Marcin Balcerzak/123rf
Source: Marcin Balcerzak/123rf

A friend told me the other day that she was satisfied with how productive she had been last Sunday. After not studying for her real estate license exam for months, she finally spent the entire day reviewing books and taking practice tests, and she made a big dent in the pile of work she wanted to complete.

Unfortunately, she didn’t finish everything she set out to do, and then questioned whether she’d be able to keep the momentum going and get back to studying the next day. She admitted that, when it comes to projects like this, she tends to follow a predictable pattern in which she delays getting started until she’s “ready,“ only begins working when she’s fed up and just can’t take it anymore, complains and suffers through the process as she tries to “power it out,” runs out of time to get her work done, needs to take days or even weeks away from the project to get motivated again, and then wastes time repeating some of the steps once she gets back to it because she needs to organize her materials and get mentally prepared.

“But at least I was productive on Sunday,” she said.

To me this isn’t a great example of productivity. There’s more to being productive than doing a large amount of work. Productivity is about balancing quantity and quality of work and doing so with minimal time or effort. Do as much as you can, as well as you can, and as efficiently as you can, and now you’re productive. Here are some ways to make it happen:

Wear a watch: If you want to make good use of your time, schedule a designated work period with a reasonable start time. Pay attention to how long it takes to complete certain tasks or when you start to get tired, bored, or irritable. If you fall into the trap of wasting time during infrequent marathon work sessions, you’ll know to plan for breaks or shorter work periods in the future. Watches are better than cell phones for keeping track of time because they’re less distracting and they’re always in the same place—on your wrist.

Set goals before you begin: Give some thought to the purpose of the work you’re doing. What do you hope to achieve? If you approach unpleasant tasks without a plan, you’re at greater risk for losing focus and drawing the conclusion that you weren’t very effective.

Before you begin working, think of three big things you hope to accomplish and what you’ll need to do to get there. If you’re goal directed and you achieve your goals, you’re more likely to solidify the belief that you’re able to be productive, even when it comes to more difficult activities that you don’t enjoy so much.

Remove obstacles: What gets in the way of productivity? Do you start late? Set an alarm on your phone. Do you spend too much time on unimportant details? Set specific goals and create time limits. Do you get distracted by things you can remove or avoid in the future? Eliminate those obstacles or find another place to work. Do you struggle with strong emotions while working? Deep breathing and other relaxation exercises might help you control, or at least tolerate, intense emotions.

Turn your phone off: Phones and other electronic devices deserve a special “obstacle” category. If you’re trying to be productive, that “quick break” for social media and messaging can turn into excessive checking and time wasting. Turning the phone off completely makes turning it on again enough of a logical obstacle to make you think twice about using it.

Restructure your thoughts: If you have negative and generalized thoughts about working, see if you can replace them with thoughts that are more accurate, specific, and useful. For example, the global thoughts, “I hate doing this work!” or “This is so boring!” may not be entirely accurate, and they certainly aren’t useful if you’re trying to be more productive.

Challenge these ideas. Do I really “hate” what I’m doing? Is it reasonable to say that the work is more of a minor inconvenience? Are there elements of my work that are more or less enjoyable than others? Is it all “so boring” or is there something about the project that makes it interesting? Is it important for me to pay more attention to why I’m doing the work in the first place? Can I do something to get through tasks that are, for whatever reason, more difficult?

An example of a restructured belief is “It won’t take too much time today to get through this part of my project, but I can listen to music while I do it, and I’ll worry about it less if I get it done this morning.”

Schedule a productivity hour: Planning to take care of something “later today” or tomorrow makes it easier to avoid. If you spend too much time thinking or worrying about the things you need to do, a regularly planned productivity hour gives you a dedicated time to get to it. Chances are, there’s something you can get done during each day’s productivity hour, so you can give yourself some flexibility to address different projects as they come up.

Attack difficult projects when you’re fresh: A good time to schedule a productivity hour is at the beginning of the day. Doing challenging work early opens up the rest of the day to take on projects that don’t require as much mental energy. And the sense of accomplishment you get from being productive early makes it easier to appreciate the time you spend relaxing or doing things you enjoy.

Take one-minute breaks: If you start to run out of steam, it’s better to take a short break than to become frustrated and let the quality of your work suffer. Stand up, walk around the room, shake out your arms and legs, stretch, and breathe deeply. Now get back to it.

Be consistent: Make productivity a part of your life. Become a productive person rather than someone who merely sets time aside to get things done. A productive person has multiple periods of productivity each day. A good way to get started is to gets things done daily or even every weekday to start.

Interested in cognitive behavior therapy (CBT), self-help tips, and improving personal health? Connect with me on Twitter (@joelminden) or Facebook.

About the Author

Joel Minden, Ph.D.

Joel Minden, Ph.D., is a clinical psychologist, Director of the Chico Center for Cognitive Behavior Therapy, and lecturer in the Department of Psychology at California State University, Chico.

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