The Psychology of Productivity: A Proven Way to Get More Done (in Less Time)

Science of Productivity

by Gregory Ciotti

In today’s busy world, we seem to be obsessed with the idea of “productivity” and “work hacks”.

It’s easy to see why: being able to get more done allows us to get ahead in life, and even gives us more time to do the things we love outside of work.

The problem we run into, however, is that it is easy to get motivated, but hard to stay disciplined.

This is because most of us look at productivity in the wrong way: it’s not about signing up for the latest task management tool (which, admit it, you’ll use for a week and soon abandon) or chaining yourself to your desk, it’s about understanding the science behind how your brain works, and using it to your advantage.

Today, we’ll look at what science has unveiled about the human brain and productive work, and you’ll learn how to tackle the biggest pitfalls that sabotage your ability to get things done.

All You Need to Know About Productivity (in a 3 Minute Video!)

My first ever video related project, get excited!

I collaborated with Mitchell Moffit of the ASAPscience team to create the above video.

Okay, so a 3 minute video might not be able to contain all the research I’ve compiled on the subject, but it seriously covers all of the essentials!

In it you’ll learn…

  • Why worrying about having “more willpower” is a fool’s game
  • How world class experts stay productive… and what they do differently
  • The science behind why better energy management = a more productive you
  • Big pitfalls that lead to busywork and procrastination

So go ahead and watch it, and enjoy.

Once you’ve done that, and you’re still itching to know more, scroll down: there are a dozen studies and 2000+ words waiting for you.

Abandon All Willpower, Ye Who Enter Here

The first thing we need to acknowledge in the pursuit of a more productive lifestyle is the mountain of evidence that suggests willpowerWillpower alone will not be enough to stay productive!

According to research by Janet Polivy, our brain fears big projects and often fails to commit to long-term goals because we’re susceptible to “abandoning ship” at the first sign of distress.

Think of the last time you went on a failed diet…

You stocked your fridge with the healthiest foods & planned to exercise every day… until the first day you slipped up. After that, it was back to your old ways.

To make matters worse, research by Kenneth McGraw was able to show that the biggest “wall” to success was often just getting started. Additional research in this area (surrounding the Zeigarnik Effect) suggests that we’re prone to procrastinating on large projects because we visualize the worst parts and thus delay in getting started.

What do our brains prefer to do instead? According to researcher John Bargh, your brain will attempt to “simulate” real productive work by avoiding big projects and focusing on small, mindless tasks to fill your time.

“Big project due tomorrow? Better reorganize my movie collection!”

Perhaps worst of all, numerous studies on the concept of “ego-depletion” have provided some astounding evidence that suggests our willpower is a “limited resource” that can be used up in it’s entirety!

With all of that stacked against us, what hope do we have? What can we possibly do to be more productive?

In order to figure this out, one of our best bets is to observe the habits of some of the world’s most productive people.

Fortunately for us, numerous researchers have done exactly that, and their findings on the “secrets” of productivity will surprise you.

The Habits of Productive People

If I were to ask to describe the practice regiments of world-class musicians, you’d probably envision a shut-in artist who plays all day World classlong and then tucks in their instrument at night.

Amazingly though, research by Anders Ericsson that examined the practice sessions of elite violinists clearly showed that the best performers were not spending more time on the violin, but rather were being more productive during their practice sessions.

Better yet, the most elite players were getting more sleep on average than everyone else!

How is that possible?

Subsequent research by Anders reveals the answer: the best players were engaging in more “deliberate practice”.

That is, they spent more time on the hardest tasks and were better at managing their energy levels.

Think of it this way: if you were trying to get better at basketball, you’d be much better off practicing specific drills for a couple of hours rather than “shooting hoops” all day long.

Since deliberate practice requires you to spend more “brainpower” than busy work, how can you implement it without draining your willpower?

The first answer isn’t very sexy, but it’s necessary: the best way to overcome your fear of spending a lot of energy on a big project is to simply get started.

The Zeigarnik Effect (mentioned above) is a construct in our minds that psychologists have observed in numerous studies on “suspense”. One such study gave participants “brain buster” puzzles to complete, but not enough time to complete them. The surprising thing was, even when participants were asked to stop, over 90% of them went on to complete the puzzles anyway.

According to the lead researcher:

“It seems to be human nature to finish what we start and, if it is not finished, we experience dissonance.”

It’s the same thing that happens when we become engaged in a story in a book, movie or TV show: we want to see how it ends!

You can use this knowledge to your advantage by just getting started on that next big project, knowing that first step really is an important one in being productive.

Once you’ve gotten started though, you need better methods of staying productive and engaging in “deliberate practice” in order to avoid doing busy work.

How to Work Like an Expert

A multitude of research has shown us that discipline is best maintained through habits, not through willpower.Expert

According to Tony Schwartz, CEO of The Energy Project, most people hold their productivity back by not rigidly scheduling work & rest breaks throughout the day.

Since most of us are worried about our willpower, we don’t push ourselves to our maximum productive output: instead of “giving our all” for brief productivity sessions, we distribute our effort throughout the day, leading us back to busywork to fill our time.

What should we do instead?

Schwartz often cites a research study conducted by the Federal Aviation Administration that revealed how short breaks between longer working sessions resulted in a 16% improvement in awareness & focus.

