I had way too much energy as a kid. I was easily distracted and could never sit still. My dad has a report card from my kindergarten teacher that says:
“Wonderful boy. But he never naps and wakes up all the other students to play.”
I found it damn near impossible to focus on anything. By the time I hit middle school, my grades suffered because I couldn’t pay attention long enough to get my work done.
I got diagnosed with ADHD and tried everything to fix it. I had my brother help me with work. I tried doing homework after school in the library. I took easier classes.
Doctors then prescribed Adderall for me. Unfortunately, my body didn’t like that and would become dehydrated, sending me to the emergency room. I needed something different.
One day I noticed something that a lot of people with similar struggles have…
If I enjoyed what I was doing or I was passionate about it — I could focus intensely. Technology always intrigued me so it was easy to concentrate on learning about computers. I cared about my friends so it was no problem to sit and listen to them talk for hours.
But when it came to stuff I was ambivalent about…I felt constant turmoil. The answer became obvious: have more fun.
The problem is that many things like schoolwork weren’t fun to me and I knew just having fun wasn’t a long-term solution. I had to find a way to be as engaged or productive in my responsibilities as I would in things I did for my own enjoyment.
What’s worked for me is figuring out how to make daily tasks less stressful, less time consuming, and actually finding ways to love the things we all hate. Then I also get to do more of what I love. That all has helped me stay productive even when it’s really hard.
Here are some examples from my own life:
Do 5-minute tasks immediately
Stop writing down or putting off things that take less than 5 minutes. The second you remember them, commit to doing them in that moment. If you absolutely can’t do something then, add it to a reminder list and commit to it before the day’s over.
Practice immediately taking the first necessary action without thinking about it. Physically take a step towards your objective. Open your mail app right now and hit reply. Open a new browser tab and type in your town’s electric bill site.
When you blow off tiny tasks, it doesn’t seem like a big deal at the time. Then those little pieces pile up, weigh heavier on you, and cause a tremendous amount of anxiety. But when you get into the rhythm of conquering them, those small victories provide motivation to tackle bigger objectives.
Change things up
I used to stare at blank Word docs and feel the dread of writer’s block. I would try my best to push through it. Sometimes it would work but sometimes it would make me feel like I was a shit writer.
Now when I’m feeling stuck, I change things up. I take a walk. I put on ambient music while I work. I write by voice. I even write in the bathtub (thanks water-resistant smartphones).
I try to apply this to all sorts of tasks in life. Rather than always powering through something — turn the problem on its head. Change scenery, method, approach, style, and whatever else you can try. Not only does this break you out of your rut, it often produces some creative results that would’ve never happened the traditional way.
In the spirit of mixing things up…
Multi-task the easy stuff
Trying to do too many important things at once usually leads to subpar results. However, for objectives that require less brain power, knocking them all out at once is a lifesaver.
I’ll pay a bill online while I’m on a live chat support with someone else. Or I’ll clean up around the house while on endless hold with Comcast. Or I’ll do a set of pushups and take out the trash while water is boiling on the stove.
I try to look around to see what else I can accomplish while doing other things. When you can handle 2-3 different tasks at a time or go from one to another rapidly, you knock things out like Rocky Balboa.
Write with your voice
We write all the time: for emails, essays, social media, work projects, and in our journals. It’s exhausting and takes up a massive amount of our daily lives.
They say good writers write like they talk. So why not practice it? You can speak much faster than you can type and if you hone that skill — it can be invaluable.
At first, using dictation software to write articles and emails felt awkward. I can talk almost anyone’s ear off in a natural setting, but doing so to Siri felt forced.
Be patient. It’s gotten easier for me every week and I already see the enormous benefits. It’s not going to replace normal writing but rather become another useful tool in the arsenal (it’s also another great way to multi-task.)
Over-thinking and writing elaborate paragraphs is a huge investment of time. Unless it’s absolutely necessary — keep it short and force yourself to get the message out in a certain timeframe.
This is the core of every good writer. Being able to say everything needed in the most concise manner possible. This takes lots of practice through revising and getting comfortable writing as you would talk. Two books that helped me get into this habit were On Writing Well and The Elements of Style.
Try ambient noise while writing
Some people can write in silence. But if you’re someone like me who has a thousand thoughts all the time and is easily distracted, ambient noise can actually help you focus better.
For me, I enjoy apps like Brain.fm that generate random background noise for you. I’m not convinced they’ve found the perfect focusing algorithms, but their background sounds and music that you don’t have to pay attention to work great. That’s why coffee shops have been an invaluable resource for me while music with lyrics or podcasts tend to be distracting.
Master the art of carrying lots of things
Whether I’m taking dishes to the sink or bringing shopping bags inside from the car, I’ll always try to do it in one trip. I’ll balance stuff on top of each other, carry tons of items down my forearms, and hang even more off my fingers.
I know — you’re thinking you’re going to take more time and drop lots of stuff. That’s only true as a novice. Once you become adept, you’ll still look silly but you’ll cut off massive amounts of time in your errands. Plus it makes you feel like Hercules when you carry a dozen heavy grocery bags at once.
Put stuff to remember where you’re gonna see it
How much time have you lost looking for stuff when you need it? I used to be horrible at this — I would leave items at family members houses or not take items I needed for errands. Then I’d always have to go back to get them.
Now I leave whatever I have to remember with stuff I always take with me like my keys and wallet. I’ll put a package I have to return or a bill I have to pay right on top of them. This makes it pretty much impossible to forget what you need to bring with you.
This is just one way to…
Figure out how to have small wins
Procrastination and stress are at their worst when we feel we have a mountain of work ahead of us. We become overrun with anxiety and think, “How the hell am I going to do all this?” Those feelings can get so powerful we give up on our goals altogether.
