10. Pick Good Sounds
Megadeth doesn’t get everyone motivated, and classical is many folks’ idea of nap music. Music is a highly subjective thing, but that doesn’t mean lots of smart folks have spent time thinking about what kind of music works best for getting things done. Productivity guru David Allen prefers Vivaldi and other Baroque-period pieces that hover around 60 beats per minute. Founding Editor Gina and the editors at our gaming-crazed cousins Kotaku dig the ambience of Music for Airports
. And while we’ve previously tried to tally up the best sounds for getting work done, the ultimate answer may be “Try something new. Not too loud, not too fast or slow.” And, for folks like your editor, stuff you don’t know the lyrics to.
9. Use Minor Distractions to Fend Off Big Distractions
Were you the kid who listened to mom’s advice about sweets before dinner, or were you the kid who tried to reshape the frosting so it looked like nothing was missing? If you were the latter, or it feels like that’s still the case, see how kids resisted marshmallows in a famous test
. The main connection between all the good little kids who could hold out for a better reward was that they distracted themselves when temptation came up. Distraction, of course, is what you’re trying to stop doing, so we’re talking about avoiding one kind of distraction (wandering into email, getting coffee, checking a favorite web site) by using a more benign form (checking a project status, tidy up your desk a bit, stand up and stretch). If you acknowledge your temptations to get away from your work, that’s half the battle of stopping them.
8. Set a Timer and Crank Until It Beeps
Which would you rather do: spend weeks on a big, multi-faceted project, or work 10 minutes on fixing typos and errors and then get a two-minute break? It’s surprising how easy it is to force yourself into working in a short dash, with a definite end in sight. It’s a technique beloved by 43 Folders, prolific personal finance bloggers,psychologists, and many others get to work when work seems overwhelming.
7. Move and Breathe Like You’re Excited
Fast breathing, cold sweats, a pounding heart—when your mind is trying to stay cool before public speaking or other big events, your body knows how you really feel. Use that mind-body link-up to your advantage when you’re less than excited about a meeting, a task, or other obligations.Psychology Today suggests sports-style psych-ups, like moving around, talking to yourself with high-energy words, and breathing like you’re about to step into the ring. Your ability to do this stuff discretely will vary, but grabbing some quick private time is probably a better use of time than praying for an electrical outage, anyways.
6. Make Your To-Do List Doable
The demands that our jobs put on us is usually more than enough. The way many of us over-stuff and micro-manage our to-do lists makes it worse. Gina gave us the big picture ofmaking a doable to-do list, but her advice on saving your workday contains a fast-food take-away: cross one item that’s not worth doing off your list, right now. Whether it’s unimportant busywork, old ideas that don’t work, or something you can delegate to better hands, your list will speak more clearly to you and you’ll feel a lot better.
5. Don’t Check Email for the First Hour of Work
We know, we know—not everybody can technically do this. But, honestly, maybe you can, by shifting your schedule an hour ahead or training coworkers on when to expect responses. Organization writer Julie Morgenstern titled an entire book on this idea, the basic premise of which is that that first hour, the one where nobody can pull you in different directions, is when you can crank on an important task, the first thing to get done today, the thing you know everyone’s going to pull you away from later on. Try it out for a day or two—don’t let what happened overnight in your inbox dictate your entire day.
4. Create a Fake Constraint
It’s something of a companion piece to the “dash,” or perhaps a 300-level class for graduates of Fooling Yourself Into Producing 101. But putting creative constraints on your work or personal projects—500 words, 140 characters, 24 hours, 10 people, three colors—makes you stretch your brain a bit further, and get more creative, than just plodding and plodding until you feel “done.” I found particular inspiration in how Beck gives himself and his friends just 24 hours to record entire cover albums. Entrepreneur and blogger Guy Kawasaki stands by the success of presentations that use 30-point fonts, 20 minutes, and just 10 slides (the 10/20/30 rule) for less soul-deadening effect. Whatever fence you set up, you’ll likely feel paradoxically more free inside of it.
3. Move Quickly on New Skills and Great Ideas
“If only I knew” is a dangerous tool to give your own mind. It’s easy to convince yourself that you can’t act on your ideas until you’ve learned everything about them, or researched every possible alternative, or read the entire programming book before writing your “Hello World” app. Video blogger Ze Frank calls these stashed-away thoughts brain crack, because it’s addictive to think you’ve always got an idea in the can that just needs one more thing. Adam built his first webappfrom what was basically scratch, and was all the happier for not holding out. Programmer Matt Nowack described what’s called for best—”hustle.”
2. Have a Status Board (of Some Kind)
Just look at how the team at Panic software keeps track of their big-picture goals, small successes, and organizational progress. It’s neat, and it’s made their team more productive, but you’ll never get one. You can, however, analyze and panic-button your life with personal graphing tools, fitness monitors, goal-oriented webapps, or by taking inspiration (and caution) from the subjects of Gary Wolf’s NYT Magazine piece on The Data-Driven Life. Of course, people have been keeping personal status trackers for hundreds of years—they just called them journals.
1. Understand and Overcome Your Fear of Failure
The part of your brain that was forged in caveman times doesn’t want you to risk doing something great on your next project, to jump to a new career, to start writing on the side. It wants you to stay fed, remain quiet, and simply survive. Author Seth Godin and productivity writer Merlin Mann dug into the facets of this tendency—the “lizard brain,” the “puppy brain,” and beyond—in an interview conversation well worth listening to. Even if you take the step toward actually working on the project, your brain can start getting ahead on excuses for your failure, and they’ll affect the outcome all along the way. You can’t entirely stop your mind from wanting you to stay safe, but you can know what it’s trying to do and strive to work past it.