Research from Peretz Lavie on “ultradian rhythms” matches up with these findings: longer productive sessions (of 90 minutes) followed by short breaks (of no more than 15-20 minutes) sync more closely with our natural energy cycles and allow us to maintain a better focus and higher energy level throughout the day.

Ultradian Rhythm

The best part? Both of these studies on energy management match up with the practice schedules of the world-class violinists: the most common practice regimen for the “cream of the crop” players was a 90-minute block of intense practice followed by a 15-minute break.

The moral of the story: It’s hard to be productive while trying to maintain high energy levels through your entire day.

It’s much easier for your brain to approach a 90-minute session of productivity when it knows that a 15-minute break is coming up afterward.

Instead of trying to conserve your energy for multiple hours, we are at our most productive when we break big projects down into smaller chunks and plan a recovery period right after.

For projects done on your own time, try scheduling blocks of 90-minute work sessions with a planned cool down time of 15 minutes directly afterwards. When you know a break is on the horizon, you won’t try to “pace yourself” with your work, and will be more inclined to dive into the difficult stuff.

While great for tackling the toughest parts of large projects, this technique doesn’t really address many problems related to discipline, an important part of staying productive for more than just a day or two.

Fortunately, we have research in this area that will change the way you approach discipline and that will get you to start using systems to maintain and track your progress.

The Art of Staying Disciplined

One segment of the population known for struggling with discipline are those who addicted to hard drugs.Discipline

Given their disposition for being unable to commit to many things, you might be surprised to find that during an experiment testing the ability of drug addicts to write & submit a 5 paragraph essay on time, those who wrote down when & where they would complete the essay were 90% more likely to turn it in!

These findings have some interesting correlation with those related to discipline in “normal” people: in a study examining the ability of average people to stick with a strict dieting plan, researchers found that those participants who rigorously monitored what they were eating were able to maintain far higher levels of self-control when it came to maintaining their diet.

Last but not least, Dan Ariely and colleagues conducted a study involving college students and found that students who imposed strict deadlines on themselves for assignments performed far better (and more consistently) than those who didn’t.

These findings were especially interesting because Ariely noted that students who gave themselves too generous of a deadline often suffered from the same problems as students who set zero deadlines: when you allot yourself too much time to complete a task, you can end up creating a “mountain out of a molehill”.

Since we now know that tracking our progress is a key component of productivity, how can we implement this practice into our daily routine?

One method is to use an Accountability Chart to track what work you’ve completed during your 90-minute productive sessions, similar to how the dieters tracked their food consumption.

To easily implement one into your daily routine, simply create two-columns on a piece of paper, Google Docs spreadsheet, or even a whiteboard.

  • Column 1 will list the time-span of one of your productivity sessions.
  • Column 2 will list what tasks you’ve accomplished in that limited time-span.

Accountability Chart

Don’t include any columns for your 15-minute breaks, as those times are for your own sake and means to replenish your willpower.

This seemingly simple strategy works incredibly well for 2 very specific reasons:

Tracking your progress in this way has been proven by Dr. Kentaro Fujita to increase self-control because you’ll be exposed to the work you’ve actually accomplished, and not the (inaccurate) assumption of work you might construe in your head. (Forcing yourself to write down the fact that you spent 2 hours on Reddit doing no work guilt trips you into not doing it again ;) ).

Progress tracking is also a known strategy for stopping yourself from engaging in “robotic behavior” (also known as ‘busywork’), a habit that researcher John Bargh describes as the #1 enemy of goal striving.

Productivity & Multitasking

With a work schedule, an energy management strategy and a task-tracking system in place, the last challenge we have to face is that of Multitaskingmultitasking.

The danger surrounding multitasking lies in how our brains perceive it: according to a 1999 study, we have a tendency to view multitasking as really effective from the outside… after all, shouldn’t productivity increase if we are doing multiple things at once?

The science shows us that this is an absolute falsehood: Researcher Zhen Wang was able to show that on average, multitaskers are actually less likely to be productive, yet they feel more “emotionally satisfied” with their work (creating an illusion of productivity).

Worse yet, Stanford researcher Clifford Nass examined the work patterns of multitaskers and analyzed their ability to:

  1. Filter information
  2. Switch between tasks
  3. Maintain a high working memory

…and found that they were terrible at all 3!

According to Nass:

“We were absolutely shocked. We all lost our bets. It turns out multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking.”

How can we fight back?

The best way is to simply block ourselves from distracting elements that may cause us to multitask.

When working on the computer, be sure to use tools like Controlled multi-tab browsing and StayFocusd (Chrome extensions) to block distracting sites and limit the amount of tabs you can have open.

The next best strategy is to create an evening planning ritual where you select a few priority tasks to accomplish the next day.

The reason this method works far better than planning your daily tasks in the morning is because research from the Kellogg School (not the cereal :P ) has shown that we drastically miscalculate the amount of focus we’ll be able to maintain in the future: that is, we strongly believe that we’ll be able to quickly plan our day the next morning, but when tomorrow rolls around without a game plan to get us started, we’ll likely fall back into our old multitasking ways to avoid doing any real work.

You can create an evening planning ritual with a simple pen & paper or use an online tool like TeuxDeux each night. List only priority tasks (the “big 5”) for the day and be sure to include completed tasks in your Accountability Chart when they are completed.

