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Getting Productive Without Getting Bogged Down in Details

Ashton Gausby has been blogging for two years and has his own experience in the field of self employment and productivity

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Being more productive is a goal, lifestyle, podcast, and about three million books. Everyone wants to, everyone needs to and it’s the most pressing matter that people on social media aren't fighting about. For employers, low productivity means losing money and missing deadlines. Oftentimes a manager will be burdened with the impossible task of keeping people away from the modern day sirens of YouTube, social media and even their own email accounts. Office settings suffer the worst, one study found that people were missing the majority of their own workday, distracting themselves with menial tasks that were no better than mindless busywork and procrastination. For people who take their work home with them, that means a trickle down effect that has personal projects, health, fitness and even relationships all suffering the neglect of the woefully unproductive. I’m one to talk, I’ve been researching this topic for a long time and haven’t found that one golden ticket out of the crippling laziness that I seem to have caught as a young child, there should be a vaccine for it.

There are many reasons to be more productive. Nevertheless, we all sit on the couch and scroll through movies and tv too equally boring to choose from, yet they are a guilty reprieve from our dusty dumbbells, unread books and neglected projects. A poor couch potato must get in motion, as it risks becoming a French fry. Society’s lack of productivity can be argued as a cause of the current obesity epidemic, an epidemic that cannot be cured with a simple vaccine or mask. With so much to lose, or simply to not gain, it seems logically absurd that people would have such an issue motivating themselves into motion and transforming their lives, yet we all seem not to. It’s human nature to only focus on the most immediate, and postpone the immediate when possible. Humankind still perpetually struggles against nature and this time it’s not wildlife or climate, simply a growing to-do list and no one with the will to do it. Taking out the trash and folding laundry are important, but a healthier body, new skill, finished project or even personal growth could be the 1st place trophy to those who dare to do more. So it begs the question, just what are the obstacles keeping us from success?


Modern Obstacles

The bold and well established claims that people used to be tougher and get more done is a meme at this point. Boomers make these claims with a disproportionate ratio of evidence to sincerity. They were the best and now that lace-up shoes exist we’re all destined to live out our privileged lives as no-good slobs. This is a catch-22, as any famous person from yesteryear will be cited as a charismatic go-getter, always chomping at the bit. These well known folks of years gone by could be chalked up as outliers. After all, today’s age has plenty of self-made millionaires and life coaches that disprove the geriatric claims of our laziness, though they’re not the majority of people. Laziness and procrastination have been the woes of people before the discovery of electricity. If it’s not work, then sitting on a log and staring into the distance will serve as enough distraction to delay the inevitable simple yet difficult labor that our ancestors all shared. People have always been people, viewing them through sepia tone glasses doesn’t change that. What did change was the sheer magnitude of distraction and consumable content that bombards us in our modern age.

Attention Economy

After the internet was invented, it became a major player in the advertisement economy. Instead of viewership counts and peak broadcast hours we have the self-self made media stars of Tiktok, YouTube, Instagram and other social media sites that need both your attention and interaction. It would be enough to simply turn away, though the phone, text, email and browser notifications will tug at your attention or even deposit themselves right into your email inbox. Despite the wars waged between e-celebrities settled with fisticuffs, the real fight is for your constant attention and engagement. Who can blame them? Their productivity is to the detriment of yours and it’s sadly one of the many downsides of an overall good economic model. Everyone and everything is vying for your attention and engagement, and that doesn’t leave much leftover.

People and Phones

Friends, family, strangers and co-workers all need their little slice of your limited time too. Be it from texts, emails, social media or the occasional phone call, you can bet there’s someone on the other end putting off their work to check in on you and make sure you’re doing the same. Sometimes it is important, but often there’s no way to tell without opening Pandora’s Box and letting the distraction flow. The cellphone is the enemy of productivity if you let it take that role, though it’s no worse than a gabby co-worker or distracting bit of social media. Some people forgo a smartphone entirely and opt for it’s folding cousin, but that only solves one facet of the issue. You can find many people too good for social media, but in a never ending stream of conversation or tinkering with some widget. It reminds me of the comedian Jim Gaffigan's bit about McDonalds. Some people are too good for fast food, but are hooked on some other substance or media. After a long day of trying to work, retreating to a dimly lit living room to unwind with some entertainment should be relaxing but poses its own problems.


