How to be productive all day?
June 10, 2009 2:35 PM   Subscribe

How do I become the kind of person who can be productive all day?

This is kind of a question about stamina, kind of a question about motivation, and a little bit of a question about self-esteem.

I have this vision of how I want to behave, and in that vision I am up early in the morning and go-go-going (with reasonable breaks) all day long, getting things done. In this vision, I get enough done that, ultimately, everything I want works out. My activity level, in this vision, is not insanely high--all I imagine is 8 or so hours a day of solid work, which I think is enough to get amazing things done if managed well.

In reality, I have a really hard time go-go-going for more than an hour or two a day, and sometimes there are streaks of days where even that is a challenge. I am currently unemployed (deliberately at first, but these days I'm looking), but even back when I had a job I was like this. I always had the kind of jobs where, if you were efficient, you could easily do two or three hours of work a day and still get more than enough done. Since I am not working right now, it seems even more absurd to me that I'm not filling my days by getting good things done--and I do have things to fill my day, but I won't list specific tasks in order to preserve anonymity. I don't think it's that pertinent, anyway--just assume a combination of light physical things and mental things, with a dash of the artistic.

I do have streaks of high productivity, but it tends to taper off after a month, and one of the reasons I have a hard time getting started again is often "well, in a month I'm just going to fail again anyway." Other reasons include things like low energy and self-doubt, but those two vary a lot, while my low productivity doesn't vary half as much. I sometimes suspect that if I could just get over this idea that it's pointless to pound away at trying to be solidly productive again, I'd be better off. I have developed a deep skepticism for anything that smacks of a "plan" to get myself together more, but at the same time: Where else do you start?

What I truly want is to hear from people who have gone from the state I describe myself as being in to the state in my vision, where you get a lot done. How did you do it? What changed? My biggest question is probably whether it is possible to change; my brain tells me it is, but my emotions are not at all convinced.

However, I'd also love advice from anybody who happens to naturally be the kind of person I describe--someone who doesn't just show up for work, but who works, solidly, for more than five or six hours a day, and gets good work done. What do you think makes you able to do that? If you found yourself in the state in which I describe myself, where you're just not able to sustain effort, what would you do to correct it?

I don't necessarily want health tips, unless you're someone who has gone from one state to the other as a direct result of changes in health. Drink more water? Eat less sugar? Exercise? Get my thyroid tested? Sleep well? Gotcha, thanks. For some of those, managing to get going in the first place is key, anyway, and in my experience even when I have all of those things managed, I still struggle.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (25 answers total) 130 users marked this as a favorite
The GTD method helps me a ton, although it doesn't help with the motivation - when I'm diligent with the next-action lists, though, I can hit INSANE productivity and maintain it until something breaks my flow.
posted by restless_nomad at 2:37 PM on June 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

The often ridiculous Steve Pavlina has some interesting, non-ridiculous things to say in the section of this article headlined Balance. Maybe one answer is to embrace the cycles you mention, rather than to get frustrated by them - ie, to deliberately aim to work like a monster for a week, or whatever, canceling all social engagements etc, and then recharge by not even trying to work for the next week. Obviously, you need to adjust this to reality - some kinds of work are more compatible with it than others.
posted by game warden to the events rhino at 2:48 PM on June 10, 2009

Let me start by saying that I don't really know the answer. I'm kind of like you describe yourself now and I'd like to be the way you describe that you'd like to be. I can tell you that I do way, way better when I can get into the mindset of "here's the next task I have to do now," which is sometimes helped by making to do lists. In my experience, when I really make myself be regimented, I can be really, really productive. I guess this isn't all that helpful, but I hope it at least makes you feel better knowing that you're not alone.
posted by Maisie at 2:49 PM on June 10, 2009

I do not work productively eight hours a day. However, I am making very good headway towards my personal dream these days, so I hope you'll consider this:

The first thing you need to realize is that your goal, set so far away and at such a high level, may be preventing you from taking the smalls steps that could get you to your goals one day. Saying you'll start reaching your goals once you're at 100% is a good way of never having to try to reach them. Feeling guilty about not working for three hours of your work day is a good way to pollute the five hours you can manage to do something.

In other words don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good.
posted by Bookhouse at 3:11 PM on June 10, 2009 [4 favorites]

Never crash before you make a list.

