Write a Simple Sentence to Improve Productivity, Happiness, and Awareness

Trigger production, not consumption.

Matt Hotze PhD
Jul 31 · 5 min read

I’m writing from the examination room of our veterinarian’s office. A hard and cold concrete floor is under my feet; animal and cleaner smells mix strangely together as they only can in a vet’s office; a computer with a random screensaver on flickers from across the exam room. Our family dog is not feeling tip-top. I’m wearing a mask.

There isn’t much to do except wait. Previously in these types of situations my first impulse was to take out my phone and read the news, check Facebook or Instagram.

Boredom had always triggered me to make the time into dead time, a moment, or longer, in your day when you do something without it being connected to your larger purpose.

Dead time, coined by Robert Greene of 48 Laws of Power fame, is something to be avoided if we want to make real progress in life. It had always been too easy for me to slip into these small sessions of dead time with minimal thinking.

I would convince myself, it’s only for 5 minutes, what can I get done?

Now instead I have planned to be intentional with these short minutes. I am here with my notebook and writing to you because of that plan. I’ve improved my life with one sentence and this article is why and how I did it.

I have a goal of writing more than 3,000 words a week every week. It seems modest, but none of us have a ton of extra time on our hands. My main excuse for not reaching goals is I’m a full-time working parent of three kids (7,4, and 1 year) and our sweet family pup.

Often five minutes are all many of us have to make progress towards something useful. I need to make each of these five-minute sections of my day intentional.

Fortunately, I’ve uncovered a useful psychological trigger for this that improves productivity, happiness, and awareness. The if/when-then plan.


Your Mind Will Trigger, You Can Plan For That Trigger

Image for post
Image for post
Our sweet family pup. From Matt Hotze.

Remember Pavlov’s dogs? Pavlov and his research assistants conditioned dogs to hear a bell ring and then be fed their meal. After several days of conditioning, the dogs would salivate each time the bell wrang. They created a trigger for their brains to understand what was coming next.

Because our minds have the same functions as a dog’s brain, we understand that we can condition ourselves to do activities when/if certain conditions arise. You have to love metacognition!

Robert Caldini, the author of Pre-Suasion, highlights a study that demonstrates the power of the if/when-then plan. Making a statement like “When there is a free space at the lunch table, then I will sit down and fill out my resume.” resulted in an 80% success rate for recovering opioid addicts asked to fill out a resume. He compares this with the 0% success rate of making no statement (the control group).

Caldini describes the power if/when-then plans as follows:

“if/when-then plans … are designed to help us achieve a goal by readying us (1) to register certain cues in settings where we can further our goal, and (2) to take an appropriate action spurred by the cues and consistent with the goal.” — Robert Cialdini


My If-Then Plan

How am I triggering my dog-like brain to do better with those five-minute segments I have in my day? My plan is below.

If I feel the urge to pull out my phone then I will pull out my pocket notebook and start to write instead.

Sometimes I can jump right into the mental space I need to continue writing ideas or passages for a story I have back home on my computer. Sometimes I am not in that space, and I don’t force it. Below are some other powerful things I write about instead.

What Do You Write About?

  1. Describe what is happening in and around you

Using my pocket notebook is how I started writing the introduction to this story. We all can benefit from being more present in the moment, it stops distraction and anxiety and helps you practice awareness. You slow down your brain by describing your thoughts in writing or by noting the way you are feeling physically as well as the sounds, smells, sights, etc. going on around you.

2. List what you are grateful for

Research shows that writing down what you are grateful for each day increases your happiness. Listing what you are grateful for works because you are directing your mind to think about the positive aspects of your life. Therefore you will focus more on them throughout the day.

3. Note questions you are pondering

Our first impulse is to google the questions we have. We are consuming what the internet slot machine brings to the screen. Consumption can lead to a scattered mind that is following an internet search blindly.

Writing your questions down instead can help you find clarity about why you are asking the question or think of a better way to ask the question.

4. Draft an email or text to an old friend that you have not seen in a while

We all have good friends that we’ve waited too long to contact. These little moments are perfect for this.

5. Draft a note for a family for a friend’s birthday coming up

I’ve missed writing to people so many times. Instead, now I can have the draft ready to send when I’m at my desk.

6. Write a thank-you note

Create some goodwill in the world. We need a little more.

Reinforcing Your Production Over Scatterbrained Consumption

When you pull out a notebook, your mindset becomes production, not consumption. The paper is there, and you have to write something. Through an If-Then plan, the production mindset becomes the default. The more you practice it, the more it becomes just what you do. No other choice will come to mind.


Write this Down

Grab a notebook or anything you have nearby. Write down your If-Then statement.

Image for post
Image for post
My beautifully scripted If-Then Statement (handwriting needs work)

Here I am again, notebook in hand and jotting away. I am waiting outside the auto mechanic’s shop this time. It is hot, humid, loud, and dull. My If-Then plan has kicked in to write a little wrap up for this article. With a smile on my face, I am using what used to be dead time as productive time. It feels good.

Do you have other ideas for what to write about in your notebook instead of allowing dead time to take over? I’d love to hear about them in the responses.

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness and fulfillment.

Sign up for Elevate Weekly

By The Ascent

A weekly tip to live a better, more sustainable life and help humankind live up to its fullest potential. Take a look

By signing up, you will create a Medium account if you don’t already have one. Review our Privacy Policy for more information about our privacy practices.

Check your inbox
Medium sent you an email at to complete your subscription.

Thanks to Vivek George and Bryan Winchell

Matt Hotze PhD

Written by

Dad of 3 🤩. Learning and writing about fatherhood, leadership, and life. All profits from my writing here go to water.org. Learn more at matthotze.com.

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness & fulfillment. Join 105,000+ others making the climb on one of the fastest-growing pubs on Medium.

Matt Hotze PhD

Written by

Dad of 3 🤩. Learning and writing about fatherhood, leadership, and life. All profits from my writing here go to water.org. Learn more at matthotze.com.

The Ascent

A community of storytellers documenting the journey to happiness & fulfillment. Join 105,000+ others making the climb on one of the fastest-growing pubs on Medium.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store