Regardless of your profession, productivity is one of the pillars of career success. Accomplishing your goals begins self-agency—the ability to take action to address challenges--checking off your to-do list one task at a time, no matter how mundane or trivial it may seem. Some people run their lives almost solely on to-do lists and detailed schedules. For others, it is easier said than done.
Most people fall in the latter category because we are constantly bombarded with people and responsibilities that demand our attention. How can you focus on accomplishing your tasks at hand when your phone buzzes every few minutes?
To become more successful at what you do, you have to learn to take charge of your attention. Think of your mental life like your desktop—what tasks and responsibilities are top priority. You choose what to focus on instead of allowing them to control you. You have the power to determine what needs to be prioritised and what can wait. Imagine just how much you could accomplish if you stay focused on what matters most in the moment!
So, where should you begin if you want to be more productive in your day-to-day life? It all begins with acquiring habits that will lead you to success. One of the most important habits that may often be overlooked is emotional regulation.
Although making and following priorities are within your control, life is full of surprises. We don’t control the universe! If you are thrown a curveball, how you respond can determine what comes next and whether or not you will check off everything on your to-do list for the day. Develop the habit of taking a deep breath and stepping back from something that may cause unnecessary stress or anxiety. Some people are more resilient than others and are able to handle change well. However, if you happen to get thrown by unexpected changes, then perhaps it is time to try managing your expectations and adjusting your priorities on the fly as circumstances demand. Flexibility is key in a rapidly changing world.
One way to develop emotional resilience is to distinguish between internal and external factors. You can control a situation if internal factors can determine the outcome. This makes it an actionable item. Take advantage of how you interact with this situation and adjust your actions and emotions accordingly. On the other hand, if something happens that is out of your control, then you must learn to adapt to those circumstances rather than emotionally reacting to them. You can only control what you can control as the saying goes. Everything else runs its own course. Acceptance in this situation is your friend.
High-level athletes are great examples of this. Before they step onto the field, their focus is narrow deep. They only pay attention to their task at hand and focus only on what they need to do in sequence, detail and execution. Anything beyond this frame of reference is irrelevant until the situation demands that you accommodate to the external factors.
Teaching yourself to regulate your emotions and relax allows you to concentrate and focus on your priorities. You can then develop the discipline you need to work as you have planned. As you take things one moment at a time, one hour at a time and one day at a time, you will be able to develop a rhythm and momentum that works best for you.
While checking off each task on your to-do list is satisfying, try to be fully engaged in each task. Have your mind and body aligned in the task. Try to experience it fully. Even washing the dishes (a common meditation exercise) can be more enjoyable if you are fully engaged with the task. Enjoying the process of getting things done has a greater influence over your productivity. Because productive people get gratification from each task, they stay engaged in their work for a longer period of time. This allows them to accomplish more in the long run.
Needless to say, the ability to avoid procrastination requires strong mental control. You have to resist the urge to check your phone or your email while you are working so that your brain can stay focused on your task at hand. Focus, discipline, emotional regulation, and resilience are the building blocks for efficiency, task completion, and productivity. If you can master these skills, then you are on the path to success and even greater productivity.
For some people, it can be very difficult to change their mindset and how they work, especially if they have functioned this way for so long. But change is possible. It all depends on your awareness of what needs to be done. If you are aware of a problem, you can create a plan to address the challenge and allocate mental resources to deploy those resources.
Another suggestion is to try to Identify what motivates you. Take some time to think about why you need to change. Zone in on the source of the problem (and the incentive for change in the first place) especially on days when you are not up for putting in any effort. Once you are able to identify what motivates you to change, you should then put a plan in place to hold yourself accountable. Just as a soldier needs a battle plan, you need a change strategy. How and where will you make changes in your daily life? Put down concrete details and create a plan of action that you can check back on periodically.
That said, sustainable change takes time, so don’t expect a 180 degree change right away. Make sure you’re managing your expectations to prevent disappointment. It takes time to change old patterns of behaviour and incorporate a new way of thinking and acting. Mastery of life and performance skills are iterative. You master them over time as you learn to apply them to different situations and make adjustments as you learn along the way.
