PRINTABLE TIP CARD: 4 principles for productivity
We live in the age of the superhuman. We’re supercharged supercomputing superbeings supertasking. We do more than any single human being in any previous era ever imagined possible. Watch us juggle between jobs and hobbies, family and friends, home stuff and travel, professional networks and personal lives. You name it — it’s already on the calendar.
No wonder we’re overwhelmed.
You know that feeling. When one task or one demand too many shifts us from all systems go to overload. That surrendering realization of, “Ugh. I. Just. Can’t. Anymore.” That’s when productivity stalls and we get stuck.
Counter to the advice of every sports coach we ever had, the answer isn’t to try harder. It’s to work smarter, to work in tune with our bodies, our brains, and our metabolic needs. In his book Your Brain at Work, David Rock explains why the burden we place on ourselves these days wears us down:
• First, decision-making is metabolically expensive. It’s not very efficient and it requires a lot of fuel (glucose and oxygen). And pretty much everything we do requires decisions — including choosing to take a left turn or a right turn, or to say no to a candy bar and choose a carrot instead.
• So it makes sense that the more decisions we make, the less fuel we have, making each successive decision harder.
• Not surprisingly, our best quality thinking lasts for a limited amount of time (some experts say 90 minutes, other say 25 minutes). And then, pffft! We need a break. The duration of that time depends on factors such as individual attention spans, stress, and energy levels.
• And perhaps most important, our best quality thinking is only possible when we’re focused on a single task at a time.
To power up our productivity, it helps to understand our brains and the massive mental energy costs of our busy modern lives. Then, we can adjust our work habits accordingly and increase our capacity to get things done.
WORKING WITH OUR BRAINS, NOT AGAINST THEM
Brains are remarkable engines. They’re also fussy, fuel-hungry, and highly susceptible to tiny changes in both the internal and external environment. To maximize their power, we can prioritize information and decision-making, automate routine tasks, and reduce distractions.
1. Prioritize critical thinking tasks. You know how, after an hour or so of browsing at a mall or a grocery store, everything starts to look the same? You can’t make decisions anymore. You’re so mentally tired that your brain wants to shorthand its work and stop filtering through billions of bytes of incoming information. That’s called decision fatigue — and it affects even the best of us.
A 2010 study of decision-making among parole review boards found that judges were six to seven times more likely to grant parole if parolees appeared before them first thing in the morning or just after a lunch break. Tired judges, low on glucose and fatigued from a whole day of high-stakes mental work, simply defaulted to the easiest possible decision.
Like those judges, we do our best quality thinking when our brains are fueled and alert. Several elements are responsible, including: rest, glucose levels (fact: our brains are powered by this basic food substance, not just our muscles), and hormone levels — which, in turn, are affected by factors such as our emotional state, stress levels, and 24-hour circadian rhythms.
Here are three ways to extend your quality thinking time:
• Determine what kinds of mental tasks deplete you and which help you build momentum for other tasks. If email drains you, save it for later. If your inbox tends to be filled with notes and ideas that help spark insights, however, it might be a good kickstart to your day.
• Take breaks to rest your brain between difficult tasks.
• Fuel yourself with complex carbohydrates to give a time-release supply of glucose to your brain. Simple carbs give your brain a spike, but then it crashes. Choose foods low on the glycemic index to maximize your energy high.
2. Automate routine tasks. Are you spending 30 minutes each morning picking your outfit? Or, in between brainstorming ideas for your afternoon meeting, is the choice between tuna salad and grilled cheese sapping your mental energy? Brain power is finite and precious, so it helps to save fuel for the decisions that matter and to automate the rest. This is where routines help. Tasks that we practice over and over again are embedded into the less-fuel hungry parts of our brains, freeing up the conscious, decision-making parts for more demanding mental processing.
Some tried and true alternatives:
• Elect a go-to outfit and lunch (e.g., Obama only wears black and gray suits; Anderson Cooper eats the same lunch daily).