TeuxDeux

Last but not least, since the research has shown us that we are terrible at “winging it” when it comes to completing big projects, split large tasks up into smaller segments so your brain won’t view the assignment as something that is so large that you must multitask to complete it.

(For instance, instead of listing “Work on research project” as a daily goal, try something like “Finish introduction” or “Find additional sources” as a task you can complete)

The Instant Replay

That was a lot of research covered in quite a long blog post.Replay

(I like the sound of my own voice… er, the sound of my own typing?)

Since that’s the case, here’s a quick recap to help you get your productivity system started…

Understand that willpower alone will not save you: Your productivity shouldn’t be reliant on your sheer force of will alone. Sure, mental toughness will get you a long way, but in order to stay disciplined over time, you need to acknowledge the usefulness of systems for keeping yourself on track.

Give yourself the ability to go “all-in”: Working harder on the stuff that matters is going to drain you mentally & physically. Don’t be afraid of giving yourself multiple breaks throughout the day. It’s better to “chunk” productivity sessions into 90 minute periods (followed by 15 minute breaks) in order to keep yourself sharp and to alleviate the stress of pacing your energy throughout the entire day.

World class experts utilize this strategy, so it ought to be good enough for you too!

If it’s not worth measuring, it’s not worth doing: Okay… that might be a bit of an exaggeration. :)

Seriously though, tracking has been PROVEN to be the best way to stay diligent about your progress. Create an accountability chart to list what productive things you’ve gotten done throughout the day. You’ll see how much you’re really accomplishing.

Multitasking is your enemy: Treat it as such. Block out unwanted distractions and as Ron Swanson would say, “Never half-ass two things, whole-ass one thing.” ;)

Plan your day the night before so you won’t get consumed with the wonderful distractions of the internet when you start your day.

It’s your turn…

Leave a comment below letting me know what you thought about this research.

  1. Did anything make you re-evaluate how you view productivity?
  2. Do you particularly agree (or disagree) with any of the conclusions I’ve drawn?

If you’re the entrepreneurial type (or aspire to be), definitely don’t leave without download my (free) guide on Conversion Psychology either, because who doesn’t want to be more persuasive?

Thanks for reading, please share this article if you enjoyed it.

Images by AndreBen, Alex, Paco, Kevin, Doublenaut, Manufactura, DeeperDish

Get Email Updates (it's Free)

About the Author: Hi, I'm Greg! My passion is writing about behavioral psychology + entrepreneurship, and forcing them to play nice together. Download my free e-book on 'Conversion Psychology' for 10 more great studies on persuasion.

{ 71 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Michal December 13, 2012 at 10:06 am

What a great article! I’ve just been summing up different approaches on alternative ways to accomplish things without relying on willpower, and as stated in your blog building habits was a very effective one.

The best approach I found was tiny habits method by BJ Fogg – this helped me to develop a morning and evening routine.

Because willpower can be exhausted, not getting best out of your rest time can undermine your productivity. Some decent ways to overcome it (in my case) was keeping a journal and sume up my day and what I could do better – there is an app idonethis.com – which helped me to stay mindful of how I use my time.

I am now experimenting with “unschedule” method by Neil Fiore you simply don’t plan your day based on things you have to do but you schedule your leisure activities committing you won’t spend more then x hours on working – this works as a reversed psychology and also helps you enjoy your rest time without guilt – therefore getting most out of it.

I summed it up here and I would like to share this as it’s a perfect complement to this article: http://www.fortunepick.com/blog-article/how-to-hack-your-willpower-and-why-willpower-doesnt-work

Reply

2 Gregory Ciotti December 13, 2012 at 10:35 am

Michal,

I love BJ Fogg’s work!

Also, I’m quite familiar with the iDoneThis app, a great product and an even better team.

I’ll have to look into the Neil Fiore method you discuss, as I’m unfamiliar with it. It’s an interesting premise, not sure if it would work for me, but it’s worth testing. :)

Great article by the way! I’ll be sharing it.

Reply

3 Michal December 13, 2012 at 10:46 am

Thank you, interestingly I got another idea while reading this article. As you wrote about self tracking and ultradian rhythms, it’s quite useful to keep a track of your energy/focus/mood for one week (giving it 1-5 points every hour) to get a better insight into daily biorhythms – and planing the work / rest accordingly.

I tried it some time ago with some surprising results like my peak time being in the mornings (when I usually don’t work) instead of evenings as I originally thought.

Reply

4 Sean Michael March 30, 2013 at 3:31 pm

Just had to comment and personally say thank you for the knowledge. At 22 years young, I feel these type “strategies” if you will, should be implemented in grade school courses. Would’ve definitely had a couple projects in sooner and maybe even a world class scholarship lol!

Reply

5 Linda Slater December 13, 2012 at 11:25 am

Hi Greg,
what a great article! All those links could certainly keep me “busy”! Recently I read DAvid Rock’s book “Your Brain at Work” , and the one thing I put into practise (very successfully) was to prioritise in the morning, as that was theorised to use a lot of prefrontal cortex energy so prioritise whilst fresh. So in combination with your ideas, would you consider planning your tasks the night before, but prioritising in the morning?

Just thinking out loud….

Reply

6 Gregory Ciotti December 13, 2012 at 11:29 am

I would certainly consider it, I’m always “testing” things like that.

I can’t make any sweeping generalizations of what will *definitely* work for everyone, I know some folks just happen to be morning people, and if you can plan your day that early, more power to you. :)

Me personally? I abide by everything in the post.

