This is a guest post from Alex Romero. To find out how you can become a guest contributor on Productivity Theory, read our Write For Us page.
From my view, all good work habits are meant to build on three areas or skills.
These skills are:
- Raw focus
- Finding the essential
- Motivational energy
The better you are at focusing for extended periods of time, working on your most important work, and creating motivation, the more productive you’ll be. Allow me to walk you through three different habits for improving each of these skills.
1. Productive Meditation
Cal Newport is a Computer Science Professor at Georgetown who frequently walks from his home to campus. Frustrated by time he felt was being wasted traveling by foot, he implemented a strategy of thinking through mathematical proofs during his walks.
Now this isn’t the habit of some super genius, it’s actually something we can all do to recover unproductive downtime during the day and to increase our focus. Here’s how to begin:
- Pick something simple you want to create or learn about. Quotes are a great way to begin.
- While you’re walking around or doing chores, set aside 20 minutes where your mind should only focus on this one task or idea. Set a timer to have a clear start and end point to this practice.
- Your mind will naturally wander. Gently bring it back to your topic at hand.
- When time is up, jot down the key insights you’ve made. You can write stuff down a during your 20 minutes as well.
You can do this for almost anything whether you want to outline an article, work through an assignment for school, or you have a problem in your personal life. As you get better at this practice you’ll be able to productively meditate for longer and solve more difficult problems.
2. Prioritize Prioritizing
This idea isn’t too complicated, but it’s incredibly important. Most importantly, it will be hazardous for you if you fail to do it. The first ‘task’ you should do every the morning is to determine what’s most important today.
While many people talk about prioritization, the science behind it comes from David Rock’s cognitive science book Your Brain at Work. The problem with not prioritizing, he says, is that it’s too easy to get lost in a pool of email or other not-so-crucial tasks right from the beginning of the day.
This wouldn’t be so bad if we could just start prioritizing after, say, 30 minutes of email – but often times we can’t and won’t. Deciding what’s important and what’s not is very difficult to do from a cognitive perspective. Prioritizing is mentally draining which is why it must be done as soon as your work day starts.
3. Motivational Questions
We often think of motivation as something that comes and goes fluidly, without our direct control. But with some training, we can have a lot more influence over our motivation than we once thought.
Charles Duhigg, in his book Smarter, Faster, Better studied folks from all walks of life to find out what makes people do the things they do. He found that the two biggest reasons for a loss of motivation occurred when people had a low sense of control or a low sense of meaning.
Duhigg studied marines in training. And he noticed that while the trainees were in the middle of a particularly brutal drill, their commanders would have them ask one other, “Why are you here?”
As one of the drill instructors explained:
If you can link something hard to a choice you care about, it makes the task easier…That’s why they asked each other questions starting with “why.” Make a chore into a meaningful decision, and self-motivation will emerge.
Twice during your work: at the beginning and middle of your day, ask yourself these two questions about your todo list:
- What larger aim are these tasks working towards and why does it matter?
- What is a small but significant first step that I can take to move forward? How will I take it?
Connect what you’re doing to some higher purpose in your life. Then identify and take that one small step that gives you a sense of progress. This well help improve what some people call your internal locus of control. With these two steps, repeated over time, you can deeply strengthen your relationship to your work.
So here’s the drill:
- Pick an idea, task, or quote and meditation productively on it for 20 minutes at a time.
- Prioritize Prioritizing before doing anything else.
- Make sure to ask ‘why does this matter?’ and ‘what’s one small step forward?’ often.
Have fun and work smart!