Consumer Woes

Call it too much of a good thing, there’s simply too much to enjoy. As a lifelong gamer, there’s always a bevy of hot new titles coming month after month. Even if you’re confined to a single genre or platform, there’s always more than enough to play. Thanks to digital distribution there’s always a sale on that one game you missed out on three years ago and it’s on sale. Movies are the same. If it’s not enough to draw you into the theatre there are tons of films to rent or watch online in the comfort of your own home. Binge watching an entire season of a tv show will be the death of your productivity, but it’s just too enthralling to miss sometimes. The problem is for people who love all tv, they’ve got a mountain of shows to sift through at the end of their workday. All of the great media to consume is a win for consumers, though it all consumes our dwindling time. People, myself included, can go for marathon watching or gaming sessions and lose track of time, but sadly it’s not the same for work.

Time Sometimes Flies

Due to neurochemistry, time feels different depending on levels of enjoyment and mental arousal. A slow, tedious task will feel as if it takes forever compared to something more enjoyable and that makes it foolhardy to guess and estimate how much time is spent on particularly boring activities. I’m no expert in the category of dopamine and neurotransmitters, but the principle of enjoyable things seeming to be fleeting vs boring things being agonizing is something that I think we all can attest to. The reason that we never seem to have enough time is likely due to our own inability to put it in context. We always have time for something fun and underestimate just how long we’ll be putting off the more tiresome activities that we have planned. This is why scheduling and planning are so important when time flies out of control and another day is lost.

Real Freedom - A Rallying Cry

The way human brains often work means that less-pleasurable tasks will always take more effort than relaxing or enjoyable ones. This will mean that even when the work you’re doing benefits you and you alone, it will still wear you out faster than playing Dwarf Fortress. This difficulty is what causes many people to procrastinate or avoid starting in the first place. Sure with enough effort you could burn yourself out watching tv, but you’d hold out a lot longer than someone doing calculus. You can’t get the wrong answer when watching tv, unless you’re watching Jeopardy and even then it’s not your money at risk. It’s normal to be averse to difficult activities and practice, though the difficulty shouldn’t lead to a stalemate between you and the tasks you aim to accomplish. Note that I didn’t say “want”, you won’t always want to do something that you deem important, that’s one of the main points here. Real personal freedom not only means doing what you want, but doing what you aim to. That will mean overcoming external and internal limitations.


Industry vs Industriousness

Let’s say for example someone wants to improve their productivity and they set out to learn more. At first glance there’s a wealth of knowledge on the topic. Everything from books, to seminars and podcasts all relate to people’s understandable urge to get things done. There’s always a product to buy and judging by the financial success of these gurus, coaches and authors, there’s plenty of sales to be made. A 2017 study estimates this industry’s earnings at 9.9 billion, so it’s at least helping someone. I’ll once again harken to my point about consumer driven society, this isn’t one of its strongpoints. Our novelty seeking brains will always look to the freshest or obscure methods and information that pertain to the coveted productivity that’s for sale, though it’s not really what’s for sale. Shopping through the libraries of knowledge through the app store or Kindle will uncover all sorts of courses, guides, and methods. The three worst side effects of this productivity industry is what I call the quick-fix myth and the good times guarantee and the logic trap.