I *have* to plan things at night because I’m always so sluggish in the morning, and if I give myself too much free time during that period, my productivity is shot.

Reply

7 Joe Cassandra December 13, 2012 at 1:33 pm

Just as Ulysses knew his weakness before hearing the sirens, we need to analyze when we are usually the most unproductive and figure out why we get trapped. Perhaps after an hour of work, you find yourself perusing YouTube which turns into added time wasting.

We trick ourselves into thinking we’ve been productive when we actually do things for just entertainment (such as reading 50 list posts again and again), you have to start like you did on your Accountability Chart with just planning a short frame (babysteps) then building that up.

Another great post Greg! You inspired me to do more research and such before a post, it make it much more exciting to read, thanks!

Reply

8 Plummet December 13, 2012 at 2:18 pm

„Think of the last time you went on a failed diet…

You stocked your fridge with the healthiest foods & planned to exercise every day… until the first day you slipped up. After that, it was back to your old ways.“

WRONG.

I went to a healthy diet once in my life — half-year ago — and I’m still doing it with all the effort it requires. Even when it required to completely exclude carbs. So, bad example.

And I also quit smoking with the 1st try and still don’t smoke for 5 years now. Would be a bad example also.

But I do have problems with work discipline, so this example is correct. Probably you should build up your theory from this one and not by assigning me things I don’t have.

Reply

9 Mandy Kilinskis December 13, 2012 at 2:38 pm

Excellent job on the video, Greg and Mitch! I loved it! I am pretty sure that I’m going to go home after work and watch all of them.

I’ve been thinking a lot about productivity lately (who isn’t, I guess). I remember in college, I was able to juggle so many projects and activities – far more than what I have now. So being smarter and wiser, how come I can’t get more done now?

And then I remembered that I used to strictly schedule out my days in college. My textbooks and bags were full of pieces of paper that detailed my day down to study sessions, meetings, breaks, and meals. And it worked. It’s refreshing to see the science of why that worked. I think I’m going to need to start implementing that back into my life.

Thanks for a fantastic post, Greg!

Reply

10 José Tomás Guzmán December 13, 2012 at 2:51 pm

This is one of the best articles about productivity that I have read in a long time. And I have read a lot about productivity, I make my living selling productivity. I would like to contribute with one more thing: peer pressure. Committing more people to a goal, creating a sustainable social dynamics, or even saying out loud what you intend to do is as good as setting a deadline. Right now I don’t have the source but as a Sociologist I know I read it somewhere. We could discuss it another time.

Anyway, thanks for the article.. it has been viralized.

Reply

11 Anna Kitowska April 2, 2013 at 9:11 am

Have to agree on the “peer pressure” factor. Exactly as you said – it is enough to share the goal with other people, not only verbally but also on social media etc. to keep one more motivated to accomplish this particular task.

Reply

12 Kristen December 13, 2012 at 3:13 pm

Nice post! Some of these tips I’ve figured out on my own without knowing the science behind them, others I have a hard time keeping up with.

Since I’ve started freelancing, at any given time I have multiple clients and personal projects that require time and energy throughout the day.I’ve fallen into the habit of giving myself a 15-20 minute break when switching between projects and am much more focused when I start something new as a result.

On the other hand, I’ve had a hard time with the types of accountability strategies you suggest. My to do lists, daily goals and personal deadlines are easier to let slide than official deadlines imposed on work performed for someone else. I’ll have to try setting goals in the evening and see if that makes a difference.

Thanks!

Reply

13 L. A. Robertson December 31, 2012 at 2:58 pm

The concept of finite willpower and ego depletion is eye-opening for me (though apparently the most recent research contests this concept–still it’s useful for me to find a new, less exhausting way to work). I think after so many years of graduate school, my willpower is shot. Since the career of a probationary professor is equally demanding (if not more so), I need a new way to work. This post was helpful in working towards that. I, however, also wondered about how I could overcome my own unerring sense of real and false deadlines. I wrote and made grants for several years before returning to university to get my MA and PhD and I know when a deadline is real and when I’ve just created it for myself. I have tried (and failed) for years to meet my own fake deadlines. The only deadlines that motivate me are the real ones (get your job/fellowship application in by this date, etc.). This makes it a bit harder for me to break things into manageable tasks because I sometimes (often) find myself working desultorily until the deadline is truly imminent. Then I do whatever I need to do to finish, which has left me pretty depleted recently. I would love to find a way to work intensely and productively on my tasks on MY time rather than always playing to the deadline. Any suggestions?

Reply

14 Tonia Moxley December 13, 2012 at 5:28 pm

What if you don’t have a job where you’re able to schedule all your own time, and you do get interrupted by other tasks that must be done. I’m a newspaper reporter, and while I always have a project or two to work on, I also have to respond to breaking news and other tasks that must be done. What does brain science say about being productive in this atmosphere?

Reply

15 Sue Neal December 13, 2012 at 5:30 pm

Hi Greg,

I can honestly say this is one of the best pieces I’ve ever read on time management and productivity – I’m amazed you’ve been able to pack so much fantastic, actionable advice into such a short article.

I think multi-tasking is one of the worst and most difficult habits to break online, but I’m hopeful that your presentation of the scientific evidence about this will motivate me to pack it in once and for all.