Well it works for me sometimes. Well, when I do it. Yeah, my name's Sam and I'm a procrastinator... there was a 12step group for us but no one got around to showing up...

Make a short list that can get done in the next unit of energy, not something impossible, short, just 2-3 steps in the project. Be realistic, don't overwhelm yourself. I put a yellow sticky right in front of the keyboard, and even notice it... sometimes. When you're moving along on a project it's really hard to acknowledge that there will be a down of some kind, but learn your own cycles. Oh, and the health crap can pretty effective too... ;-}

Oh, and find your inner tortoise, slow yet steady works, those bursts feel great but do burn out.
posted by sammyo at 3:19 PM on June 10, 2009

Buy this book right now: How to Work the Competition Into the Ground. If you are a girlie man it will pump you up and whip you into shape.
posted by Theloupgarou at 3:23 PM on June 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

I used to be much more of a slacker until I had a breakthrough and became the "gogogo" person you describe. I never procrastinate anymore, I always do all the dishes before I go to bed, I clean when I see dirt, I fix what I see broken, and I show up to work early and bust my ass 'till it's time to go home.

A couple things encouraged the new behavior:
1: Get a routine and stick with it.
2: Remind yourself (out loud, if necessary) not to be lazy or to put stuff off. I would just imagine how crappy I'd feel if everything (work, dishes) piled up. If you want to feel productive, you have to actually be productive. Don't leave that door hinge broken, or that picture frame crooked! You can sit on the couch all day and look a the carpet peeling up or you can go to Lowes, get a staple gun and tack it back down. The latter definately feels better.
3: Red Bull. I'm not joking. I didn't used to be a morning person and coffee would just make me jittery, crash, and fill my bladder too fast. Now, I get to work, have a Red Bull, and I'm good to go. I don't really enjoy the flavor, but it gets the job done.

Other than that, I can't tell you exactly how I did it, in such a way that you could reproduce it. I just kind of wanted it, and forced myself to start doing it.
It's totally possible to change, but that's the hardest part of this. However, once you make the commitment and develop a routine of being productive, you'll get hooked on it. I guess quitting "lazy" is kind of like quitting smoking. It takes a commitment, it might not be fun at first, it requires a lot of mental energy, but it becomes normal or second nature after a while. You'll eventually forget how you even survived, being so lazy :)

On Preview, I agree with sammyo. It's hard to know where to start and you can't eat the whole elephant. You might have to do work, before you do the work you want to do. Make the lists, get organized, start small. Start with what you know you can knock right out and then move on to the bigger stuff. It almost helps to have a lazy midset about getting stuff done, paradoxically. Get to thinking, "Well, it's right here and it's pretty easy, so I might as well fix/finish/do this first." The more stuff you can put into that category, the closer you'll get to accomplishing the big tasks.
posted by Jon-o at 3:25 PM on June 10, 2009 [21 favorites]

Get good sleep.

I haven't been doing this lately (oh, new mattress, I will enjoy you next week) and I've watched my productivity tank.
posted by asuprenant at 3:31 PM on June 10, 2009

Woop, sorry - just read your last paragraph. For me, sleep makes or breaks it. GTD books are also good, and you might check out Tim Ferriss.
posted by asuprenant at 3:32 PM on June 10, 2009

In order to get things done or work productively first you must have work to do. You should either really enjoy the work or really need to get it done. The latter being that you really need to get it done or you will be out of a job and hungry. Both of these choices will both motivate you.

You should have work that takes all day to do. If you have work that really only takes 2 hours to complete, but you spend 2 hours putting it off and 4 hours to do it because you don't want to keep going then you really aren't going to be able to find yourself working productively all day. You don't have enough work to keep going all day. You need more work.

You should balance your work. You will not be ON all the time. I work both in a situation where I have to be ON working with kids, but I also have a couple hours a day where I do menial labor grading papers, shelving books, etc. I'm working, but I'm also relaxing to some extent because I have time to think my own thoughts. You need to have different kinds of work.

Finally decide how and when you want to be productive. I don't think its reasonable to think that you will be ON all day at work and then be ON all night at home keeping the house spotless and learning Croatian in your spare time. For now pick a time and place that you want to be productive and be productive there.

