Mike Tyson is the father of my favorite sports quote. Reporters were questioning him about his new opponent. They were building up the rivalry, talking about how dangerous this fighter was, how he planned to keep Tyson at a distance with his jab, how he planned to wear him down.
Getting annoyed with the questions, Mike looked up from tying his shoes and said, “Everyone has a plan — until they get hit.” It’s so perfectly translatable to life. Everyone is on a diet, until they get hungry. Everyone wants good grades, until it’s time to study. Aspirations and reality are often star-crossed lovers: desperate to be together but doomed to be apart.
We don’t like what most goals entail. There’s a way to make things easier. It starts with understanding the process of productivity.
Slow down your mind to produce more
In a 2013 experiment, scientists showed flashing images to young mice for six hours a day for ten days straight. The changing images emulated cell phones and TVs. Those mice later displayed significant difficulties getting through mazes and finishing cognitive tasks versus non-stimulated mice. Science has long known overstimulation leads to deficits in cognition and attention span.
More plainly, when you are bored with a task, you are often overstimulated. It’s worse than most people realize. Our minds are lost in thought for roughly 47% of our day.
Concentrative meditation, a focus on one specific thing, is proven to boost your focus over time, even if you only do it for five minutes a day. Letting too many voices in your head drowns out those that need to be heard. It’s counterintuitive to think that slowing down your mind increases its potency. The brain is like a lightbulb: too much energy makes it shine less.
If you are feeling ambitious, a Harvard study found that 27-minutes of meditation per day led to increased gray-matter density in the hippocampus, resulting in improved learning, empathy, and memory.
Start easier by creating mental opposition
My girlfriend works in academia and occasionally writes huge, thickly worded papers. On the scale of writing projects, it’s one of the most nightmarish. She was working herself up over a paper last month. She talked about it all week, dreading it, venting about it. She was eventually in full-blown tears, despite not having written a single word.
I’m a fairly patient guy but I do have limits. I finally said, “I need you to do a favor for both of us and get this done. Do it for me, please.” Her dread was bleeding into our relationship. Seeing my point, and to her credit, she powered through it and was a new person afterward.
Procrastination is the hellspawn of anticipation. We expend so much energy thinking about doing something, building up the tension, contemplating the boredom and pain involved. Our energy is sapped before we even begin.
Defeat it by inverting your thoughts
The next time you are putting something off, pay attention to your thoughts. Notice when you have a ‘dread’ thought, “This is going to be so hard.” Notice how you feel heavier. I can literally feel my body getting more immobile when I catch those thoughts.
The trick is to invert that process. I write for a living. When my keyboard is roaring at me like a 101-toothed monster, I’ll itemize reasons I should write. For example:
- If I write now, I’ll have free time later.
- It will be fun to discover which words show up on the page.
- The show I’m watching is useless and boring.
- I’ll make more money if I spend more time writing.
- It’s going to ruin my mood if I keep procrastinating.
Make it a game to verbally list as many reasons as possible. This will magnetize your motivations. Actions are an extension of our thoughts. Starting is often the hardest part of productivity.
How to stay in the pocket after you start
When I was a swimmer, I didn’t have aquatic headphones to get me through a workout. Swimming is an exhausting exercise in sensory deprivation. You can only see the bottom of the pool and hear the water in your ears. Workouts were miserable and every stroke invites you to slack off.
The key was to stay focused at the moment. I did this in two ways. First, I focused on my technique, giving 100% of my focus to my coach’s instructions. When that technique crumbled, I fell back into reminding myself of my goals. I singularly focused on them, much like you would with concentrative meditation.
Remind yourself that you want to get promoted and get a raise. Reflect on sub-goals. Reflect on what happens if you quit now and flake out. Thoughts can be weaponized against anti-motivation. Productivity is a battle in your mind. If you let weakening thoughts run about unchallenged, you are doomed. Focus on perfection and your attention to detail.
The takeaway and tying it all together
Remember, productivity has three key elements:
- Convince yourself to start.
- Stay focused despite distractions.
- Continue working when you don’t feel like it.
Convince yourself to start by being cognizant of detractor thoughts. Dismiss them quickly and list out reasons to start.
To avoid distractions, practice slowing down your mind with meditation. Additionally, make a mental note of every time you lose focus. When I start getting sloppy, I’ll keep a piece of paper and make a line every time I catch my mind drifting.
Lastly, to get through arduous, monotonous tasks, focus on being present in the moment. Focus on the details. Think about your goals. But never dread the painful aspects of your tasks. Motivation is war. Know how to rally your troops.