Seriously helpful stuff – thank you!

Sue

Reply

16 Kim Thirion December 13, 2012 at 5:36 pm

Wow, so many gems in this post. I didn’t have time to thoroughly read everything that came after the video, but I skimmed it, and took out a few phrases to save and remember.

I know that if I relied solely on motivation to get stuff done, nothing would ever get done (which is actually often the case). There are some days I just want nothing more than to sit on the couch and escape to World of Warcraft for the whole day – rather than exercise, cook, work, or any of the other things I absolutely don’t want to do. Which accomplishes exactly nada – or rather negative nada, because I’m pretty sure veging all day actually reverses any progress I’ve made.

I’m definitely going to bookmark this article and come back to it when I have more time. Great article!

Reply

17 Chris December 13, 2012 at 6:39 pm

Great Job!
I am sharing this with everyone that I know.

Reply

18 Ali Davies December 14, 2012 at 9:58 am

With all the time management and productivity techniques, gadgets and methods out there it is easy to fall into the trap of feeling we need something otuside of ourselvesto get stuff. done. But I am a firm beleiver that if we focus on improving self discipline and focus more on self management it gives better results as you are working on the source of the problem (which is more likely to give a lasting solution) versus just managing the symptoms.

Reply

19 Darren Marlar December 14, 2012 at 10:42 am

Great article! I actually used many of these methods when voicing my last audio book… And finished two months ahead of schedule. I didn’t realize what I had stumbled upon. I guess I’ll have to use these tips more often!

Reply

20 Dawn Marcotte December 14, 2012 at 9:15 pm

I have to disagree with the multitasking section. I know that there is lots of science behind it but I think it also depends on what you are multi-tasking. If I am running the dishwasher and the washing machine and working on my blog I am multi-tasking. I may be concentrating on the blog, but I am still getting the other stuff done.

Great article though – I really enjoyed it and shared it.

Reply

21 Gregory Ciotti December 17, 2012 at 8:49 pm

Hey Dawn, “running the dishwasher” doesn’t really count as multitasking from a cognitive perspective: the machine is doing the work, not you.

I’m more referring to the type of multitasking that forces you to utilize a lot of “brain power” at once: such as trying to write TWO DIFFERENT posts for your blog at the same time (switching back and forth between tabs).

When the task doesn’t actively require you to focus, it’s not really multitasking.

Reply

22 Dawn M December 21, 2012 at 7:13 pm

I agree that doing the laundry or running the dishwasher isn’t using much of my brain. Does that mean I can’t make fun of my husband anymore because he doesn’t seem to understand the process of doing more than one thing at a time around the house?

Just kidding – loved the article – thanks for keeping me on the straight and narrow.

Reply

23 Thanos December 15, 2012 at 10:02 pm

“students who imposed strict deadlines on themselves for assignments performed far better (and more consistently) than those who didn’t.
These findings were especially interesting because Ariely noted that students who gave themselves too generous of a deadline often suffered from the same problems as students who set zero deadlines: when you allot yourself too much time to complete a task, you can end up creating a “mountain out of a molehill”.”

I couldn’t agree more.
As a student i noted that my self,it’s nice that a research confirms it .
Know i know better what i have to do.

Also about tracking our progress.

As an athlete(cyclist) , i know that it is vital to measure everything.It keeps you motivated and in some way gives you credits.
In all those years of training i couldn’t imagine one day without my heart rate monitor and also my cadence and speed .
As for studying(electrical engineering) i will try the accountability chart to measure my progress.
It is true that i procrastinate a lot and i am having a hard time getting things done .

I am really grateful for people like you who share freely their knowledge and hard work.

Sincerely Thank you :)

Reply

24 Gregory Ciotti December 17, 2012 at 8:46 pm

My pleasure!

As for the study on students, I have to admit I was like, “Why didn’t I find out about this as an undergrad?!?!” ;)

Reply

25 Anonymous December 17, 2012 at 11:42 am

This whole section is going to change my life. I am at a crossroads in my life right now.I recenty lost my career due to my lack of organization and efficiency. That’s not what they told me but deep inside I know that is the root of it. I have started using the Teux Deux app and it is helping me enormously already and it has only been a few days but I have got way more done than I would have with out it. I can’t believe I have been wandering thru my life wasting most of it on nonsense. Once I started to realize how much of my time I was just jerking around it was quite the eyeopener! I have been needing structure in my life and I am going to follow this to a tee until it’s second nature. I have severe ADD and have alot of trouble staying focused on anything longer than a few minutes. Alot of my lack of efficiency was due to the fact that I didn’t have a boss so there was no one that I had to report to. Now I have to report to myself! Thank you for all of your hardwork putting this together you have really helped me out. So again Thanks.

Reply

26 Gregory Ciotti December 17, 2012 at 8:46 pm

Amazing my man!

I sincerely wish you the best, time to take control in 2013. :)

Reply

27 Mikk December 17, 2012 at 11:54 am

Thank you, Great article!

Reply

28 Francis Bacon December 17, 2012 at 1:08 pm

Simple question – why violinists? How do world-class cellists or violaists practice, to say nothing of flutists or drummers? Such a narrow example screams confirmation bias.

Reply

29 Gregory Ciotti December 17, 2012 at 8:44 pm

That was simply the most prominent study that I decided to cite, there have been additional studies in the realms of chess and athletics that showcase some strong evidence for deliberate practice. For a single article though, I decided to be concise and go with the most well-known study by Anders.