Quick-fix Myth

Many authors promise easy answers or unbeatable programs that involve lists, dream boards, dream catchers and scented candles. Uplifting tales of personal ruin turned to uncanny success set the stage for the solution. It’s always at the lowest point, when our totally non-fiction hero had a spontaneous epiphany that turned their whole life around. A shining ray of hope in the form of some trick or method that’s really no more than a dressed up quick fix. This almost always fails to satisfy and just as cryptozoologists hunt tirelessly for Bigfoot, they’ll have you hunting for yet another breakthrough. The problem is that along with a growing library of schemes and nonsense you’ll also be putting projects and goals on hold until the productivity experts can find a substitute for hard work and consistency. There’s a nasty side effect to buying into the quick fix method, and it undermines people’s greatest strengths.

The Good Times Guarantee

Maybe it started with Johnson's no Tears Baby Shampoo. A guarantee of frictionless success and without any problems along the way. The idea that an easy solution exists leads people to the conclusion that stress and strain of accomplishing their goals is some mistake or waste. As long as you adhere to their quick-fix solutions you’ll have sweat-less workouts, costless purchases and 30 second abs. If some expert says it should be easy, then you’re wasting every ounce of effort past the bare minimum. Buying into this kind of thinking will be a huge setback to anybody who’s got their own motivation problems and expects to turn their life around in a few quick five minute sessions. Even so, If you’re too clever for the quick fix myth, then there is a far more complex method to sell to you.

Brainiac Beware: the Logic Trap

The logic trap is far more nuanced and complex than it’s simple easy-fix counterpart. The idea here is to create a plan or system that is so complicated that it erases the need for time and effort out of existence. Any planning method that turns into calculus despite you only having a handful of things to do is clearly an over complicated logic trap that turns basic planning and common sense into procrastination by means of busywork and overthinking. There is a place for planning and strategy, though a project manager with a dozen workers under their employ has far more labor to manage than a single person who simply needs to clean their garage. Organizing the smaller details of a creative project is a good idea, though you’ll never get to your project if it means trying to transmute hard work into complexity.

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What Does Work

I criticize self-help because I read it. There’s no problem with entertaining the ideas that these materials have to offer, but healthy skepticism is the filter that will keep your feet on the ground. The new ideas you find in those books may be helpful, yet it’s not wise to invest too much time or money into this. People will claim that their system works for some but not others, or that it takes an increasing amount of belief and dedication to make the method work, to this I say why not put that effort into the tasks themselves? Some things are so universally applicable that they work for everybody, not just the lucky few that shower the author with praise and anecdotes that may or may not be true. I’ve found that some things can and do work extremely well, though there’s no shortcuts to be had here.

Time, Effort and Consistency

The mirror opposites to the three horsemen of the productivity apocalypse, quick-fixes, good times guarantee and logic traps, are the three old tenets that got us out of the stone age. In place of the 10 minute solution is budgeting more time to the things that matter most. The remedy to the good times guarantee is the simple effort that will often cause fatigue and a little dread on returning to your productive tasks, it’s nothing new and yet it’s not going out of style either. In place of the logic trap I don’t have a mirror opposite quality to replace it with, rather a shift of emphasis to something more useful, consistency. That means doing the work more often than not. When there’s an issue causing inconsistent work performance, then it needs to be solved. There are entire books written about each of these qualities that are worth reading, but the principles in them can be summarized quite simply.

Time

It may help to think of time as a resource or material, to some it’s always in short supply, others waste it and have budgeting issues. The old axiom time is money rings true, as many labor intensive jobs are paid by the hour with a cheque twice a month. People's lives revolve around time and sadly, it’s the one resource that isn’t renewable. Everyone is inching closer to a deadline or simply retirement. The cost of inaction is the time that could have been spent on something useful or even leisurely, and that’s why impatience is justifiable when it’s your time being spent by someone else. If something needs to be done, then allocate enough time to do it. Arrange that activity or task in an order that reflects its importance and necessity, simple as that. Time is only one part of the equation though, as it’s wasted without the next key ingredient.

