Even though I don’t think New Year’s resolutions work, I’m still a sucker for the kinds of self-improvement lists popping up everywhere this time of year. “Five foods you should never eat!” “The only three exercises you’ll ever need!” “The ten best breakfasts for fat burn!” Even my own recommendations for modifying a morning routine turned up in the latest issue of Working Mother Magazine condensed by the journalist who interviewed me into three ways to “Change a Habit, Change Your Day.”
I’m clearly not the only one irresistably drawn to quick fixes. So here’s another list.
My Five Favorite Tips for Becoming More Productive
1) Don’t wait for motivation to strike.
You don’t have to feel motivated to start. Momentum builds from action, so do something. Anything. Once you take the first step, it gets easier.
2) Stop fooling yourself.
Think you’ll do it later? Think again. Get started now because it will never happen later.
3) Make a daily To Do list.
And then cut it by two-thirds. There’s nothing more daunting than a long list of tasks you’ll never finish. Pick a few items you know you can complete in one day. You can always add more if you have time.
4) Do the hard stuff first.
It’s tempting to get started on the easy, mindless tasks but by the time you get around to the more difficult ones, you’ll have run out of steam (see #2). Motivation researchers have shown we have limited stores of willpower. So jump in and tackle the big challenges first, before your willpower dwindles.
5) Reward yourself.
You may think your day is already front-loaded with too many pleasurable activities (watching cute kitty videos on YouTube, playing Candy Crush Saga, searching home design sites for the perfect ottoman, reading political blogs, making Fantasy Football trades, sneaking in an episode of your favorite TV series). But you’re probably using those as distractions, not rewards. Do the time-wasters after you’ve finished a task and they’ll become motivators instead of sources of guilt. You’ll either enjoy them more or discover the limitations of their appeal, thereby freeing up time to explore new (and possibly more meaningful) leisure pursuits.
So test out my suggestions. If they work, you may never need to make another New Year’s resolution again.
Lately I’ve been thinking a lot about time—about its elusive nature, its short supply, and its too-rapid passage.
So far no one has invented an app to add more hours to the day. But we can change our relationship to time. How? Through meditation. By adding a formal mindfulness practice to your agenda, you can slow your pace or heighten your awareness of even the briefest moments to get the most bang for your temporal buck.
I came to this discovery recently during a meditation practice. On weekdays, I usually I try to meditate as soon as I arrive at the office. I don’t like to feel rushed, and I get in early enough to give myself plenty of time.
But on this particular day, I needed to answer emails and couldn’t fit in the practice before my first appointment. So, I decided to squeeze it in during a break. I set the timer for twenty minutes and began to focus on my breath, as I do nearly every day.
What I noticed was this: I found myself hurrying, trying to get through the exercise as quickly as possible. I wasn’t cutting short the time—twenty minutes is twenty minutes, no matter how you may try to speed it up—but I remained acutely aware of the clock until the bell I’d set to mark the end of my practice (there is an app for that) rang. I found the process frustrating and unsatisfying.
We often dash through our days in just the same way, rushing to complete one activity so we can move on to the next. Focusing on the end product rather than the process of getting there takes away from what’s happening in the present moment—so much so, in fact, that we often can’t even remember what we’ve just experienced.
When my son was in high school, he had his own epiphany about time. Now a college senior majoring in music performance, back then he’d already begun to get serious about his trumpet playing and, under the guidance of an outstanding teacher and mentor, was finally learning how to practice. Until that point, he’d put in the requisite fifteen or twenty minutes, speeding through his scales and embouchure drills so he could get them over with and play video games. But after reading The Inner Game of Tennis and discovering how to focus, he started playing longer and with a greater sense of presence.
Although 15-year-old boys aren’t typically known for their ability to verbalize complex internal processes, he summed up his experience with an uncharacteristically Yoda-like observation: “When I used to practice, 15 minutes felt like an hour. Now an hour feels like 15 minutes.”
Of course he didn’t realize he’d achieved the enviable mental state called “flow.”
Most of us overly scheduled people would seriously question adding yet another task to our already excessive daily To-Do lists. Between going to work, looking after a family, attempting to maintain a semblance of fitness, and maybe even having a social life, how can we find the time?
It’s possible to make room in your agenda for a mindfulness practice, even though it might mean playing fewer games of Angry Birds or Tweeting less frequently. By including twenty minutes of meditation—or even just five, for starters—you might find you accomplish more throughout the rest of the day. Or, as my son realized, you might even enter The Zone: that sweet spot where you connect effortlessly with your experience and don’t even notice the passage of time. You’ll still have only twenty-four hours at your disposal. But it could feel like all the time in the world. Or like no time at all.
I’m setting my stopwatch. I plan to write this post in 30 minutes or less.
Why the rush? This week I’ve heard from more than a few stressed out students, my own kids included, who’ve been in the throes of end-of-semester panic. Classes ended yesterday for GW and Georgetown undergrads, and the law students are already in the middle of exams. I’ve been dispensing advice about minimizing distractions, organizing time, and setting reasonable goals to deal with overwhelming volumes of work. So I thought it only fair to test it out myself.
Of course, a blog post doesn’t come close to a 30-page academic paper or a 90-page outline for a Constitutional Law final. But I still have to focus my attention, quiet the internal critic, resist the urge to get a snack, and get the words down.
Only 15 minutes left. (It took me 15 minutes to do just this much? How will I ever finish? This isn’t very interesting. I’m not sure what else I have to say. Why did I decide to do this? What a stupid idea!) I’m noticing some tension in my neck and chest. The words aren’t flowing very quickly. My mind is going blank!
(OK, take a deep breath. Close your eyes and take three calming breaths. You can type with your eyes closed.)
That’s better. Still don’t know exactly where I’m going with this. (I should have planned it beforehand. It would have been easier with a plan.)
The urge to stop right now is getting stronger. But fair is fair. I’ll keep going until the 30 minutes are up.
I’ve learned something from this experiment. Telling yourself you have to get something done in just 30 or 60 minutes, or even two hours, isn’t the best way to approach a deadline. Better to leave yourself some leeway because the extra pressure of the clock raises your anxiety and clouds your thinking. Keep that in mind for the next time.
But if you’re already in a bind and have no choice, set the clock for a half hour and push through. Ignore the inner monologue and keep going. Then take a break. That’s what I’m going to do now. Because my 30 minutes are up.
Full disclosure: I did go back and make two-minutes’ worth of edits. (Not too bad! This may not be my most brilliant piece of writing, but I’m OK with it.)
Another important takeaway lesson: every effort doesn’t require perfection. Sometimes you just have to get the job done. So just do it.
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