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Why making my tasks emotional increased my productivity

And other curious consequences

“Eat your own dog food” is, of course, wise advice for any entrepreneur — for anyone selling anything. But what if the eating is trickier than occasionally closing your eyes, pinching your nose and swallowing quickly. What if you have to build a habit too?

I started wondering about this puzzle, finding Pavlov’s proverbial bell, after reading an article on how Adam Rifkin, the world’s top relationship builder, makes introductions.

Adam’s principle 1: Make introductions every day.

“An introduction is the most powerful daily action you can take to build [a network]. In just a few minutes, you can have a dramatic impact on the lives of two people and generate a large amount of goodwill for yourself and the overall community you’re building.”

A problem with the net present value of pleasure

Inspired, I added to my task list one daily introduction.Adam does 3, though no more than 3. (I intend to work my way up.) I agree passionately with the argument about introductions being potent vectors of generosity. I co-founded Intros to help people unlock the value of their networks by making more, and more powerful, introductions. I believe the world would be a better place if more people made more generous introductions.

But even one daily intro is hard work. It takes time and imagination. And while I love the idea of my intros helping others eventually — the “dramatic impact” downstream Adam mentions — I quickly found the promise of future (uncertain) gratification, discounted to today, sometimes loses its motivational punch.

So I tried, instead, a shameless appeal to my ego and its impatient desire to feel like a good person, now.

Into a new task list, “Highly helpful”, went my daily intros, imbuing each with the immediate, intravenous pleasure of making an intro, irrespective of its outcome.

I quickly started looking forward to opening my “Highly helpful” task list in the morning. Here, each day, amidst an avalanche of hard work, were clear steps that ensured I could at the least feel helpful.

I was salivating for my own dog food.

But there was more to it. I soon found myself adding different types of helpful tasks to my Highly helpful list. Simply connecting tasks with these two emotive words made such a big difference to my satisfaction that I began to wonder what would happen if I gave emotional characters to all my tasks. (I am sure this is not an original idea, and I apologise if I am not giving credit where due.)

Getting Things Done

I have had a long (embarrassingly unproductive) fascination with productivity hacks.

Against all evidence, I persist with the rosy conviction that I can squeeze 50% more out of my life — if only I had the perfect system. At my worst, I have changed task list systems as often as iTunes offers software updates.

This affliction began in earnest a few years back, when my brother, Damien, recommended David Allen’s excellent “Getting Things Done”. GTD, he said, had unlocked hours of his time.

Getting Things Fun

Ultimately, I found the bells and whistles version of GTD too complicated; a task in itself.But I’ve always liked GTD’s elegant (if, for me, impractical) idea of grouping tasks by contexts: email, online, phone calls, at the grocery store, etc.

So for this experiment I reinstated Omnifocus, the ultimate GTD weapon. But this time I created “emotional contexts”, asking myself: How will doing or completing this task make me feel?

The question works even for the nastiest tasks. In fact, completing an awful task often offers the greatest emotional payoff.

After a week’s experimentation, my context list looked like this:

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I’m still playing with the categories. So far I’ve found it’s helpful to:

  1. Make the emotion dramatic. I’ve used “triumphant”, “massive relief” etc. This increases the allure. It also helps rule out tasks you shouldn’t be putting on your list in the first place. If you’re adding a task that’s not important, difficult, helpful or nasty enough to deliver more than neutral feelings on completion, you think twice.
  2. Experiment with fun and fear. At the moment, all the states or emotions on my list are positive. But I’ve had some success using terms like “avoids physical and psychological meltdown”, “keeps you on the right side of the law”.

Examples from my melodramatic to do list

  1. Triumphant: Client pitches, investment presentations, hiring plans. Mission critical stuff.
  2. Supremely satisfying: Inbox zero (aided by Tony Hsieh’s lovely “Yesterbox” technique), making a tricky phone call, research.
  3. Massive relief: Tax return, sorting out insurance, booking flights.
  4. Highly helpful: Intros, advice, intros, intros.
  5. Basic decency: Thank you notes, keeping promises. I’ve found this list surprisingly revealing. It shows the conflict between two things I value greatly: generosity and integrity. I tend to promise too much. Seeing my impossibly long list in “basic decency” helps me avoid over-promising and jeopardising integrity.
  6. Delight: I’d been meaning for ages to get a print of Raphael’s School of Athens for my office, calling a friend out of the blue.
  7. Fit for Battle: A daily run, 10 minute morning meditation. (I’ve been reading books on war recently, hence the description.)
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Raphael’s delightful “School of Athens”

A daily menu of positive emotions

It’s made me more productive, though it is too soon to tell how much more. It’s definitely made me feel happier. And saner. One week in, I’m weirdly feeling rather fond of my task list.

I am optimistic about the approach. Our belief that we’re not easily influenced has been fabulously debunked by the extraordinary studies showing how, when prompted with words that suggest states of being, we act accordingly. Show people words related to old age and they walk more slowly etc.

So maybe, simply seeing a task list littered with the promise of good feelings can start to shift the deep, unhelpful emotions associated with the very idea of “tasks”.

Critically, in unearthing a task’s emotion, I’ve learned I have first to find the associated “Why” of the task. Emotions need a why. And “Why to do” to is always a better place to begin your day than “What to do”.

I’d love to know if this works for others, and how it can be improved.

The thinking behind this experiment was also inspired by:

  • Adam Grant’s work on the professional case for giving. Adam, by all accounts, probably has the world’s longest “Highly helpful” to do list.
  • Peter Bregman’s 18 Minute Plan, which includes grouping all your tasks into five goal areas that really matter.
  • Charles Duhigg’s wonderful book, The Power of Habit.

Written by

Entrepreneur & author. Co-founder and CEO, Apolitical. Ambassador @ATMIndex. @WEF YGL. robynscott.org

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