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The Five Levels of Productivity

And why you need to master each level before you can move onto the next

Photo by Danielle MacInnes on Unsplash

After spending countless hours immersed in the “self-help” section of the internet, I’ve come across many tools, tricks, and strategies designed to help people become more productive. However, even though there is almost an unlimited amount of advice available on the subject, very few people are actually able to implement what they’ve learned.

I believe this disconnect between what people know they should be doing and what they actually do is not because of a problem with the advice itself, but a problem in the way we try to apply it. What people don’t realize is that there are levels to productivity. Just like you can’t walk before you crawl, you can’t study for twelve hours a day before you have a goal.

In this article, I want to outline what I believe to be the levels of productivity. Essentially, I believe that in order to implement productivity strategies or tricks from level three you must have first mastered levels one and two. Obviously, it’s not a perfect science, but it’s something to consider on your journey to increased productivity.

Level #1: Setting Goals

The first level is simply figuring out what is important to you. What makes life meaningful? Is it your relationships? Making people laugh? Telling stories?

If you don’t know what you want, it doesn’t matter how hard or smart you work. If you’re working a hundred hours a week at a law firm when all you really want is to be a musician, are you really being productive?

It’s important to note that when I say “setting goals” in this context I do not mean SMART goals. When thinking about your priorities and what brings you fulfillment your answers can and should be more general. Think of them as the “North Star” by which you can set your more specific goals.

An example of one such general goal could be “living in accordance with my values” or “having a healthy relationship with my body”. Neither of these goals can be measured, nor can we ever fully accomplish them. We never “reach” the North Star, but it still helps guide us in the right direction.

Once we have these general goals, or values, in place we can then go on to set the more traditional SMART goals. If you don’t know, SMART stands for:

  • S — Specific
  • M — Measurable
  • A — Attainable
  • R — Relevant
  • T — Time-Bound

For example, “I want to lose weight” is not a SMART goal, but “I want to lose 10 lbs by July 12th” is, assuming that it lines up with your general goals and is also reasonable for you to achieve (July 12th shouldn’t be a week away).

Putting this all together, here is what “mastery” of this level should look like.

  1. Determine what is meaningful and valuable to you (make sure that this is what you really want not what society says you should want)
  • Ex: Confidence
  • Ex: Meaningful Relationships
  • Ex: Inspire People Through Stories

2. Create long-term SMART goals that take you in the right direction.

  • Ex: Gain 10 lbs of muscle by the end of the year.
  • Ex: Spend five to ten hours of quality time with my family every week.
  • Ex: Participate in an annual film fest.

3. Create short-term SMART goals to help you achieve your long-term goals.

  • Ex: Workout for an hour every weekday.
  • Ex: Power off phone and computer after the workday is over.
  • Ex: Spend two hours working on a script every morning before school.

Many of you will already have a solid idea of what’s important to you and the goals you are trying to achieve. Many of you will not. Regardless of where you may feel you are, it’s valuable to take time to reflect on your priorities- even if you think you know what they are. Often, we may believe that our friendships or health or passions are important to us, but our actions say something else entirely. When we reflect, we grow.

Level #2: Optimizing Your Environment

Many people make the mistake of believing that achieving their goals is simply a matter of willpower, but this isn’t true. Hard work and self-discipline are important, but a large part (if not the majority) of whether or not your efforts will be successful comes down to the environment that you put yourself in.

When your surroundings aren’t set up in congruence with the goals you are trying to achieve you’re setting yourself up for failure. If your goal is to do three hours of focused work every morning, but your phone is lighting up with notifications besides you, it doesn’t take a psychic to know you’re going to fail.

By making changes to your physical environment you are affecting both your subconscious and conscious minds.

When you block distracting websites, throw out all the junk food in your house, or set your workout clothes out the night before, you are influencing your conscious mind. You are simply making it easier to follow through on your commitments (or harder not to). If you block every app except Word on your computer, you’ll find it easier to focus than if Netflix was just a few clicks away.

Similarly, if you tell a friend to charge you $100 every time you eat sugar or go on social media, you’ll automatically make doing these activities less appealing.

Influencing your subconscious mind is slightly trickier. Essentially, by altering your environment in certain ways, even if it doesn’t directly make it easier to achieve your goal, you can “train” your subconscious mind to focus on behaviors, attitudes, and decisions that are more likely to lead to success. For example, when you go for a shower and change into a fresh pair of clothes you will feel more productive than if you had chosen to work in your pajamas all day. This is true even though what you’re wearing technically shouldn’t affect your productivity.

Using your environment to influence your subconscious mind can help you slowly change your identity. For example, if you believe that you’re a fat, lazy slob (even if you never say it out loud) the only way for you to develop lasting healthy habits is to change that belief from within, otherwise you’ll end up sliding back to your bad habits because that’s who you believe you are.

When you buy fancy workout gear, organize your study, or learn to cook, you are subtly changing your identity. You could get healthy without doing any of these things, but by choosing to do them you start to think of yourself in a different light.

