How can we be more productive?
Simple: Drink coffee, take smart drugs, use the pomodoro technique, break your project down into smaller tasks, listen to classical music (specifically this song), remove distractions from your workplace, meditate, listen to isochronic tones, use transcranial stimulation, and just don’t procrastinate.
What about that last part?
You know how you’ll have everything laid out, your textbook is open, or you have those meeting notes you need to compile in front of you, or you have all your ideas and references for your paper ready… but you just for some reason can’t open up Microsoft Word? For me, I can feel the exact moment when the rational part of my brain is trying to push me to get started and I feel an actual physical pain- and I just can’t open the damn word processor. Then I’ll open up Netflix and let out a sigh of relief. That’s the thing you don’t want to do.
Maybe not everyone has that strong of an Instant Gratification Monkey (copyright – Tim Urban) ruling their brain, but I’m sure everyone has experienced some degree of this, and maybe wrestles with procrastination on a daily basis. So how can we get ourselves to get stuff done without waiting for the Panic Monster© to kick us into gear? Here’s what’s worked really well for me:
Do two pushups or squats and take a shower.
It’s more like “Do two pushups or squats when you are distracted, and take a shower when you are lacking creativity.” This has been really effective, so give me a moment to explain why it works. If we’ve learned anything from Simon Sinek, it’s that unless we know the “why” behind something, we probably won’t do it.
Ever since I can remember, I loved combos. Whether it be in Dance Dance Revolution or some fighting game, flappy bird or even a game like Zelda where you combine the use of multiple items to get through the quest- everyone has to love combos.
Those are all examples of combos within a realm of unproductivity, and in another article I talked about the unproductivity combo dealt upon you by the internet’s “hook”. This a concept from Nir Eyal’s book “Hooked“. Basically the hook is comprised of 4 parts: a trigger, behavior, reward and investment and it explains why it’s so difficult to peel yourself off of Twitter or Facebook or Imgur or Reddit once you’ve invested a little time into it.
This article is about the flip side of that coin: how to put yourself into a loop of enhanced productivity rather than just trying to keep yourself from being unproductive. The “combo” in this
1) Use mindfulness to catch the monkey in your brain
The first step is not actually “do 2 pushups”, it’s to notice that you are becoming distracted. While it sounds simple and almost like a non-step, this first part is the most important, and it comes from something I picked up from Psychiatrist Judson Brewer. He gave a talk called “a simple way to break bad habits” where he talks about how you can use mindfulness to stop cravings that lead to bad habits. Judson described an incredibly successful experiment designed to help people abstain from cigarette smoking. People were instructed to simply be curious about their smoking cravings when they appeared. The point was to analyze and understand that craving. To not focus on “oh my god, I need a cigarette.” but to focus on “Oh I suppose I’m a little tired or irritated with my slow internet, so I am expecting a cigarette would release me from this uncomfortableness.” Just by taking a moment to really understand the craving, the participants had much more success with abstaining from smoking.
I gave this a shot and started trying to analyze what was going on in my head as I was becoming distracted. Usually it was something I could put my finger on: I was irritated with how slowly I was progressing in the project, or I couldn’t get my mind off of something someone said, or I just really wanted to watch an episode of the Simpsons. Taking notice of this craving to get distracted helped way more than I expected. It was enough to be able to say “That’s a stupid reason to stop working…” and the craving would pass. Unfortunately it doesn’t work all the time. Particularly when my willpower is low and my mindset switches to “who cares, I know why I have the craving, I just want to look at this video and I’m going to do it” This is where part 2 comes in.
