Hey you, you’ve made it to video number three in this second module. In the previous video we talked about creating physical space, but this lesson is about getting you in the right mental space to be purposefully productive.
When I talk about mental space, I’m talking about motivation and focus on the one hand and distractions and procrastination on the other hand. It’s about creating space for new ideas and opportunities to show up in your life. Okay, here we go.
Before we dive in, I want to leave you with this. Because this is important to remember when your motivation is at zero.
Occasionally, you have off days, unproductive days, or days when you just want to watch Netflix and ignore everything on your to-do list. And then you feel bad for not being motivated and not getting anything done. Is this you?
This is important for you to remember: it is literally not possible to be 100% motivated, productive, and excited to work and do the things you need to do 5 (or 6 or 7) days a week, 52 weeks each year. It’s just not. No matter how on top of it you are, there will still be days when you sit down to work and it just isn’t happening. Days when closing all your tabs and turning off all notifications on your phone and forcing yourself to focus still won’t get the job done.
Why? Because no matter what type of job they do, every single person in the history of the world, like ever, has days when they just can’t make it work. I still have days when creativity and motivation are just not happening and I work all day long to only end up with one thing finished. I have days where 95% of my to-do list looks like lifting an entire car over my head with one arm and that leaves me at my computer thinking “Ughhh I do not have time for this. Why can’t I get it together?”
This is my permission slip for you: cut yourself a little slack. It’s okay, do it. It’s totally normal and, in fact, expected to have days where you cannot be as productive and creative as you want to be. You have to learn to be okay with that.
Whip out your worksheet and answer this:
How do you treat yourself when you can’t get it together enough to get the work done? What do you say or do and how does that make you feel?
What is your backup plan when this happens? For instance, padding your schedule so you aren’t always running into your deadlines.
What is your unmotivated plan of action? What things can help to get you going again? For instance, get out of the house for a while, turn on bad reality TV, or jump in the bath with an inspiring book.
Remind yourself that it’s totally okay and 100% normal to be unmotivated and to feel like work is a giant bummer sometimes. You still kick ass. People around you will understand, because they have off days too.
Okay, let’s move on with some motivation-boosting tips.
Start with figuring out your motivation blocks. Usually, these motivation blocks are subconscious: a limiting belief or a fear you have. Complete this exercise on the worksheet: What’s really holding you back from doing your work? The belief that you’re not up to the task? Or that you won’t be able to do things perfectly? In that case, perfectionism might be a motivation block for you and that’s something you need to be working on. Luckily for you, I have an entire blog and some free resources to help you do just that.
Or maybe you have a fear of how much time it will take to finish the work and as a result of this motivation block you push off your work over and over again. In this case a solution might be to write out how much time you think each item on your to-do list will take and then I time yourself while doing these things. I think you’ll be surprised at the outcome.
When motivation is low or the things on your to-do list are just plain boring, think of this. Get one thing done. Check one thing, anything off your to do list. Answer an email, clean up your painting supplies, go for a run, it doesn't really matter as long as you're doing something that needs done. Accomplishing something gives you a burst of energy and after that an additional task makes less of an impact if you're already moving and grooving.
Another great strategy is to make it easier for you to do the things on your list. At the end of your workday, clean up after yourself and prepare all the items (notepad, glass of water) you need for work the next day, so that all you have to do the next is start up your computer. Pick your gym bag or lay down all of your workout gear, shoes, and accessories the night before you want to work out. Prep next day’s breakfast and lunch while you’re cooking dinner.
The key here is to lower the hurdle, so to speak, to make it easier to do the things you want to be doing, even when you’re unmotivated. I bet you know what I’m talking about: after a long day of work you come home and you know you should be going to the gym. But then you start thinking “My gym bag is still packed with groceries from a quick grocery run. My workout gear is probably in the dryer. And I don’t know where my shoes are!” The energy to even think about going to do the thing on your to-do list is so high, that you give up. That’s why it’s important to prepare and make things easy for yourself. Don’t waste energy (and motivation) in the startup phase of your project.
Also, recognize when you’re at the top of your game. Figure out when you feel and work your best and then do all of the things that take the most brain power during those times. For me, I work best in the morning and by the time late afternoon rolls around I’m pretty useless. Knowing that, I make sure to not do the big stuff that requires concentration in the afternoon when my motivation is dwindling. We’ll dive deeper into this topic in Module 3.