• Schedule routine tasks when more important decisions or information aren’t competing for your conscious attention (i.e., pack your lunch and pick your outfit the night before).
• Perform the same task at the same time every day, such as a yoga session or reviewing your weekly budget. This is how new habits become familiar routines.
• Create habit cues. If you want to exercise every morning, keep your running shoes and equipment near the door. If you want to practice the guitar, keep it in an accessible place.
• Keep your essentials, like keys, wallet, phone, in designated places so you don’t have to exert mental energy to search for them.
• Use technology to automate bill-paying, save shopping lists, remember birthdays and anniversaries, set routine calendar reminders, or save maps or directions. Here are some good suggestions from Lifehacker.
• Make your shopping list before you set foot in the store. Retailers use all sorts of tactics to tempt you toward impulse purchases. Every time you have to consciously inhibit an urge to buy, mental energy is sapped.
3. Single-task to do your best work. The glory of multi-tasking is a myth. Each mental process (whether understanding, deciding, recalling, memorizing, or inhibiting) requires firing up billions of neurological pathways. Because each process requires many of the same pathways and lots of brain energy, one process must finish before the next can begin. So, when we think we’re multi-tasking, we’re really stopping one task and switching to another very quickly — and then back again.
Called dual-task interference, this wear-and-tear depletes the brain’s fuel stores and puts valuable insights and ideas at risk of evaporating just as they are beginning to form. Indeed, dual-task interference can cause your brain capacity to drop from that of a Harvard MBA to that of an eight-year-old, according to a 1992 study on the subject.
Another fact: when we’re fielding emails and texts all day long, we’re forcing our brains to multi-task. A 2005 study on “always-on technology” found that it reduced an individual’s performance on an IQ test by an average of ten points (five points for women, and fifteen points for men).
Follow these single-tasking tips to work smart:
• Chunk instead of multi-task: Divide your day into different kinds of mental tasks (brainstorming, then reading, then writing, then reviewing, then emailing, and so on), prioritizing the most energy-hungry tasks for the freshest part of your day.
• If you must multi-task, combine automated routine tasks with critical thinking tasks. For example, brainstorm while dishwashing. Answer voicemail while walking to the store.
• Constant emails and texts are distractions. When you need to focus on an important task, switch them off so you switch your productivity on.
• More digital distraction busters: Unsubscribe from promotional emails that suck your time or attention (or finances). Maintain “inbox zero” by archiving old emails and using filters. Use Facebook filters to keep annoying posts out of your feed and only tune into the kinds of status updates that you love. Adblock is also a great tool for blocking content or ads.
4. Get into the stress flow. The average person has a love-hate relationship with stress. Too much stress, and we can’t focus. Too little stress, and we can’t get motivated. We do our best work when we’re right in between. In psychology, this is called the Yerkes-Dodson law.
This is because stress is regulated by the levels of hormones in the blood stream. There are feel-good hormones (dopamine, serotonin, oxytocin and endorphin) that calm or arouse us, and high-alert hormones (norepinephrine, adrenaline, cortisol) that focus our attention by putting our systems on alert. Each is sensitive to internal and external signals. However, we can coax our bodies into releasing intermediate levels of feel-good and high-alert hormones through some simple tricks.
• When you’re too stressed, it helps to bring norepinephrine or cortisol levels down through relaxation techniques. Take a shower. Meditate. Go for a walk. Doodle. Write down your distracting thoughts and put them aside for later.
• On the other hand, to increase motivation, try something new to stimulate the release of dopamine. Could be reading about a new topic, a different route home, a new recipe for a familiar food.
• Reach out to others to talk through ideas out loud and ask for feedback when stress gets you stuck. Sharing thoughts and emotions and collaborating on goals bathes your brain in oxytocin.
• A few minutes of strenuous physical activity (a set of push ups, for example) can also kick you into gear with a release of endorphins.
• Visualization is another powerful trick to adjust stress levels. Imagining a feel-good reward (you’ll win the contest!) or a high-alert threat (your partner will be angry!) can help rebalance your stress levels and get you motivated.
