This Is How To Be Productive: 5 New Secrets Proven By Research



Want to know how to be productive? Create goals, make a plan and execute. We all know this is a good idea… and it never, ever seems to work.

It’s like simplifying boxing down to “Just go into the ring and punch the other guy until he’s knocked out.” Sounds easy. (Hint: it’s not that easy.)

So let’s ask a different question: what’s stopping you from being productive? By fixing those things, we’re well on our way to accomplishment.

Whenever you’re not getting stuff done (or not getting the right stuff done), ask which of these 5 is the problem and apply the solution…


Problem 1: Priorities

Sometimes you do get a lot done… but they’re not the right things.

Whenever you hear or say, “I don’t have time” — it’s a lie. Often a well-intentioned one, but whatever. We all have 24 hours in a day. Period. The accurate statement is, “It’s not a priority.”

You need to be realistic. Often, that means being a little bit cynical. Do you usually get to the bottom of your to-do list? (Optimism Setting: OFF) No, you don’t. So everything is not going to get done. Accept that. Okay, so what has to get done?

Ask yourself, “What’s important?” The 80/20 rule says that you often get 80% of your results from 20% of the things you do. So doing more of the 20% is the best way to move the needle in terms of accomplishing things.

And this is where procrastination can help. Paul Graham says there’s a good type of procrastinator: the people who put off unimportant things in order to get important things done:

There are three variants of procrastination, depending on what you do instead of working on something: you could work on (a) nothing, (b) something less important, or (c) something more important. That last type, I’d argue, is good procrastination. That’s the “absent-minded professor,” who forgets to shave, or eat, or even perhaps look where he’s going while he’s thinking about some interesting question. His mind is absent from the everyday world because it’s hard at work in another. That’s the sense in which the most impressive people I know are all procrastinators. They’re type-C procrastinators: they put off working on small stuff to work on big stuff.

It’s not a question of objective important/not-important. We’re all about relative importance. Is X the most important thing of all the stuff you need to get done?

So how do you implement this? Georgetown professor Cal Newport has a brilliant solution: assume you’re going home at 5:30 (or whenever) and plan backwards. He calls it “fixed schedule productivity.”

Now you can’t be overly optimistic. You have limited hours. What makes the cut and what doesn’t for those precious few hours you have? What’s a priority?

(To learn the best way to manage your time, click here.)

But maybe you do have your priorities straight. Heck, maybe you’re a productivity Superman — but interruptions are your kryptonite…


Problem 2: Context

Research shows open-plan offices are a productivity disaster. Why? Distractions.

What does research show the most productive computer programmers have in common? Not smarts. They all had employers who created an environment free from distraction.

Via Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking:

…top performers overwhelmingly worked for companies that gave their workers the most privacy, personal space, control over their physical environments, and freedom from interruption.

So what do you do when the interruptions keep coming?

Find a place to hide. Book a conference room for an hour and get the real work done where no one can interrupt you.

Sound like a joke? It’s not. Professor Sune Carlsson did a study of how CEO’s get things done. What did the research show? None of them could work longer than 20 minutes without an interruption.

So how did they accomplish things without distraction? They worked for 90 minutes at home before coming into the office.

Via The Practice of Management:

Only at home was there some chance of concentration. And the only one of the twelve who did not make important, long-range decisions “off the cuff,” and sandwiched in between unimportant but long telephone calls and “crisis” problems, was the executive who worked at home every morning for an hour and a half before coming to the office.

(To learn the schedule successful people follow every day, click here.)

But eliminating distractions isn’t everything. Not doing bad things doesn’t mean you will do the right things. So how do you avoid wasting your time with unproductive habits?


Problem 3: Habits

“Well, I was going to start on that big project but whenever I sit down at my desk, the first thing I do is check my email. And in my inbox there were 1000 screaming requests I had to handle so…”

All too often you have a plan but something triggers a habit which casts a mind control spell over you and makes you do something else. And that triggers another habit, which leads to another habit and…

What’s the problem here? Your brain. When I spoke to UCLA neuroscientist Alex Korb, he said the way our grey matter is wired can be a problem.