The reality is that you can break almost everything down into manageable steps. Don’t worry about finishing the entire paper in the moment, just get a sentence down. Any sentence, even if it’s not the intro.
Progress is progress. You need to focus on praising your efforts and not the end result to start. Otherwise every project is going to feel like shit until you’ve finished it.
Write the first sentence. Open one bill. Send one message. Upload one resume. Do one set of pullups. Be proud about those small victories. Then take your next step.
Work out during other activities
It seems like every day someone I know gets diagnosed with something life-altering before they’ve hit 50. It’s terrifying. While genetics and diet influence a lot of that, regular exercise helps with strength, conditioning, and burning off excess weight.
The problem is that working out takes time. You have to get dressed, go to a trail for a run, drive to the gym, etc. Many people lack the motivation to do those things after a full work day — myself included.
So I started doing some workouts while watching Netflix. I’ll use resistance bands for pushups, dips, and rows. I’ll dance or shadow box for HIIT cardio. I’ll do progressively harder variations of bodyweight exercises like elevated v-sits or handstand pushups. I’ll even get in some yoga.
It’s amazing how far you can get with bodyweight exercises, resistance bands, and dumbbells while watching your favorite show. It leaves you with no excuses to improve your health.
Hustle while you clean
Once you’ve got a place bigger than a one bedroom apartment, cleaning becomes a serious part of your life. It can take hours out of your day every week for most people. But that’s because most people clean at a normal pace and try to get everything spotless.
Unless you’re a neat freak or have some really important company, forget the small details. No one is going to notice them and it’s going to get dirty again in a few days.
Instead, I’ll use intermittent bursts of energy where I make wide sweeping motions to clean. I’ll rapidly start picking up trash everywhere and running to throw it away. I’ll move my vacuum around like a madman.
Yeah, it takes a bit more energy but it often cuts my cleaning time in half. I get the boring shit done to have more opportunity for things I enjoy.
Clean as you go
They say this in cooking but I use this in many avenues. I throw out letters as I open them, I take out recycling as I fill up the bucket, and I grab stuff to throw away from my car as I exit the vehicle. This way stuff never piles up to the point where it feels like it’s suffocating you.
I also try to put stuff in the right place to begin with. I used to be notorious for throwing my clothes on a chair after work. Eventually, I’d have to walk back over, pick them up, and actually put them in the laundry bin. I realized that I ended up doing twice the work on a lot of tasks.
Do the job right the first time. You’ll feel a lot more relaxed in general and won’t have to spend energy for no reason.
Get weird with it
No one wants to do chores like scrubbing the bathroom on a Saturday. But if you’re always thinking about how shitty it is or sitting in silence while doing it — you’ll only reinforce the misery of the experience.
I do everything in my power to enjoy those moments more. I sing while mowing my lawn. I dance while vacuuming or pushing shopping carts. I wax countertops on and off like Mr. Miyagi. I blast music on speakers or listen to podcasts while cooking. I create competitive games with myself or my wife that challenge us.
Menial tasks are never going to be the highlight of your day. But when you embrace your silly side, things become that much easier to deal with.
Hold yourself accountable
Saying goals out loud doesn’t work for most people. We forget them or don’t get reminded enough to follow through on them. The process of writing things down makes you more likely to remember tasks. Being forced to then see those tasks encourages you to get them done.
You can Google calendar every major appointment and put multiple alerts. You can write goals that take longer than 5 minutes in a reminders app or by using Siri/Google voice assistants. You can do things with a friend or have them text you reminders.
You can write a goal on the back of your hand that you’ll see throughout the day. You can use habit forming apps like Habitica or sign up for sites like Stickk. You can even put goals on your phone screen or computer wallpapers.
As long as you find some method of visually seeing your goals and reminding yourself of them, do what works for you.
Give yourself permission to take breaks
By now, we’ve all heard about the importance of taking breaks and using techniques like Pomodoro. The deeper lesson for me has been to accept that it’s normal and okay.
Too often we look at successful people and believe they’re constant workhorses. For a select few that may be true, but they are outliers. You shouldn’t feel guilty for needing to walk away from something for a while and clear your head.
Walk away for a little while now so you can get more done later.
On that note, also…
Give yourself permission to be unproductive
Working constantly without leisure gets overwhelming quickly. Once you’re feeling stressed or bored, everything in you wants to resist doing that task again.
When we do try to relax, we often feel guilty for having our leisure time. We beat ourselves up relentlessly about it. Then we don’t even enjoy the time we’re supposed to enjoy in the first place! We get stuck in a limbo of being stressed from work and stressed from non-work.
Accept that even the greatest minds fuck around. Again, don’t believe that they are so dedicated to their craft that they churn out constant work every single day. They don’t. They balance fun while still working towards their goals.
If you need to take a break to play a round of your favorite video game — go ahead. If you want to take a nap, chill out on your couch. Further than that, feel amazing about all that.
As long as you’re making progress overall, you’re on the right track.
Be productive in something recreational
We equate productivity to making money or doing our adult responsibilities. That’s bullshit though. Productivity isn’t just about work-related tasks or the errands you need to accomplish.
Go work on your fun side project, indulge in a hobby, take yourself to dinner, spend time with close friends, or join a class / social activity. Do something that’s purely for your pleasure. Cherish those moments.
You need to appreciate your efforts in all areas of life because they’re productive, too. They cultivate happiness, connections, and growth as a human being.
You can’t only devote all your resources to business time or fitness. You’ll always feel like you’re not doing enough when in reality, you may be doing a lot — just in different areas. Plus, being all business focused all the time tends not to make for a happy, well-rounded life.