The Only 2 Productivity Tricks you Need
Does magic exist?
Unfortunately probably not.
But some productivity tricks come incredibly close.
Out of all the tips out there, you need to use two:
- Goal Setting
Ignore the others. These two are as close to magic as I’ve found.
As a productivity nerd, I’ve tried everything.
From changing my diet to meditation to downloading productivity tools, I squeeze every last drop of speed out of my system.
As a software developer, I’m obsessed with optimizing my development environment. I painstakingly build bash aliases, and I’ve spent hours memorizing keyboard shortcuts so that my fingers never have to find the mouse. What’s more, I use the text editor VIM because you can navigate a file using the J,K,L, and H keys, so your fingers never leave the home row.
My development environment aside, I also optimize my work day. I’ve tried checking my email once a day, like Tim Ferris preaches, or going days without checking it. I’ve tried batching my meetings into blocks and only focusing on one task at a time.
Outside of work, I took up meditation because I heard it increases your focus and productivity. I experimented with getting up at ~5 AM for awhile. I’ve moved my workout to the morning, and then I’ve moved it back again. I’ve messed around with caffeine, I’ve messed around with going caffeine free. I’ve tried gluten based diets, I’ve tried going gluten free, reading that ketosis makes your brain function better.
Like I said, I’ve tried everything. But the problem is that most of these strategies don’t work, or they do very little, and they’re not worth your time.
But some of them will actually change your life.
Most of these productivity tricks I’ve given up on, or I only use occasionally. Below are the two that stuck with me.
I started meditating a couple of years ago when I was massively stressed out thinking about my startup. At the time, I didn’t know what meditation was or how to do it.
One afternoon when my stress reached a boiling point, I decided to go for a run. But this time, I made a deal with myself not to think. For an entire hour, I ran through the forest forcing myself to think about nothing. Every time a thought came up, I forced myself to concentrate on my breath, the workout, or the pain in my muscles.
After 45 minutes I stopped in a clearing in the middle of the woods. I felt a strange connection to all the trees, the bushes, the sky, and the birds chirping in the distance. And I felt an overwhelming sense of peace. My stress was gone. The buzz from that experience lasted a week.
I don’t need to harp on the benefits of meditation. There are ~2000 peer reviewed studies backing it up. Many of my friends think they “don’t know how.” But there isn’t any right way to meditate. Just sit somewhere, stare at the wall, and try to focus on your breathing. Count breaths if you have to. When thoughts arise, and they will, release them, and return your focus to your breath. That’s it. You can’t screw it up.
These days, I try to do 15-20 minutes every single day. Some of the benefits I’ve noticed:
- Better focus – I have an increased ability to ignore distractions. This is the main productivity boost. I’m more able to ignore that urge to go check Facebook or the news when I’m working.
- Friendlier and more compassionate – I find myself not getting pissed off at people in traffic or for other, random reasons.
- Constant, low level anxiety disappears. I never realized I was always anxious until I started meditating, and it went away.
- Unexpectedly, I find I’m much better at socializing.
- I have less fear talking to random strangers.
- I can make and hold eye contact for longer periods of time. I don’t get as much of the nervous tick that you feel when you get uncomfortable and want to turn your eyes away.
- I’m a better listener. I have the ability to shut myself up and not speak or interrupt when listening to the other person.
Meditation is one of the best mental tricks I’ve discovered in years. It is worth the hype! Try it for a week and see how you feel. You will not be disappointed.
Here’s the problem with most productivity tips: they address the wrong issue. The bigger problem is procrastination.
The selective avoidance of doing what you should be doing. Putting it off until tomorrow, or next week, or whenever you get around to it.
Many times, I find myself looking up productivity tips as a band-aid for a general lack of motivation.
Most of them I use for awhile and then discard. They’re great while they’re novel, but once that novelty wears off, I get rid of them.
I think most people do the same thing.
When we look for productivity tips, we’re looking to improve our lives. Something is making us unhappy, or we’re trying to become a new person. Maybe we’re trying to make more money, get in shape, attract that perfect partner, start a business, whatever.
We use that productivity tip thinking it’s the magic bullet to get us from point A to point B, and then we discard it when we realize that we’re nowhere closer to where we want to go.
Usually getting from wherever we are to wherever we want to be is hard, and it requires lots of unpleasant emotions, lots of uncertainty, and doing things we’ve never done before.
Personally, I procrastinate, a lot. And no amount of productivity tips have ever fixed that problem.
But the simplest advice worked best for me.
A year ago, I started writing out goals and rewriting them every day. Since then, I’ve
- Started a blog and attracted thousands of readers.
- Attracted a relationship with someone I wouldn’t have dreamed possible.
- Moved into a new position at work that I absolutely love.
All because of goals.
Goals were something I learned when I was 7 years old and swimming. It was important to have a goal to get your best times. But I stopped using that strategy right when I learned it.
Unfortunately, I always thought I was still using them. I was just using them wrong. I had a vague idea about where I wanted to go, and I thought that was good enough. But it turns out it’s not. What I really had were uncertain hopes and dreams. And usually those hopes and dreams aren’t good enough to take you where you want to go.
In contrast, goals are
- Extremely specific
- Have a due date.
- Are written down, and you look at them on a daily basis to remind yourself and keep yourself on track.
Let’s examine some of the evidence for how useful goals can be:
In 2006, USA Today reported on a study following people with New Years’ Resolutions. They divided the people into two groups:
- Those who wrote nothing down.
- Those who wrote down their resolutions.
Out of the group who didn’t write anything down, only 4% followed through on their resolutions. In contrast, the group that did write them down, a single time, an act requiring only a couple of minutes, 44% followed through.
In other words, the first group had hopes and wishes about what they wanted. The second group crystalized where they wanted to go, and their completion rate was more than 10X that of the other group.
Here’s the process I followed. Read the following 2 legendary Brian Tracy books:
To sum up the process he presents there:
- Decide what you want, extremely specifically.
- Write out several, achievable goals, just outside of your comfort zone. Write them in the present tense, as if you’ve already achieved them.
- Set due dates for them. Ideally in the next 1-3 months. This is the hardest part because, once you set a due date, you’re putting yourself under pressure to achieve your goals. Most people won’t do this. Don’t be that person! If you don’t hit your due date, you can just move the date back.
- Write out an action plan, and try to take action every single day towards your goal.
- Re-read and/or write out your goals every single day.
The last step reminds you of what you’re working towards. When you write your goals in the first person, as if you’ve already achieved them, your self image starts to embody that persona.
My experience is this gives a tremendous boost to my motivation. When I constantly remind myself of where I’m going, it’s much easier to take action. I don’t procrastinate by reading the news, checking Facebook, blowing time on the internet, or watching Netflix. Those activities don’t align with the values of the person I’ve set out to become.
When I combined goal setting with optimistic persistence, bizarre things happened.
I’d experience setbacks and disappointments going after one of my goals, but I’d continue taking action anyway. Then, usually around the time of the due date, maybe a little after, the goal would resolve itself spontaneously, in a manner I never could have predicted.
Sometimes, the result would be better than I expected.
So in conclusion, decide what you want, and write it down as a goal. Don’t be one of the people with vague hopes and dreams circling in your head.
Crystalize it and go after it.
Photo Credit: Xtream_i