Have you ever woken up one morning filled with energy and all fired up to start working on a project, study for an exam or maybe just clean the house, when suddenly, the night sneaks up on you and you haven’t accomplished anything you planned to do?  Have you ever decided that tomorrow will be the first day of a hardcore dieting and training regimen only to find out weeks later while indulging your senses in a hot chocolate fudge that you have barely taken any meaningful steps?

If you ever experienced any of the above, then it might be relieving to know that you’re not alone in this. In fact, this is a constant human struggle that everyone, everywhere deals with every single day.

It basically comes down to two main reasons. One, productivity is not an easy thing to measure in this day and age. Two, couch potato-ing and procrastination are a human legacy.

In our age of knowledge work, you can’t really quantify productivity. In older times, specifically the era of the industrial age, most of our work could be quantified very clearly. If you were working in a chair factory for example, you could just count the number of finished chairs by the end of the day, and have a clear metric of how productive you were on any given day.

In modern times, you can’t count how many emails you sent or make a clear link between productivity and the number of meetings you had.

But the biggest obstacle to productivity is most unfortunately, our mind.  But, if our minds are the reason for our sloth-like behavior, can we outsmart those things which are practically responsible for our intelligence in the first place?

Here’s the good news, YES WE CAN!

It’s not an easy fight though. But, winning this eternal war between you and your mind, is all what stands between you and a life of accomplishments and achievements. So gear up, and stand ready for in the following lines, we will build the strategies to defeating our naturally procrastinating, sloth-y minds.

What does productivity look like?

To be victorious in our mind wars, we first need to define what victory looks like, and in the context of this article, winning means being productive.

David Allen, productivity guru and author of the famous, Getting Things Done book, defines productivity as a state of being “relaxed, focused, in-control and meaningfully engaged”.

Think about a time when you were cutting through these emails and getting everything on your to-do- list accomplished with great flow and unstoppable inertia. Can you remember what it felt like? Wasn’t it close to Euphoria?

Remember how relaxed and content you were. You didn’t feel the pressure of work.  Rather, you felt on top of everything, slashing through these documents, proposals or physics chapters like there is no stopping you. You were in a state of heightened attention.   Everything else, that is irrelevant to the current moment, fell in the backfires of your mind.

You were meaningfully engaged in whatever you were doing.

Try to imagine you are skydiving. Once you jump out of the airplane, you won’t be thinking about the dishes in the kitchen sink, or what you will do after you land. In that moment, your heart is pumping, your mouth is wide open, you’re screaming your heart out, your hands are tight on the open-chute lever and your mind is focused on when to pull your chute. Every part of your heart, mind and soul is completely taken in the experience you’re having. And that is meaningful engagement in its purest form.

Imagine, if everything you did in your life was done with the same amount of immersiveness and flow. From working on business proposals to being with family and friends. How would that affect the quality of your life?

Being relaxed, in-control, focused and meaningfully engaged is clearly what victory looks like.

Now after we defined what victory is, now’s the time to explain how to defeat what stands between us and our destination. Our minds. And as Sin Tzu, the author of the Art of War, says;  to defeat our enemy, we must first know our enemy.

Know Your Mind

Our minds are extremely complex, and while science has a long way to go to fully comprehend how they work, what we currently know about them can help us a lot in our mind-blowing fight for productivity.

1. Our Minds work with Triggers

A trigger is an event that provokes our minds in a way for them to dwell on a certain thought path.

For example, what happens when you read the word Titanic?

I would guess that the first thought or picture that came to your mind is Leonardo di Caprio or Kate Winslet. Maybe you remembered scenes of the movie or the famous Celine Dion song started playing in your head.

This is how triggers work. They could take the form of a word, picture, sound or a scene or anything that triggers your mind to think in a certain way.

Triggers can hinder productivity. As in the classic example of going to the grocer’s for milk but suddenly remembering the remote control needs batteries upon seeing some on a shelf and completely forgetting about the milk we originally came for.

The battery trigger, pulled you out of the line of thought of buying milk onto another of the need to buy batteries, and this is how triggers can be an obstacle to attaining what we want.

Quick Fix:

Triggers are powerful, because our minds are basically processors and not good at holding many memories.

As per David Allen’s Getting Things Done, our conscious minds can hold up to 3 simultaneous thoughts at a time. So, if you go to buy milk, bread and butter, and then you see the batteries on the shelf, your mind will replace the milk, bread or butter with batteries, and you will end up not buying what brought you to the supermarket in the first place.

