A friend asked me how I stay so disciplined and productive in my work. When I told her I have no work ethic, no discipline and no schedule, she wanted to know more.
My strategy is this: Remove everything that gets in the way of my natural sense of motivation.
Then I want to do stuff. I never force myself to do anything.
(as shown below)
Sound too good to be true? In a way, it IS. Whilst the principles of this process are simple, it’s taken me years to put it into practice (still ongoing). Turns out, blocks to my natural sense of motivation were present in every aspect of my life from housework to study to art!
Overview – the main blockers I’ve been working with:
- Filling up life with tasks I don’t like.
- Self doubt based inertia (mountain molehill stuff)
- A habit of not enjoying tasks (even those I like!)
- Working against my natural work rhythms.
- Emotional blocks.
Here’s what I’m learning to do instead:
- Fill my life with tasks I love
- Overcome inertia and nurture enthusiam
- Enjoy what I do.
- Understand my natural work rhythms and relationship with distraction
- Work through emotional blocks
The results are simply amazing! I get up in the morning, decide which project I want to do most and get on with it. Although I’m not working many hours p/w, feeling motivated means being focused, so I’m getting loads done!
Here’s more detail (also see my vlog on procrastination).
- A life full of tasks I love!
Let’s get this straight – There are very few tasks I love everything about, but for me to take something on…
…I have to be excited about doing it and about its (non-monetary) outcomes.
Going through this process can be terrifying! When I first started I discovered that all my paid work fitted was “stuff I didn’t like”! I couldn’t just chuck it all and start again… could I? In fact I didn’t need to. I only dreaded aspects of each job and loved the rest. So now I still gig, but only take gigs I’ll love. I relaunched my recording studio to be even more holistic, creative and artist centred. I realised I didn’t want to teach unless 100% of my students were keen and self-motivated (thought impossible at the time but now a reality!). I still write and record music… ok that one was ticking over fine in the first place.
But what about stuff that you have to do that you don’t want to, like the washing up? This is a weird one, which needs strategising and rationalising. Tim Ferris has a good explanation of “batching” in his book The 4-Hour Work Week, which involves identifying tasks that can be done in bigger hits, less frequently, diminishing the overall life-hours they occupy. As well as batching, delegating or giving up where possible, could you change how you do these tasks so that you enjoy them more (see point 3)?
2. Overcoming inertia and nurturing enthusiam
When I get a sense of intertia surrounding a task, it might be that I have doubts about being able to do it. This isn’t necessarily under-confidence. If point 1 is in place, each task should be something I’m excited about and that’s important to me, therefore it’s likely also to be difficult in places. Given that it’s important to me, the flip-side is, I’ll be disappointed if I don’t do it well, so there’s naturally some trepidation. You can spot a task like this if you always enjoy it, feel great afterwards, yet always feel reluctant beforehand.
Rather than forcing yourself to get started (which just results in associating the task with unpleasant feelings), a good strategy is to distract or encourage yourself.
Distracting: Listening to happy music whilst I set up my recording kit to help avoid self doubting thoughts about recording.
Encouraging: Keeping a guitar/vocals practice diary and reading back how great I felt after my last practice just before the next one (the same could work for exercise?).
3. Enjoying what I do
Being used to forcing myself to do stuff I didn’t like, I was shocked to discover I was also doing tasks I like in the least enjoyable way possible! Seriously!
You might be doing the same if you have the following thoughts: “Ok, if I can get this done in the next 30mins I can go to lunch early. If not, I’ll have to skip lunch.” or “I’ll just get my head down and blitz it all day!”
What are we thinking when we tell ourselves this stuff?! Do we think we’re going to have a nice day working super intensively and get frazzled? Or the other trick – giving ourselves an unrealistic time-slot to get it done, resulting in a rush and panic? If we go through life thinking “I’ll just do this, get it over as quickly as possible and then get on to something I like”, it’s much more likely that our lives will just be full of tasks that we’re trying to get over and done with! Worse still, we’re training ourselves to feel stressed about all our tasks, causing huge demotivation!
If everything on your to-do list is exciting and important to you, it should be enjoyable too. So set yourself up to enjoy it! Let projects fill the space they need to. Work at your own pace – if the project holds your interest, you’ll be naturally productive. When we enjoy what we’re doing we become focused and absorbed. The psychological term for this state is “flow” or “in the zone”.
4. Understanding Ones Natural Work Rhythms / Distraction
“I’m turning over a new leaf” you might say to yourself, “I’ll start first thing tomorrow morning, break for lunch at 12.30pm, then crack on till 5pm.” But what if that’s not your natural rhythm? If you work in an office and can’t choose your hours, you might be able to choose the order of your day to an extent. Are you creative in the morning, but slump mid afternoon? Do you need a half hour’s “play” time surfing online before getting started? Find out about yourself.
I remember first understanding this concept as a kid. Fortunately my parents never made me do homework. Other kids would be forced to get started straight after tea, to be done by 6pm and “have the whole evening free”. Well, I never felt like coming home from school and getting straight back to the grind after marmalade on toast! My brain was tired from a whole day’s study. Often I’d nap, waking up at 6pm to actually find homework appealing and less grind-like.
Finally, be aware of your body’s natural rhythms. Whilst you may feel more productive working through lunch, or staying up late, you’re probably not. Breaks, and keeping your body happy facilitates motivation too. However, bear in mind that despite the modern obsession with the matter, increasing productivity has a ceiling. If your work is very intense, your natural ceiling may be far less than 40hrs per week.
A note on distraction: It’s well known that distraction is a huge enemy to the “flow” state. When someone is interrupted, it can take up to 10mins for them to get back on task, which is why setting up a distraction free work environment is important – quiet working space, clear desk, full screen mode, notifications off.
But what about one’s distractibility? Once getting in “the zone” becomes a habit, it’s suddenly easier to work in distracting environments (trains, cafes etc). Conversely when we become drained, we find we’ve clicked onto social media without even knowing. Rather than chiding myself, I’ve had much better results aknowledging that such behaviour is a sign I need a break.
5. Emotional blocks
One of the trickiest reasons for task avoidance is an emotional block. Each block is unique, and must be worked through rather than pushed through. An holistic accountant (who addresses money relationships as well as tax returns) once told me that many mathematically capable people completely fail to do their accounts because their financial fears stop them even opening a spreadsheet. Showing them a user-friendly systems for recording expenses has no effect unless the emotional blocks are addressed.
Hope you’ve enjoyed this overview! I could definetely expand on each of the 5 points, giving each a full post of their own and walking through processes for addressing each one.
Also check out the Symphony For Happines Vlog
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