There are many ways to change your physical environment from who you spend your time with to changing the clothes you wear. Take some time to think of how you can optimize your physical environment to set yourself up for success. Even though this may seem relatively easy, it is a crucial first step to ensuring your success with other productivity strategies.

But, wait! There’s more! When optimizing your environment it’s important to consider your mental environment as well as your physical.

The idea here is to create a “second brain” that makes up for the inefficiencies and inconsistencies of your original. In order to decrease stress and increase productivity, it is important to use external resources to organize and record the jumble of thoughts and ideas inside your head. Specifically, it is important that you create a system that helps you accomplish the following:

  1. Capture every task you have to complete so that nothing falls through the cracks
  2. Prioritize your tasks so you know exactly what you should be working on at any time
  3. Be reminded of important meetings and commitments
  4. Quickly record and expand on your ideas

I won’t expand on how to create such a system as it is simply outside the scope of this article and there is already plenty of relevant content already on the internet. But, the idea is to use an external system to keep your mind clear and completely focused on the task at hand.

Level #3: Mindfulness and Self-Compassion

For the majority of my life, I believed that productivity and success were simply a product of willpower and self-discipline. If I didn’t achieve my goals or to-do lists, it was because I wasn’t trying hard enough — my failures were a direct reflection of my character and the person I was.

However, as I’ve grown older and matured, I’ve realized how problematic this mindset has been. I started to notice a pattern in my efforts to develop new habits or be more productive. The first several days or so would go great and I would wake up on time or go for a run or do whatever it was I was trying to. But then, invariably, something would go wrong. Either it was raining outside or I would fall sick or just be lazy, but I wouldn’t be able to complete the task at hand. However, simply missing a day wasn’t the issue. The problem was that I would grow frustrated with myself, label the entire effort as a failure, and give up.

This mindset that I was a failure even if I messed up a little was preventing me from accomplishing anything meaningful. It took me a while, but I eventually figured it out. I realized: If I had just accepted the fact that I messed up as a part of life and continued on I would have gotten a hell of a lot further.

Although I had a vague understanding of this idea for a while, the lightbulb went off while I was listening to a Headspace session about living in the present. I know that this is common advice, but it never clicked for me until that moment.

I realized that I was constantly either regretting the past or worrying about the future instead of focusing on doing my best in the present moment. I would beat myself up about the day or week or year before and stress about the work I needed to get done in the future. These negative emotions would cause further inaction which brought on more negativity and so on in a vicious cycle of suck, and the only way to escape was by focusing on the present. Rather than yelling at myself about what a horrible person I was, I needed to be saying: “Okay, I messed up, but that’s in the past and I can’t change it. What can I do right now to be better?”

And, this is essentially what mindfulness is: Being fully immersed in the present moment so you can think every thought and perform every action with intention and excellence. Learn from your past and plan for the future but live in the present.

During this time, I also began to read a lot about psychology and the role that shame plays in our lives. In his book Indistractable, Nir Eyal explains: “Even when we think we’re seeking pleasure, we’re actually driven by the desire to free ourselves from the pain of wanting… Simply put, the drive to relieve discomfort is the root cause of all our behavior, while everything else is a proximate cause.”

A big part of why we are driven to distraction or other short-term pleasures is to avoid discomfort. We use food and sex and TV and alcohol as methods to numb our pain, which in large parts comes from shame. It’s the cycle of suck all over again. We screw up, assume it means we are a terrible person, feel shame about how awful we are, turn to distraction to numb the pain, and so on and so forth . . .

This is where we can inject self-compassion.

If a friend or loved one messes up, you wouldn’t say, “Wow! You suck at life. You’re a horrible person and will never amount to anything. What a loser.” Or, at least I hope you don’t. Instead, we say (or should say) something along the lines of, “It’s okay. You messed up, but everyone messes up. Do better next time. I believe in you.”

We’re not blindly telling ourselves that we are perfect and brilliant and can do no wrong; we’re treating ourselves with empathy, honesty, and respect. You should still be taking ownership of your actions, but, at the same time, you should recognize that your emotions and failures do not determine your character and what kind of person you are.

Self-compassion helps remedy much of the undeserved shame that we feel in our lives, effectively breaking us out of that cycle of suck. When you don’t hate yourself you have no reason to numb yourself and many of the unhealthy, pleasure-inducing actions we once participated are no longer necessary.

I firmly believe that setting goals and striving to be a better version of yourself is a fundamental tenet of living a fulfilling life. For many people, this manifests itself as to-do lists, time-blocking strategies, and cold showers, but these improvements are only surface-level一 they don’t address the root causes of our problems.

When we try to fix ourselves from the outside in, it requires huge amounts of willpower and pain, and most efforts are unsuccessful. On the other hand, when you address the deeper, underlying issues behind your problems it takes a lot of up-front hard work, but its benefits will radiate outwards and fix the corollary symptoms.

It’s sort of like trying to patch a dam with masking tape. You’re constantly running back and forth patching and re-patching holes as the water bursts through. Eventually, you get tired of all the running, collapse on the spot, and drown. The only sustainable solution is to get some concrete (I actually have no idea how you fix a hole in a dam, but I would assume it’s with concrete) and fix the damn dam.