To avoid the influence of triggers on our minds, it is crucial not to use them to remember stuff, but use them to process solutions.

Think of your mind as a very paranoid person. It is always afraid to miss out on something. Whenever you come across a trigger, your mind is so keen not to make you forget the batteries. So it just holds onto the thought, stressing you out in order not to forget buying them, then ends up causing you to forget about something else that is of equal or higher importance.

To avoid that, always keep a memoir with you at all times. Whenever your mind is triggered by something, just jot it down in the memoir.  This will help because your mind no longer needs to hold onto the thought. Besides, if your mind trusts that this memoir is on you always, it won’t be worried that you will miss out on the batteries or any other event.

2. Action brings Motivation

Like the gym and dieting example mentioned in the beginning, many people depend on motivation to start acting and this always brings them down.

Motivation is like a damaged balloon, it gets inflated very fast, but it deflates very fast as well. So, you cannot depend on motivation to act.

Here’s a newsflash: the other way around works really really well. The more you do stuff, or act towards a certain goal, the more you will get motivated.

Why is this the case?

When you get pumped out for a certain goal, your mind can only see the exciting end of accomplishing the goal. Then it gets really confused on the first step towards that goal.

As I said, our minds like it easy. They don’t like to take many decisions, so when confronted with one of two choices, such as either logging on to Facebook or studying for the exam, usually, it will go with the Facebook option.

And it is no wonder. Getting on Facebook is very accessible. The action is very clear and simple. You just unlock your phone and click on the Facebook icon.

While studying for the exam, your mind has to decide where to begin. Should you make a study plan? Or know which chapters are included first? Maybe read the first 2 chapters or start by reviewing the past assignments? Too many decisions to choose from, and our minds hate complexity, so they go with the easy and accessible path, that is wasting valuable hours by surfing Facebook rather than studying.

Quick Fix:

Have a very next physical-visible action ready for any end goal.

Basically, getting an A in the physics exam is a series of next actions that you take to ace your exam. When studying, don’t get yourself in a place where you must decide on what the next action is. Always have the next Physical-Visible action ready and accessible. The clearer the next action is, your mind will find it easier to act, and will not drift away. Just as easy as unlocking your phone and opening Facebook.

Ex Navy Seal Admiral, William Mcraven, emphasized on why in the Navy Seals training, every recruit starts their day with making their bed to perfection. Though, it seems like a trivial chore, once done, the mind considers this as an accomplishment and a small success that it adds to the motivation bank to start the day.

3. Consistency

We humans are inconsistent by nature. We say something, and the next day we do the complete opposite. Fortunately, our minds love consistency.

Building on the action brings motivation premise, the more you act towards a certain achievement, the easier it gets, as your mind will work hard to keep you at it.

How to capitalize on consistency? Always start very small.

If you’re going on a new fitness journey, don’t start by extreme dieting or working out for prolonged hours. Start with very small steps, consistently. Train for 20 minutes a day for a week first, and be consistent about it. Then remove very small fatty foods from your diet consistently. You will find yourself training and eating healthier as time progresses. Then your mind will tap into the consistency factor and will support you on not falling out.

It is like you’re formulating a new habit. It is said that if you remain consistent on a certain behavior for 21 days, it will transform into a habit. So always start very small, and build up as you progress.

As a recruit for the mind-warping fight towards productivity, here’s a summary of next actions, to start your productivity journey:

  1. Get a trusted memoir or note-taking application, that you know you will USE!
  2. Write down every thought that hits you in the memoir and don’t leave it to your mind to remind you of it.
  3. Write down every goal you have in the memoir and know that every goal that is not written down is a wish and not a goal.
  4. For every goal, write a next physical-visible action. Start with very small next actions. Make them as clearly written and as easy, as unlocking your phone and tapping on the Facebook app.
  5. Try to keep this practice for 21 days.

And till next time, I wish you a very productive life.

Ahmed Abaza

Ahmed Abaza is a knowledge hungry and curious brain who seeks to have all the answers. He is an electronics engineer gone rogue. After jumping onto the business side of things with a multitude of passions and experiences in various fields, Abaza started his own business data analytics company http://synapse-analytics.io/

You can reach him at afabaza@gmail.com