Who is more productive, a person who works eight hours every day, or a person who works six hours every day?
If you’ve been studying productivity for long, you already know this is a trick question. We’ve been conditioned to equate “busy” and “productive.” When in reality, productivity is about getting things done. It’s not about working long hours.
Here’s a better question. “How can I finish eight hours of work in six hours?”
The “trick” to pulling that off may be easier than you think, and a lot more enjoyable than you might imagine.
Humans love novelty. As a productivity hacker myself, I’m fascinated by cutting-edge ideas for getting things done faster.
Despite this, I force myself to periodically review the basics. I’m talking about tried-and-true, foundational principles for productivity that account for the difference between average people and peak productivity masters.
Today I want to remind you of just one of those super-important foundational principles. You might think of it as the original productivity hack. Because it is timeless in origin and applicable to every human on the planet.
The original productivity hack is simply this. Motivate yourself before you start.
It sounds rather mundane, doesn’t it? And yet this simple concept is behind most of the sophisticated productivity systems you see in use today from online habit tracking apps to corporate seminars for sales teams. It’s the key to awakening your inner drive and motivation, the will to succeed, and the decision to do it now.
As a productivity coach, I learned this the hard way. When I first began this line of work, I gave my clients state-of-the-art tools for staying focused and boosting productivity, but they often returned to coaching sessions with excuses and a promise to get started “next week.”
I was forgetting a basic fact about human nature…
People change when they feel something, not when they think abstractly. Logic doesn’t move people to action. Emotions do. So I changed my tactics.
To invoke behavior change, we must first awaken thirst. Only then should we offer the tools to quench that thirst. That way, the tools are adopted quickly in pursuit of a desired outcome.
As a psychologist, I wanted to focus on sustaining behavioral change. Why? Because that’s the hardest part, and therefore it was the primary focus of my classical training as a scientist in the field of behavioral change. And as they say, “If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” I was trying to apply my sophisticated models for human behavioral change, only to realize I had the cart before the horse.
As it turns out, this is a very common mistake. In fact, I might even argue that the more driven you are, the more likely you are to make this mistake. That has certainly been true among the entrepreneurs I’ve worked with. As we design a productivity system to support your future goals, many of you forget that you are emotional beings.
Entrepreneurs are smart. As sophisticated thinkers, you focus on the mechanics of productivity to ensure you get a lot of important stuff done during the course of the day. Remaining at that high level of abstract reasoning, you make a critical mistake.
You fail to take into account the fact that you are not merely a rational being. You forget about your inner child who just wants to play! You forget that your inner child will sabotage your best laid plans if there is no payoff in sight.
Your rational mind exists within a brain that includes emotional needs for fun, excitement, novelty, rest, adventure, wandering, connection, and other “goals” that seem to have no purpose other than sheer enjoyment.
Yes, you can work yourself into a frenzy and work 16-hour days for several weeks in a row. But there is always a price to pay when you do so.
Hopefully, that price will not be low mood (though it often is). One thing we know with absolute certainty is that low mood is not conducive to productivity. Hopefully, the price you pay will not be a week or more of feeling burned out, unfocused, and basically useless at work as your biochemistry tries to reset.
Sadly, these are typical outcomes. But the worst part is these effects set in gradually, so you fail to even notice. You go on week after week, working longer hours under the false belief that doing so will solve the problem of your declining productivity.
The smarter and more disciplined you are as a person, the more likely you are to forget to engineer your productivity system to include the childlike “id”— that part of Freudian psychoanalytic theory that explains our irrational desire to get what we want and to get it now. While we can rise above our childish nature and train ourselves for enhanced self-control, it would be foolish to do so without also taking into account the full truth of our human nature. We need pleasure to survive.
For maximum productivity, it’s crucial that you create predetermined breaks in your daily, weekly, and monthly rhythms. The key is that these breaks must be near enough on the horizon to look forward to.
The human mind is always projecting into the future, anticipating what’s coming next. And if you’ve ever kept a mood log, you’ll notice something interesting about that. Your mood has more to do with what’s coming next than it has to do with what’s happening now.
This phenomenon explains the interesting findings from happiness research that shows we are often happiest while still at work on a Friday afternoon. We are still at work, but looking forward to the weekend. On average, our moods reach a low point on Sunday nights when we should still be enjoying the weekend. But instead, our thoughts have already turned to what’s coming next.
The dread we feel about Monday morning soon gives way to a rising mood as we experience another phenomenon known as “flow.” Flow is a state of immersion in our work where we become less aware of the future or the past and instead begin to enjoy the challenge of the present task.
Many entrepreneurs rely on this state of “flow” as a replacement for play outside of work. And certainly, this is one factor that allows entrepreneurs to work longer without burning out. However, even when accounting for the mood boosting effects of flow states, your productivity will improve if you start your day with the 30-second productivity hack I’d like to tell you about next.
For maximum productivity, you should start every workday with a daily startup routine. It’s a short checklist to start your day off right. And one item on that checklist should be the following: “I have scheduled at least one relaxing or enjoyable activity I will do today after work.”
Here’s why you need this. It will boost your productivity!
It’s such a simple thing, yet the effect can be profound. It creates a cap on your workday, ensuring you won’t slip into the “just one last thing” trap that keeps you working late into the night. Knowing there is an end in sight, you free your mind to spend your energy rather than conserve it. This helps you get things done faster.
Parkinson’s law states that “Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.” Knowing there’s a limited number of work hours available, and fun waiting for you on the other side, creates the right conditions for squeezing eight hours of work into six hours of productive focus.
There’s another reason this works, and it has to do with that childlike part of your brain that just wants to play and have fun. You’ll be in a better mood. Knowing there is something to look forward to will boost your mood, and one of the side effects of improved mood is improved energy, which is conducive to getting things done.
This method is what I call “disciplined pleasure for productivity.” Sometimes it takes discipline to schedule time off for rest, relaxation, and fun.
Take action on this today. Motivate yourself before you start by having a clear end in sight.
If you like this idea, I challenge you to turn it into a habit. To help you with that, download this template and use it every morning as a part of your daily startup routine. Then watch your productivity improve along with your quality of life.