rebelling against low expectations

The 6 Things You Need to Work Productively


This a weird time, isn’t it?

A huge percentage of people are working from home, able to meet anyone they want virtually and study online. While we may be free to study intensely and get all our work done in a few hours to free up time for other activities, very few of us feel dedicated enough to actually accomplish anything.

I can relate to this struggle. For the past several years, I have been on a quest to crack the code to productive work.

Allow me to burst your bubble: you will never be strong enough, focused enough or disciplined enough to be productive in the ways you want. But, I can show you how to be smart enough to outsmart your very own nature. Here’s the 6 things you need to understand to be productive:

1: Mental Energy

Very few of us are naturally good at time management or understanding how to focus. Studying, writing, content creation, and drafting emails are all highly mental activities. They are fueled by your mental energy, just like your body is fueled by physical energy.

We use the term “mental energy” to describe a person’s ability to focus, make choices, resist distractions and be productive. Simply being awake and thinking are mildly draining on your reserve. Several activities can drain it faster though, including making decisions, resisting temptation, creative or deep thoughts, and distractions.

Like most resources–be it time or money or even physical energy–mental energy is a finite resource. If you waste your thoughts on non-productive activities, you can never get that energy back.

But while your reserve of mental energy is finite,  your energy levels are not fixed. With training, you can increase your threshold. With strategic steps, you can increase your productivity. With proper rest, you can maintain healthier energy levels.

2: Decisions

Each choice you make takes mental energy. Every day, your brain has to make hundreds of mental “errands” as it decides what to wear, what to eat, or what to do and which activities to prioritize.

I grew up in a rural community, so when we went to town, we would do all our errands at once to save time. The same strategy of batch planning can help with choices. Instead of using mental energy every evening to motivate yourself and think of what to make for dinner each night, try planning all your meals at the beginning of the week and make a shopping list. Plan all your activities once a week so you aren’t wasting energy every day deciding what to do.

You could even take scheduling one step further and “pre-schedule” activities by making them at the same time each week. For example, you could schedule your gym time for 4 pm every Tuesday and Thursday and plan to practice music every other afternoon. Now every time it’s 4 pm, you know exactly what you’re doing. The idea behind this is to lessen the work and thought required for each decision by planning out several things at once or even cutting choices out all together.

Did you decide what to wear this morning? Chances are, it wasn’t a hard choice, but even that small choice stole some of your precious mental power. Is it possible to cut some of these trivial choices to save energy?

Former President Obama found a way to do just that. He realized that each choice uses mental energy. So Obama strategically limited his wardrobe so his options were fewer. He would even set his clothes out the night before so that he didn’t waste energy in the morning making trivial choices. His habit of reducing options gave him more mental ability to focus on the important choices he had to make every day.

3: Habits

When you woke up this today, did you make your bed? Did you choose to make it, or did you just do it automatically?

For several years, I have been making my bed every day. Even when I had to be up at 4 am and left my light off so I wouldn’t wake my roommate, I made my bed. It was automatic for me. That is what a habit is: an automatic response to a trigger.

Habits are made up of three parts, the cue, the routine and the reward. As soon as your brain sees a familiar circumstance, it goes on autopilot, takes a nap and does whatever you did last time during that situation. It keeps one eye open for the end of the routine and then shakes itself awake.

For me, getting out of bed has become a cue, then I make my bed and my reward is a tidy room. Recently, I’ve started trying to increase the benefits of this habit. So after I make my bed, I start doing a few push-ups. Once that became a habit, I added in a few stretches. In this way, I can use the same well-ingrained cue and slowly string other activities along the chain until I have a great morning routine.

Most people think habits are things like biting your nails, popping your knuckles or other simple, negative activities. Habits are so much more and can be incredibly intricate. Have you ever noticed how you tend to discuss the same issues with your friends each time to see them? That’s a habit. You may think you are both discussing whatever you want, but the truth is that your subconscious brain has found a safe topic so it can chat about that with minimal energy.

Recently I realized I have a habit of turning my laptop on as soon as I enter my room. I tend to waste a lot of time on my laptop, so I would like to change the habit. The best way to change poor habits is to adapt them. Use the same habit cue but change the action it prompts. My cue to turn my laptop on is walking in the door. I often feel bored or want to listen to music while I put my clothes away and tidy my room. So what if I used the same cue (walking in the door) and used it to trigger me to go on a run instead? I could even set my running shoes on top of my laptop as a reminder. Then I would still get the same relief from boredom, get a sense of satisfaction (great mental reward) and become more healthy!

4: Temptations

Rewards can be good. They reinforce good behaviour. But they can also give you an incentive for bad behaviour. Rewards are the reasons behind temptations. It is a quick reward for behaviour that your conscious self knows is not beneficial in the long term.

Paul said in Romans 7:15, “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want. But I do the very thing I hate.”

