“I am not productive, and I need some tips to fix my problems,” you tell yourself. You unlock your phone, open Google, and search for the keyword “productivity tips.” Over 250 million results pop up. I am not making the number up for sarcasm, by the way. Heck, even I have written one such article.
You try those productivity tips, but they do not seem to work. You read article after article, trying one suggestion after another to only notice minor changes in yourself. “Why don’t they work? Maybe I’m useless,” you say as you slump into a corner. Sometimes, you believe those tips are stupid.
But does that mean either the advice you read or you yourself are worthless? Not at all. Not every tip will work for you because you’re unique, just like anybody else.
Over the last few months, I have received many such emails asking for solutions to a lack of motivation and poor productivity. But taking that approach to solving the problem is incorrect because your mind doesn’t look at those areas as one single concept. It’s like asking a construction architect for 10 tips to build a fabulous building. Even if he gives you those tips, you cannot implement them to the dot until your fundamentals of foundations, measurements, beams, walls, and mortar are rock solid.
Similarly, productivity is a combination of different areas. If you find yourself lazy or unmotivated, your problems will have reasons utterly different from the person next to you. Next time you read a productivity tip off the internet which does not yield results, do not curse yourself or the person who wrote it.
Knowing where your challenges stem from is the first step to becoming more productive. Therefore, to fix your problems, let us explore the different facets of productivity.
The 5 areas of productivity
1. Goal Clarity
Knowing your goal and the purpose why you’re aiming for it is imperative for any productivity tip to work. Consider it like the foundation of a massive structure. Irrespective of how excellent your other construction skills are, if you do a poor job at this primary step, the building will crumble sooner or later.
The most common, yet least realized problem of productivity is unclear goals.
Let me tell you a story of Jacob, who considered himself as lazy as Koala bear. One day, he decided to change himself forever. He tried a ton of different ways to improve the situation:
- He tried waking up early
- He tried working with effective to-do lists
- He tried reducing his distractions from smartphones
- He tried organizing his mailbox
- He tried meditation and working out
He found himself following the routine for a few days and slipping back to his old ways gradually. None of the methods seemed to work, and he was on the verge of giving up accepting that his laziness forever.
As a final resort, he decided to analyze why none of these techniques worked for him when he had read from multiple books and articles that these techniques work.
It took him a little soul searching to find the answer. After Jacob dug deep into his heart, he realized he was not clear on what we wanted to achieve. He had gotten used to his regular routine, daily job, the travel to work, and the boring evenings at home. In simple words, he had lost direction, purpose, and the meaning of life.
It took him some time to understand how he could gain all of it again. He first tried to identify the long-term goal that caused a fire in his belly. He realized that he was a person who loved being around people, therefore he would enjoy being a salesperson. He remembered the happiness he had experienced when he sold t-shirts during a college fest. He realized that the root of his unhappiness was in pursuing a job in programming when his heart was into sales.
Jacob did not quit his programming job immediately because he had no experience. He steadily embarked on a journey to learn how to be a competent sales guy. When he put his energy to learning sales, all the previous techniques such as waking up early, meditation, effective to-do lists started working as if someone has swirled a magic wand.
If you’re lazy, it is less to do with your methods or motivation. The likely culprit is that you have not identified a goal worth chasing. That said, you don’t have to love your goal like your soulmate. As long as you do not mind spending time on it, you’ll develop a liking with time.
Without knowing your goal, no matter how many books you read or how many productivity tips you find, nothing will change. You might be able to identify your own purpose by answering – How to Define Long Term Goals with 3 Questions.
Once you do have the answer, all your procrastination and laziness problems will suddenly disappear. The tips which you already know will start working overnight. Your scenario will change, and so will you!
Detailed article: Are you chasing your real goals?
Once you know the goal you’re aiming for, take some time to make a plan to reach your target. Many people have a goal that they hope they will achieve one day.
Not having a plan to pursue your target will lead to laziness and procrastination. You will keep telling yourself, “Let me start ….”, where the sentence ends with tomorrow, next week, next month, or any other future date.
If you rest your ass on the couch with a goal in mind, all you’ll gain is weight. At the grassroots, the concept seems as simple as eating pie. Yet, you’ll be surprised to know the number of people wandering around with a goal, without any plan or timeline to get there.
That brings me to the question: do you have a plan to achieve your goal? If not, it’s time to get started. You do not need the perfect strategy with inch by inch details. All you need is a direction to work towards and a few milestones to meet.
You must have a target for every month and every week. If you can break them further into tasks for the day, nothing like it. That said, you do not have to slap yourself if you miss the deadline or finished less than what you hoped for. Intermediate milestones go wrong all the time, but they serve a bigger purpose when they fail, which is, helping you make the necessary corrections to come back on track.
You’ll stay on course to achieve your goal even with an imperfect plan. In comparison, if you let your life run on autopilot, waiting for productivity to fix itself, you’ll only end up wasting time.
Start with a plan, no matter how rudimentary, improvise, modify, and keep going. Your plan will keep fixing the errors in itself.
Detailed article: How to make reliance plan to achieve your goal
Have you heard people complain, “I have so much work to finish every day that I don’t have time for my goals.” Such statements stem from poor task prioritization.
People do an excellent job at a task which they should never have worked on. If you let your day run on autopilot, you will spend a ton of your time on needless tasks that could have been outsourced, delegated or skipped altogether.
Keep weighing the value of every job you do. Before you start the task, ask yourself, “Does this add value, or can I pick a different task that helps me achieve my goal?” Making that evaluation should become second nature to you over time.
If you’re not mindful about where you’re spending your time, weeks, months and years will whiz by, as you remain where you are with your goal.
Be ruthless and selfish to make time for the goals you care about. If you’re spending time on a task just to appear nice or please people, you better think again.
If you’re sweating extra hours at your regular job, think if a promotion which fetches you a meager hike every few years is worth the time you spend every day every day. Maybe you could do an average job at work and use the time available to work on your actual goals.
The right prioritization is the most significant difference between the successful and the mediocre.
Detailed article: How to prioritize tasks the right way
4. Tackling distractions and increasing focus
“I get distracted easily, and I fail to focus. Therefore I cannot get any work done.” Have you heard such complaints? Maybe you have such a concern yourself.
Again, you’ll end up nowhere trying to read articles on reducing distractions in general. Each person has different distractions. Adam wants to peek into his phone while Jake wants to turn on the TV. Malcolm wants to watch a Youtube video while Betty wants to check what’s in the refrigerator.
No matter what your distraction is, they follow a typical pattern. It starts with a source, which triggers an urge that creates interference. Your best defense against such distractions is eliminating the source/trigger or introducing friction between the source and the trigger.
Let’s take a few examples.
Checking your phone repeatedly:
- Source: The smartphone itself
- Trigger: The sound of the notification
- Interference: The action of checking your phone
- Eliminate the source: Keep your phone away from reach
- Eliminate the trigger: Put your phone on mute
- Source: The TV
- Trigger: Sitting on the couch and finding the remote nearby
- Interference: The action of watching TV
Introduce friction between source and trigger:
- Leave the remote in another room. The extra effort to walk all the way and fetch the stupid little device might help you resist the urge.
- Unplug the TV after you watch it. To turn it on the next time, you’ll have to fix the plug again.
Once you face the trigger, fighting the urge to resist it is a difficult battle to win against yourself. The human brain is curious by default and likes to scratch an itch as soon as it feels one. You’ll manage to focus better by inventing ways to avoid the trigger itself.
Measuring and planning go hand in hand to achieve your goals. If you compare them with a long drive of 1000 miles, the plan helps you decide which route to take and the places to stop by, while measuring ensures you reach the destination on time. If you do not take into account the time you spend at various spots on the way, you’ll lose your reservation at the hotel and reach the destination after a long delay.
If you don’t measure your progress towards your goals, the outcome can get worse than a long drive. You may not reach your desired destination at all.
I understood the importance of measurement when I made a budget to manage my finances. A simple process of tallying your expenses by measuring your expenditure keeps your net worth on an upward climb.
You do not have to use sophisticated measurement techniques to keep a tab on your goals. Use any method you find comfortable and track your progress. Even if it isn’t the best measure, you’ll still get a dopamine rush that keeps you motivated to inch closer to your goal.
Detailed article: How to measure progress towards your goals
Do not expect productivity to solve itself for you. Neither can you approach the problem like facing a bull head-on.
You’ll have to figure out the root cause of your problem. Once you know which of the 5 areas your problem lies in, you can identify measures to find a solution to that challenge. If not, you’ll be shooting in the dark with a shotgun, hoping you’ll hit the target by chance. In the process, you’ll end up doing more damage than good.
If you find yourself wasting time regularly, procrastinating, or lacking motivation, take time to identify the cause first before jumping to experiment with a possible solution. Narrow down to the problem, take aim, fire one shot at the target, and enjoy the victory.
Maxim Dsouza has spent over a decade experimenting and finding various time management techniques to improve his productivity. He strongly understands the fact that time is a limited commodity and tries to make every second count. He has extensive experience in leadership in startups, small businesses, and large corporations.
He has helped people of different professions and age groups gain clarity on their goals, improve focus, revise their time management skills and develop an awareness of their psychological cognitive biases.