Take a moment to consider everything you know about being productive. Perhaps you think about methodologies and concepts; Getting Things Done, Inbox Zero, The Pomodoro Technique. Your thoughts go to the tools you use, like Evernote, OmniFocus, or Knowmail. And all kinds of productivity tips and advice can come to mind: “don’t multitask,” “eat the frog,” “no screen time after 9 pm.”
To succeed with all this, you developed rules, habits, and routines:
- Start the day with my number one priority, before checking email;
- Plan the next day the evening before;
- Don’t check my email more than once per hour;
- And so on.
No matter how disciplined you are, of course, you don’t always succeed at all your goals. So like most of us, you double down: set stricter rules, download additional tools, and discipline yourself even more.
At the heart of this productivity process is something you do every day, sometimes consciously, sometimes subconsciously: making choices. When you click that email notification, that’s a choice. When you prioritize one task over the other, that’s something you choose to do. When you check your Facebook feed or open that Medium article, you’re making a choice.
This is not to say all of these decisions are made consciously. As Nir Eyal explains in his book Hooked, a lot of the (tech) products we use are designed to take advantage of the subconscious processes around habit-forming to lead us to making specific choices that benefit the product creator. Even so, these are choices. If we understand the underlying process, we can improve our productivity by making better choices throughout the day.
Tired of choosing?
Our ability to make the right decisions wears off as the day progresses; it’s called “decision fatigue.” The more choices you make, the lower their quality. Recognizing your day is one long string of choices, big and small, brings a new perspective to how to plan your work.
Start with elimination
If more choices degrade their quality, making less of them increases their quality. This is why people like Barack Obama and Mark Zuckerberg always wear the same clothes (one less decision to make in the morning). But you don’t have to go to such extremes to make this work for you.
Turn off your email notification popup, and that’s one less decision to make for each incoming email (shall I read it now, yes or no?). Put your phone in flight mode while working on a difficult task, and that’s one less decision to make (shall I answer that call now or later?). Resolve to write every day at 7 am to get that book done, and that’s one less decision to make (shall I start the day writing or checking email?). The more decisions you can eliminate from your day, the easier it will be to get the remaining ones right.
Make it harder
Even after you have removed unnecessary decisions from your day, there will be plenty of them left. Many of those will be ingrained habits, choices you make subconsciously without realizing it:
- You’re concentrating on a difficult task, get stuck, then habitually check Facebook.
- You have to wait in a queue and instinctively pull out your phone to check WhatsApp.
- Your smartphone’s alarm wakes you up and the first place you go is your inbox.
For these behavioral patterns, elimination is not a solution. They’re not triggered by external stimuli (e.g., an email notification popup), but instead emerge from the depths of your own mind. Since this process is operating subconsciously, it helps to put a small barrier between yourself and the behavior you want to change: a distraction blocking app for while you’re working, putting your phone in your bag instead of your pocket (or, crazy alert, go commando, as William Powers suggests in Hamlet’s BlackBerry, and leave it at home altogether when you go out!), or using an old-fashioned alarm clock.
These small changes can create enough friction between you and the undesired behavior to avoid leading your subconscious astray.
If the quality of your decisions degrades the more you make them, it follows that you make worse decisions at the end of your day when you’ve already made many. Plan accordingly so the important decisions don’t happen after the decision fatigue has set in.
For example, don’t check your email or post a status update to the company Slack channel first thing in the morning. You might feel productive, but it’s a waste of your fresh brainpower. On the contrary, difficult activities like writing a campaign plan, making complex organizational decisions, and prioritizing tasks (prioritizing takes a lot of mental energy) are better done early on in the day, or at least after a refreshing break.
Speaking of breaks, understand that your brain can sustain deep concentration for only 60 – 90 minutes at a time. It needs regular breaks to re-energize and stay agile. This is contrary to how most of us work, staring at our screens for hours on end. Use a timer, an app, a fitness band, whatever it takes, but get into the habit of taking those refreshing five to 15 minute breaks throughout your day. As a rule of thumb, plan to take one minute of break time for every five minutes worked.
The Paradox of Choice
The above tips will help you conserve and replenish your “decision-energy” as much as possible. Yet there is one other powerful concept that might secretly be affecting your days.
In his book and popular TED talk, professor Barry Schwartz explains the Paradox of Choice with a vivid example. He goes to a jeans store to get a new pair. The sales guy asks him what he’s looking for; there are over a 100 types to choose from. Schwartz has no idea, he just wants “the kind that used to be the only kind.” Eventually, he leaves the shop with a pair, but he feels miserable, worried he made the wrong choice.
Some choice is good, says Schwartz, but too much choice is bad. Having an overabundance of options not only makes the decision harder (more fatigue), it also automatically degrades the satisfaction with the choice we do make.
If our days are a string of constant choices, big and small, perhaps the Paradox of Choice also applies to our daily productivity. A few decades ago, the amount of decisions we could make throughout a day numbered much fewer. If you work at a desk without a computer, how many things can you possibly do there? If you sit at home to read a book (the printed, paper kind), you cannot flip a page to have a quick peek at your Facebook feed. If you use a landline phone, you will not simultaneously be getting instant messages on that same device.
Compare that to our current environment: at any given moment, you can literally choose between hundreds of things to do. There are dozens of apps on your laptop and on your mobile. You can do a work-related activity one minute, then private stuff the next. There are billions of websites to visit, a constant stream of articles to read, millions of songs to listen to, decades of movies to watch, all of it 24/7. And the list goes on. If we apply the Paradox of Choice theory to this reality, is it any wonder we feel drained and unsatisfied by the time we end each day?
What to do?
In many ways, this is something you can control in your day-to-day life.
Think about the difference between reading on a basic Kindle (not the Fire), versus on an iPad or smartphone. With the latter, you are constantly tempted to briefly check your mail, or look something up on the internet. This might be going on in your subconscious, but the temptation is always lingering somewhere, sucking energy and making you wonder if you’re engaged in the right activity, or if there’s something better to do out there. An old school Kindle, on the other hand, gives you a much more emerged experience, since there is simply no option to go look something up online. No FOMO!
William Powers describes something similar in Hamlet’s Blackberry, where he talks about the difference in enjoyment between watching a jazz concert on a DVD versus on YouTube. It’s not just that he might get sucked into all kinds of other videos afterwards through YouTube’s recommendation engine, it’s also the experience during the viewing that is more shallow; there’s the constant lure of other destinations and possibilities out there on the World Wide Web, lingering in his subconscious.
Less is more
When we’re trying to get more productive, we often take the more part literally: we look for more tools, more self-discipline, more focus, more new tricks. But while all those things can be useful, we should not forget to also look for less. We can all take a cue from the late Steve Jobs when he said:
“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means it all. It means saying no to the one hundred other good ideas there are. You have to pick carefully.”
Going about our days in a productive manner is no different. It’s as much about the choices we eliminate and the things we decide not to do, as it is about those things we do end up doing.