How to Increase Productivity: Manage Your Mind, not Your Time
A mindful approach to juggle the balls that matter (not more)
“Only put off until tomorrow what you are willing to die having left undone.”
― Pablo Picasso
Productivity is not about juggling more balls, but knowing which ones matter.
That’s why our efforts to be more productive are backfiring. The tools that are meant to help us become another ball for us to toss in the air.
So, why am I writing a post about productivity? Or why are you reading it, for that matter?
Maybe we are both tired of clickbait articles. I hate seeing people being prey of them.
I felt compelled to share my framework in a medium that’s filled with “3 steps to stop procrastination in 2 hours” pieces. Shortcuts don’t create enduring change. Those who follow my posts know that I encourage people to “change from within.”
The best approach to productivity is one that you can adapt to your specific needs, not the other way around.
The first step is to stop treating your brain like a machine.
Your beliefs, thoughts, passions, and energy level are key drivers of why you procrastinate. Not the lack of a process.
This article will help you understand which balls not to juggle, but you’ll have to do the work. This framework will help you increase your productivity on your own terms.
Mark Twain said: “Never put off till tomorrow what may be done the day after tomorrow just as well.” Productivity is not just about doing more. Procrastinating with a purpose is how you prioritize.
My approach focuses on a better understanding of oneself: learn to manage your mind, not your time. I’ve been using this framework for years when coaching teams. And I’m continuously tweaking it based on real-life feedback.
This is an in-depth post, here’s what you’ll learn:
- Why most productivity approaches don’t work
- How self-determination defeats procrastination
- The shift: from “have to do” to “want to do.”
- Accept, rather than fight, how your brain operates
- A 7-step approach to increase your productivity
If you are serious about being more productive, start reading.
Why Most Productivity Approaches Don’t Work
“An organization that can accelerate but not change direction is like a car that can speed up but not steer.” — Tom DeMarco
Increasing productivity is a lifetime habit.
Like anything in life, it’s a bumpy road. Many people consider me an incredibly productive person. But it wasn’t always like that. Even now, I get distracted from time to time.
I’m human. I sometimes procrastinate too.
I’m not perfect, so this approach is not meant to be so either.
Let’s start with why many productivity approaches fail.
a. They promote a culture of doing:
Our society worships busyness even though everyone complains about it. Being busy equals to being important. That’s why everyone has their calendars full.
Productivity is not about doing more in less time. It’s about achieving what you want or need.
The biggest issues with productivity are that people are trying to do more and more, but then feel empty. Why? Because they don’t know what they want. Or they spend their time doing meaningless tasks.
b. They add more pressure rather than alleviate the pain
Most productivity tools become a task in itself adding more workload to our already busy lives.
Stop worrying about being more productive is the best way to become more productive.
Merlin Mann, the creator of the ‘Inbox Zero’ system (ironically enough), procrastinated writing a book on the topic. Until one day, he made public why: people were becoming more stressed about how to manage their emails than ever. His method was doing more damage than not.
c. They have a one-size-fits-all approach:
Our energy level and focus are influenced by many factors. Some people are more productive early in the morning but, some like me, reach our peak performance at night.
You cannot have a blanket approach to productivity.
Some people benefit from processes, many from setting lofty goals, others from peer support. To be effective, a productivity method needs to be tailored to what works for you (more on understanding how you operate, later).
d. They treat our brain as a machine:
Most people resist what they don’t know or what they don’t like. Our behaviors are ingrained in our beliefs. When we are exposed to a new tool or data, we will accept or reject it, if it’s aligned or not with our beliefs.
To drive change, you need to work around people’s beliefs, rather than try to change them.
Cognitive neuroscientist Tali Sharot demonstrated our brain lies to us; it manipulates how we ‘see’ information to please our beliefs. If someone believes that they are more productive in the PM, no matter how much you try to convince them to become an early riser, they will never join the ‘5 AM club.’
But, the most important reason, is that these methods try to impose how to do things. They tell you “do x,” and you’ll achieve anything you want. The problem is not just the overpromise, but that they fail to help you solve the root cause of procrastination.
To drive change, motivation needs to be internal, not externally-driven. Self-determination is what makes you overcome why you don’t want to do something.
Let me explain how.
How Self-determination Defeats Procrastination
“Why have we evolved a brain that is happy to discard perfectly good information when it doesn’t fit our views?”
— Tali Sharot
Our brain is lazy and loves taking the path of least resistance. It’s hardwired by our beliefs. Rather than trying to change our views, we look for data and opinions that validate what we already believe.
Confirmation bias — the human tendency to seek, interpret, and remember information that confirms your preexisting beliefs — is the key reason why changing habits is so hard.
Self-determination theory (SDT) focuses on the motivation behind choices people make, with a peculiar emphasis on how an individual’s behavior is self-motivated and self-determined
According to SDT, people have innate psychological needs that are the basis for self-motivation and personality integration: competence, autonomy, and psychological relatedness.
‘Autonomy’ is the most critical element. As part of a French experiment, by simply adding the phrase “but you are free to accept or refuse” after asking for some coins, a group of beggars received twice the money than those who didn’t.
When you give people the freedom to act on something, they feel more compelled to act.
That’s why clickbait approaches like “this simple trick will help you stop procrastinating” can create short-term impact, but don’t drive enduring behavior changes.
People need their sense of freedom; most of us want to do things ‘our way.’
The more autonomous your productivity method, the better equipped you will be to overcome any obstacles along the way. Additionally, an approach that supports autonomy doesn’t leave room for manipulation or external pressure to change in a particular direction.
Motivation to change must come from within.
Positive feedback reinforces one (perceived) ‘competence.’ And increases motivation to take something to the next level.
Our social interactions — ‘relatedness’— create connection and validation. Peer support, having an accountability partner, or social proof help reinforce our motivation to do something.
Research has shown that when people are driven intrinsically and feel supported in their autonomy, their outcome is more favorable.
The Shift: From Have to, to Want
“The difference between things we want to do and things you have to do is, the difference between work and play … slavery and freedom … efficiency and pleasure.”
— Dr. Jesse Schell
How you approach a task makes all the difference.
Try this simple exercise with a friend. Think of a task that’s on your to-do-list and say: “I have to (do the laundry).” Have your friend reply using ‘want to’ instead of ‘have to.’ “You want to do the laundry.”
Repeat this exercise several times with different ‘tasks.’ Reflect on how your relationship with the task changes by merely replacing the words you use.
Jesse Schell is an authority on why people play. After studying for decades why people prefer to play Angry Birds or World of Warcraft while procrastinating chores, he realized something elementary.
Dr. Schell discovered the difference comes down to whether the behavior is a “wanna” versus a “hafta.” The difference between things you ‘have to do’ and the ones you ‘want to do, is the difference between work and play.
Productivity tools and methods create an additional burden. Rather than encouraging a playful approach, they turn activities into work.
My personal definition of productivity is simple: do what you love and (learn to) love what you do.
Forget the ‘what comes first?” chicken-egg dilemma.
You know the things you love, spend time with them. You don’t like doing something? Approach it with an open mind. Stop fighting things and learn to appreciate them while you are doing them.
You can even turn doing the dishes into meditation, as I wrote here.
The world is full of ‘Pomodoro,’ ‘5-second rule’, ‘Inbox Zero’ techniques. They are great triggers, to trick your mind, and move you into action. But if you hate what you have/want to do, you will end failing, no matter which technique you use.
If you don’t love what you do, no tool will be enough.
Understand How Your Brain Operates
“Your visions will become clear only when you can look into your own heart. Who looks outside, dreams; who looks inside, awakes.”
― Carl Jung
Not everyone sees the world the same way; our brains operate differently. Thus, specific productivity methods will work worse or better with you depending on your peculiar perspective.
The following is a summary of a profiling method I created a couple of years ago. It uses a Social Media approach to make it more friendly and easy to use (it doesn’t necessarily correlate with how you use social media though).
(*) to learn more about the approach, and or take the quiz, go here. Over 3,000 people have answered it so far.
The following chart illustrates the four perspectives. Most people have a primary and one-two secondary traits.