“By understanding your brain, you increase your capacity to change your brain,” Your Brain at Work tells us. So, when productivity nosedives, take a moment to figure out what’s going on in your head. Are you wasting precious brainpower on routine tasks? Are you trying to do too many things at one time? Do you need to decrease or increase your stress level? Once you put a label on your cognitive roadblock, it’s easier to reach for the right tool or tip to start moving forward. As an extra benefit, we create new neural pathways that rewire our brains for greater productivity.
PRINTABLE TIP CARD: 4 principles for productivity
Next week: How to revitalize your routine
Last week: 40 ways to start a gratitude habit
Use Unstuck’s “Shake Up Your Routine” tool to plan a routine that helps you be productive and still have a life. You can download the free Unstuck iPad app here.
There’s not a single downside to gratitude — except that it’s easy to ignore.
When put into practice, gratitude creates a virtuous circle. It fosters contentment, joy, respect, and connection to our world and the people in it. You might say it’s a recipe for happiness.
Gratitude makes us feel good inside. And when we share it, other people feel good inside. And you know what happens then: The feel-good-insiders send their goodwill to more people, who in turn start feeling good inside. Good feelings boomerang everywhere.
Now if that sounds too absurdly optimistic, consider this: Free-flowing gratitude can help you get unstuck. “Feeling good lubricates mental efficiency, making people better at understanding information and using decision rules in complex judgments,” writes psychologist Daniel Goleman in his book Primal Leadership. Translation: It makes you smarter.
The rub is, we can’t just hit-and-run with gratitude — you know, give a little to get a little. Any feel-good spike we may achieve will quickly erode. But if we consider and express gratitude regularly, then we can maintain our good feelings. It’s a matter of creating the habit.
Try this: Whatever your get-things-done method is, fold in a “what are you grateful for?” reminder. Then come up with ways to act on your gratitude. Here are 40 to get you started.
1. For a job well done, be the one who publicly gives credit to all the contributors.
2. Make a list of things you take for granted, like running water and supermarkets, and then imagine your life without them.
3. Find out what someone’s favorite hot beverage is and buy one for him — and let him know why.
4. Smile at someone.
5. Say something kind to the coworker who gets on your nerves.
6. Show handmade appreciation for long-term friendships: a custom playlist, homemade cookies, personalized T shirt, framed photo of you together.
7. When someone gossips, pay a compliment to the person under scrutiny.
8. Buy a membership to a museum you wouldn’t want to live without.
9. Let someone cut in the grocery or coffee line if they seem like they really need it.
10. Care for the outside space you spend time in (hiking, picnicking, lying on the beach) by leaving it better than you found it.
11. Tell someone she looks nice today.
12. Mail a handwritten letter to someone who’s made your life better in some way, big or small.
13. Show patience with a person who is having a bad day.
14. Create a holiday and name it after the person who means the world to you.
15. Put a nice note attached to your tip in the coffee shop tip jar.
16. Leave a sweet Post-it note on the bathroom mirror for a special someone to find.
17. Donate what you can — time, money, or goods — to causes that you believe make the world better. Some to consider: Goodwill. Your local food bank. National Military Family Association. World Wildlife Fund. The Children’s Aid Society. Books for Africa. Project C.U.R.E. Habitat for Humanity. Environmental Defense Fund. You can find many more at charitynavigator.org.
18. Turn to someone you know and say, “I’m glad you’re here.”
19. Listen without distraction to a friend who needs listening to.
20. Send your pal a funny card or ecard.
21. Share your knowledge.
22. Give holiday tips to the people who regularly provide services to you. Emily Post offers her guidelines here.
24. When you someone offers you a compliment, say how much you appreciate it instead of deflecting it.
25. Invite a neighbor over for a meal or a glass of wine.
26. Reach out to someone just because. Not because it’s a special occasion, or you need something, or you’re organizing plans — but just to check in and say hi.