Rewards vs treats
Now, before we move on I want to say something about rewards versus treats. There’s a lot of advice about how you should reward yourself to stay motivated. The advice is that you should eat a piece of chocolate or take a long bath as a reward after completing a task.
I very much disagree with this advice. To me, this is a very unhealthy way of thinking. If you use rewards to keep yourself motivated or everytime you cross something off your list, then soon the ONLY way to get yourself motivated enough to do something, anything, is if there’s a reward for you afterward.
The key to you being purposefully productive is your habits. A habit is something you do routinely, without thinking about it, almost as a reflex. Like reaching for the mouthwash once you’re done brushing your teeth. You don’t have to think about the mouthwash, you just do it. And you certainly don’t have to reward yourself for using the mouthwash. You see, rewards stops you from forming habits. As soon as there’s a reward in play, the activity stops being a habit as you now suddenly have to think about the task, when it’s over, after what part of the process you deserve to be rewarded, and what the reward should be.
You have to look at rewards differently. The reward for being productive is that you were productive. The reward for working with purpose is that you worked towards your purpose. The reward for getting things done is that you got things done.
Besides, and this is going to sound harsh, but do you really need to reward yourself for good behavior? You’re not a dog, are you?
So here’s the thing, I’m not all about the doom and gloom, treat yourself instead. Treat yo’self! A reward is dependent upon good behavior, a treat is not. You treat yourself because you deserve it, because you’re worth it, because you’re a treat yourself, because you’re the total badass that you are. Decide for yourself that you deserve to be treated. Decide that you deserve a treat once or twice a week - a bowl of ice cream or a trip to the cinema - regardless of what you did or didn’t do that week. Even if your to-do list is a mile long. You deserve to be treated.
Focus is the ability to identify what needs to be done, make a plan of action, and then take the necessary steps and focus your energy on making it happen. It sounds so simple (and badass), doesn’t it?
The reality, however, is that you have to deal with too much going on in your head and with your schedule that’s growing busier by the minute. With all of that going on it can be hard to stay focused on what's important and what's in front of you.
So, how to get in the right mental space, the right focus?
Everyone has their own set of distractions and certain tasks that knock them off track. Distractions come in the form of tasks that seem necessary and may be urgent, but they don’t really help you get to your goal. Distractions are also things that take your mind off the task at hand. Distractions are everywhere. In a digital world where anything and everything is shared in an instant on social media, it’s no wonder you have a hard time staying focused and in your own lane.
Distractions aren’t all bad, though. They can be fun and enjoyable and sometimes necessary and functional. Where distractions take a turn toward the bad side is when they begin to run your schedule.
The first step in overcoming distractions is to recognize them. Once you recognize those things that throw you off course, you’ll then be able to dodge them the next time they come your way. Take some time to think about what your distractions are and write them down on the worksheet. These are just some examples of common distractions:
- Questions from family, children, friends, roommates, co-workers or clients
- Social Media
- Notifications and pop ups
- Sights outside your window
- Office Chair
The second step in overcoming distractions is to set boundaries. Distractions are going to happen. People will need to ask you questions and gain your feedback. Social media needs to be tended to and housekeeping can’t go unnoticed. Setting boundaries for these things will help you to better manage the transition of your attention.
Use the worksheet to figure out which boundaries you can put into place.
Time certain tasks to get them done in manageable chunks of time
Set office hours
Set housekeeping hours
Set creativity hours
Schedule declutter time to clear out your inbox, desktop and organize digital and paper files
Create systems and processes for regular or returning tasks (we talk about this more in-depth in Module 4)
Take breaks throughout the day and schedule them
Creating and maintaining these boundaries will help you be more diligent in staying clear of distractions and spending your time on things that matter the most.
Okay, now we have eliminated distractions it’s time to implement strategies to increase your focus.
First, cut out the nonessential. We talked about decluttering and getting rid of physical stuff in the previous lesson, but doing away with mental clutter is just as important. Put personal troubles aside for now and make sure to address them in your personal time (and not your productive time). Have one tab open at a time, instead of opening tons of tabs and jumping from one site to the next. Don’t multitask: work on one task at a time, give that task your full attention, and focus deeply on the task that’s most important for you to be doing right now.