Level #4: Retraining Your Attention Muscles

The next level of productivity is to retrain your attention muscles. In today’s world of instant gratification and constant distraction. Most of us have decimated our ability to concentrate intensely on a given task.

Our ability to focus is dependent on two factors: strategy and strength.

Think of it this way. Imagine you had to lift an incredibly heavy object– let’s say around three hundred pounds– into the trunk of your car. There are two ways that you could go about this. You could 1.) go spend several months in the gym getting jacked preparing for the big lift, or 2.) get a plank of wood, make a makeshift ramp, and slide it on up.

Regardless of which route you decide to take you will need a certain amount of strength, it’s just that the second option requires a lot less of it. Level two is all about creating these so-called “ramps”, and this level is focused on developing a base foundation of strength.

In order to do this, there are a few strategies I would recommend:

#1 Use interstitial journaling and google sheets to measure progress.

When you start working out, you measure your progress. You meticulously record how many sets and reps you complete and with what weight. You track every run and count your macro and micronutrients. Why?

First, tracking your workouts allows you to see improvement. Sometimes you may feel like you’re not getting better, but when you look at where you were a few months ago you can clearly see that that’s not true. This is motivating and helps you continue to stick with the program.

It is a way of holding yourself accountable. Often, we have an incredibly warped perception of what we are actually doing versus what we think we are doing. We may think we’re getting a lot stronger or eating super healthy, when, in reality, that may not be accurate. Measuring and recording helps us be honest with ourselves because, well, the numbers never lie.

It’s the same for working out our concentration muscles, but how do you measure productivity?

For me, the most useful tool has been interstitial journaling. The basic idea of interstitial journaling is to record and reflect on your breaks. It would look something like this:

9:00 started working on EMT training course

10:02 stopped working to stretch and get a glass of water

10:08 started work again; took a quiz and passed

10:35 got distracted and started talking to a friend

10:58 finally got back to work

Doing this will help you notice how often you get distracted/take breaks and patterns in what you get distracted by. It also helps you be more mindful as you are working as you are reflecting as you go. It’s so simple, but personally, I have found it to be incredibly effective.

The second way I like to measure my productivity is by total productive hours worked in a week. This helps me get a general overview of how productive I am being. I also use it to hold me accountable to my “minimum standard” which, for me, means working a minimum of three focused hours every weekday. This means even if I have a very unproductive, distracting day- I will get at least three hours of work in. It’s a great way to make sure you are making consistent progress and seeing how productive you actually are.

#2 Use progressive overload for slow and steady growth

Another benefit of measuring your progress is it allows for progressive overload. Going back to the workout analogy if you know that you lifted 25 lbs for 3 sets of 12 reps last workout, you now have a number for your next workout. You can make each workout harder than the one before, even if it’s only slightly. In this way you almost guarantee improvement.

We can do the same with our productive hours or time worked before taking a distraction. At first, you may only be able to work ten or twenty minutes before getting distracted, but you can work on improving that number by a couple of minutes every day until you can be focused for an hour straight. You can also work to increase the amount of productive hours you work a week or decrease the amount of time you spend on social media or YouTube.

#3 Follow through on tasks until completion and set aside time for distraction

A big reason for our decimated attention spans comes from constant context switching. We switch from one activity to another constantly and every time we do, our attention span slowly decreases.

According to Slate alongside the website analytic company Chartbeart, only five percent of readers who start an article actually finish it. Hugh McGuire explains, “New information creates a rush of dopamine to the brain, a neurotransmitter that makes you feel good. The promise of new information compels your brain to seek out that dopamine rush.”

Every time we click on a new article or a youtube video we get a rush of dopamine which causes us to make constant context switches and decimates our attention span. Fight through these urges and make a commitment to fully complete a task before moving on to something new一 even if that task is simply watching a youtube video, show, or interesting article.

Sometimes a task is too big to finish in one go. In that case, divide it into manageable chunks that you can finish all the way through.

Level #5: Self-Experimentation

The final, and arguably most exciting, level of productivity is experimentation. This is the level people tend to skip to too early. It’s the wake-up-at-4:00-AM-take-cold-showers-monitor-your-sleep-trends level.

Once you have mastered the basics you can then work towards optimization. It’s not necessary at all, but many people find it fun and beneficial. You can try experimenting with power naps, intermittent fasting, cold showers, supplements, or whatever else you find interesting. How you execute on this level is completely up to you, however, there are a few things I would recommend.

First, follow the general outline of the scientific method. Ask a question. Do research. Make a hypothesis, set variables, record data, and share your results. Take a structured approach to your experiments, otherwise, it will be difficult to figure out what is actually working and what is not.

Most importantly, remember that this should be fun. Self-experimentation should be a source of curiosity and excitement, not stress.

Final Thoughts

Productivity is a journey. If you want to be successful, you have to take it one step at a time and learn to enjoy the process. This article outlines what I believe to be the general process in which to pursue productivity, however, your journey may be different. Embrace the challenges and failures because they are what will bring you joy in the end.

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