Chapter 11

Even though this chapter is the final one in the book, it’s one of the most important.

I think a lot of people have the tendency to be hard on themselves when they make changes to their lives. They set unrealistic expectations for themselves, don’t reward themselves when they reach milestones on their goals, and many people (myself included) have the tendency to constantly push their goals just a little beyond their reach, so they’re never quite able to achieve them.

If you have the tendency (like I do) to be hard on yourself when you’re in the process of reaching your goals, this section is for you. Here are six great ways to go easy on yourself while you keep your New Year’s resolutions.

Be honest with yourself

Productivity tips and hacks are useful, but most of them are useless if you’re not honest with yourself. For example:

  • Is your to-do list doable, or do you keep putting things off to another day?
  • Do you tend to make New Year’s resolutions that are too ambitious and give up a few weeks in, instead of setting more realistic goals from the start?
  • Are you reading this book because you like productivity porn, or are you reading it because you want to make real, substantial changes to your life? (Actually, if you made it this far, it’s probably because you want to make real changes to your life.)
  • Do you hit the snooze button 5 times every morning instead of setting an alarm for when you’ll actually get up?
  • Do you ignore your body when it tells you that it’s full?
  • Do you ignore your mind when it tells you it’s overworked?
  • Do you ever tell yourself “I don’t have time for that”? We all get the same number of hours every day, and if you were having a heart attack you would magically find time to go to the hospital. When you’re saying you don’t have time for something, you’re really saying it’s not important enough to you.
  • Do you spend several hours in front of the TV, and then try to forget about where your time went?

Something I’ve discovered over the course of A Year of Productivity is that self-honesty is invaluable when it comes to becoming more productive. Reaching your New Year’s goals should be a fun challenge, and it’s okay to tell yourself when (and why) you succeed and fail. Doing so will also help you adapt your goals along the way.

Ask yourself for advice

There’s one person people usually don’t ask advice from: themselves. I have found that asking myself for advice has worked well with my self-honest approach to productivity, and that it might even go a step further than self-honesty.

When you give yourself advice, you:

  • Become accountable for what you need to change
  • Own the changes you make to your life, which lets you own your accomplishments
  • Are happier and more motivated, because you have control over the changes you’re making
  • Feel more confident, because you let yourself be heard
  • Are more likely to follow your advice, because it comes from you

Like with practicing self-honesty, giving yourself advice might seem a bit hippie-dippy on the surface, but it works. When you’re deciding which New Year’s resolutions to make, and how you’re going to find the motivation to keep them, don’t forget to ask yourself for advice.

Take more breaks

Some of the best productivity tips out there are counterintuitive. For example, it’s hard to imagine that eating chocolate after you run will make you fitter, but it does.

I think the same is true with taking breaks.

Working straight through fatigue and tiredness to try to get as much done as possible feels more productive, but like with multitasking, you’re not actually more productive. Your mind simply creates the illusion that you’re more productive because you don’t stop working.

During my productivity experiment to watch 70 hours of TED talks in a week, I had the chance to not only watch some great TED talks on the importance of taking breaks, but to also test my hypothesis that taking more breaks makes you more productive.

A quick experiment, and its results

For two straight days during my Week of TED experiment, I took as few breaks as possible, and tried to watch as many TED talks as possible. For two days after that, I listened to my mind and body, and took breaks when either my body or mind was getting restless, while still trying to watch as many talks as possible. On average, I took a five-minute break every two TED talks (they’re 18-minutes long each).

Here’s what I found:

  • I was 22% more productive on days where I took frequent breaks (I watched 22% more TED talks)
  • I had more energy, and didn’t fatigue as quickly when I took frequent breaks
  • I had the chance to chew on the information I consumed a lot more when I took breaks, which added meaning to the experiment, and allowed me to learn more

This experiment is far from scientific, but I was blown away by my results. And research on how taking breaks affects productivity seems to conclude with my findings: a recent study in the journal Cognition found that taking breaks significantly improved participants’ focus and productivity, and allowed participants to focus on a task for longer periods of time.

5 more benefits to taking breaks

Here are five more benefits I’ve come across, and observed myself:

  1. Breaks let you step back from your work and life, to see it from an elevated 10,000 foot perspective.
  2. Breaks help you rev down your brain, and slow down. This helps you reflect and do better work. According to Carl Honoré, who wrote a book on slowing down, “conventional wisdom tells you that if you slow down you’re roadkill, [but] the opposite turns out to be true. By slowing down at the right moments people find that they do everything better: they eat better, they make love better, they exercise better, they work better, they live better.”1
  3. Breaks give you better ideas. Every seven years Stefan Sagmeister shuts down his New York design studio to take a year-long sabbatical so he can experiment with new designs, and every sabbatical he comes back more inspired than ever. His years off have even made his firm more profitable, even if you account for the year off. Even though Sagmeister takes year-long breaks, I think his results speak strongly for how important breaks are in general.
  4. Breaks give you time to reflect, which adds meaning to what you do.
  5. Breaks are preventative. When I first started A Year of Productivity, I only took breaks after I felt tired, fatigued, or exhausted. I think when you’re fatigued or tired, it’s usually too late to salvage your productivity, but breaks prevent you from becoming fatigued and exhausted in the first place.

Breaks prevent you from becoming fatigued and tired, and they help you slow down, step back from your work, reflect, and come up with better ideas. If you want to get more done, taking more breaks is a no-brainer.