Twitter — “Tell me in 140 characters.”
- Results and action-driven, they take risks and are good at making quick decisions.
- Mindset: act firsts, takes risks, experiments.
- Productivity: efficiency, quick, straight to the point, action-driven.
Facebook — “Give me a like.”
- Relationship and people-driven, they value consensus and are good at considering personal needs.
- Mindset: team players, people-oriented, collaborative.
- Productivity: need social support and reinforcement, accountability partner and relationship-driven.
Instagram — “Looking for the big picture.”
- Driven by inspiration and dreams, they like personal recognition and are good at imagining possibilities.
- Mindset: love to be inspired and to inspire, purpose-driven, big concepts.
- Productivity: look to be inspired, motivation and reward-driven.
Yelp — “Let me check the reviews first.”
- Experience-driven; they use analysis and past data to make well-informed decisions.
- Mindset: analytical, risk avoidance, love processes, and details.
- Productivity: proven methods, tools and structure and process-driven.
Become more aware of how you see the world. Look for productivity tools and approaches that match how your mind operates.
A 7-step Productivity Method
“Failing is a possibility, fear of failure is not.”
— Gustavo Razzetti
1. Understand what you love (and what you don’t)
“Believe in yourself, listen to your gut, and do what you love.”
— Dylan Lauren
Clarity will give you focus.
Write an extensive list of everything you (have to/ want to) to. Ideally, do it every day for at least one or two weeks. Categorize the list into three groups:
a. Things you love to do
b. Things you don’t either love or hate
c. Things you hate doing
Clarity drives action.
Review the list. What’s the story? What do you like or hate certain things? Don’t judge yourself; this is about getting to know you better.
What will it take to move items from ‘c’ to ‘b’ and from ‘b’ to ‘a’?
2. Become aware of how your mind works
“When I discover who I am, I’ll be free.”
― Ralph Ellison
Reflect on the Social Media perspectives tool I shared earlier.
(you are free to take the quiz if you want)
Which Social Media type are you? How do you approach productivity?
Based on how you approach productivity, which methods and tools might work better for you?
3. What drives your productivity: Energy/ Passion
“Create with the heart; build with the mind.”
― Criss Jami
Two key elements encompass the tasks that we do: the passion and the energy they demand.
Some tasks are easy to do but don’t excite you. Others might drive your passion to the top but can be hard to accomplish.
Low Passion/ High Energy — “DRAIN.”
These tasks take everything away from you. You don’t feel excited, they are hard or take too much time, but the reward is too small. Think of “mandatory reports” that you boss request that take a whole week and no one will read them. Definitely, the worst quadrant of all.
Low Passion/ Low Energy — “BUSYNESS.”
These tasks are simple. Even if you don’t like them, they don’t take too much time or energy. The problem with this quadrant is the quantity. Minor useless tasks can turn into a trap and keep you busy, without time or energy to do more meaningful things. Attending weekly status meetings is a clear example.
High Passion/ Low Energy — “ENERGY.”
This quadrant feels perfect. You are doing something that you like without having to spend too much effort. These tasks refuel your tank. Think of doing things that you are so good at that feel easy to accomplish.
High Passion/ High Energy — “PURPOSE.”
This quadrant includes your most challenging and most rewarding tasks. They usually are more significant projects that will require a lot of time and energy. Most of the time they are long-term assignments. They are more challenging than the previous ones, but the reward is more profound and meaningful.
Now let’s see how we can approach each of these tasks.
Low Passion/ High Energy — “SIMPLIFY.”
If you are doing something that doesn’t excite you but is draining you, time to act fast. How can you simplify those tasks so that they don’t take that much from you? Can you eliminate some? Can you delegate others?
Low Passion/ Low Energy — “PRIORITIZE.”
Having too many small things on your plate is a distraction. Categorize them in critical, not so critical, and unnecessary. Try to split the ‘not so critical’ into the other two segments. Get rid of everything that falls in the ‘unnecessary’ bucket. It would make you feel uneasy at first.
Trust me, I did this hundred of times with teams, and nothing happened.