When it comes to the choices you make and the things you do, Alex says there are 3 regions of the brain you need to be concerned with. You don’t need to memorize the names. It’s just important to realize they all get a vote:

  • The Prefrontal Cortex: The only one thinking about long-term goals like, “We need to prepare that report for work.”
  • The Dorsal Striatum: This guy is always voting to do what you’ve done in the past, like, “When it’s time to work we usually start by checking email 9 times, then Facebook, and then Instagram.”
  • The Nucleus Accumbens: The party animal of the three. “Email, Facebook and Instagram are fun. Work sucks.”

So guess what you end up doing? Yeah… Ouch.

But when you exert effort, the prefrontal cortex can override the other two and do the right thing. Repeat this enough times and you rewire the dorsal striatum: “We usually start reports quickly. I vote we do that again.

So how do we start the rewiring?

First, identify the bad habit. Next, make it a pain in the ass to do.

Cornell professor Brian Wansink’s research showed that just making food harder to reach caused people to eat less and lose weight. Harvard happiness expert Shawn Achor refers to it as the “20 second rule.” Here’s Shawn:

Watching too much television? Merely take out the batteries of the remote control creating a 20 second delay and it dramatically decreases the amount of television people will watch.

You don’t want it to be easy to flow from one bad habit to another. That’s how hours get eaten up checking email, then Facebook, then… If your habits aren’t good, you want to strictly follow a plan.

When a CEO works more hours, the company’s sales increase. But when you dig deeper in the research you find that the sales only increase as a result of more hours spent on planned activities.

Via What the Most Successful People Do at Work: A Short Guide to Making Over Your Career:

Preliminary analysis from CEOs in India found that a firm’s sales increased as the CEO worked more hours. But more intriguingly, the correlation between CEO time use and output was driven entirely by hours spent in planned activities. Planning doesn’t have to mean that the hours are spent in meetings, though meetings with employees were correlated with higher sales; it’s just that CEO time is a limited and valuable resource, and planning how it should be allocated increases the chances that it’s spent in productive ways.

Best way to get started? Follow a checklist.

(To learn how to banish bad habits for good, click here.)

Still not as productive as you’d like? Okay, ask yourself, “What happens if I don’t get this done?” If the answer is “Nothing”, well, Houston, we have all kinds of problems…


Problem 4: Stakes

This is why long term goals can be so challenging. There’s no pressing reason to work on them today instead of tomorrow. What are the two magic words when it comes to weight loss?

“Wedding photos.” Many people suddenly become experts at sticking to a diet and hitting the gym when the ceremony is looming. Why? Stakes.

When I spoke to Tim Ferriss about how to learn skills quickly, he said you need an incentive to keep practicing. Or, even better: a penalty if you don’t practice. Here’s Tim:

Stakes is arguably the most important piece. By stakes, I mean consequences. Some type of reward or punishment to keep you on track and accountable. To prevent yourself from quitting, you need incentives.

Research shows that rewards are responsible for three-quarters of why you do things.

Via The 100 Simple Secrets of Successful People:

Researchers find that perceived self-interest, the rewards one believes are at stake, is the most significant factor in predicting dedication and satisfaction toward work. It accounts for about 75 percent of personal motivation toward accomplishment. – Dickinson 1999

So how do you increase the stakes? Here’s where things get interesting…

For dull or simple tasks, offering yourself a reward (or having someone else offer you a reward) is pretty effective.

But when it comes to complex or creative tasks, they’re not optimal. Bestselling author Dan Pink, the 10th degree black belt of motivation, explains:

“If-then” rewards just don’t work very well for complex, creative tasks with a long time horizon. It’s not like we don’t like rewards. We love rewards. They get our attention. But they narrow our field of vision.

So instead of rewards, we need to go deeper and more emotional for motivation. Ask yourself, “Why is this task important?”