Lower your expectations

I recently watched a talk by a Buddhist monk named Ajahn Brahm where he explored how productivity and happiness are impacted when you lower your expectations. In his words, when you lower your expectations “you’re confident, and you can have fun, relax, and not worry about proving yourself to others”. This stops you from second-guessing yourself, and helps you blaze your own trail instead of conforming to what you expect from yourself or what other people expect from you.

I’m often hard on myself when I’m trying to be productive, and I can say first-hand that high expectations cause stress and unhappiness. Strive to be great at what you do, but don’t be hard on yourself when you’re not.

This is much easier than said than done, of course, but lowering the expectations you have of yourself (and ignoring the ones that come from other people) is a great way to find more motivation to reach your New Year’s resolutions.

5 habits that lead to more happiness

Happier people get more done. Way more done.

According to psychologist (and happiness researcher) Shawn Achor, when your brain is happy, it “performs significantly better than it does at negative, neutral, or stressed. Your intelligence rises, your creativity rises, [and] your energy levels rise”.

Achor has deeply explored the topic, and has uncovered that happy people:

  • Get 31% more done
  • Have 37% better sales figures
  • Have better, more secure jobs
  • Are better at keeping their jobs
  • Are more resilient
  • Have less burnout

And more. Happy doctors are even “19% faster, [and] more accurate at coming up right the right diagnosis at positive instead of negative, neutral, or stressed”.

According to Achor, “if we can find a way of become positive in the present, then our brains work even more successfully as we’re able to work harder, faster, and more intelligently.” Luckily, there are a number of scientifically-proven ways that you can rewire your brain to become happier. Achor suggests five of them you should do every day:

  1. Recall three things you’re grateful for. In Achor’s studies, after doing this for 21 days, people’s brains begin to “retain a pattern of scanning the world not for the negative, but for the positive first”, making them much happier.
  2. Journal one great experience you had. “Journaling about one positive experience you’ve had over the past 24 hours allows your brain to relive it.”
  3. Exercise. “Exercise teaches your brain that your behavior matters”, and it helps you solidify the connection between your actions and their rewards. Exercise is also a great way to focus better.
  4. Meditate. Achor: “We find that meditation allows your brain to get over the cultural ADHD that we’ve been creating by trying to do multiple tasks at once. It allows our brains to focus on the task at hand.”
  5. Perform a random act of kindness. It doesn’t matter if your act of kindness is buying a coffee for the person after you in line, volunteering, or sending a positive email. Achor gets “people, when they open up their inbox, to write one positive email, praising or thanking someone in their social support network.”

According to Achor, these activities done “in just a two-minute span of time, [for] 21 days in a row, [can] actually rewire your brain, allowing your brain to actually rework more optimistically and more successfully. Happiness also “turns on all of the learning centers in your brain, allowing you to adapt to the world in a different way”, which is particularly helpful if you’re making a New Year’s resolution to learn a new skill.

Even though two minutes a day appears to be enough to rewire how you think, I personally think that’s the least you can do, particularly when happier, positive people achieve 31% more.

9 stress relief strategies that actually work

Weird things happen when your mind is stressed out. Recently, “neuroscientists have shown that stress .. shifts the brain into a reward-seeking state. You end up craving whatever substance or activity your brain associates with the promise of a reward, and you become convinced that the ‘reward’ is the only way to feel better.”2

In other words, whenever you feel stressed out, your mind craves “quick fixes”, like the treat table across the hall, the temptation to go shopping after work, or the sexy new intern that started last Monday.

But quick fixes do not actually reduce the levels of stress hormones in your body.

The American Psychological Association has done extensive research to identify the ways people deal with stress, and it’s safe to say that any activity that provides you with a quick fix is a crappy way to deal with stress. The organization specifically names nine of the least effective ways people deal with stress: gambling, shopping, smoking, drinking, eating, playing video games, surfing the Internet, and watching TV and movies for more than two hours.3

Luckily, there are a number of proven stress-relief strategies that actually work. These strategies shut down your brain’s stress response, help you relax, reduce the level of stress hormones in your body, and also release feel-good chemicals and hormones like serotonin, GABA, and oxytocin. These strategies are also highly recommended by the APA.

Here are 9 stress relief strategies that actually work!4

  1. Exercise, or play sports
  2. Meditate
  3. Read
  4. Listen to music
  5. Go for a nature walk
  6. Spend time with friends and family
  7. Go for a massage
  8. Invest time in a creative hobby
  9. Pray, or attend a religious service

Investing in stress relief strategies that actually work, like the ones above, is a much better way to reward yourself compared to looking for immediate fixes that don’t do much at the end of the day.

Summing up

In a weird way, this guidebook is a bit lopsided, since it has only one relatively short chapter devoted to how you should act on your resolutions. After all, after you create a plan to keep your resolutions, on a day to day basis, the only thing left for you to do is to act on the plan you created, which is what will take up most of your time and energy.

But it’s absolutely essential that you clear all of the brush out of the way to make it easier to act on your plan. Clearing your mind and cutting out distractions will allow you to focus on your resolutions by dealing with anything that might get in your way. Following a few proven strategies to act on your resolutions will allow you to get more done in less time. And taking it easy on yourself will force you to loosen up and be kind to yourself while you make positive changes to your life.

When it comes to making real, substantial changes to your life, it’s essential that you create a plan to follow because that is what will provide you with a detailed path to travel down. But at the same time, there is absolutely no substitution for action.

  1. Source: 

  2. Source: The Willpower Instinct

  3. Source: The Willpower Instinct

  4. Source: 

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