I work from home or a coffee shop.
OK. I work from a coffee shop. Come on, caffeine is my one vice.
Whether you work from home or your favorite legal addictive stimulate dispensary, both places provide major distractions to remain busy but not productive.
Productivity is the result I’m after.
Step one - Don't confuse motion with action
Recently, I learned from James Clear in his book Atomic Habits, do not confuse motion with action. I had never thought of productivity in those simple terms. Motion doesn’t lead to results; action does. Far too often, people claim they are busy, which usually means they aren’t getting anything essential done; they are in motion, not action.
Most of us stay in motion because it makes us feel like we are doing something, but what we are doing is not in action. Being in motion is code for busy work — checking email, Twitter notifications, answering calls, texts, emails, and binging all nine seasons of Parks and Rec.
Many of us stay in the safety of motion because taking action means risking failure. Taking action means putting ourselves out there, to be seen, where failure is always the risk.
Here are some of Clear’s examples of the distinction between motion and action.
- If I outline 20 ideas for articles I want to write, that’s motion. If I actually write and publish an article, that’s action.
- If I search for a better diet plan and read a few books on the topic, that’s motion. If I actually eat a healthy meal, that’s action.
- If I go to the gym and ask about getting a personal trainer, that’s motion. If I actually step under the bar and start squatting, that’s action.
Step two - Set up a system
Clear says to set up a schedule for your actions and stick to it. What is an action you want to take? Let’s take losing weight. If you want results, a goal is required, but a system to support a goal is essential. So, set up a system.
Your system for losing weight consists of things like taking all the sugar out of the house, finding a gym that is on your way to work and not in the opposite direction of every other activity in your life. Putting your workout clothes and sneakers out the night before so that in the morning, you have no excuse but to put them on and go to your workout first thing. Finding an accountability partner to check in with, and when you don’t, your accountability partner texts you and asks, “did you get your workout in?” These things are part of your system that will help you lose weight and keep you in action, not just motion.
Here are small changes you can make to increase your action column:
Stop multitasking — Instead, give laser-focused attention to what matters to you. Stay focused on the essentials instead of busying yourself with the non-essentials. I used to be the queen of multitasking. What that means to me, now, is giving little attention to a lot of different tasks, and none of them are being done well — with purpose and meaning.
Step three - Focus on one goal at a time
Let's say your goal is to be a writer. Clear your desk of clutter. Clear everything you don’t need for your primary task off your desk. If it is non-essential, meaning you don’t need it to get the task at hand completed, it is potentially causing a distraction. You may glance at it, want to file it, or just the mere fact that it is sitting on your desk causes your mind to wonder and not write. If you don’t have time to sort it into a pile or file it, at least get it off your desk and go through it later.
Try to make later, the near future. There is nothing wrong with making a pile of “to do later.”
Let’s get real about your iPhone — Unless it is completely turned off or buried under a pillow four rooms away, it is a distraction. Studies have shown even if you are not checking your phone while you work, the buzz from a text, or even when your phone lights up, will make your mind wander, taking the focus off your task.
Before bed — Choose your task for the next day. Write down three to five things you plan to get done the next day. Rank them from highest to lowest priority. In the morning, focus on the task of the highest priority. Only move on to the second goal when you’ve completed the first. Repeat.
By focusing on the most important goal, you nail down your priorities and are not overwhelmed with the plethora of goals you are trying to accomplish.
When I wake up with thoughts of 100 things I need to get done for the day, I get nothing done. I spin my wheels for a good hour. When I decide the night before what one goal must get done first, I tackle that with fierce focus, get it done quickly, and have more time for the non-essential goals.
Carve out 20% of your day for the tasks you wrote down the night before and work on that task with focus for 90 minutes of your day.
You can commit to 90 minutes of your day to concentrate on getting that most crucial task complete. Think about it like this, 90 minutes is 20% of an 8-hour day; even if you do nothing for the rest of the day, you will still feel a feeling of accomplishment.
For those 90 minutes, I ignore my phone, my dog, my partner’s texts, my email, my grumbling stomach saying “give me food,” my bills, my everything, except the task at hand - writing.
My writing output has increased ten-fold since I have been practicing this method.
Step Four - Be kind to yourself
Get sun and exercise and eat right. Sunlight and exercise boost productivity. Studies have found that sunlight helps people process faster and perform better on tests that involve mental function and memory recall. A 30- minute run also increases productivity output and helps you to focus and complete tasks more quickly.
We all have days where it just isn’t happening. We are human; we all trip up and are easily distracted some days more than others. That’s OK, forgive yourself, move on, and try to have a more productive day tomorrow.
When we practice focused attention and not giving into distraction, we are exercising the prefrontal cortex, making it easier to focus in the days to come.