This Is How to Be Productive Without Being Miserable: Eight Proven Secrets

If you really want to get things done you can’t just keep your head down.

If you really want to get things done you can’t just keep your head down.

There’s plenty of good advice on how to be productive. But most of it makes you feel like you need to turn yourself into a machine. You don’t want to be Robby the Robot.

Here’s the thing: you often don’t need help with the doing part. You know what to do. Sit down and finish the damn task. But you don’t. Why? Often it’s about feelings.

What really gets in your way?

  • “It scares me.”
  • “I don’t feel like it right now.”
  • “This sucks and I don’t wanna do it.”

Those are feelings. And if you don’t deal with those feelings, all the mechanistic lifehacks in the world aren’t going to help you scratch things off your to-do list.

The best productivity system is the one you stick with. And if a system makes you miserable, it’s not going to last. End of story. So can you be more productive without turning into Siri or Hal 9000?

The research and experts say the answer is, “Yes.” Let’s get to it…

Start The Day Happy

The sound of the alarm clock should not signal, “Time for the pain to begin.”

So indulge yourself a little in the morning. Whatever puts you in a good mood, allow yourself some of that. TV, video games, something tasty — whatever.

Research shows your mood in the morning affects your productivity all day:

Researchers found that employees’ moods when they clocked in tended to affect how they felt the rest of the day. Early mood was linked to their perceptions of customers and to how they reacted to customers’ moods. And most important to managers, employee mood had a clear impact on performance, including both how much work employees did and how well they did it.

You’ll never be as productive as you could be if you don’t make a little effort to improve your mornings.

(To learn the 7 step morning ritual that will keep you happy all day, click here.)

Okay, you’re starting the day off happy and that leads to productivity. But how can you come up with new ideas and clever solutions to problems without a machine-like 27 step brainstorming process?

This answer is easy, fun, and feels great…

Scrub Your Way To Creativity

Research shows there’s a strong relationship between feeling relaxed and being creative. And what’s the most relaxing part of the average person’s day? That morning shower.

Scott Barry Kaufman, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania, found that 72% of people have new ideas in the shower — in fact, far more often than when they’re at work. Here’s Scott:

We did this international study and found that more people reported having great insights in their shower than they did at work. Disconcerting, I guess. It seemed like there’s definitely some benefits to being in a relaxed state.

So step into the shower with more than soap — bring a problem to noodle on. You’re primed to be at your most creative, so take advantage of the opportunity.

(To learn what Harvard research says will make you happier and more successful, click here.)

Your rubber ducky is giving you the “Eureka” moment you needed. But bad feelings can be an obstacle to getting things done once you hit the office.

Your mind can be filled with worries that play over and over like a song stuck in your head. This common condition has a name. And a solution…

Close Loops To Kill Worries

Researchers call it the Zeigarnik effect. But nobody can pronounce that so you and I will just call it, “Oh-Lord-God-Please-Make-The-Anxiety-Stop.

When you’ve got something you know you need to take care of but you haven’t done anything about it, your brain is like an annoying smartphone app that won’t stop with the notifications.

And guess what? The problem is even worse than you thought. Those constant worries aren’t just annoying and anxiety-inducing, studies show they also make you stupid:

Five studies examined whether the processes associated with unfulfilled goals would interfere with tasks that require the executive function, which has a limited focal capacity and can pursue only one goal at a time. In Studies [Study 1] and [Study 2], activating a goal nonconsciously and then manipulating unfulfillment caused impairments on later tasks requiring fluid intelligence (solving anagrams; Study 1) and impulse control (dieting; Study 2).

So how do you clear your head? Write down the concern along with a quick plan of what you’re going to do to address it.

Once you’ve done that, your brain can relax. It closes the loop and ends the Zeigarnik effect:

Committing to a specific plan for a goal may therefore not only facilitate attainment of the goal but may also free cognitive resources for other pursuits. Once a plan is made, the drive to attain a goal is suspended–allowing goal-related cognitive activity to cease–and is resumed at the specified later time.

(To learn how to use writing to overcome anxiety, tragedy or heartache, click here.)

You’re happy, creative and your head is clear. But now the task in front of you is filling you with dread. How can you get motivated to start something you absolutely do not feel like doing?

Make Awful Tasks Your Own

Dan Pink, bestselling author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, says the research shows one of the keys to motivation is a feeling of autonomy.

From Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us:

Think for a moment about the great artists of the last hundred years and how they worked—people like Pablo Picasso, Georgia O’Keeffe, and Jackson Pollock…Nobody told them: You must paint this sort of picture. You must begin painting precisely at eight-thirty A.M. You must paint with the people we select to work with you. And you must paint this way. The very idea is ludicrous.

So take five minutes and find a way to make an awful task your own. Rather than mechanistically following a standard process, think about what you can bring to this. How willyou choose to handle it?

How much of yourself can you inject into the process? What will make this more interesting? How can you leverage your strengths or your abilities to do it your way?

The more you make the work something uniquely “you”, the more motivated you’ll be.

(To learn more from Dan on how to motivate yourself, click here.)

The dread is dead. But you still might procrastinate. You can make a task your own but you might be downright afraid of it, overwhelmed or just insecure about your ability to handle the project.

How do you get those awful feelings out of the way so you can unleash the kind of productivity that will put a dent in the Earth?