But, I think the most important thing is find work you enjoy and find work that you find incredibly meaningful. Then you will find productivity.
posted by aetg at 4:06 PM on June 10, 2009 [3 favorites]

I feel much more motivated when I'm working to satisfy someone other than myself. I don't mean that my work doesn't satisfy me, or that self-motivation is unimportant; I mean that my self-motivation is a habit that I maintain with the help of external expectations. When you're a kid, your parents or teachers (hopefully) provide this, but as you get older, there are fewer and fewer people who really expect much out of you. Most bosses are happy if you are an average employee, right? The client is happy if you deliver on time and the product is roughly what they asked for. Your coworkers are happy if you don't make their jobs any harder. Just be average. That's really good enough, according to all of your external influences. That means that fully half of the population has their expectations set too low! But it's hard to push yourself to do more, if others are satisfied with your mediocrity, so find someone who is not satisfied. Whether a significant other, a mentor, a different boss or whatever: find a living, breathing person who sees potential in you and pushes you to excel. If they really care about you, you'll find it easier to care about yourself. Once the ball is rolling, self-motivation is an easier habit to get into.
posted by Chris4d at 4:23 PM on June 10, 2009 [3 favorites]

I'm only productive when I have a deadline. In my field, I have to publish one paper a year; it's a kind of blanket yearly deadline for every part of the process (research, analysis, actual writing) that leads to a paper. At first this was very difficult to choreograph, but I'm beginning to learn how long each part takes, so I know, by which month I'm in, how much progress I should have made. In one way it's kind of horrible (publish or perish!); on the other hand, I have been really productive in this job compared to previous jobs.

The hard thing for you, if you don't have that kind of requirement, is to come up with self-imposed deadlines and not know, deep-down, that the deadline is self-imposed.
posted by acrasis at 4:33 PM on June 10, 2009

Part of the problem is probably that you're unemployed and don't have many deadlines. This means that you have forever to get stuff done which usually seems to mean, in my experience, that nothing gets done. Get yourself some more obligations to structure your time around, as work expands to fill the time available for its completion.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:12 PM on June 10, 2009

However, I'd also love advice from anybody who happens to naturally be the kind of person I describe--someone who doesn't just show up for work, but who works, solidly, for more than five or six hours a day, and gets good work done. What do you think makes you able to do that? If you found yourself in the state in which I describe myself, where you're just not able to sustain effort, what would you do to correct it?

Also, and I'm talking as a very type-A personality here, I don't think you're going to find many people like this on metafilter, simply because of the large number of office drones (myself included!) here. A lot of office work could not conceivably take up that many hours of a day, even when the worker is getting good work done. If you want to find that kind of situation, you'll probably be talking to quite a few food-service workers--people who have to be working all day because they're accountable to others in a very concrete way as a basic part of their job.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 5:16 PM on June 10, 2009

I find that when I procrastinate it's because I feel overwhelmed by what has to be done, so breaking the task down into smaller tasks, or making a list if there are multiple tasks, then focusing on one thing at a time, really really helps. Frequent small breaks help too, usually as a reward for completing something on the list.

Focus on multiple small, easily attainable goals, as opposed to one great big intimidating one.
posted by weesha at 7:46 PM on June 10, 2009

You need to read Martin Luther's "On the Bondage of the Will." I am so not even joking.
posted by jefficator at 7:58 PM on June 10, 2009 [1 favorite]

Stay away from the internet.
posted by ShadePlant at 8:12 PM on June 10, 2009

I don't know if Martin Luther is necessarily a good model. I know nothing of him, but this very long video of Prof. Robert Sapolski (which I was debating building an FPP around after it popped up on BoingBoing this week) about Psychology and Religion. He mentions Martin Luther probably had OCD, which would make him an outlier in the getting things done scale.

Also, favourited, because I'm in the same boat.
posted by Decimask at 8:14 PM on June 10, 2009

Put more on your plate. Especially things with external pressures to get them done. Sometimes the problem is that you're allowing yourself too much time to get a job done. Take on some new responsibilities. It will help you to focus on the stuff that is actually really important to you if you have less time to do it in.
posted by agfa8x at 9:03 PM on June 10, 2009

I have and haven't been that productive 'GUY" at different points in my life. I have worked a 48+ hour day with little sleep (and no drugs.) It's funny - I perceive myself having lots of goof off time - yet a buddy of mine (a physician) thinks I'm a machine. It's a lie. Everyone procrastinates...

