How to Be Productive After Work
…and save yourself from stress nightmares, existential angst, and a lackluster eulogy
If you’re like me, you probably want to do things with your free time. Productive things. Write a play! Read a book! Reconnect with an old friend! Learn how to play the banjo! Whatever. But what you actually end up doing is more like this: You come home after a long day at work, and you put your things down. You plop onto your couch/chair/bed/floor and with great resolution and determination, spend the rest of the night watching Netflix. Then you realize you should probably go to sleep if you want to make it on time to work tomorrow and then pass out, promising yourself that tomorrow you will get stuff done. You do it again tomorrow, ending with the promise that seriously, absolutely, tomorrow, you’ll get stuff done.
But the cycle repeats. It’s probably been repeating for months — maybe years. You shoo away the unshakable feeling that life is slipping away from you, like it’s being sucked out by some sort of freaky Productivity Dementor that hovers around screens. Why is it so hard to get things done, and how do you break the loop?
Over the past year I’ve discovered many reasons for why simply “getting shit done” is hard and how to make it easier. To understand why the solutions work, let’s talk about where the problems come from first.
Why is it hard to be productive?
It’s hard to be productive because there is rarely an obvious, visceral short-term benefit to being productive. Remember that human evolution has been far outstripped by human society and technology: as far as our brains and bodies can tell, if we’re sitting around doing nothing, that means we’re winning at life.
As far as our brains and bodies can tell, if we’re sitting around doing nothing, that means we’re winning at life.
Seriously. If you are currently not having to run from a saber-tooth tiger, forage for scraps of food, or shiver underneath a damp cave that keeps going doink doink doink and you’re pretty sure there’s something bad in the water back there, you are unequivocally succeeding at being a human being. There’s basically zero incentive as far as your body’s concerned to do anything else except maybe have another brownie, because winter is coming and you’re probably going to be starving for an indeterminate amount of time very soon so better pack on those pounds.
However, the world we live in now outside of our incredibly hedonistic brains doesn’t look like that. We’ve got 401(k)s, jobs, career ladders, kids, pets, professional development, a wildly global economy, and the feeling that it’s all going past us too quickly to keep up. Our animal brains and bodies are woefully outdated to deal with modern life.
So don’t blame yourself for your inability to do stuff. The deck is stacked against you. But that doesn’t mean you should accept it, either. You just have to work around those inherent limitations. People who are wildly productive aren’t better humans — they just learned how to navigate being human a little better.
I’ve learned that there’s roughly two different categories of ways to navigate human-ness: logistical and emotional solutions. Logistical solutions involve changing or circumventing your habits and help you deal with optimizing the things you need to get done. Emotional solutions involve changing your perspective and reactions to whatever you’re trying to be productive about and help you get started.
1. Make Productivity Top of Mind
If you’re lucky, you might be predisposed to get your work done, you just forget to do it.
One of the most effective ways to do this is to put reminders in the way of your leisure. For example: if you often find yourself going to a screen (TV/computer), get a piece of plain paper, write what you’re trying to do (“WRITE NEXT GREAT AMERICAN LOVE STORY”) on it, and then tape it to the top of your screen where it will annoyingly get in the way. You should have to consciously flip it over so that it’s no longer as easy to just turn the screen on and get lost in it. If you do, you’re becoming more conscious of your habit and that might help you. If it gets too easy to flip that piece of paper over, add literally like 10 more pieces of paper until it becomes ridiculous and you finally get the point you’re trying to make to yourself. However, note that this has to actually be something in your way. I once tried to put pieces of paper on a wall with things I wanted to do written on them. I never look at that wall. Incidentally, my guitars are also hanging on that wall — guitars which I never play.
Along these lines is the concept of centralizing your “feed”. All good social platforms do this for you; Facebook, Snapchat, Twitter, and any other platform will give you all of the content that they want to deliver to you in one place. Phones create the ultimate mega-feed, with everything coming to one place. You should construct your own feed that all of your productivity-related notes and reminders go to. I like to use Trello for this. However, Trello isn’t a “primary” feed for me in that I don’t go to it often enough on my own. However, Google calendar is — I check it every morning and between every meeting. So I put a weeks-long event across my calendar that reminds me to look at Trello. I do the same thing for reminders to check my financial budget on Mint and to journal daily.