Break Down Procrastination

Anything that increases your perception of control over a situation — whether it actually increases your control or not — can substantially decrease your stress level.

Via Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long:

Steve Maier at the University of Boulder, in Colorado, says that the degree of control that organisms can exert over something that creates stress determines whether the stressor alters the organism’s functioning…Over and over, scientists see that the perception of control over a stressor alters the stressor’s impact.

And don’t just trust the research. Astronauts, Special Forces soldiers and even Samurai agree: a feeling of calm control can reduce how much you stress about a task.

But what’s an easy way to get that control flowing through your veins?

David Allen, the guy behind the popular Getting Things Done productivity system, says we often feel stressed because projects seem too big and scary. So break intimidating tasks down into tiny steps that you can easily manage.

From Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity:

Defining your work entails clearing up your in-tray, your digital messages, and your meeting notes, and breaking down new projects into actionable steps.

I’m pretty sure Genghis Khan’s to-do list didn’t say, “Remember to conquer Asia tomorrow.” Whoa. Too big.

The post-it note on his desk probably said, “Just decimate the tribe next door.” And then the next tribe. And then the next. That’s manageable. And before you know it, you’ve got your own continent.

(To learn how to stop being lazy, click here.)

Okay, you’re conquering the bad feelings that prevent accomplishment. But how do you increase the good feelings to get even more done? It’s not hard…

Keep Progress Visible

You probably have a “to-do” list. But I’ll bet you don’t have a “did-it” list.

When I spoke to the awesome Josh Kaufman, bestselling author of The Personal MBA, he said a “did-it” list is a critical tool.

It allows you to see your progress. And Teresa Amabile‘s research at Harvard found that the single most motivating thing is progress in meaningful work.

Via The Progress Principle: Using Small Wins to Ignite Joy, Engagement, and Creativity at Work:

This pattern is what we call the progress principle: of all the positive events that influence inner work life, the single most powerful is progress in meaningful work; of all the negative events, the single most powerful is the opposite of progress—setbacks in the work.

So keep a list of all the things you’ve accomplished today where you can see it. That’s dehydrated concentrate of motivation, that’s what that is.

You might think, “Well, I know what I did today.” That’s not enough. Write it down. Take a tip from the happiness research. When you take a moment to write down the things that made you happy that day, they have more power.

(To learn the best way to manage your time, click here.)

So you do all these things… but you’re still not as productive as you need to be. And that makes you feel lousy. How do you prevent those feelings from putting you back in the productivity doghouse?

Forgiveness Keeps You Going

When you don’t get everything done that you expected to, the most common reaction is to beat yourself up. Again, mood and productivity are connected. And guess what?

Beating yourself up only makes it harder for you to get things done.

Forgiving yourself is like a miracle drug. Instead of “letting you off the hook” and making you lazy, research shows it actually reduces future procrastination, increases creativity, and boosts self-control.

Want to be more self-compassionate? It’s easy. Talk to yourself the way you would talk to a friend who was feeling down about not being productive. Kristin Neff, a professor at University of Texas at Austin, explains:

One easy way to be self-compassionate is just ask yourself, “What if I had a very close friend who was experiencing the exact same thing that I am experiencing now?” The idea is you use that same quality of warmth, support, encouragement, tenderness, understanding with yourself that you more typically show to other people.

Be nicer to yourself when you screw up and you’ll not only feel better — you’ll get more done.

(To learn the schedule that the most productive people use every day, click here.)

Alright, we’ve learned a lot. Let’s round it all up and get the final tip on the emotional path to improving productivity…

Sum Up

Here’s how to be productive without becoming a miserable robot:

  • Start the day happy: How you wake is how you work. Having a little fun early means better results later.
  • Scrub your way to creativity: Bring a challenge into the shower and come out with a solution.
  • Close loops to kill worries: Make a plan and write it down to silence the voice in your head.
  • Make awful tasks your own: Put your own spin on how you do something and you’ll be more motivated.
  • Break down procrastination: Conquer Asia one tribe at a time, Genghis.
  • Keep progress visible: Put a “did-it” list next to the “to-do” list for motivational rocket fuel.
  • Forgiveness keeps you going: Beating yourself up kills productivity. Treat yourself like you would a good friend.

These days one of the biggest enemies you deal with is distraction. But there’s a fun solution to this: work near a super-productive friend.

Even if they’re not helping you, just being around them can improve your focus. How powerful is this? Powerful enough to help people with ADHD.

Via Friendfluence: The Surprising Ways Friends Make Us Who We Are:

Just having friends nearby can push you toward productivity. “There’s a concept in ADHD treatment called the ‘body double,’  ” says David Nowell, Ph.D., a clinical neuropsychologist from Worcester, Massachusetts. “Distractable people get more done when there is someone else there, even if he isn’t coaching or assisting them.” If you’re facing a task that is dull or difficult, such as cleaning out your closets or pulling together your receipts for tax time, get a friend to be your body double.

You won’t be super-productive by trying to pretend you’re a machine.

If you really want to get things done you can’t just keep your head down. You also need to keep your smile up.

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Eric Barker is a writer who has been featured in the The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Wired and TIME. He also runs the Barking Up the Wrong Tree blog. Join his 205,000-plus subscribers and get free weekly updates here. This piece originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree.