But ultimately, the point is not about finding a method to improve your productivity but rather to learn how to be intentional with your time.
Your stressed self thinks If only I’d have more time. But let’s be honest, it’s not that hard to squeeze in some extra time for whatever needs to be done. We aim to be productive, but we do not feel productive.
So what are we doing wrong?
By the end of the day, our to-do list is still filled with items to be checked, and the workload appears to be ever-lasting. We feel our work hours slipping away. But bouncing between your inbox, pointless meetings, or chatting on Slack are markers of busyness, not productivity. In other words, you are performing what Cal Newport refers to as “shallow work”: non-cognitively demanding, logistical-style tasks, often performed while distracted. These efforts tend not to create new value, which seems to be the opposite of being productive.
We might not be able to decide upon the whole dynamic of our job or personal projects; some shallow work can’t be avoided. What we can control, though, is our attention, especially our sustained attention.
We constantly pressure ourselves in everyday life by trying to do more than one thing, falling into the claws of one of productivity’s enemies: multitasking. It seems we ought to master it; that it is the key to doing more. But you are never actually multitasking: you’re just anxiously switching your attention rapidly between things.
We’ve clung to our ability to single-task in rapid succession because it promises something new and fast. And we are not using technology to our benefit; as Nicholas Carr pointed out in his magnificent book The Shallows, our attentions expanded vertically before the Internet. With the Internet, our focus extends horizontally, and shallowly.
Basically, we are becoming stupider. And we lost our ability to concentrate on a single task for a more extended period. It’s getting harder to get into that “flow state,” which appears to be one of our productivity’s most accurate yardsticks.
We live in the era of constant distraction. And we are all victims of it. Our brain tends to reach for a distraction whenever we work on a task and are unsure of what to do next—this is called “groundlessness,” the uncertainty of not having solid ground under your feet.
At that moment, you would probably find yourself checking, for example, social media; we are not getting the instant reward expected from that task, and instead of gathering a moment of focus to move forward, we switch into something that offers a quick burst of validation.
The secret to thriving in an age of universal distraction isn’t to fight it but to distract ourselves smartly. Short bursts of attention sprinkled with equally deliberate breaks are the surest way to channel our total capacity to be productive.
Focus is also about saying no. Humans are people pleasers; we tend to say yes to many things because we want to fit it all in. We sometimes avoid making tough decisions that may disappoint or offend others. But at what cost? This behavior leads to several places—one of those being stress and another being mediocracy.
Our attention is a precious commodity. We must eliminate everything non-essential to us. And it’s this eradication that will drive us to say no to distractions—to the noise.
So how to practice deep work?
Unless you are one of those disciplined people that put on a usage-timer and really live by it, your phone must be out of reach. You crave that novelty, hoping for a notification that will release some dopamine. But if there’s no novelty whatsoever, it frees up the needed cognitive space for deep work.
We can block out as many external distractions as we want, but we can’t run away from our internal ones, which are those random thoughts that keep popping up in your head. So yes, another reason to meditate. It will also strengthen your focus muscle.
How can I be more productive? Broadly that’s a tough one to answer. Or maybe the answer didn’t work out for you. But, if you reverse that into What makes me NOT productive, how do I avoid it? It becomes much reachable.
Instead of portraying the perfect scenario for having a productive day, you define the barriers and blockers for it: packing up your calendar, starting the day too late, having your phone at hand, etc. Steer clear from what you’ve foreseen that can potentially obstruct your work.
The valuable skill here isn’t the capacity to push yourself harder and work impossible hours but to stop despite the discomfort of knowing that work remains unfinished. You should quit the wishful thinking that if you just managed to squeeze in a bit more, you’d finally reach the commanding status of feeling “on top of everything.”
We are dismissing the power of slowing down, and we are doing it wrongly. Getting a coffee and numbingly browsing through the Web is not a break; it’s putting yourself in autopilot mode and disregarding your present moment. In the long run, that behavior yields to dissatisfaction; you did not take the time to be aware of your thoughts and emotions, so they will come at you at any time without warning, interfering with your attention.
Here’s a great example of scientifically proven mindfulness practices you can use during your breaks at work or home.
What should be the fundamental objective of any productivity system or goal-setting technique is to help you make a slightly better decision about what to do at this very instant. The goal is to put everything else on the side for the time being and immerse yourself in that one thing.
The liberation isn’t in making yourself focus on one thing at a time. It’s in realizing that’s all anyone could ever hope to do.