Productivity and your brain
Read time: 5 min
During this long quarantine, I was one of the lucky people that could stay home and work remotely. The new situation changed some of my habits for the worse and that made me rethink how I spend my time, how I arrange my calendar and how to be and moreover stay productive.
This is the first of a few articles on the topic where I share what I have learned and the tools I use.
How the brain works
Before going on, it’s worth spending a couple of words on how the brain works because being productive (and staying that way) is less about the tool you use and more about beating your brain at its own game. It is important to understand that forcing your brain into doing something, or worst into learning something, just doesn’t work. Staying at work more hours, going to bed later and keep pushing by tapping to willpower is completely wrong.
First, willpower is a finite resource and can be exhausted. Really. Keeping trying blindly accelerates that with the side effect of being less and less committed to what you do.
Second, don’t trust your brain. The human brain is truly amazing but it is not your ally and it plays unfairly. It often tricks us making us focusing on smaller (and maybe meaningless tasks). It does because finishing a task, no matter if big or small, releases dopamine, and our brain seeks it. It is a neurotransmitter responsible for letting you feel satisfied and happy. So the hardest part of getting your work done is actually starting. Once you started, a psychological mechanism known as the Zeigarnik effect is responsible for making you feel guilty for not completing a task. So if you start, you’re more likely to finish.
Third, set a deadline. Of course not too close, but not too far either. Setting a deadline helps in keeping you productive by setting good pressure and keeping focus. Note that the closer you get to your deadline, the more likely your brain will keep you focused for you to finish the task and it to get its dose of dopamine.
Fourth, split big tasks into smaller ones. For the above to work the task needs to be small enough, which means you can estimate effort and quantify the time required. Splitting is good because smaller tasks are more likely to get done. You will trick your brain into completing them instead of scrolling Twitter.
Fifth, keep track of your progress. Tracking progress will show you are a step closer to the final goal, keeping you motivated, as said above. Remember also that only what’s measurable can be improved, so choose what to track wisely otherwise the effect will be the opposite.
Sixth, have breaks. While planning, schedule to alternate focused sessions to pause. Anything that walks you away from your desk will be good and don’t take your phone with you. Instead, do something with a fixed duration that lets you relax without needing to keep an eye on the watch. Reading that, the Pomodoro technique may come to mind, and that’s correct. Download an app or set a timer. Try and try again until you find the best duration of focus and break sessions. As studies suggest, you may start with a 1-hour focus followed by a 15 minutes break. For me, for example, those are 1:30 hours and 20 minutes respectively.
That said, be sure not to exceed and then fall into toxic productivity being obsessed with tasks and goals. Set boundaries and have clear what the risks and signs of pushing too much are. Not even a machine will work best if it is constantly overloaded.
Tips on using a tool
Here are the important points I consider when going digital for taking notes and planning.
Store everything in one place. Using one tool reduces the overhead on your brain. You’re probably already multitasking on your work, so better to stay focused on only one tool to manage your day.
Check it frequently. Checking your to-do list or notebooks one a day is not enough. I keep it open in one screen and adjust it as I work to keep track of my progress. Then, and most importantly, I check it at night and plan for the next day. This lets me save precious time in the morning and sets my brain for the next day. I also make room for some time off. Relaxing after having accomplished your tasks is part of the game and helps you stay positive.
Don’t be too optimistic. If a task needs 1 hour to be done, just don’t plan to make it in 40 minutes (or just 1 hour). It may sound obvious but being too optimistic can lead to a tight schedule. Instead, I plan to have some backup time and avoid the domino effect on my agenda should something go wrong. And if everything goes as planned I’ll have more spare time!
Don’t multitask. We all have to work on multiple projects at once but multitasking is a productivity killer. Instead, split work items into tasks and allocate time in such a way to queue work on different projects and focus on one thing a time.
Be honest. Cheating on your agenda means steering away from the productivity path. If I feel I need to cheat on it, it means my plan isn’t as good as I thought or I need to pause. So I better stop and plan again or have a 5 min break: a walk, meditation, or a quick body exercise are my go-to. Consider that cheating won’t show its effects immediately though, most of the damage will be seen some ways down the road weakening your belief in putting effort to complete tasks on time.
Information overload, stress, multitasking, and big tasks pressure us and hinder our progress. Awareness and planning help us avoiding major roadblocks.
In my next post, I’ll discuss Notion as my tool of choice and I’ll share my previous and current setup as well as talk about why I switched.
I hope it helps. Thanks for reading.
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