Stop punishing yourself. The guilt is a killer. It interferes with your ability to get shit done. Stop saying "If I hadn't goofed off on the Internet...," rather say, "next time I have some time free, I'm going to get that article out." Start with a little self forgiveness for not being "HENRY.ROLLINS.SUPER.TYPE.A.PERSONALITY.ALL.THE.TIME"

Treat yourself as a professional. You need some level of preparation - and like an athlete, you have to rest like you work. Hard. It sounds like you thinking you can run a marathon -- and are surprised that you can't run another one the next day.

GTD has some strengths here; one of the rarely mentioned items is that on a per project basis you should think about the best possible outcome to help you stay motivated. It doesn't sound like your motivation is anything beyond "I want to succeed." Define WHY you want that and you might have an easier time.

Some dirty tricks:
Set three things (today) to get done tomorrow.
Don't look at everything all at once.
Run a timer. Set it for 10 min. If you get distracted, the 10 minute timer brings you back to reality.
Get 8 hours of sleep. No really, a solid 8. It's the best thing to help you focus.
Naps rule if you can get them midday. Nothing resets your mood or focus quite the same way.
Caffeine is a stimulant. Jon-o gets something from Red bull. Careers are built on coffee.
Stop telling yourself you have the 'whole day" to get something done. Do it now and have the whole day to goof off.

Oh yeah - passion helps.
posted by filmgeek at 9:44 PM on June 10, 2009 [6 favorites]

Seconding filmgeek on the timer. My mom used to set one when the house got too messy. She didn't tell us to just "clean up this mess," but rather, "Spend five minutes picking stuff up off this floor." Worked every time -- it's just five minutes, who can argue with that?

As an adult, I find the same simple principle helps motivate me to do some of the chores I hate most, like folding laundry... I'll think to myself, "Bet you can't finish it all in 15 minutes." Putting something off makes it feel like it will take all day; it's a lot easier to get rolling on mundane work when you realize what a short amount of time it will actually take.
posted by Ladybug Parade at 7:59 AM on June 11, 2009

Stay away from a computer and the internet for a while, you won't get distracted by it, and you'll get used to doing things for longer periods of time. Make lists, and schedules of those tasks. You'll be more likely to do A for 3 hours straight if that's what you planned your day to be. Otherwise sometime at hour 2 you'll think, ehh, I've been at this enough, lets take a break or do something else.
posted by KateHasQuestions at 4:57 PM on June 11, 2009

A phrase that has really stuck with me is: "A change is a good as a rest."

I can work hard, solidly, on something for a few hours and then if I want to continue to be productive I have to do something completely different. When I come back to what I was working on before, I see it with more clarity, as if it's consolidated itself in my head or muscles.

The same thing happens if you work on something for a month or so, then, yeah, you get sick of it. You feel like you failed, didn't complete your goal, but if you switch it up then come back to it, you come to it with freshness and perspective.

Change but don't give up.
posted by bobobox at 6:24 PM on June 11, 2009 [1 favorite]

Sometimes, I pretend I am my own personal assistant (since I can't afford one). I have trouble getting projects started so I have my assistant (me) take notes on all the things I need to do, write out the smaller steps that need to be taken, and gather all the supplies I need beforehand (including phone numbers, books, research, etc.). Then all I have to do when I am in boss mode is plop down and start working.

For example: Let's say I should do dishes. In assistant mode, I gather up all of the dishes and place them next to the sink. I put the stopper in, put the soap right next to the sink, and place some dish towels out. After that, I can do dishes whenever I want and get right to it. Sometimes I even put everything in the sink and put the hottest water possible on it before breakfast. By the time I'm done eating and come back to the kitchen with my dish I just plunk my hands into still warm water and set at it with vigor. Mostly it's about not interupting the flow of work.

You can do the same thing with any project. If you have everything you need at hand and a step by step guide you can focus on one step totally. And keep your assistant's notepad nearby to write down distracting thoughts that you normally would act on immediately, like looking up a word online.
posted by CoralAmber at 9:14 AM on June 12, 2009 [11 favorites]

"How do I become the kind of person who can be productive all day?"


Seriously. You sound like you might have ADD and thus could benefit from taking Adderall. See your doctor.
posted by Jacqueline at 7:33 PM on June 17, 2009

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