Put your phone away. Really. I know the feeling of wanting to check my email every ten minutes and respond to incoming messages all too well, but all this does is distract me and slow my process. Resist the temptation of scrolling through Instagram, by putting your phone away or leaving it in another room. If you can't bear to turn your phone off, at least put it on ‘do not disturb’ or ‘airplane mode’ so you don't get interrupted.
Wear headphones. It’s a great way of saying, "I cannot hear you... don't disturb me."
Another strategy to improve your focus is to practice concentrating for long stretches. Work on a large puzzle, play chess, or play a similarly complex game to develop your ability to concentrate for extended periods of time. This will help with your concentration and memory and, as a result, your focus.
Start an exercise routine. Physical activity has many benefits, but one of the less obvious ones is that it helps sharpen focus. Research shows that even short bursts of exercise show an immediate increase in concentration and mental focus, probably because of improved blood flow to the brain.
Also, take regular breaks. A growing body of research highlights the importance of incorporating regular break times into your work schedule. That’s because prolonged attention to a single task hurts performance.
A great strategy is to practice mindfulness and meditation. Mindfulness is cultivating greater awareness of your experiences in the present moment, and it can help you stay focused on the task at hand. One simple meditation practice is to find a quiet place to sit and concentrate on your breath. Or be mindful and do what you’re doing with full focus. Eventually, you’ll get accustomed to zeroing in on single tasks, while minimizing external distractions.
What could help you improve your focus is to take an interest in the task and find out why the task is important. When you’re doing something dry or boring, like inputting numbers in an Excel spreadsheet, remind yourself how this task fits into your work or life as a whole. How is this work helping you in your mission (that you’ve written down in Module 1.2)?
Journaling could also help you increase your focus. Simply to write it all down. Get it all out of your head. Every thought, every to do, every belief that’s holding you back, every weird, rambling mess of words. Now that you have it on paper it won't be weighing you down anymore and you don’t have to be afraid of forgetting something. You can focus on the task at hand and forget the rest until it's time for it.
Communicate your expectations with roommates and children. Let people know your work routine ahead of time and that you will be unresponsive for the next few hours (or however many you are working) and that if they interrupt you, you will be unresponsive.
And finally, and this may be a little out of the box, start being an initiator. You’re probably used to being a reactor: replying to email, replying to messages on social media, brainstorming with a friend for her project, sending files to XYZ. All that ‘busy work’ is you reacting to external requests. No wonder you’re resentful and distracted. Doing the work you want to be doing, doing something new, or initiating a new collaboration, that’s the kind of work that makes it so easy to stay focused.
Now, back to the worksheet. Which strategies to help you focus can you put into place?
Procrastination, discomfort & uncertainty
To close off this lesson, I want to say this. The perfect productivity system doesn’t exist. You’ve probably spend a lot of time looking for one, like I have. The problem isn’t that productivity systems or methods aren’t perfect, but that none of them can solve a few really important problems: procrastination, fear of uncertainty, and fear of discomfort.
No matter how good the productivity system is, it falls apart when you start procrastinating. When a task is uncomfortable, you procrastinate, just like most people. When you’re facing a lot of uncertainty with a task, you procrastinate. Like most of us.
Often, you’ll try out a new to-do list app, start decluttering and organizing, or start learning about a new way to be productive (like you are now), all as a way to procrastinate on uncertain or uncomfortable tasks. It’s so much easier to follow the path of distractions and little tasks than to face a big important but scary task.
When this happens, take a step back. Get away from the distractions and little tasks. That’s all it takes. Step back and think about what you should be doing right now, rather than what’s easiest and most tempting. Also, remember who you’re doing this for. Is it a co-worker, client, customer, loved one? Is it you? I’ve found that it’s easier to push through procrastination when you’re focused on helping others.
Then, allow yourself to be uncomfortable for a few minutes. Yes, it sucks, but it’s actually not that bad once you get started. It’s like diving into cold water: once you’re in, relax into the discomfort, and see that it’s not as bad as you feared. The same with uncertainty. Instead of looking at it as a bad thing, embrace it and see if you can get good at exploring it. Like discomfort, dive in and relax into it.
That’s it for this lesson and for Module 2. If you haven’t already, use the worksheet and work through the exercises and questions.