2) Link a good habit to a bad one
Concept #2 comes from behavior master BJ Fogg. BJ describes in his TED talk how there are 2 very effective ways to create new positive habits: (a) Change your environment or (b) tack the habit you want to create onto an existing behavior. Since we don’t want to rent a hotel every time we want to make a new good habit, we’ll use the second option. BJ talks about how he was able to get in about a 100 pushups a day by simply pairing his new behavior – pushups, with a very commonly occurring behavior – going to the bathroom. So every time he gets up to pee, he’ll do two pushups right afterwards. You might say “Why not 10 at a time, he could end up doing 500 pushups per day” – the small number of pushups doesn’t have to do with fatigue, but the likelihood of him actually doing it. For example, if you’re trying to get yourself into the habit of running every day, you’re more likely to commit to it and and successfully make the habit- if your target is 200 meters every day rather than 5 kilometers. No matter how tired or demotivated you are, a jog up and down the street is do-able. You’ll probably end up actually doing more, maybe even 1km instead of 200 meters, but the point is that day by day you’re making the habit. You can do all sorts of things with this concept like get yourself to start flossing right after you brush your teeth. I chose to do squats or pushups when I notice I am distracted or attempting to procrastinate.
3) Why the pushups?
When I first started this, the idea was just “If I’m gonna slack off, I might as well make the habit of getting some exercise” but this ended up helping me in a way I didn’t expect- it was giving my brain a small enough boost to get me back to work. Several studies have shown that exercise, particularly high intensity exercise increases BDNF (brain derived neurotrophic factor), which stimulates the production of new neurons. BDNF is very important to learning, memory and higher thinking. I doubt 2 pushups is going to grow me another hippocampus, but it will increase blood flow, getting more energy and oxygen to the brain, making it perform a little bit better. Better performance means better willpower, which is usually enough to make me decide to keep working instead of looking at Reddit. If not, I might be able to get myself to do 5 or 10 more pushups to get a sufficient boost.
Another thing that might happen is my desire to procrastinate will be less than my desire to not have to get up and do pushups (of course this might take a couple rounds of pushups to actually be the case.) These two situations are usually enough to keep me on task. And even when it’s not, this small practice is reinforcing my ability to be mindful. So then I can catch myself on other things. If I find myself stuck looking at Facebook or whatever for too long, I can take a moment and think “Hey, maybe I shouldn’t continue doing this and actually get some work done” and if I don’t have the willpower to get to work, I do 2 pushups.
4) Take a break and let your subconscious do the work
If the task at hand only requires the will to do it, you can continue using the pushup technique. What if you have the procrastination in check but you’re doing something that requires creativity and you just can’t come up with a good idea? That’s where the shower comes in. Surely anyone has had the experience of being in a shower and having a good idea suddenly hit them out of nowhere. The fact that the subreddit /r/showerthoughts has 8.2 million subscribers shows how common that is. While of course it’s not always an option, if you are in an environment where you can take a break and hop in the shower- great. The warmth of the shower will cause you to release dopamine, and increased dopamine flow is linked to better creativity. However it doesn’t have to be a shower – you can replace it with taking a walk, sitting in a quiet place, gardening, painting or something “slow” like that. The key with the shower is not the warm water, or the act of washing, but the quiet isolation of the shower room.
My good friend says he always gets his best ideas when he’s sitting on the plane after phones have to be switched off. When Salvador Dali needed creative inspiration, he would hold keys in his hand as he relaxed on his sofa and when he dozed off, the keys would drop and wake him up. He would then quickly jot down whatever ideas he had in that moment. Thomas Edison did something similar with ball bearings and relaxing in his chair.Albert Einstein supposedly had one of his insights about the nature of light when he was rowing a boat in the middle of Lake Geneva. So what do these and being in the shower have in common? In all of these, you’re not really doing anything. Your mind is not focused on any particular task and probably not straining itself to consciously come up with ideas.
Engineering professor Barbara Oakley has a good explanation for what’s going on here. She says there are two modes for the brain to be in: a “focus mode” where you are focused on a particular task, and another state where you are relaxed called the “diffuse mode”. You can think of these states as your brain being two different types of pinball machines. The focus mode brain has many bumpers, so once the pinball takes off it’s easy for the ball to get stuck in a certain area. The diffuse mode brain has less bumpers, so the pinball bounces much farther around throughout the machine. Being consciously focused, you are actively trying to solve a problem using thinking patterns you are familiar with. However, when you are relaxed and not straining your brain to apply itself to a certain task, your subconscious can do work in the background and play with scenarios related to less commonly used thinking patterns.