27. Leave a personal voicemail instead of texting. There’s a powerful intimacy about the human voice.
28. When offering criticism, preface your comments with something positive about that person or his or her work.
29. Publicly compliment a friend on Facebook, Twitter, at a party.
30. Tell your folks how lucky you are to be their kid.
31. Keep a birthday calendar so you can wish people well at least once a year.
32. Energy is infectious! Be enthusiastic about plans, projects, and events.
33. Once in awhile, take on a task that usually isn’t yours. For example, make the morning coffee and serve it on a nice tray, even if that’s your partner’s “job.”
34. Offer to babysit or dog walk for a friend who seems stressed out.
35. Reach out to important people in your life when something big happens. It’s always nice to be among the first to know.
36. Pick up the bar tab for a friend who is going through financial difficulties.
37. Think of a favor someone once did for you and try to pay it forward (offered a networking opportunity that helped you get a job; assisted with a move; coached you through a difficult break up).
38. Write a note to someone’s manager to report great service.
39. Wear, use, or otherwise acknowledge a gift in the presence of the gift-giver.
40. If there’s a blog or a website you love, send an email to the authors to say how much it means in your life.
We thank you for reading to the end of this story.
When we stop listening to the inner voice that tells us who we are and what we value — that’s when we get stuck. When we allow the world to make our decisions for us, our to-do list transforms from planning tool to unwelcome tyrant. We feel busy, but we wonder, “Is this it? Where’s the excitement?”
Sure, we could ditch the day job to write the Great American Novel, or pack our bags for a Peace Corps adventure, but the truth is, we don’t have to go further than our own heart to find what fulfills us. Purpose is, after all, a process of decision-making, of matching your core values with what you do in your daily life.
When you define your purpose and commit to it, wonderful things become possible:
• A sense of integrity and consistency.
• A sense of being in the zone. Life becomes more navigable. Decisions become more intuitive. You wake up knowing what you want to do and why.
• A sense of value that what you do and who you are makes a difference in the world.
But what if you’re having trouble hearing that voice? Consider Kathy Miner, who had to step away from the din of the fashion industry to listen to hers. Then find a quiet spot (no need to leave your job) to work through our printable Purpose Practice Sheet to start listening to yours.
TUNING IN TO PURPOSE
Kathy Miner was a serial entrepreneur. Twenty years ago, she found herself at a crossroads. Her career had given her money and success, but left her unhappy and emotionally bankrupt.
“When you’re finally in enough pain that you know you have to do something else, I think that’s really what moves you,” Kathy says. “I decided that whatever I did, I would give to the planet, to make some kind of contribution.” Yet, she says: “It wasn’t a drumroll or a light bulb. Just a voice that said, Choose.”
She had no clear idea of what she would do. But she knew that her core values were no longer in line with the “bumpy, unhealthy road” she’d found herself on. So she decided to move to a smaller apartment and began to pack up, intending to pare down and figure out her next move.
Then her inner voice pointed her toward an opportunity. Though she’d originally intended to hand off much of her business clothing to Goodwill, she instead decided to call the Salvation Army Gateway Program, a transitional housing facility for the homeless, to ask if they’d let her provide professional clothes and image counseling to women seeking employment.
This was a pivotal moment for Kathy. Without realizing it, what she chose was a way to combine her passion and professional expertise with her core desire to give. Once the program said yes, things happened fast. Kathy had neither money nor a plan, but she was driven by purpose — and, with that mindset, she found that she could make miracles happen. Friends generously opened their closets. Contacts in the apparel industry sent shipments of career clothing. Hairdressers donated salon services, and a local cosmetic company donated makeup.
“Figuring out how to help the poor without any money was the biggest challenge,” Kathy says, “but I was creative about getting what I wanted. Nothing was going to stop me.”
