a cost for oneself ; yet we tend to do that quite naturally. We expend energy and do it regardless of how we’re feeling in the moment. Altruism is training our mind’s capacity to set aside what we want in favor of what is good for someone. We’re generally way better at doing stuff for people we care for than we are at helping ourselves. It is way more likely that you’ll drag yourself into doing something as simple as even cooking if you’ve got someone dependent on you to eat tonight. Had that just been you ; you might have skip that meal; but now you’re cooking and even doing a good job at it. It’s not that you aren’t tired anymore or you’ve suddenly been stricken with a strong urge to cook. It’s more that doing it feels more important than the pain associated with it. If you’re a single mom whose only child is left over in your home country and is dependent on money you send him to get by ; then you’re not going to fail your obligations and you’ll keep coming back for work ; even those days when it is excruciatingly painful. You are sacrificing for the sake of something or someone beyond yourself and you draw strength from that. And as you do that, you are training your mind to be less impulsive ; to not get controlled by your own cravings. This is where the bridge to the idea of self-compassion comes in. A conscientious person would treat themselves as someone they are responsible for helping.

And to be clear, doing stuff for others doesn’t require high levels of empathy. There’s two components to empathy ; one is emotional empathy, the other is cognitive empathy. People on the second category do not act out altruistically from an ability to feel the pain of others in their skin ; they do it cognitively. They’re are many good people who aren’t empathic in the traditional sense. They choose to act altruistically. And here is a good argument in favor of doing so : putting others first can train you to become more conscientious. It fits the finding that empathy is positively associated with conscientiousness. Try it out ; the worst that can happen is you’ll have done some good around you in your attempt. The best that can happen is you’ll also up your conscientiousness stat leaving you better equipped to tackle future challenges.

Practical tools for better productivity

Productivity is emotion management first and foremost. However, once you’ve put your mind in a place where your interests are finally aligned with your feelings ; you can start looking into more practical advice on how to get more productive. Here are some of mines.

When asked student reckon they waste 5 to 6 hours a day on average. You might want to check it for yourself using time trackers such as Rescue Time to properly fathom how vast your margin for improvement really is. Awareness is the first step prior to tackling any problem. Once you realize just how much time goes to social media, mails, YouTube and the likes, and just how little goes into genuinely productive time ; you might be tempted to try and max-out the amount of time dedicated to your work. And maybe you should do that for a time in order to realize how far you can push yourself. But I’ would imagine you would eventually find out that it’s not all that sustainable especially when you start doing it through the constant use of a metaphorical stick.

What I would like you to do instead is to pay special attention to how focused or scatter-brained you feel on a moment to moment basis when you are working. Those states correspond to two different modes of thinking that have a natural oscillation from one another that must be respected. When you start to feel the burn ; get up and do something else ; let your mind wander for a while. Come back fresh 5 minutes later and plunge back into focus mode. I found it really important to allow the scatter to happen. It’s all to easy to spend hours staring at the computer screen while producing virtually nothing of value. I would call that the zombie mode. If you find yourself in zombie mode ; immediately stop. You are hurting yourself. The Pomodoro technique is a wide-used tool that taps on that natural oscillation and have been proven to substantially boost employees productivity. Meditation practice can also increase the likeliness that you would catch yourself when the switch from focused to diffuse happens.

Beside that ; managing your environment is often the easier road to take when it comes to maximizing the likeliness that you will be effective during your work session. You need a dedicated space for your work. It is especially important if you’re working from the comfort of your own home. Eliminate distraction as best you can. If your entire living space feels like a dark playground ; then consider spending time in public libraries. I absolutely love them. That’s the first places I visit when traveling to new cities. There’s just a reliable “place to work” mood that I find really helpful. As an added bonus ; walking there also ensures that you get your vitamin D through sun exposure (on that note ; know that if you have a dark skin ; you need even more sun time that your paler friends).

While I’m at it ; you will likely find that among all potential culprits ; bad sleep is the most potent productivity killer by a long shot. There’s just no way you’re going to be consistently efficient if you’re under-slept all days every days. In fact lack of proper sleep is a hallmark of depression. Paying attention to sleep hygiene is really important and it starts with seeing the sun in the morning. When late for bed ; you should still try and wake up at your normal time and see the early lights of day in order not to unset your circadian rhythms. Know that glasses block-out at least half of the rays ; it’s better to physically get out or at least open those damn windows for that to count. Doing so will prevent you from sleeping even later the following night, which is all too easy. You can still go back to sleep and finish your night as long as you’ve exposed yourself to sunlight at a normal waking time. It goes without saying that late screen lights are sub-optimal.

Next ; routines make life way easier. They take out the decision making out of the equation ; which prevents decision fatigue. You do not think about brushing your teeth each day and yet you do it consistently and without effort. That’s the beauty of routines. They are built one at a time through conscious effort. Try to maintain a routine for a prolonged period of time. 30 days is often what people go for. During that time you should only focus on executing the habit at all rather than executing the habit perfectly. If you’re trying to exercise ; just go for a couple of push-ups everyday until it becomes a normal part of your day. You will naturally go for more over time ; do not worry about it. Just worry about consistency. Consistency over-time leads to huge improvements.

In the same vein ; planning takes some of that moment to moment deciding off your plate. What has been decided is not to be decided anymore and that certainly clears the mind from unnecessary uncertainty. It will ground you in the present moment better. Journaling can also be used to take your feelings and emotions off your head and to the page ; which comes with the same benefits of clearing the mind and getting it ready for solid work.

Finally ; sports are important. They get your heart to pump blood all over your veins and arteries and that scrubs the whole system all the way to your brain. You get better oxygen flow and that will translate to an easier time maintaining focused attention. It also helps prevent depression and/or anxiety. And it’s pretty the only thing you can do to minimize the loss of fluid intelligence that typically occurs when ageing. Not sudokus. Sport. It is vastly underrated quite frankly. “If exercise could be packaged in a pill, it would be the single most widely prescribed and beneficial medicine in the nation.” Robert Butler, National Institute on Aging.

Final note

I hope those tips were useful, but here is the thing ; we are all figuring it out as we go ; it’s a never ending work in progress. Developing a system of getting things done takes experimentation. It’s going to be different from person to person. It might even be different at different points in the life of a same and unique person. Tricks often come with an expiration date. So the whole process is going to need constant tweaking. Sometimes you will function as a well oiled machine ; sometimes not so much. Sometimes you will feel like you are making progress, only to accidentally step back a feet or two into numbness. Life happens. It is hard to keep pushing when the weather isn’t so great. Respect your challenges. Try and help yourself rather than boss yourself around. You are a human being trying his best through adversity. That’s certainly something to be reckoned.

Good luck. I wish you the best.