Humans are wired with a “negativity bias” in our brains. Anticipating threats and setbacks is a defence mechanism. We hope to prevent failure by ruminating over our shortcomings instead of successes. But rumination mostly leads to negative thinking and more anxiety. The good news is that we can train ourselves to use failure as a fuel to create new thought patterns in our brains, and as a result, better ways of working.
The ability to initiate change is a learned skill. Once we are able to put a name to this process, then it becomes a definable step that we can work on to become more successful in our daily lives. The only person who can make the change is you. Sometimes external cues to remind you to make changes. But more often than not, it is internal cues that must guide your actions.
For example, if you adopt a pet for the first time, you may not have the habit of feeding the pet every night. But your pet will come running to you when she is hungry, which will remind you to feed her. This is an external cue. Unfortunately, behavioural change doesn't come with external cues attached. You’ll need to rely on internal cues.
Pay attention to your internal cues that will trigger your desired behaviour, and inevitably lead to change. Detail an internal script that will reveal how you want to perform the change. Then look for opportunities to execute the change. The more opportunities to practice the change, the more it will become hard-wired in your brain.
As you are reading this, you may think that this sounds simple and rather obvious. But the truth is, most people do not think about these steps. It is not our natural inclination to touch base with every mental step. This causes us to skip steps and become sloppy in the process of executing change. Confused, we end up feeling uncomfortable, anxious, or disappointed. We lose momentum. And the change process stalls out.
Depending on how you were raised and the environment in which you currently find yourself, certain patterns of thought tend to fill your mind over and over again. If these are positive thoughts, then they likely boost your self-esteem and confidence in your ability to execute your daily tasks. But if they are negative, then they hinder you more than anything.
It is one thing to know that something needs to change, but it is a whole other issue if you do not figure out how you can change. Because your background is different from mine, I cannot provide you with a detailed strategy for how you can change. But there is a general method that can guide you in the process.
One of my clients is a PGA golfer who is new to the tour. He came to me because he had trouble during the fourth round of the golf tournament. Although he often played well in the first three rounds (and made the cut), he fell apart in the fourth round. His mind was hijacked by negative thoughts as the pressure mounted. Whenever he made a bad shot, anxiety would send shock waves through his mind and body. His heart rate would increase, and his muscles would tense up. His swing became less fluid which he noticed and caused a second level of distress. This in turn undermined his self-confidence which impaired his ability to execute the next shot. As with most sports, golf requires highly sequenced, highly disciplined movements.
But with negative thoughts consuming in his mind, he felt paralysed and unable to perform as he did in the first three rounds. Even though he tried to “shake it off”, the nerves would lock up his muscles. The power that his negative thoughts had over his physical body was too great.
The only way to overcome this challenge was to build mental toughness. Most athletes have to develop this over time before they can truly prevent negative thoughts from affecting their performance. The first step is to recognise what was happening. My client had to stop, reflect on what was happening and acknowledge that he was getting upset.
After being in tune with his heart and feelings, he had to develop self-regulation using relaxation techniques that would help him calm down. He must stop thinking about the negative consequences of the shot—sport psychologists call this thought stopping-- and then redirect his thoughts to something more positive.d
Then he had to focus on a mental image of making a successful shot. Intentionality is key. Because our minds are naturally wired to focus on the negative, it takes effort to steer your mind away from the negative and instead focus on a positive outcome.
Mastering this new thought-stopping and redirecting process did not happen overnight. My client practised this repeatedly whenever he was playing golf. Over time, repeating this process installed a new neural script in his brain that eventually replaced the negative script.
Some people mistakenly think that multitasking is the key to productivity. If you are able to do multiple things simultaneously, that should surely help you to accomplish more within a shorter amount of time, right? Wrong. It may surprise you, but multitasking is actually counterproductive.
The quickest way to get something done is to stay focused on one thing at a time. Tackling one goal or task at a time allows you to maximise your mental resources. Trying to multitask ends up distracting your brain as it has to recalibrate every time you shift your focus to something new.
Research shows that there is a lag effect when you bounce between different tasks. Your mind requires extra time to refocus when you return to what you were doing earlier. Because of this lag effect, you end up losing efficiency.
So, singular focus is much more effective. If you reach a point where you are too tired, stop working and do something else or better yet, rest. But trying to do two things at the same time only sets you up for less efficiency.
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Dr. Patrick Gannon
Clinical & Performance Psychologist