Most of the times we don’t want to let go of things because we fear the consequences. But, once we let go, we realized how irrelevant those tasks were.
High Passion/ Low Energy — “ENJOY.”
These tasks are a high reward at low energy. Learn to appreciate them. Use that energy to give you the strength to deal with things that you don’t like or to have the ability to do great purpose-driven projects.
Some people feel guilty when dealing with this quadrant. And then suffer when they run out of fuel.
High Passion/ High Energy — “DEFEND.”
Time suckers are your enemies. Meeting invites, talkers, irrelevant social media status, reports and useless requests, and emails are threatening your choices all the time.
Learn to defend what matters the most to you. Protect this space by saying ‘no’ more often.
4. Un-busy your day
Learn to say no more often. This is how.
The best secret to become more productive is to reduce the list of what you have to do. Change your patterns. Most people accept all meetings invites. That’s their default behavior.
Decline meetings first, and then go back and accept those where you can make a difference. You don’t need to answer every email that shows up in your inbox.
This simple exercise has helped many teams focus on what matters and increase their productivity by un-busying their days.
5. Plan & Schedule
Are you a night owl or an early riser? Does your energy fluctuate along the day or does it stay constant?
Become more aware of your daily rhythm. I feel more prolific and focused when I wake up or after 9 PM; that’s when I write.
My energy is very low after lunch and, especially, between 2 and 4 PM, that’s when I focus on low energy tasks. At 7 PM I usually feel drained, I meditate or exercise to recover my energy level.
I started using a spreadsheet very recently (thanks to the great coach Kendra Kinnison) to organize my week. I added my personal touch: a color coding to help me visualize my energy level, and which types of tasks feel more appropriate to it.
References: Red=High-energy, Orange=Mid-energy, Yellow=Low-Energy.
It felt unnatural at first, but when I approach it as a guide rather than something rigid, it took my productivity to the next level.
Create your own version. How does it feel organizing your day? Do you like routines? (I don’t). Do you like to improvise or to structure? Build your own based on how you ‘normally’ spend your time.
I’m more an intuitive Twitter-like type, but adding some structure has made my productivity even better.
Last but not least, use your calendar. Setting deadlines is how we turn a task into reality.
I like challenges, so I use deadlines to bring out the best out of me.
I created and published my food blog with over 50 recipes from scratch in just three days a couple of years ago. I procrastinated doing it for years, but once I committed to, it felt easy.
Using deadlines drives focus. Blocking time on your calendar will ensure that you have the time to make things happen. Most people build lists, but they never enter the items on their calendars. That’s why they never have time.
Remember, time is not something that we have, but something that we make.
Also, block time to reflect, learn or just unwind. As you can see, I allocated time in the morning and night to start and finish my day purposefully, but I also blocked time for meditation.
6. Adapt & Adjust
“Life is what happens to us while we are making other plans.”
— John Lennon
The other side of planning is adjusting.
That you have a structure doesn’t mean that it should be rigid or limit you. Test your weekly approach and change it. Also, most days you will have something unexpected that will put your calendar upside down.
I use a gamifying approach. If I had to work a lot today, I compensate having a lighter day tomorrow.
Also, building on the notion of “love what you do,” I’m aware and respectful of my passion and energy levels. Sometimes I’m so excited writing that I stay up until 2 AM. The upside is that I don’t feel sorry about it, but I actually feed of it.
Yes, the morning after I might wake up one or two hours later but I’m so energized that I catch up pretty fast.
7. Be kind to yourself
“Be kind whenever possible. It is always possible.”
— Dalai Lama
Loving what you do starts with (loving) yourself.
Your path to becoming more productive will never be easy. Sometimes you feel that you are making a lot of progress. Others, you might fall back into bad habits. That’s perfectly OK.
Approach self-improvement with an open mind not with a perfectionist one.
If you embrace a playful mindset, you won’t judge yourself that much. Take it easy. Trying new things require to take risks, it will feel uncomfortable, and, many times, you will fail.
Failing is a possibility, fear of failure is not.
Don’t be harsh on yourself. Love what you do. That’s the secret to becoming more productive.
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