Can anyone else relate to this struggle to understand why you can’t seem to muster the motivation to do the things you know are good for you? Let’s say you’re trying to eat more healthily. But you are tempted to eat the cookies and junk food in your cupboard.

Recall how each choice takes energy? Having those foods available all the time means that you will need to make a choice every second of every day not to eat those foods. Eventually, your mental energy will get low enough and you will give in.

The Bible says to “flee temptation.” Instead of allowing the temptation to make you work to resist it, why don’t you push it away? Get rid of all your junk food!

If your house is only stocked with healthy foods, you can only eat healthy foods. You can make one choice while you are shopping to save yourself hundreds of other choices later on.

5: Distractions

Temptations are passive options you could do, but distractions are “in-your-face” and aggressive. Distractions make you busy, but limit productivity.

Think of a distracting environment. Maybe you’ve tried to study at the kitchen table, but your mom is bustling around making dinner, your brother comes in from the yard and wants to play and your sister is practicing her music. You are reading the words in the book, but you can’t seem to retain it. That’s because your focus is split.

Think of how if you load too many web pages on your laptop all the programs run slower. That’s just how your brain works. When you have too much going on, everything suffers. Commonly the largest source of distraction comes from screens. When an email pops up as you are studying, it breaks your concentration and limits retention. When your phone chimes with a notification, it interrupts your thoughts.

Studies have shown that each notification and distraction takes a part of your focus. While most of your attention may return to your research, a small part remains with the text wondering what it says and how to respond. Research also found each time you get distracted it takes about 23 minutes to refocus. Do you ever go for more than 23 minutes without checking your phone? Are you actually tapping your potential, or just working at a surface level?

Actively trying to work  on blocking out distractions is just as draining on your mental energy as giving into them. Save that mental energy, and make distractions not even an option,

To prevent a text from breaking your focus, try putting your phone in another room while you work. To avoid falling into the rabbit hole of YouTube, Facebook and other sites, try working offline or using an internet blocker like WasteNoTime, Freedom or StayFocused. For the last year, I have been using those apps when I write or need to focus and it has been so helpful! These methods will limit the distraction, while at the same time reducing the energy needed for you to resist the temptation on your own or make choices to preserve your mental energy.

6: Rest

In an interesting study, a group of researchers looked at a variety of judges and evaluated their ability to make good choices and rulings. They found that as the day progressed, the judges made worse and worse rulings. Just after lunch, however, the judges seemed to have a brief time of clarity. After much study, the researchers realized that people have a small capacity to make good choices (as has already been discussed). But what it also shows is the importance of rest. Just after the judges had a rest (at lunch) they came back with a better perspective and were able to make some good choices.

We’ve already discussed how your mental energy is finite, but not fixed. When your gas tank is near empty, what do you do? You go fill it up. But with mental energy, how do you fill it up?

Our society struggles with the activity that would help us most: rest. We even struggle to define rest. My definition of rest is any activity or mindset that fills up your reserve of mental energy, emotional fortitude or improves your outlook on life.

The most beneficial activities are ones that are fully immersive yet mentally relaxing. I really enjoy coloring, reading and walking. Naps are a favorite also, but I’ve realized that I can feel just as rested and refreshed after a yoga session as with a 20-minute nap.

It is hard to schedule rest. How do you schedule a time to do nothing? Isn’t that paradoxical? Instead, I schedule a time to go running, reading or journaling. I can schedule those activities, and I have come to know that they are restful for me.

A Healthy Balance

Mental energy is hard to define and even harder to harness. It affects most areas of your life. If you drain it in one area, all other areas will be lower. But the reverse is also true. If you are conservative, you will have more in all areas.

Research has shown that if you make progress in one area, you will almost automatically make progress in other areas. For example, researchers have found that those who started exercising had, without trying, begun to smoke less, eaten more healthy, socialized more and were more productive in everyday life.

You don’t need to be perfect in every area. Progress in even one key area will begin a ripple effect to change your habits and mindset.

Being efficient isn’t about finding ways to work all the time. The goal of efficiency is to be productive with your tasks so that you can finish them as soon as possible so you have more time to enjoy life. The trick with efficiency is to find the optimal balance between focused work and rest.

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About the author

Duncan Poulsen

is a writer who intentionally pushes himself into experiences that force him to grow. He thinks deeply and likes to ensure that all ideas are considered before reaching conclusions. Duncan grew up on a goat dairy in Alberta, Canada but now lives in the mountains, just steps from massive glaciers and works at one of Canada’s top hotels. During the winter months, he writes regularly on his blog at Duncan Poulsen.

1 comment

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  • I totally agree with you – working all the time shouldn’t be a goal. Productivity is about finding a way to be efficient with your tasks, having more time for things in life that are the most meaningful.

By Duncan Poulsen
rebelling against low expectations

The Rebelution is a teenage rebellion against low expectations—a worldwide campaign to reject apathy, embrace responsibility, and do hard things. Learn More →