2. Remove Distractions
This is sort of the opposite of the idea of centralizing your feed. Destroy your feeds. Remove distractions. Disable whatever your social media fixation is on your phone. Create a new productivity-only user profile for yourself on your computer. Install an extension that forcibly keeps you from visiting distracting sites. Berate yourself every time you go to Facebook when you’re already on Facebook. Unplug your internet if that’s feasible for what you’re doing. Whatever you have to do, remove those distractions.
3. Stay in “Flow” at Work (If Possible)
If you read popular psychology books or articles, you’ve probably heard of the concept of “flow” popularized in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s fantastic book Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. It’s basically that state of mind where you’re focused on your work or play and time seems to fly by. Whether you hit a stride doing while making something, are watching a particularly great Netflix episode, or have a really nice conversation with someone who smells good, you’re in flow. It’s not possible for everyone to stay in flow at their job, but the key takeaway is this: if you’re in flow at work, you will have more energy to be productive after work. The most draining, energy-depleting, soul-sucking part of work is when you’re not in flow, when you’re bored, distracted, or otherwise not focused on doing something productive. If you can’t do this, you might need to try this next one.
4. Work Before Work
You’ve probably heard that successful people wake up early. It’s definitely true — research and anecdote share the same reasons: more willpower in the morning, more alone time, time to get errands done. And don’t get me wrong: I hate waking up early. I really, really hate it. But I do it because waking up and starting your morning correctly has strong implications for the rest of your productivity throughout the day. One of the best reasons to do it is also that self-motivated willpower is proactive; job-related willpower is much more likely to be reactive. What I mean by this is that when you’re working on your own stuff, you are the one that needs to motivate you to do it. When you’re at a job, not being homeless is what motivates you to do it. You gotta do it, and the nature of jobs is that tasks tend to come at you that it’s easier and/or mandatory to engage with regardless of how much energy you have. If you work after work, the quality of your energy and ability to focus is simply poorer.
5. Take Care of Yourself
Learn how to eat healthy. Drink plenty of water. Try not to drink too much alcohol. Sleep enough. It’s hard to tell the difference that these make until you’re doing them right, and it’s really easy to think that you don’t need to do them right. I mean, you technically don’t. You won’t drop dead from not taking care of yourself. I mean, maybe a few years earlier, but you won’t know the difference, right? That’s my point, though. Taking care of yourself has returns that aren’t visible until you experience them, but I can assure you that you’re much more productive when you’re well-fed, rested, and properly hydrated.
6. Schedule Yourself
Full-disclosure: I find this one really difficult, but when I do it right, it rocks. Keep a schedule. Block out time for when you want to do certain things. Get good at estimating time. Commit to accepting your schedule, and do the things you say when you say you’ll do them. This builds rigor into your personal lifestyle, and makes you a more accountable person. This tends to have positive effects because it spills into the rest of your good habits.
7. Get An Accountability Buddy
I haven’t tried this one myself, but it’s an interesting concept from Keith Ferrazzi’s book Who’s Got Your Back. The idea of an “accountability buddy” (or buddies) is someone with whom you mutually agree to hold each other accountable for your personal goals, with frequent check-ins. If one of you messes up, you have permission to (hopefully verbally) kick the other person’s butt. This can be done with a disappointed talking, estrangement, or even keeping money that you gave them for ransom. Peer groups are one of the strongest ways you can keep productive, especially if you know you have to report your results on a regular basis. I’m hoping to start one of these of my own, soon!
8. Don’t Multitask Mentally Engaging Tasks
Seriously, don’t try to multitask. It doesn’t work. At most, listen to lyric-less music. If you’re doing something very rote, watching Netflix is great. But if you’re trying to do something mentally engaging like write a story or code a program, doing anything that involves active attention will dramatically increase the amount of time it takes you to do that thing. Worse yet? It can leave you in what I call a “distraction funk” where you find it difficult to focus on anything because your attention is drawn in multiple directions, which is a very draining feeling.
So those are some of my logistical tips. Logistical tips are cool, but they don’t get to the root of why most people have trouble being productive: the emotional side of it. Let’s talk about that now.
Being productive is hard because it’s against our nature. You have to be willing on an emotional level to do things that take energy and effort, and that simply isn’t a sensible thing to do for a saber-tooth tiger-fearing, winter-suffering human brain. But we still gotta do it. Here are some of my methods.
