Most days I wake up raring to go, excited to start the day and full of energy. I am lucky to love what I do and to get a lot of days like that.
But some days, because I am human, I don’t feel like that. I lived with depression for longer than I care to admit and getting out of bed was a struggle for months at a time.
So I started keeping a list of things that helped me get shit done during those times.
Productivity isn’t really about motivation. It’s about:
Knowing what you need to do and why.
Putting systems in place to make it as easy as possible to get it done.
Cutting out anything which gets in the way.
I don’t believe in overly specific productivity strategies and techniques. It’s personal. We all have our own ways of working, we all have systems which are effective for us. That changes over time.
Productivity is different on days when we have a clear calendar and lots of time, and days which are cluttered with commitments and when we haven’t slept well. And it’s obviously going to be different based on our lifestyles.
Demotivation spirals. We need ways to break the cycle.
Eliminate procrastination by answering two questions.
We don’t procrastinate because we’re lazy or incompetent. We procrastinate because we can’t answer two questions.
1-What do I need to do? (Specific and in detail.)
2-Why do I need to do it? (Again, specific and in detail.)
It’s simple, but getting those two points clear always helps. Motivation is fragile, but it’s renewable.
The best way to renew it is not with Pinterest quotes or hanging cat posters. It’s by clarifying our reasons — ideally on paper. If there’s no answer to those two questions, it can be a sign that this isn’t worth doing.
Take a lesson from Napoleon — Cut out the busy work.
Most of what we do each day doesn’t matter — it’s out of habit or obligation or because everyone else is doing it. It can be hard to break that drive long term, but it’s easy to do for a single day.
Putting off irrelevant work isn’t procrastinating, it’s being smart.
Apparently, Napoleon had a habit of avoiding opening his mail for as long as possible, knowing that most fires put themselves out and most emergencies resolve themselves.
Even if today’s plans don’t involve invading Russia, it’s a good practice to adopt.
The small stuff — chores, non-urgent email, anything overly uncomfortable or dull — can wait. Do what matters most.
Be boring and avoid unnecessary choices.
Making choices is draining. Decision fatigue is a real problem. I am constantly looking for ways to cut choices out of my life. This includes stuff like:
Wearing basically the same outfit every day.
These days, I usually wear blue jeans, a striped t-shirt and a hoodie with trainers when I’m working. The classic tech start-up look. It eliminates one more hurdle in the morning.
Rituals and routines.
The obvious point which everyone yammers on about. We don’t need to copy Hemmingway’s daily routine or take cues from Tony Robbins. Do what works for you, however weird it seems to others.
Sure, I used to have super complex 15 step routines but they were fragile, time-consuming and took motivation to begin. Now I keep things simple and flexible, meaning my routines are less affected by disruptions.
My formula for morning/evening routines is pretty much reading + something to clear my mind (journal writing, meditation, a short walk) + practical self-care stuff (skin care etc) + clearing to neutral + tea/coffee.
Repeated meals/beverages/choices when eating out.
I would never give health advice because a) I’m not a doctor b) I can almost guarantee I have worse eating habits than anyone reading this and c) anyone who does so on the internet without any relevant qualifications is an irresponsible idiot.
BUT this is a point which I have heard from a lot of people who do know what they are talking about and it worked for me in the past.
Repeated, durable purchases.
Sticking to the same classic brands that are practical and functional.
Outsource motivation through commitments and deadlines.
A commitment or deadline essentially outsources motivation by making it extrinsic, not intrinsic. Time limits (e.g. an hour to get to inbox zero) work too.
Design an environment which makes motivation redundant.
How can you set up your home/work space to require less motivation?
Simple example: washing the dishes. I used to always put this off until I had nothing clean, because why bother washing up before that? Then I moved into a flat which only had one sink. (Yeah, it was grim.)
If I didn’t wash up each night, I couldn’t clean my teeth/wash my face (unless I wanted tooth paste-y, soapy dishes.) Now that I had an actual reason to do it, washing up required no motivation.
This could include: carrying books everywhere, leaving water bottles in each room, putting your bed on the opposite side of the room to plug sockets so you have to be away from your phone while it charges at night, putting up reminders on the walls etc.
Systems like these grow out of need. If I were a super motivated, energetic, always-hustling person, I wouldn’t need to think about productivity. I could just roll out of bed, sprint to my immaculate office and plunge into emails for the next 18 hours.
But I’m not, and only about 3 people on this planet actually are like that. The rest of us have heaps of crappy days when diminishing returns quickly set in, or getting started on anything feels impossible.
The purpose, for me, is to make motivation antifragile — for it to be stronger after setbacks because they offer opportunities to better understand what works and what doesn’t