Effort

Call it work ethic, hard work, chutzpah, whatever you want. It’s the thing that scares most people into procrastination and avoidance. True, genuine hard work is actually quite rare and I have no claim of being a ‘hard worker’, it’s a term that’s used so often and freely that it’s as valuable as an over inflated currency at this point. The sometimes pretentious and dishonest claim of having a good work ethic pressures everyone else to add it to their resume and up-sell the quality in interviews. I, for one, don't’ really care if people lie to their employers or on their resumes’, but when it comes to an actual one-person project, then you’ve got to really be genuine and grade your efforts honestly. Time and effort married to each other will produce results, but it needs to be real effort, otherwise you’re just fooling yourself. Firing yourself for being lazy just means quitting, and that’s not an option!

Consistency

Being consistent means a lot of things, it means actually following the schedule the majority of the time, it means effort that’s evenly distributed from day to day and not just on special occasions. Multitasking and distraction should be kept to a minimum so that an hour of work is either 50 or 60 minutes. There’s some wiggle room, but not infinite variability. Consistency also implies some need for persistence. That means as the times get tough you’ll have to stick around and keep your repeated efforts. Consistency isn’t such an overestimated trait like work ethic is, but it’s an equally important part of the big three. If you’re not being consistent with your tasks and schedule, then that’s the hole in the dam that needs to be fixed.


It’s a Three Legged Stool

The three tenets of time, effort and consistency aren’t my own invention, they’ve existed longer than they’ve had words to describe them. These abstract values have been the backbone of productivity as far back as there have been things to do. The founding of some ancient civilization and sticking to a home workout program share these same three key traits. All three are equally important, as without one, you’d be applying two of the key traits and seeing little if any success. My advice here isn’t to just ‘be a hard worker’ or ‘waste less time’ but to stick to these three qualities and always focus on improving them. This will take you further than any self-help program.

Embracing the Struggle

Once you’ve abandoned the easy answers and quick solutions, you’ll have to accept one of the side effects of productivity, it’s not always fun. The three ingredients of effort, consistency and tend to wear people out and that’s normal. Willpower has been likened to a muscle and training it often also means resting it. Even taking short breaks throughout the day and even in the middle of some task can refresh and rejuvenate you enough to actually boost productivity, despite actually costing you a little time. In an article by lifehack.org, it’s noted that even taking a break every 80 minutes to waste a few minutes on social media or internet browsing was enough to boost productivity by 9%. Real work requires some, but not too much, downtime. Sometimes feeling run-down or over-stressed are the byproduct of productivity and it’s something to be mitigated, not avoided outright.

Burnout vs copout

There’s a lot of talk these days about burnout. Not the ancient Need for Speed game, but the long lasting emotional and mental fatigue that people are more worried about than cancer. Just how burnout is defined or diagnosed is frustratingly vague, that’s likely why everyone has it. It is possible, even, that burnout exists on a spectrum and it’s impossible to be completely rested at any one given time. People who feel “burned out” may actually be bored, fatigued, uninspired or even depressed because of the long list of symptoms that could be used as self-diagnosis. This is widely accepted as a real condition so it must be accounted for. What burnout means to you matters, give it too much power and it becomes the enemy of productivity. Burnout cannot be a reason to avoid putting in a good effort, the cost of safety being far too high. The idea should be to always push yourself hard, and back off when truly needing a break. Take note of which activities and amounts of time lead to the most burnout and jot them down for future reference, you may even see an improvement over time.

Motivation

Motivation doesn’t appear as one of the three core tenets of productivity and it’s not because I think lowly of it, rather it’s simply unreliable. It’s like that one friend that always comes up with the best ideas, but tries to make plans or get something done and they’ve flaked out yet again and never show up on time. Motivation is the same way, a powerful catalyst that can set things in motion, but isn’t doesn’t appear regularly to give you an extra shove towards productivity. Motivation is a great thing when it happens, so cherish it, but don’t expect it to be there every step of the way, that’s your role.

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Four More Things to Increase Productivity

The three simple tenets of time, effort and consistency are the primary traits that will help you get things done. I’ve found a few other basic methods, that while aren’t the most original or novel techniques, are still simple and useful to apply to all kinds of activities that make their way into your daily planner. None of these are my own invention, but I’ve chosen things that relate closely to time, effort and consistency, complimenting them instead of replacing them.