In his book “Originals,” Adam Grant says that (the right kind of) procrastination is actually one of the traits of creative people who have original ideas. John Cleese has talked about the importance of “letting your ideas bake” and how a piece of writing he had completed, lost and then had to rewrite from memory was much better than the original. He said “I began to see a lot of my best work seemed to come as a result of my unconscious working on things when I wasn’t really attending to them.”
5) The Flow State Loop
Steven Kotler wrote a book about the “flow state” called The Rise of Superman, a state he describes as an optimal state of consciousness where you feel totally absorbed in the task at hand and all aspects of performance, mental and physical, go through the roof. If you’ve ever had the experience of doing something challenging that you love and 4 hours went by and the only reason you realized was because you really had to go to the bathroom, you were probably in a flow state. If you’ve worked on a paper with only 3 hours left until the deadline and your typing speed doubled and you suddenly had superhuman ability to recall any and all of the information necessary for the paper, you were probably in the flow state.
Steven says that in order to wilfully put yourself in that state, you need to be aware of a 4 part cycle that starts with  working through a phase where you really have to work hard to the point that your brain is almost overloading itself and struggling to remain focused on a difficult task. The next step  is to go into a “release” phase where you take your mind off the problem. Steven says in an interview with Big Think:
“what happens in flow is we are trading conscious processing which is slow, has very limited RAM, the working memory can only hold about 4 items at once and it is very energy inefficient, for subconscious processing. Which is extremely fast, it is very energy efficient and has pretty much endless RAM. So to do that, you have to move from struggle, you have to stop thinking about what you were trying to think about basically, take your mind off the problem. You go for long walks, gardening works very well, building models works very well.”
The third part of the cycle  is being in the state of flow. After you’ve taken your mind off the problem, you come back to it and (if you’re really lucky) your brain will start to release a bunch of performance enhancing chemicals and you’ll begin to work incredibly effectively. The last part  is a recovery phase which is sort of like a hangover. The chemicals that enhance performance (norepinephrine, dopamine, anandamide, serotonin and endorphins) are also the feel good chemicals, so you go from this amazing “high” when the flow is kicking in to feeling pretty crappy once those chemicals are used up. So it’s also important to deal with that neurochemical hangover by getting the proper vitamins, minerals and some sunlight. Then you’ll want to get up the willpower to get back to step one of the cycle, the struggle phase, so you might need to do something like …a couple pushups perhaps.
Reinforcing the loop
The best thing about this process is that you can get better at each step. The more you practice mindfulness, the more you can be mindful of your cravings. Every time you anchor the squats or pushups to your distraction, it becomes more of a habit. After a while, the minimum number of pushups or squats you do goes from 2 to 5 or 10. Steven Kotler says you can even get better at identifying what specific routines can put you into flow to the point that you can start to consistently invoke it.
Of course pushing your brain to the point where it goes into overdrive performance isn’t all that easy right off the bat. This process I’ve described is set up to encourage flow, but it’s not a sure thing. For me, I notice I can get into a mini-flow if I’ve cycled between grinding really hard and getting my mind off the task a couple times in the span of 2 or 3 hours.
What’s really important is making sure you’re taking your mind off the task in the right way. Steven Kotler says that one of the only things that you can’t do during the release phase is to watch television, because it will actually change your brain waves in a way that blocks flow. It took me a while to notice that if I worked on something, then took a break by playing a game or watching Netflix, I didn’t get those creative ideas appearing in my head. This doesn’t mean you have to absolutely bar yourself from browsing the internet until you finish the entire project, you just need to set that type of break for after you’ve gotten some ideas from your subconscious mind.
This makes me wonder how many creative insights may have been denied by people being constantly stimulated by smart phones. Most of us can’t even cross the street without replying to a text or scrolling through the Twitter feed. I wonder if Einstein would have been able to have those insights about the nature of light if he had a smart phone to look at on his boat, rather than the clouds above.