4 Mental Habits of Highly Productive People

#1: Manage your energy, not your time

Nick Wignall
Jan 14 · 6 min read
Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

Becoming more productive isn’t about more productivity hacks or yet another time management framework.

In fact, those things are usually distractions from adressing the real issues with productivity. Because here’s what most people trying to be more productive miss:

True productivity is about habits, not hacks.

In particular, it’s your mental habits that will determine your ability to consistently stay focused and do your best work.

If you’re ready to get serious about becoming more productive, work to cultivate these four mental habits.

1. Manage Energy, Not Time.

Energy is the currency of motivation.

Most of the productivity and habit building advice you hear offers tips and tricks for better time management. With promises of making you more efficient in your work, they suggest all sorts of techniques and strategies for carving up and dividing your day to manage your time better.

But here’s the thing:

Motivation isn’t a time problem. It’s an energy problem.

You can have all the time in the world but if you’re doing things that drain you of energy, you’re not going to feel motivated.

Luckily, the reverse is true: Even if your time is extremely limited, you can accomplish a tremendous amount with enough energy and enthusiasm.

So forget about managing your time and learn how to manage your energy instead:

  • Start your day with your most exciting tasks. Not only will this give you momentum for the rest of the day, it will also make it easier to get out of bed and hit the ground running because the first thing on your list is something you’re genuinely excited about.
  • Outsource energy-draining tasks. You don’t have to be a multinational corporation to take advantage of outsourcing. Get creative about delegating essential tasks that drain energy, confident that you’ll recoup the expense with the added energy and motivation you’ll get as a result.
  • Batch process your energy-draining task. Most of us can’t outsource all our energy-draining tasks. But we can minimize their influence. Instead of spreading them out across your days and weeks, get them all over with in one or two days so they don’t contaminate your energy-giving tasks.

When you plan your days, make energy, not time, your guiding principle.

2. Learn to Use Forcing Functions

A forcing function is a mechanism that forces you to take some kind of action. It’s the antidote to inconsistent willpower or motivation.

When a pop-up takes over your screen and asks if you want to save 50% on this month’s newest styles, it forces you into one of two decisions — click the big green “YES” button or spend 3 minutes hunting for the tiny, barely-visible “x” to close out of the popup.

Marketers and salespeople use forcing functions all the time to increase the odds that a potential customer becomes an actual customer. But forcing functions can be just as useful for personal productivity.

Suppose I really wanted to get this article done by Monday, but I kept procrastinating on writing it. I could write a check for $100 and make it out to my buddy Todd, telling him that if I hadn’t emailed him a completed draft of this article by Monday at 5:00 pm, he should immediately cash the check and buy himself something.

That’s a forcing function. By putting $100 dollars on the line, I’m forcing (or at least strongly encouraging) myself to follow through on my goals instead of getting distracted by short-term desires.

Exceptionally productive people are masters of self-imposed forcing functions.

They have the humility to realize that distractions are prevalent, motivation sometimes wanes, and in general, we’re all a lot less disciplined than we’d like to be. So, instead of hoping for the best, they assume the worst and plan accordingly.

Here are a few good examples of forcing functions you can use to improve your productivity:

  • If you want to get a lot of work done quickly, take your laptop but no charger and work at the coffee shop (hat tip: Dan Martell).
  • If you want to get more work done in your home office, remove the TV and uninstall all apps from your computer that aren’t directly related to your work.
  • Hire a coach and pre-pay for several months worth of sessions.
  • Tell you assistant or spouse to change your social media passwords until beginning of each month and not tell you the new ones until you’ve completed a particular goal or project (hat tip: James Clear in Atomic Habits).

Stop relying on motivation and design systems that incentivize you to do the work no matter how you feel.

3. Spend More Time with Productive People.

For better or for worse, the people we surround ourselves with impact us greatly. Highly motivated people use this to their advantage.

In small, everyday interactions, you probably realize how much impact other people can have on your levels of motivation:

  • One positive interaction with a supportive and enthusiastic friend can supercharge your own energy and motivation almost instantly.
  • On the other hand, just one interaction with a really negative, critical person can drain you of energy and sap your motivation for the day.

But there’s a bigger principle here:

The people you habitually spend time with affect how you habitually feel.

If you have to consistently interact with energy-draining people, you can’t expect to feel energetic and enthusiastic on a regular basis. But, if you habitually interact with energy-giving people, you can’t help but have some of their enthusiasm and motivation rub off on you.

So be thoughtful about the people you choose to spend your time with:

  • If you’re dating, be careful of starting a relationship with someone who consistently takes lots of energy.
  • If you’re applying for a new job, look carefully at the energy levels of the people you’ll be working with.
  • If you’re starting a new project or business with someone, try to find someone who gives you energy. And if they don’t, their other assets better be really worth it!

If you want to feel more motivated and energized in your life, surround yourself with energy-giving people.

4. Be Gentle with Your Failures.

There’s no better way to kill your motivation than beating yourself up after a failure or setback.

People with chronically low motivation almost always have a habit of being harsh and judgmental with themselves after failures and mistakes:

  • They criticize themselves with negative self-talk.
  • They judge themselves as being weak and not worthy.
  • And they punish themselves in a misguided attempt to motivate themselves in the future.

But being a jerk to yourself doesn’t motivate you to do anything but be more of a jerk to yourself.

Luckily, the reverse is also true:

Nothing helps you recover quickly from a setback like a little self-compassion.

Highly motivated people aren’t merely good at giving themselves energy and motivation — they’re also skilled at maintaining their motivation, even in the face of setbacks.

And the best way to preserve your energy and motivation in the face of failure or mistakes is to practice a little self-compassion:

  • Talk to yourself like you would talk to a good friend who was struggling.
  • Be empathetic and remind yourself that you are more than the sum of your mistakes. Much more.
  • Acknowledge that making mistakes and feeling bad doesn’t mean you are bad or weak.

Learn to be gentle with yourself and you’ll be far more resilient in the face of adversity.

All You Need to Know

If you want to be consistently productive at a high level, you need to build the right mindset and mental habits:

  • Manage your energy, not your time
  • Take advantage of forcing functions
  • Spend more time around genuinely productive people
  • Be gentle with your failures

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