P is for Pomodoro

The Pomodoro method comes from student and author Francesco Cirillo who used a tomato shaped timer to manage his study to break ratio. In a nutshell, he’d use the timer to study for 25 minutes and then rest for 5. Rinse and repeat four times before taking a longer break and either starting again or switching tasks. This isn’t the most groundbreaking technique to being productive, rather, it’s actually a strict method to plan breaks and work sessions. This ties in with time allocation, management and breaks, forcing them into an organized system that’s helped a lot of students and workers keep the fatigue low and the breaks short. Flexibility and applicability make this a good choice if you’re doing something highly fatiguing or difficult.

The Pomodoro method isn’t without its faults. Some people find that a blaring alarm every 25 minutes is counterproductive to their deep work or study. The need to customize and tinker with this method is what will make it work, and it does work. There is a book and website that explains this method further and they are both worth checking out. Anyone who takes either too many or too little breaks can benefit from the simplicity of this tomato shaped solution.


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Time Blocking

Another time management method that aims to organize similar tasks into large blocks of time. The reason for this is that switching between tasks can cost precious time, especially if it requires moving to a different workspace or even headspace. Settling into a new task takes time and constantly switching between them is why multitasking is always inferior to singular focused work. Take reading and writing emails for example, instead of reading them and responding to them as they appear in your inbox, simply do all of your email reading and writing in two separate blocks of time. If you’ve got some ungodly amount of digital mail to deal with, like 2 hours, then use the Pomodoro technique to ensure you don’t wear yourself out on the task.

Productivity Journal

This is a brutally simple trick that will help organize and track progress, hard work not included. Simply start journaling your daily goals, outcomes and comments that come up. This can also include a simple to-do list for that entry. This is yet another versatile tool to keep your projects on track, as you can look through previous entries and see if you’re missing a lot of days or being inconsistent. Always add any notes about issues that come up, or positive outcomes from trying new things. Even if you miss a day, write in the productivity journal as to why and this can help you hold yourself accountable for slacking. Once again, this isn't particularly exotic or new, but that’s the beauty of it. It’s simple and it works.

To Do List

The to do list will fit inside the productivity journal, as it’s just a list of things to do each day. There’s really no complexity to it, nor should there be. Just jot down a handful of things that need to be done. This list will include things that can be completed and things that are a recurring project or skill. The amount of time that a to-do list is going to take up can vary, but to be a truly productive phenom you’ll want to plan enough work to either fill a day or exceed it. Keeping yourself busy like this will add a sense of urgency, but also stress. So allocate time as you see fit. If anything comes up that’s worth noting, then write it in the journal at the end of the day. Simple. Just don’t let the list turn into a 45 minute time wasting excursion, this is meant to be simple.


Closing statement

Time, effort, consistency and some simple planning will do wonders for anyone. This is the simple solution that should be the core of anyone’s own quest to be more productive. Forget all those self-help manuals and promises that sound too good to be true, if you truly buy into them then it’s just another obstacle to overcome in a world of distractions. Furthermore, complicating things to the point of confusion is yet another pitfall that some more intellectually inclined people will do to procrastinate work that they could instead be doing. Thinking about something all day and doing it for 20 minutes are worlds apart and only one will bring you closer to success. Many of the obstacles and pitfalls I’ve experienced first hand, so while I’m no productivity guru, I know first hand what’s at stake. The daily battle to get off the couch and approach unfinished work that’s as appealing as medieval torture. I’m confident that You’d be far more successful getting things done with a ten item hit-list than a 350 page plan that’s more complex than the Death Star’s blueprints. Don’t deliberate or procrastinate, but start working and adjust as needed


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Sources:

Office Worker Productivity

Self Help Profits

Strengthen Willpower

Importance of Breaks

Pomodoro Website

Pomodoro Book

Multitasking

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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