1. Break Your Pattern
An easy way to get started here is to break your standard pattern or routine. We rely very heavily on contextual recall, and not just for memories. When we’re around old friends we can pick up heavy accents. When we’re around our parents we can regress to a child-like state. When we’re in our same old room with our same old TV we’ll watch probably TV.
So mix it up. Rearrange your furniture. Throw out your TV. Buy a separate work computer if you can afford it! Start taking a different route home — you’ll feel different when you arrive home because you had to pay more attention. Go out someplace new. It almost doesn’t matter what you do, so long as that thing is different. Difference primes us to be more alert, and take action, so take advantage of that and throw a wrench into your typical routine and see how you feel.
Prioritize is such a boring word. It sounds like it should be in the logistic solutions section. I know. But it’s important because what it actually means is an emotional commitment to a plan or a schedule. And that’s important because it brings up the question: are you actually emotionally committed to what you want to do? Does this actually matter? Do you actually care about it? There could be other reasons why you can’t get started, or have trouble beginning. Prioritization forces you to ask questions about what you’re trying to do and reveals gaps in your knowledge.
Ask yourself questions like these:
- Why do I want to do this thing and how much does it matter?
- What do I need to know to do it?
- What do I think I don’t know about doing it?
- Where will I find out more about how to do it if I hit a roadblock?
- Am I doing this because I would prefer to not be doing something else?
None of the answers here need to be dramatic. Your answer could be “Because I’m bored and I want to try it / Dunno / Who cares / Somewhere / Nope” and that’d be good enough. The goal is to bring emotional hinderances into the light, remove excuses, and reveal motivations. If you don’t have any of those, you’re good!
3. JUST DO IT!
DON’T LET YOUR DREAMS BE DREAMS!
YESTERDAY YOU SAID TOMORROW!
JUST DO IT!
Watch the video, then just DO IT!
Sometimes there’s nothing for it but a quick weird art-nerd green-screened Shia Lebouf motivational kick in the butt. This works great for starting on things or accomplishing chores. You can internalize the feeling you get and rely on it in the future. Think about how you felt when you feel really pumped up and short-circuit the process in your mind that ponders whether or not it’s worth doing, how long it would take, how boring it is, or how mundane it is and how long it would take. Just stop thinking about it and JUST DO IT. You’ll find that if you do that, you can remove a lot of the mental effort, stress, and anxiety that can go into getting started on a project or just doing the dishes.
4. Brutally Destroy FOMO (Fear of Missing Out)
One of the most dangerous threats to the modern day human is FOMO, the fear of missing out. FOMO is that creeping feeling that something vitally important is going on without you. You have to destroy FOMO. You have to axe-murder it, smother it in its sleep with a pillow, or maybe gently usher it out the door with a goodbye kiss and a “we’re done here”.
Trust me; nothing vitally important is happening almost all of the time. Back in the days of woolly mammoths and enemy tribes, not knowing something was bad. Real bad. But not knowing about your aunt’s baby or your friend vagueposting or some meme on the internet will not hurt you. In fact, it’ll probably make your life better. Not knowing something doesn’t make you less cool; it just makes you more focused on what actually matters. Remember that FOMO is usually generated by products that want to invoke that feeling in you — they’re consciously utilizing a piece of your animal brain that makes you “engage” with their content. This is great if you love that content but terrible if you’re trying to get stuff done. Change your relationship with content: you should consciously go find it, not the other way around.
5. Reframe the Idea of Productivity
If you’re a somewhat mindful person you can reframe how you feel about productivity at first thought. It always feels like a hurdle at first — something you have trouble starting on because it seems like so much effort and work.
What you can do instead is focus on aspects of that work that you know will make you feel satisfied. When thinking about working on something, think about things like:
- How well it’ll put you into flow
- The feeling of accomplishment you’ll have afterwards
- The tangible reward (if it’s something tangible, like having a clean room)
- Being able to talk about it
- Gaining a skill
This can go a long way towards reorienting your perspective to the thing you want to do, and then the next thing you know, you actually, genuinely want to do it. I find that this works best when I do it during the last hour-to-half-hour of work because it emotionally and mentally primes me to get some really good work done once I get home. If I don’t do this, it’s easy to let my weakened willpower take over after a drive/bus ride/walk/whatever duration of time that has given my brain enough space to relax and think, “Hmm, Netflix sounds nice.”