Reply

30 L. A. Robertson December 31, 2012 at 3:07 pm

I also wondered about this study that focused on violinists. It seems to me that the cognitive tasks involved in mastering a physical skill are different than the ones involved in writing a book, conducting research, evaluating and assessing others’ work, etc. I wondered about the comparability of practising an instrument or athletic training to intellectual work. Still, I’m pretty open to trying something new. Having abandoned the pomodoro technique after about a year or two because 25 minutes became too short to be an effective work period and the tracking became onerous, I’ll try working in 90-minute cycles with an accountability chart. It seems simple enough to work. Of course, I still need to figure out how to get myself back to work after the break–whether it’s the 5 minutes of pomodoro or 15-20 minutes recommended by this post. But I suppose experimentation is the best way to figure that out and some of the suggestions and research offered by Michael and have given me some ideas about “working happier.”

Reply

31 Legrand December 17, 2012 at 4:16 pm

So, how would you combine this with Pomodoro? 90 Focus seems a bit long for me. Maybe go for 3 pomos of 25 minutes each, quick 5 minute break, then a 15 minute break for the 3rd?

Reply

32 Gregory Ciotti December 17, 2012 at 8:45 pm

I can definitely understand that, and I wouldn’t discount the Pomodoro Technique in any way if you feel like 90-minutes may be a bit too long for you.

It’s about doing whatever works for you. :)

Reply

33 Jacko December 17, 2012 at 8:42 pm

Great topic.

I have found the best thing that works for me is to always do the most difficult thing on the list first.

Then after that you get a sense of momentum building up that now the dragon has been sleighed.

Reply

34 Estelle December 18, 2012 at 9:28 am

Grégory, you’ve done an amazing job! I really appreciate the care you brought to this video as well as to the detailed descriptions in your article.

Reply

35 TacDrol December 18, 2012 at 6:51 pm

Here’s a thing that changed… some things for me. I often found myself looping through my time wasting sites, so I downloaded a plugin for firefox called “My weekly browsing”, which essentially opens a tab of any site at any time I want and any days I want, so I erased all of the time wasters from any accessible point other than this plugin and set their time to 8pm, now I know to restrain myself from opening those sites knowing that they’ll open by themselves when the right time and day comes.

Reply

36 Sushil December 19, 2012 at 7:26 pm

It was one of my best read of the day..!
Thanks for Sharing a nice article.

Reply

37 Jeff December 20, 2012 at 4:26 am

Another great article Greg. I think scheduling time to conquer the toughest tasks is something I have to implement into my routine. Thanks for writing up yet another gem.

Jeff

Reply

38 Elaine Flynn December 20, 2012 at 5:14 am

I always enjoy your exposés Greg.

Perhaps I can add that what works for me (because I’m usually juggling several balls at once) if the task seems daunting is to say to myself “Well, I’ll just do 5 minutes on it”, and put my watch on the table within reach. Guess what, I end up enjoying the work I do: it is both my passion and my career. Perhaps the gesture of discarding my watch induces the energy?

Elaine

Reply

39 Pete December 20, 2012 at 4:59 pm

Interesting and useful information. I found it a bit ironic at the end where you encouraged viewers of the video to use Facebook and Twitter to gain more information and post questions for further discussion. It seemed that only minutes prior the video indicated how mindless minor “work-like” tasks give us the false sense of accomplishment while distracting us from starting and accomplishing the truly meaningful and important work. Your examples of minor stuff to avoid featured Facebook and Twitter.

Reply

40 Gregory Ciotti December 20, 2012 at 5:02 pm

Pete, two things…

1.) The animators of the video added that to promote their following (a smart choice), I simply compiled the research.

2.) Total abstinence of something isn’t always the answer. That would be like criticizing a fitness coach because he has a piece of cake for his birthday!

The point here was to avoid these things *during* a productive work session, not to abolish them completely from your life if you enjoy them (and let’s be honest, if you are watching that video on YouTube, it’s not a productive work period ;) ).

Reply

41 Pete December 20, 2012 at 5:13 pm

I understand your points, and find it ironic that your materials both encourage us to avoid and use the same sites. Facebook and Twitter are like chips and ice cream – most folks will not stop with just one little portion. The first hit always leads to more.

Reply

42 V. December 20, 2012 at 5:48 pm

I hate my carrier but I have got to graduate because I started it (so, yes we humans need to finish what we started) and to do so I have to do a thesis of 150 pages and this has been extremely helpful, and yes I use to believe that multitastking was more productive. Regards! :)

Reply

43 WD December 23, 2012 at 8:15 am

Thanks for the great videos and great articles.

Bookmarked your site. I came to your website via a referal site->youtube. Great inspirational site

Reply

44 Sabrina December 27, 2012 at 7:52 am

I watched the video first on other website, and I found the article was even more compelling because it refers to tons of researches. It was very entertaining reading the article and I was convinced to use the accountability chart and evening ritual methods as well as other methods to increase my productivity. I hope it will work and I will come back to this if I have a significant improve in productivity.
PS. I bookmarked this website! :D Thanks for the great post.

Reply

45 Teresa January 1, 2013 at 3:21 am

I needed this. Thank you!

