How to be More Productive

“Productivity, put simply, is the name we give our attempts to figure out the best uses of our energy, intellect, and time as we try to seize the most meaningful rewards with the least wasted effort.” – Charles Duhigg

I heard a joke at a stand-up show last year that went something like this:

If my grandfather were to lose concentration on the job, he would have fallen off the building he was working on.

When I lose concentration on the job, I go browse the Internet.

The double-edged sword of the improvements we’ve witnessed in technology is that it’s easier than ever to get stuff done, but also easier than ever to lose concentration. Our attention spans seem to be dwindling because there’s always something else to do or look at or comment about. We’re in a constant state of distraction.

Ask someone you haven’t seen in a while how they’re doing. For many the stock answer these days is something along the lines of, “I’m soooooo busy right now. There just aren’t enough hours in the day.”

People wear being busy like a badge of honor. But being busy doesn’t really tell you anything about what you’re accomplishing. Anyone can be busy. Smartphones and wi-fi give us all immediate access to email, social media, news, apps, games and more information than we’ll ever need, any time we want it. This access allows people to be busy without ever getting anything done.

Tim Ferriss, himself a productivity expert, once put it this way, “Being busy is a form of laziness–lazy thinking and indiscriminate action. Being busy is most often used as a guise for avoiding the few critically important but uncomfortable actions.”

The question is — how do you turn your focus on those few critically important but uncomfortable actions?

In his book, Smarter, Better, Faster: The Secrets of Being Productive in Life and BusinessCharles Duhigg sets out to answer this question.

Productivity starts with self-motivation. Luckily, motivation is not something you’re just born with. It’s a skill that can be honed and learned. You can actually learn to improve your motivation:

Scientists have found that people can get better at self-motivation if they practice the right way. The trick, researchers say, is realizing that a prerequisite to motivation is believing we have authority over our actions and surroundings. To motivate ourselves, we must feel like we are in control.

When people believe they are in control, they tend to work harder and push themselves more. They are, on average, more confident and overcome setbacks faster.

To do this you have to find those choices that put you in the driver’s seat, so to speak. Motivation gets triggered once you convince yourself that you’re in control. And the choice itself matters much less than the control you feel. You just have to make sure the choice you’re making is something important that you care about.

Duhigg uses the U.S. Marine Corps as a prime example of how this approach works in practice. A Marine’s starting salary is under $18,000 a year, but the Corps has one of the highest career satisfaction rates of any field. Not only are they doing something that’s noble and challenging, but they’re also being empowered by their superiors.

During boot camp the Marines try to make their recruits feel empowered to make decisions on their own. And when times get tough, they are constantly drilling down to the question of ‘why?’:

If you can link something hard to a choice you care about, it makes the task easier, Quintanilla’s drill instructors had told him. That’s why they asked each other questions starting with “why.” Make a chore into a meaningful decision, and self-motivation will emerge. 

“You think boot camp is going to be all screaming and fighting,” Quintanilla told me. “But it’s not. It’s not like that at all. It’s more about learning how to make yourself do things you thought you couldn’t do. It’s really emotional, actually.” 

Here are a few more examples on how these theories can translate into the real world:

  • If you’re leader of a team or an organization, it’s more helpful  to present a task or project as a choice rather than a command. Putting that choice in your employee’s hands can empower them to have a stake in the outcome and make them feel more control over their job. Empowered employees are more productive.
  • Instead of telling your child that they’re smart, tell them you’re proud about how hard they have worked. Hard work is something they can control, so they receive more pleasure out of hearing that than how intelligent you think they are.
  • Try to find what psychologists have termed your “internal locus of control.” People who believe they have some sort of control over their lives typically have better academic success, higher motivation, and lower levels of stress and depression than those who believe their life is completely controlled by events that are outside of their control.
  • Establish your financial goals around the “why.” Why are you saving and investing money for the future? Why are you creating a budget to help yourself save more? Why are you setting getting your family’s insurance needs in order? Drilling down to the “why” can be a great way to remind yourself about the reasons you’re delaying gratification or performing an important task that may not feel so great in the moment.

I’m a huge fan of human psychology but much of what you read simply shows how irrational we can be without offering any helpful tips for combating human nature. This book does a great job deconstructing why people can be unproductive and then telling you how to fix some of those issues. It’s one of the better books I’ve read in some time.

Smarter, Better, Faster: The Secrets of  Being Productive in Life and Business

Further Reading:
When Ordinary Beats Extraordinary



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  1. WEEKEND! commented on Apr 18

    re: “Tim Ferriss, himself a productivity expert, once put it this way, “Being busy is a form of laziness–lazy thinking and indiscriminate action. Being busy is most often used as a guise for avoiding the few critically important but uncomfortable actions.” ”

    This echoes a Buddhist saying about “avoiding the few critically important but uncomfortable actions” (e.g. pursuing Enlightenment, practicing Mindfulness, etc.) which goes something like, “There is an Eastern way of being lazy — laying around all day doing nothing, and a Western way of being lazy — filling our day with too many inconsequential actions.” One type does not fill the time with important actions, the other type leaves no room; different means, same ends.

    Interesting note about the Marines…begs to ask the age-old question: Can money buy happiness?

    • Ben commented on Apr 18

      Good Buddhist quote there. I like it. Most people think they want money but at a certain point they would rather be doing fulfilling work (my 2 cents).

  2. Mark Brady commented on Apr 19

    A central problem for most of us is that we don’t have sufficient bandwidth to consistently apply the things Duhigg, Ferriss and others suggest on our own. We need a Marine drill sergeant to lend his more organized brain to help build and shape connections in ours until we actually do have the requisite bandwidth.

    And now back to the hard work your column has distracted me from.

    • Ben commented on Apr 19

      That’s fair. As an example, that’s why people pay for fitness trainers even though they theoretically could work out on their own. Sometimes you need an outside motivator to help.

  3. Matt Downing commented on Apr 19

    This is really interesting. It reminds of the books Amusing ourselves to death by Neil Postman and The Shallows by Nicholas Carr. Your article along with those books and others show us how our mind is changing due to technology. I agree – we need more self motivation to battle some the negative areas that technology influences our brain.

    • Ben commented on Apr 20

      Never heard of that one. Will give it a look