6. Change Your Definition of Acceptable
This is, in my opinion, one of the most powerful ways to become more productive, and a more focused person overall. Change what you consider to be acceptable in your own behaviors. This means, directly, have an opinion about what you will tolerate from yourself. This can be anything, from absolutely no longer tolerating not washing the bathroom at least once a month to absolutely no longer tolerating letting yourself be treated poorly in a relationship. This is hard to do because it requires making an emotional commitment to a stance, but I’ve found that for some reason the terms “acceptable” vs. “inacceptable” have really worked for me. Something about the language behind it implies to my mind that, no, letting dirty dishes truly is unacceptable and I will not tolerate it from myself.
This doesn’t mean you have to expect the same rigorous standards from others (though you can if that’s what you find you need to work on), and sometimes this can lax a bit when you’re very tired, but overall I’ve found it extremely effective. You probably have words that have a lot of force behind them that can apply to your own productivity habits — think of some and start using them.
7. Scare the Shit Out of Yourself
This is a last-ditch attempt to get you in motion. This one is really what got me started on my productivity kick about a year ago. It’s a little intense, but if you really, absolutely need to get your shit together and need a little tough love, this might help.
Go ahead and look in the mirror. Do you have smile lines or wrinkles yet? Imagine them being there or getting deeper. Look yourself in the eye. Look at your hands. Then start to ask yourself some very scary questions.
- What am I doing with my life?
- Am I moving forward, sideways, or backwards? How fast am I moving in that direction?
- If I kept doing the same thing, where would I be in 1 year? 2 years? 5 years? 10 years?
- Where would my friends be in 1 year, 2 years, 5 years, 10 years? What would they be doing? What would they think of me? Would I agree with them?
- Am I doing as much as I can be doing?
- Am I doing even half as much as I could be doing?
- Do I like who I am right now?
If you can answer these questions and feel reasonably OK about yourself, great! That means you’re either pretty productive already or you’re a very chill person. Otherwise, keep going.
Imagine if you died — what mark would you leave? Big or small, what effect would you have? Are you content with that idea? If you don’t die soon, are you happy with who you’ll become, given your current lifestyle and habits? Would others describe you in a way that make you feel proud? How would you feel if your answer to all of these ends up being no?
And then you just do it. You just get scared and you start until you’re finally moving in the right direction at a speed that’s acceptable and OK. The most important thing is just starting.
8. Do Nothing
The complete flipside to the last section is to just do nothing. Lounge around a little bit, but don’t engage with anything in particular. Let your mind wander. Gradually and slowly bring it to the things you need to do. What do they look like? Are they really that scary? No? Go do them. Yes? How come? OK, why is that scary? And why is that scary? Is there a way around the scariness? No? Do you need to do it anyway? That’s OK. Just go do it.
This is a more meditative approach towards prioritization. It’s an emotional way of running through your personal priorities and assessing them, and is particularly important when you’re dealing with larger, more intimidating goals. You want to give yourself space to contemplate the size, scope, and importance of what you’re trying to accomplish. Roll it around in your mind until it starts to make to sense, and slowly digest it. Don’t concern yourself too much with the process or the results— think of it like productive, directed daydreaming.
Doing this will mentally prepare you to get the work done when the time to do that work arrives. I even find myself typically getting up to work on the very thing I was thinking about shortly after my “do nothing” session, because I’ve figured something new out that a relaxed perspective allowed.
9. Productivity Feels Simple
One thing I’ve noticed when trying to convince myself to do something is that there are two basic types of feelings that come with it: one is described by the sentence “I swear I’m going to do this” and the other by “I’m doing this.”
The first sentence is willful, full of intent, and probably full of shit. When I feel like I’m convincing myself to do (or not do) something, I know that it’s become a struggle between my mind and my body. For me this happens most typically around food or when I’m really tired and trying to get myself to do a chore.
The second sentence, however, is simple. It knows exactly what it’s going to do. This is the mental positioning that comes from a “JUST DO IT!” mindset or a mind that is firmly made-up and understands what it wants to do. You’ve probably felt this way before, and you should strive to invoke this feeling in yourself if you’re coming from the first place or you know something is going to challenge your willpower.
Real productivity feels simple, like a decision that’s already been made. The best thing we have is to use logistical tools and mental tricks and techniques to help us make those decisions.
Thanks for reading! I hope you found these tips useful. I’d love to hear some of yours and any personal experiences with making the doing get done.