Reply

46 Loren Pinilis January 2, 2013 at 11:57 am

You mentioned: “According to researcher John Bargh, your brain will attempt to “simulate” real productive work by avoiding big projects and focusing on small, mindless tasks to fill your time.”

I purchased the study that you linked to there.

However, I can’t see from this study how you arrived at the above quoted conclusions. The study doesn’t seem to speak at all about busywork or simulating productive work in your mind. Am I looking at the wrong study? Or am I missing something? That research sounds highly intriguing, and I’d love to investigate further.

Reply

47 Gregory Ciotti January 2, 2013 at 12:07 pm

Hey Loren,

I probably should have linked to Bargh’s work as a whole (ie, this: http://psychology.yale.edu/faculty/john-bargh), because a majority of his research has to do with the “automaticity of higher mental processes” and the like; it was a conclusion drawn from a variety of his research, not just that study in particular.

Reply

48 Loren Pinilis January 2, 2013 at 12:16 pm

Oh ok, makes sense. Is there a particular study or studies of his that you can point me to? Your conclusion is incredibly intriguing and I’d love to check it out to read further. Thanks!

Reply

49 Paul Donoghue January 6, 2013 at 5:53 pm

Gregg,

Not only great useful content, but I really like the way you provided links back to your sources for those that want to know more. Thank you for sharing your research and work.

Regards,
Paul

Reply

50 Jean January 7, 2013 at 10:51 am

Great article!

For a while I searched for an article who could sum up all those scientifically proven ways to improve productivity instead of only self experience.

Gregory, do you have any information related to listening music during work?
It’s seems, after reading your article, that enters on the “multitasking” action.

Thanks in advance.

Reply

51 Josh Lipovetsky January 9, 2013 at 11:30 pm

Greg, this is an amazing post! Thank you for writing it. Lots of great new ideas, and that video was AMAZING. Noticed a small typo in the otherwise perfect article: “Understand that willpower along will not save you.”

Reply

52 Gregory Ciotti January 9, 2013 at 11:31 pm

Thanks Josh! To be honest, I’m surprised you only found one typo, I’m the king of typos :P

Reply

53 kmyeung33 January 10, 2013 at 5:04 am

Thanks your suggestions!
However,if still,I couldn’t follow the plan I set up last evening night,what should I do?

Reply

54 Keith January 10, 2013 at 12:57 pm

Great article, and punchy video to inspire me to make myself more disciplined. I’ve been trying for some time and try many different ways (apps/notebooks/evernote) to discipline myself by forcing myself to schedule my day ahead. Nothing has worked so far. I use the aforementioned ways and then lose interest within a few weeks. From this article I now have distilled a basic structure to my day that I should follow:
1. Create an Action plan for the day ahead the night before (Set deadlines too!)
2. Work 90 minutes with 20min breaks during the day.
3. Track your Progress in an Accountability Chart
4. Repeat nightly/ weekly

So that’s the structure, but what are the best tools to implement this structure? I’m interested to know from people how they are putting these concepts into practice with organization tools. What apps/software are you finding to be the most valuable to help you achieve this routine? Or is it the old pen and paper that proves the most effective in keeping you interested in staying disciplined?

Reply

55 Aron G. Katz January 21, 2013 at 1:46 am

Thanks for your post, now i will surely give more my life to my own blog hehe, totally agree with each point.

Reply

56 nj January 25, 2013 at 8:57 pm

every point of research forced me to read it till end

Reply

57 Matt January 25, 2013 at 9:36 pm

How do I block out my other daunting tasks, when I am trying to focus on the one at hand. These sometimes make me stop trying.

Reply

58 Simon January 29, 2013 at 11:16 pm

Hi Greg,

Great article!

Your readers may benefit from having a look at Kerry Gleeson’s book – The Personal Efficiency Program. It is a practical guide to getting organized, beating procrastination, and working more efficiently.

Cheers,

Simon

Reply

59 jordyn January 30, 2013 at 11:01 pm

I still dont get it……..Why not just plain willpower? And also, Why not multitasksing? My mom multitasks, and she says you can do a lot more when you multitask. Who should I listen to??????????? ????????? I am getting confused by all the “STOP MULTITASKING!!!!!” and the “Multitasking helps you do more.” Please help!

Thanks,
Jordyn

Reply

60 jordyn February 2, 2013 at 3:55 am

Hey,
Can you answer me this? My mom Says it is allright to multitask….just as long as your not driveing (lol) Any way……why shoudnt you multitask……does it help you get more done? I mean, sorry if this is a tough question, but i really want to know the facts! :D
Thanks,
Jordyn

Reply

61 Samson February 3, 2013 at 7:28 am

I enjoyed and agree with all of your research. It’s almost undeniable. I want to be more productive. I see that you’ve conquered this topic with the office world, but what about us small guys. You know, the guys at the grocery stores, restaurants, and shopping malls. Fifteen minutes breaks are hard to come by. Multitasking is almost essential. Keeping track of anything is impossible. I truly want this more than anything. So, I’m totally gonna try it anyway. So thanks for the tips and wish me luck!

Reply

62 x19x February 3, 2013 at 1:49 pm

After I met some really bright guys made me ponder whats the difference between them and me. I started observing how they work, spend/utilize time and behavioral aspects and got first differentiating factor as Discipline. Second I found was Planning and third to Dive in to work without delay as they have confidence that they can handle any situations as it comes. Confidence increases with each work you accomplish successfully and to do that one needs discipline and planning.

