The ancient Greeks liked to picture hell as one guy pushing a heavy boulder up a long hill forever, never achieving anything.
I’m a single mom, and in the middle of a global pandemic with bills to pay and a job to do with no child care, work was starting to feel like that Sisyphean grind. Getting things done was miserable, and it was harder and harder to make myself start. Willpower is a finite resource, and I was burning more and more of it on just getting started.
I don’t like being miserable, so it was time to change things. I started to ask myself, what would make productivity more pleasant?
I tried entirely too many approaches. (I could fill a book with all the things I did wrong.) But here are some things I tried that actually helped.
Make progress obvious.
What makes the boulder feel like hell? It’s the feeling that, for all the effort, I wasn’t not getting anywhere. According to researcher Emily Nagoski in her book Burnout, humans are hardwired to want to see progress, and to get discouraged when it’s more effortful than we expect. When I kept wanting to give up, it was probably because my inner monitor no longer believed my goal was possible.
The solution, fortunately, was simple: breaking my big goals down into many smaller, specific chunks. If it was too much to write a book, I could outline a chapter. If it was too much to clean my whole apartment, I could scrub the bathroom counter. Then, at least, I’d have a clean bathroom counter. Once I’d broken the big task down into smaller pieces, my brain didn’t try to give up on me so fast. I could actually believe I could do them, and could complete more tasks faster—making me encouraged by the progress.
Plus, let’s be honest. I procrastinate more when I feel overwhelmed, or don’t know the next step. Deciding on small, specific tasks defanged projects and took away a lot of the fear.
Make it a game.
I love playing really complicated strategy video games, when I actually can find the time, which are full of hard, complex tasks. What makes those complex tasks fun and some complex work tasks tedious? Honestly, a lot of the difference is just the game. App designers have used gamification to help people learn new languages, move more in a day, and even (in the case of Jane McGonigal) recover from a mental illness.
I tried approaching my productivity differently, asking how I could make it a game. What rewards could I give myself? (Trashy novels and yuzu mochi worked well.) What obstacles could I feel good about overcoming? (I started keeping a log of things I’d done and work “bosses” I’d destroyed.)
Everybody will likely need to design work into your own game differently, but you can also take advantage of some great existing gamification resources. For everyday tasks, I really like Habitica, a free habit and productivity app that lets you earn gold and collect adorable pets in exchange for doing your real-world tasks. It turns out I really like collecting pets and will gladly take out the garbage if it gets me closer to a unicorn.
Also, don’t forget one of the oldest gamification strategies in the world: the kid’s chore chart. My friend recommended I use one, and I’ll admit it’s pretty darn effective. My inner kid loves putting stickers in rows to earn cool prizes. Next time I finish a client book I’ll earn myself a weekend cabin trip with the girls!
Make it easier
Scott Young says you should decrease the friction for the behaviors you want to do more of, and increase the friction for the behaviors you want to do less of. In other words, if I want to be more productive, relying on willpower wouldn’t get me far. I should make the process easier instead, removing as many barriers as I can. Surprisingly, having documents open, workout shoes out, and overnight oats already in the fridge improved my followthrough dramatically on small, important things. I’m starting to develop systems and decrease friction with a will.
A good systems lets me make progress without having to make a decision every time. (Which is good, since my decision muscle gets tired fast these days.) In The Power of Habit, Charles Duhigg says the easiest way to add a habit is to “anchor” it to something else you already do. So, if you want to get fit, for example, going to the gym right after work would be easier than counting on yourself to find time a few days a week.
Not everything can be a recurring habit, though. For those times, I find other ways to make it easier. Starting on a task is the hardest part for me, so I overcome the friction by scheduling an online work session with a clear goal. I show up because someone else expects me to be there, but once I’m started and working, the peer pressure also makes it much easier to finish the task. I’ve set up a workout partner, and work sprints to make sure the important focus time happens.
What can you change to make your tasks easier? What habits, systems, and buddies can you set up to help you?
Add something pleasant.
There’s an old Mary Poppins song about a spoon full of sugar that’s a classic for a reason. We can all handle a lot more medicine with that spoonful of sugar than without it. This translates into measurable gains, actually. Studies show that runners run further and faster when they play upbeat music they like while running. Why not harness the same principle for your productivity?
I’ve learned to go out of my way to remove uncomfortable chairs, unpleasant sounds, and anything else that will make the work experience more miserable. I take Tylenol for a headache early rather than letting it go; ignoring the headache will slow me down at work far more than I’d like to admit. It’s not worth toughing it out.
But, “not miserable” alone isn’t enough. I also add in specific things I like, including a special cup of coffee right before I start work. Can you eat a mandarin orange every day at 3:00 pm, during your afternoon slump? Can you buy a zen rock garden for your desk, and play with it on breaks? I love to turn on an essential oil diffuser with the smell of oranges in my workspace. It makes the day a lot more pleasant. Today I might take laptop outside on a blanket on a gorgeous day.
Or, you know, play some cool lounge rock Tango while I do spreadsheets.
Channel your inner scientist.
The fact is, even now, I don’t know all of the exact right ways to make work pleasant, but I can find out! It’s not cheating if you experiment with changing different parts of your work habits, and take notes on the results. Over time—if I pay attention—I’ll zero in on what makes work more pleasant and what makes productivity harder and easier for me. Learning by experiment will also get me much better answers than sitting around worrying.
Experiment until you find the time of day you feel most creative and most energized. That’s the time frame in which you’re likely to be able to do your best “focus work.” I try to schedule focus work during my peak hours, which are late evening half the week. I’ve also noticed that I have some times of the day where work is particularly miserable. I try to take breaks or do undemanding work then rather than trying to push the boulder up the hill. Honestly, if I read a book at 3 pm when I feel awful, I’ll be back doing much better work at 7 or 9 pm. If I try to push through, I won’t get much done during either block.
Some people do better doing the hardest thing first, what Brian Tracy calls “eating the frog.” The rest of the day goes more smoothly for them without something hard hanging over their head. That’s not me. I need easy wins, so I try to start the day by crossing a few things off my list before I move onto anything hard. Some people like to work from the beginning to the end of a project, while some of us like to jump around, and so on. You (and I) won’t know our best habits until we test them and see what works.
Remember the why.
Lastly, I found I did better on the days I reconnected with my motivation. For me, that’s learning and communicating interesting things, and helping get the word out about books that matter. When I reminded myself why I was doing the things, I relaxed and was able to focus better.
Don’t forget to connect every day with your own motivation. There’s a reason you want to be productive, whether that’s to accomplish a goal, provide for your family, or travel the world. Even the hardest days will be easier if you come back to why you’re choosing to do the work every day.