Think of the last time you woke up feeling great.
Now, maybe you were lucky and you got to take that great feeling to go do something you liked.
Maybe you weren’t as lucky, and you had to grind through something you’d rather avoid.
But still, it was a lot easier to get through it when you felt good, wasn’t it?
The past two posts have focused on how to make tasks easier to start, but today we’re going to discuss how to make you feel good and ready to start consistently.
We do this within the framework of tasks-as-chemical-reactions and productivity-as-reaction-rate, where activation energy is the difficulty of starting the task and “temperature” is your personal energy and motivation.
A key motivating principle is that your probability of procrastination decreases exponentially as the energy barrier decreases or as “temperature” increases.
This means that over time, so your overall productivity increases exponentially.
I spent more time on the idea of the energy barrier earlier because that’s the part that mainstream advice usually ignores.
One common way to increasing your “temperature” enough to get started is to drink coffee. This gets your heart pumping, accelerates your metabolism, and makes you feel good.
There’s nothing wrong with this, but relying on it too much can make it less effective or give you sleeping problems.
There are a lot of other ways of increasing your personal temperature, most of which involve improving your sleep or your general health through diet or exercise.
A key theme that I’ve found incredibly useful for managing valuable resources – like energy, attention, and so on, is to minimize the amount I need for a given task, while maximizing the amount I have available.
This might sound obvious, but most productivity advice only talks about one or the other – usually about maximizing the resource. The reason that both are important is your ability to improve either is usually limited.
There’s a limit to how much focus or energy you can consistently maintain.
I’ve certainly tried supplements or dietary/lifestyle changes that give me a huge, temporary boost in energy, but it never lasts.
For some reason your body doesn’t like permanent, dramatic increases. In general, once you’ve got a reasonably healthy life and a decent baseline of energy, it’s very unusual that any intervention will significantly increase this baseline for the long term.
Also, every task has an inherent minimum of mental resources required – doing insurance paperwork will probably never have a low energy barrier, at least not if you’re me.
So instead of looking for big, dramatic improvements, look for small improvements that are consistent, both in the long run and over the course of a day.
One of the best ways to do that is actually a small tweak to The Pomodoro Technique I described in the last post.
A little over a year ago I read that one surprising thing that separates very good tennis players from great tennis players is that greats excelled at maximizing their recovery during breaks.
Specifically, the best players had figured out how to decrease their energy burn rate while on break – primarily by reducing heart rate and physiological arousal rapidly as soon as the break started and staying as deep in this resting state until they needed to play again.
It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but over the course of a game it makes a big difference to overall energy levels and therefore quality of play.
I read this shortly after I started doing pomodoros and decided to start treating my work sessions like a tennis match.
So, instead of just not working during breaks, I started closing my eyes and doing meditation/breathing exercises to really rest.
The first pomodoro after I did this felt a bit better, but the really impressive results weren’t obvious until later that day.
Not only did I feel like it was a very productive day, but when I left work, I found I had a lot of energy left, much more than normal.
It wasn’t too much longer after this that I started working on The Focus Formulas, both because I now had energy for a side project (for the first time in years) and because I could see the huge amount of human potential that could be unlocked with a few small changes.
The combination of lower activation energy by the reduction of external barriers (via decluttering your workspace) and internal barriers (by using set time intervals to decrease your desire to procrastinate) combined with higher sustained “temperature”/energy (via frequent, deliberate breaks) is enough to make for dramatic gains in productivity, even if no single improvement seems that big.
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