Kathy, then in her early 40s, would spend all week collecting clothes, writing grants, finding new clients, dressing and counseling them. On weekends, she’d put on her jeans and collect quarters from the 10 gumball machines she’d installed around town as a passive source of income. “It was the most wonderful time of my life,” she says. “I had nothing. I could not wait to get up in the morning.”
Kathy’s “maniac-with-a-mission” project eventually became the nonprofit, A Miner Miracle. Over 20 years, it would grow to include services for men, young adults, and homeless vets as well as a successful retail shop that functions as a fundraising vehicle to assist more than 15,000 low-income Bay Area individuals in their quest to reenter the workforce.
“It’s a conscious choice,” Kathy says. “My personal purpose to be a caring, giving person has to be expressed outside of me.” So when Kathy feels off-purpose? Her solution is to “go give to someone in need.”
YOUR PURPOSE PRACTICE SHEET
To help you define your purpose without leaving your job or home, we created a four-part worksheet. The reason for each section is explained below. All you’ll need is a pencil and a quiet space to think, feel, and listen to yourself.
1. Reflect on what you really value.
Reflection “helps you say no to the less important things that simply clutter up a life and yes to the more important things that define the purpose in life,” say Richard Leider and Alan Webber, authors of the new book Life Reimagined: Discovering Your New Life Possibilities. The questions in part one of the Practice Sheet ask you to consider your life from different perspectives to surface what is meaningful to you. Notice the patterns and motifs that emerge in your responses — that’s your inner voice speaking. It may be telling you that you value knowledge, or the spirit of adventure, or connection with others, or helping people be their best. Answer honestly to tune into what’s really true.
2. Match yourself to an opportunity.
An aha moment is just a term for when your core values meet a good opportunity to express them. When considering your options, let them run the whole range: Big and small, some that you’d need to stretch for, and others already in your own backyard. Then look for cross-connections with your values. When you let your values guide you toward an opportunity, you’ll be able to define your purpose.
3. Maximize/minimize what you need.
Any change in direction requires a change in resources. With a purpose in mind, you’ll need to add or increase some things, and remove or decrease others. Of course, there’s a lot of stuff in the daily grind that we don’t love doing (who really enjoys filling out a timesheet?) but are still necessary pieces of the larger puzzle. On the other hand, what else could you do with all those hours spent online reading blogs? Or the money spent keeping up with fashion trends? How can time and money become tools to express purpose? Is there a class you could take? (Coursera or Khan Academy offer hundreds of free online classes, ranging from coding to psychology.) Or an opportunity to travel, to indulge in a creative passion, or to volunteer? And, consider all the times you automatically say yes to others’ requests — what gets displaced on your personal to-do list as a result?
Tip: Your answers to part 1 will be helpful for making these lists.
4. Use your purpose to filter your future.
Knowing what your purpose is serves as a kind of divining rod for your life. It lets you zoom out and test choices against the bigger questions of what you want in life. It’s especially helpful when you find yourself distracted, overly busy, or uninspired, so we suggest you keep the “Filter by Purpose” questions on hand.
DOWNLOAD THIS: Purpose Practice Sheet
Rumor has it that thinking about purpose is a luxury — an exercise for do-gooders or artistic souls who somehow got caught in finance careers. Purpose doesn’t pay the bills (hey, it won’t even do the dishes), so why bother thinking about it?
Because, plainly put, purpose defines who we are and what we do in life.
Think about it. We all know people who have a kind of inner glow — not because they eat kale salad, but because they are animated by purpose. It feeds their self worth. It informs their actions, and helps them thoughtfully decide how and where they allocate energy. And that creates lives that are worth getting out of bed for.
Discovering our purpose happens in different ways. Some see it in a sudden flash. For others, it comes more gradually: Stepping outside social norms or recovering from tragedy or connecting with those less well-off. Then there are people who have always known what to do, either through family influence, passion, or instinct.
No matter the course, when we realize our purpose, we realize what’s fun about life. To prove our point, we tracked down 20 people who shared their stories of when they discovered purpose — and stopped hitting the snooze button. Their enthusiasm is contagious.
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