You captured all in one short page! Thank you. To me these things were in my brain (not streamlined) and after reading it, I am more confident that I am in right path to take myself to next level.

One important thing which I do when working on a large task or project, apart from breaking it in to logical steps, is to keep the final goal highlighted throughout the project tenure. To visualize, it is like a thick path from start to end (like river) and thin threads (in sides) coming out of that path (related subject areas required for main goal). One should keep in mind, while exploring somewhat deviated path (a thread), that at some point one must stop and go back to main path and take the main way.

Thanks again for all enlightenment.

Reply

63 John (Affiliate Coach) February 10, 2013 at 12:06 pm

Greg

I think the most important tip to learn from this post is… for us writers and bloggers we have to focus on doing intense intellectual work, just like bodybuilders are doing their intense work outs to grow their muscular mass and stay fit…

We cannot multi-task anymore, we have to work in sessions, have strict deadlines, and use the Accountability Chart method you mentioned…

You gave a ton of info and facts with this article, cannot have to time to find something to argue with (just for the sake of it) — I just like the way you laid it everything out.

Also, the YouTube video links at the bottom, are a must-watch! These are my favorites:

* The Scientific Power of Naps
* How Lucid Dreaming Works

Thank you!

Reply

64 Jared February 18, 2013 at 3:25 pm

This was refreshing. I have trouble getting and staying motivated or in an exited energetic state for very long. It makes more Sense to me that motivation is a limited resource. I’ve been looking for ways to get more motivation, when I should rather have been looking for better systems. Thank you for opening up a new way of looking at this topic.

Reply

65 Kristina February 21, 2013 at 6:19 pm

Thank you so mush for your magnificent research! You’ve made my day. I absolutely agree with all the aspects of ‘non-doing’ you concern. Especially thanks for additional advice (using special tools for organising the work, resisting the temptation of doing many easy tasks etc.). In fact, I acknowledged the necessity of changing my life for better :) thanks again!

Reply

66 Jeff Machado February 28, 2013 at 5:09 pm

This article absolutely made me re-evaluate the way I’m approaching my task planning. I had figured out the planned rest and meticulous tracking a long time ago BUT I’ve never been disciplined about planning for the next day.

I’m going to work with my employer on using the last 15-20 minutes of the day to really talk about what we want to accomplish tomorrow – something we haven’t implemented that I see necessary for productivity thanks to this post, Greg. This is something that’s actually been on my mind a lot lately.

What would be interesting to see down the line is how these productivity settings can be applied in a corporate setting and the need for managers to play an active role in task planning for their employees.

Reply

67 Lee March 12, 2013 at 4:54 pm

Hi
My way of being more productive has been as soon as I feel myself slowing down I take 5 minutes out then start again I go the whole day like this now and find I get a lot more done in less time. If I just try to continue I get slower and slower and start getting side tracked all the time.

Great post thanks lee

Reply

68 Clara March 26, 2013 at 10:36 am

Congratulations for this article!

Saludos desde España :)

Reply

69 Jae March 29, 2013 at 8:31 am

Hello Greg,

After reading 1000+ blog articles about productivity on the net for 5 years, I found out this single article of yours that became the “answer to productivity” I’d been looking for years. I started to incorporate the methods & researches above for a week and I was really surprised in the results!

Now, I decided to integrate your techniques to my productivity arsenal, these are:
1. Ultradian Rhythm (90min work + 15min break)
2. Accountability Chart
3. Principle of Zeigarnik effect
4. A to-do list + Brian Tracy’s ABCDE method (for prioritization)

Hope this article will help many people in the future who wanted to be more productive and efficient. Thank you very much for this article Greg.

Reply

70 Bernadine Willis April 6, 2013 at 6:41 am

Hi Greg,

After hearing your prductivity science recording on our national radio station in South Africa, I became an instant fan! I was captivated by your advice and remember sitting in the car listening instead of rushing to my gym session (which was about to start). I am a high energy person and tend to function on a highler level than most of my colleagues which results in higher productivety and more free time but this changed recently. I started a small business at the beginning of the year while working as my free time allowed for the extra work. However the new work load took my energy levels to new hights this resulted in total burn out. I eventually got sick and while recooperating realised I needed to change how I was juggling my work load. My will power basically ran out!!! My mind starting focusing on the little things LOL!!!! So wow……you have provided me with the perfect plan to increase my productivity and regain my ‘best’ will power. The energy has lowered in bite size chunks and I am now starting to apply your advice (which is working, thank you!!!!). In addition, I read your advice on the ‘email outreach’ strategy that you use and am about to start applying it this week. I’ll get back to you on my success rate in a months time when I have completed my productivity sheet (mapping accountability!!!). Your comment about creating a habit to suceed makes such sense and I am now also applying that to my life which has resulted in me being more organised in my thoughts instead of chasing rediculous deadlines.

Thank you! I will keep visiting your website to read your other articles. I have also referred a bunch of people to your website.

Take care
Bernadine

Reply

71 Maria Grazia April 8, 2013 at 12:32 pm

Hello! I think that this a very interesting and good article. thank you. ciao

Reply

Leave a Comment

Previous post:

Next post:


Get Free Updates

Learn from proven psychological research to improve your creative work and get more done. Subscribe via email, for free!