When we don’t feel meaning, when what we’re doing doesn’t have a purpose, motivation goes out the window. Noah Goldstein, author of Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive, explains:

Adam Grant, a scholar in the field of organizational behavior, realized that workers often fail to live up to their potential because they’ve lost track of the significance and meaningfulness of their own jobs. He figured that if he could remind employees of why their jobs are important, they might become more highly motivated, and therefore, more productive individuals.

Dan Pink calls this “purpose” — and it’s one of the three big motivators. Here’s Dan:

“Does my piece matter? If I didn’t show up today at work, would anybody care and would things be worse? Would I be missed because what I’m doing actually makes a contribution?”

When we see the results of our work and know it makes a difference, when we feel we’re helping others or making progress — BOOM. That’s when we get motivated and get productive.

(To learn how to stop being lazy and get more done, click here.)

All of this has been pretty straightforward and logical. But we humans aren’t always so straightforward and logical. So what else might be getting in the way of supreme accomplishment and causing you to procrastinate?


Problem 5: Mood

Yup, your mood matters a lot. Research shows a lot of procrastination is caused by not feeling so great. When you’re in a good mood or when you don’t think you can improve how you feel, you screw around a lot less.

Via Temptation: Finding Self-Control in an Age of Excess:

…far and away the most procrastination occurred among the bad-mood students who believed their mood could be changed and who had access to fun distractions. This group spent nearly 14 of their 15 minutes of prep time goofing off…

In fact, your mood in the morning affects how productive you are all day:

…employee mood had a clear impact on performance, including both how much work employees did and how well they did it. “We saw that employees could get into these negative spirals where they started the day in a bad mood and just got worse over the course of the day,” said Steffanie Wilk, associate professor of management and human resources at Ohio State University’s Fisher College of Business.

So what to do? Do something quick to make yourself happy. Yes, it’s that simple.

From The Happiness Advantage:

Students primed to feel happy before taking math achievement tests far outperform their neutral peers. It turns out that our brains are literally hardwired to perform at their best not when they are negative or even neutral, but when they are positive.

So this is the part when people’s minds go blank and they can’t think of anything that makes them happy. Really, it’s absurdly simple:

Take a moment to look at puppy pictures on the internet. (If this doesn’t make you happier, you probably have much bigger problems.)

Crazy as it sounds, looking at puppies has been shown to increase performance, as well as reduce stress — which Alex the neuroscientist said can help your prefrontal cortex take control and get you back on track.

(To learn the four rituals neuroscience says will make you happy, click here.)

Okay, I hope this has been productive for you. Let’s round it up and learn the best thing that can help you get started on implementing all these things into your very busy day…


Sum Up

Here’s how to be productive:

  • Prioritize: Use “fixed schedule productivity.” You won’t get everything done. You will get the right things done.
  • Context: Distractions make you stupid. Find a place to hide or work from home in the morning.
  • Habits: Use the “20 second rule” to make bad habits hard to engage in. Follow a plan.
  • Stakes: For dull tasks, reward yourself. For complex tasks, ask why they are important to find purpose.
  • Mood: Manage your mood, especially in the morning. Oh, and puppies, puppies, puppies.

So what’s a great tool for working all of this into your schedule? (No, you don’t need to work at a pet store.)

Establish a good morning ritual.

A solid morning ritual gives you the time to prioritize before you hit the office and the insanity starts. You can plan when you want to leave and work backward to do your “fixed schedule productivity.”

As for context, you can do some work from home before the interruptions start — or at least reserve that conference room.

Take the time to think about those bad habits and apply the “20 second rule” before you hit the office. (Occasionally, I like to remove my email account from my phone. I can always set it up again, but that’s a real pain… which is good.)

A moment in the morning to think about what’s important is critical. And it clarifies the stakes of everything you need to do — and what you don’t.

And most importantly, since your mood in the morning affects your productivity all day, then it’s critical to make sure you start the day right. Don’t check email immediately and stress yourself out with all the new “emergencies” coming in.

Instead, start with this:

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