Why Productivity Needs an Experimental Approach

Not all productivity hacks are made equal.

I know I’m not the only one out there who googles ‘best productivity tips’ in my free time but then does nothing to change my lifestyle. It’s more for entertainment than actually thinking of ways to change my life for the better.

But, in the middle of a slump in productivity both at work and home, I came across the not-so-revolutionary idea to switch off my notifications. I had nothing to lose, and a lot of potential life to gain, so I thought, Why not?

I made the change and the results actually were revolutionary, which I’ve written about here. The experiment reminded me that in order to actually keep improving our lives, we can’t just passively absorb tips. We have to try them out, see if they work for us, make a commitment to a culture of experimentation in our own lives.

In the spirit of learning new things about myself in search of self-improvement, I tried out four tips other productivity gurus swear by, and committed to them for a month.

Tip 1: Get up early every day.

Early bird gets the worm! Early to bed, early to rise! Dawn is the best time for productivity!

This one is so ubiquitous, I had to try it. I set my alarm for five AM (I normally get up at 7:30) and resigned myself to a lot of early morning coffees.

In practice, it was hard. There’s a reason people who joyfully get up at the crack of dawn are productive, and it’s because they’ve sold their souls to Satan. I struggled to get myself up every day, and it did not get easier. It got harder as I got more and more tired.

“man standing on mountain peak” by Sammie Vasquez on Unsplash

The results?

I was very tired. Predictably.

Was I more productive? Perhaps my mornings were a little more energetic, sure, but then I found my typical 3 PM slump became much more powerful than normal.

I also ended up missing out on a lot of time with my partner because I went to bed at 9 PM every night to try to feel less exhausted. I don’t know if maybe over even longer stretches of time I’d grow accustomed to my new routine, or perhaps I never would.

Conclusion?

Not for me. The gain of two and a half groggy, dark hours did not merit the loss of my evenings. Plus, I’d expected an invigorating jolt, a sort of burst of productivity in the mornings as promised by so many self-help experts. It did not come. Very happily I set my alarm back to 7:30.

Tip 2: Keep your desk clean.

I am so guilty of this one. My desk is an absolute mess at home and at work.

“silver iMac, Apple Wireless Keyboard, and Apple Magic TrackPad near table lamp” by Thomas Quaritsch on Unsplash

At home, my cats perpetually bat papers and other small objects onto the floor and more often than not, I just leave any mail, notices, and scraps of paper in untidy piles on the desk.

At work, I’m usually way more interested in going home than spending extra time keeping things organized.

So I committed to a system: a clean desk, no matter what, by the end of the day. At work, this was easier as I have a large filing cabinet. I spent 10 minutes at the end of each day ensuring everything was put away properly. It was annoying, sure, as my coworkers left the building at 5 PM on the dot and I continued toiling away, but honestly, it was so refreshing to come into the office the next morning, with a clean desk. Sort of akin to getting into bed with fresh, clean sheets.

At home it was a bit trickier (no filing cabinet) and I suspect I simply recycled a lot more paper that I normally would hoard for longer. I moved my “important” papers into a single folder, which I put in my nightstand.

The results?

I’ll take this one as a win. During the month, a client called about a previous conversation and I was able to find the notes referring back to that call in a flash! Very unlike me. I think also as time goes on, I will get better at organizing and it’ll take less time.

At home? I found I was much more inclined to spend time at my beautiful neat desk, working on my writing.

Conclusion?

I’m keeping this one. It was easy to implement, easy to continue, and in both places, I was rewarded for spending the initial effort, and the dividend was much greater than the first investment of time. Not only was I quantitatively more productive, but I felt better about working in a way that’s hard to describe. It was less stressful, more visually pleasing, and ultimately more productive.

Tip 3: Take cold showers

Need an instant pick-me-up? Try a cold shower. This bit of conventional wisdom has been something I’ve always been peripherally aware of, a sort of “Sure, it’ll wake you up, but God; at what cost?”

“gray metal handheld shower head” by Abigail Lynn on Unsplash

I can tell you now: after waking up at five in the morning, there was nothing I wanted to do less than have a cold shower.

But I was dedicated to my spirit of self-experimentation. So I cranked the shower temperature from my typical scalding down to a frigid.

It was rough.

The results?

I had shorter showers. And fewer of them, if I’m being honest. My productivity levels were not affected that I noticed. I just dreaded waking up all the more.

Conclusion?

Hot showers gave me a reason to wake up — all I had to do was get out of my bed and into the shower for a reward. Cold showers were the exact opposite, as they were relentlessly unpleasant and with no benefit that I could perceive.

Tip 4: Set an incredibly unrealistic goal

This was one I’m again only vaguely familiar with, but has always seemed self-defeating to me. Why give yourself an intentionally fail-ready goal?

The logic behind this one is to ‘overwhelm the brain,’ which then (hopefully) would expand and get activated upon failure.

“flying basketball and basketball hoop under blue sky during daytime” by Nabil Aiman on Unsplash

Like a lot of writers, I’m pretty hard on myself. I find it difficult to believe I’ll ever amount to much or accomplish anything. I was not super keen on the idea of setting myself up to immediately fail.

Still, lots of people said this worked for them, and I was ready to try it, if only to record the results.

My goal: write 2,000 words of my novel idea every day for the whole month.

The results?

Getting up at five actually helped the first few days, but then I found all I could write about was my character’s desire to go back to bed. I failed on day 4, when I got home late from a work trip which had run over. My partner and I ordered takeout and watched some Netflix. I did not write a word.

The next day, I was determined to meet my goal. I worked during my lunch break, spent some of my morning scribbling, and wrote as my boyfriend cooked dinner.

Did I activate my brain? Maybe. But I also felt a little garbage that I’d set a goal and hadn’t accomplished it, even though that was the point. Over the course of the month, I did not come close to writing 2,000 words a day, and after persistently failing, I just decided to give it up and write what I could, when I could.

Conclusion?

It’s possible that one day I failed set me up to succeed the next day, or it’s possible that the unrelenting pressure to not fail, combined with the knowledge that it would be impossible not to fail made for an interesting month.


Find what works for you.

This month was not a magic recipe for productiveness, I think that’s plain to see. But there’s some truth in these tips, regardless of how they turned out for me. Someone out there is enjoying a frigid cascade of water in the early hours of the morning, ready to tackle their day ahead. It’s not me, but they’re still out there.

There’s a culture nowadays of mocking these self-help gurus who promise the world if you just make one small change to your daily routine, but I believe that’s the wrong approach to take. We’re all different people, with unique experiences and motivations, and that’s going to cause us to react differently to various attempts to change our lives.

Our of four productivity “hacks,” only one made any definitive improvement. But not only is one out of four is a great success rate, I also learned what didn’t work for me, and that’s nearly as valuable.

Try something out — just for a month. Don’t give up if you don’t see results right away. Be prepared to accept the fact that you might fail. And realize that if you spend your life trying to improve yourself, you can’t help but succeed — eventually.