My Most Important Productivity Method

You can read entire books on productivity, dozens of blog posts, and implement half a dozen different productivity systems. But at the end of the day, you’d have gotten nothing important done.

The truth is, productivity is fairly simple, in theory. Even if you have an overwhelming amount to do, the steps aren’t hard to figure out:

  1. Pick something important to work on (a task from your most important project, perhaps). What you pick doesn’t really matter, because you’ll get the rest soon.
  2. Focus exclusively on that task for a bit, finishing it if you can.
  3. Pick another important task after that, and repeat.

And of course, take breaks. Walk around. Do some yoga. Meditate. Eat something healthy. Socialize. But when you’re going to work, focus on something important, and try to get it done. You might think you have too much to do, but in truth, all you can really do is focus on one thing at a time.

So if it’s so simple, what’s getting in the way? Fear.

Some of the fears that get in the way of executive the productivity steps above: fear of failure, uncertainty, incompetence, discomfort, not having control control.

In fact, we fear only one thing really: not having control, certainty, security, comfort. Those are really all the same thing (certainty). All of our fears come from that.

We don’t like to feel these fears. So we avoid them, trying to seek control, certainty, comfort by going to distractions, news sites, social media, cat videos, email, text messages. We try to get control by running from the important but uncertain tasks and tidying up, doing errands, organizing, making a new productivity system. Anything to avoid the uncertainty.

So now we get down to my Most Important Productivity Method. It’s diving into the uncertainty.

  1. Start by setting yourself an important task. Any one will do. When you notice yourself getting lost in distractions or busywork, take a step back, and set yourself an important task.
  2. Focus on that task, and only that task. Try to finish it, or at least work for 10-15 uninterrupted minutes.
  3. When you notice yourself trying to go to distractions or busywork, pause. Notice the fear of uncertainty. Breathe.
  4. Explore the feeling. See how it feels in your body. Stay with this physical feeling for a minute, and learn that you are OK despite this fear of uncertainty. There is a basic goodness in your heart that will always be there, even if you don’t know how this task or any moment will turn out.
  5. Dive into the task, even with this feeling of fear in you. It’s OK to be aware of the fear, and still do your important task.

That’s it. Be aware of the fear, don’t let yourself act on it, explore it with curiosity, and do your important work anyway.

You’ll let yourself run from the fear, go to distraction, over and over. But it’s in that moment when you decide not to run that you really develop the skill that will change your life.

p.s. Read Chelsea’s post, The Single Most Important Thing to do to be Massively Productive


 My Most Important Productivity Method was first published on Zen Habits on 3/18/16.

Why We Struggle with Change

We think we need to improve ourselves and our current situation, because we’re dissatisfied (at least a little bit) with how things are. We have a drive to improve, improve.

So we strive for change — exercise more, eat better, read more, be more mindful, do more meaningful work, be more disciplined.

And yet, we struggle with change. Why is that? What’s going on?

The problem is that we are clinging to the illusion of solidity.

Allow me to explain. It turns out that we all want things to be solid in our lives: we want a solid income, work routine, daily routine. We want a solid version of ourselves, that’s not so blown about by the winds of whim.

We want everyone else around us to be solid, dependable, stable, the way we want them to be. We want our relationships to be solid, trustworthy. We want our health to be solid, not subject to injury and depression and illness. We want everyone else to be solid and not die or get sick. Of course, our rational minds know this always possible, but still, this is what we want. Solidity.

Unfortunately, we are grasping for something solid … in a river. There is no solidity, just fluidity.

Think about yourself for a second: can you stick to a perfect routine, never changing, for an entire year? No, probably not — most of us can’t do it for a day. Why is that? Why can’t we just make a plan and stick to it? It’s because our minds are not machines that follow a fixed program, but instead are complex, constantly changing, constantly reacting to new things, constantly making new connections, fluid, dynamic, everchanging. We can’t shape ourselves into a solid shape of our choosing any more than we can grab a handful of water and make it into a solid shape.

Well, what if we freeze the water to make it solid, you might ask? Let’s think about your thoughts: take a single thought, the next one you have, and freeze it. Make it stay in your mind, unchanging, without going anywhere, without jumping to another thought. Can’t do it, can you? I sure can’t. We don’t control our thoughts. We can’t make them stay still. We can’t force them into a pattern we want to follow. It’s fluid. It’s like trying to control the wind.

We are fluid, like water. Nonsolid, like wind.

And yet we want ourselves to be solid. We grasp for this solidity, despite our fluidity. We struggle with our improvements, because even if we perfectly plan our solid progress, we will never follow this perfectly solid plan. We drip through the form we created for ourselves, find the cracks and leak out of it.

Everything else around us is also nonsolid. Every other person is just as fluid as we are. We want everything and everyone to be solid, but they aren’t.

So we struggle with this, because nothing is the way we want it to be. Nothing is stable, nothing follows our ideals, no one is the way we hope they will be. We get frustrated, anxious, worried, angry, sad, fearful.

Letting Go of Solidity, Embracing Fluidity

So what’s the solution? How can we ever improve ourselves? How can we let go of frustrations and fears in this fluid world?

Start by embracing the fluidity. Look at your thoughts, your fears, your pain, and really investigate them. See their nature. Understand that even if the difficulty you’re facing right now feels solid, it’s actually vapor, and will dissipate in moments.

None of the problems around us are that big of a deal, when we realize they’re just passing mist.

In this way, we can just sit in the mist, and smile. Cherish this mistful moment.

When we plan to do a habit every day, and we fail … notice that we failed because of our fluidity. Examine the fluidity of yourself. Be curious about it. Lay back into the gentle fluid waters of yourself, and relax. It’s OK, this warm water that is you, just as you are.

The fluidity of ourselves is only “bad” if we want solidity.

Whenever you’re struggling, notice how you are grasping for solidity. Notice how the thing you’re hoping will be solid is in fact vapor. Investigate it, with friendliness and curiosity.

And then smile, relax, and enjoy the mist.

Why We Struggle with Change was first published on Zen Habits on 2/19/16.

The Miracle of Suspending Mis-Belief

Would it seem miraculous if you could dissolve anxiety, fears, stress, frustration, anger … by making a small mental shift?

The answer might lie in thinking about how we watch films.

Last night, I was watching the Lord of the Rings trilogy with my kids, and my 9-year-old daughter said some of the things in the movie scared her. I started talking about how they’re all just actors, and isn’t it funny how they dress up in these costumes to tell us this story? By helping her to see through the make-believe of films, I was trying to help her dissolve some of the fears she had.

Amazingly, I’ve found that this works for all our other fears and difficult feelings. We just need to stop believing in the make-believe in our heads.

Think about this: when you watch a film, you suspend your disbelief. You know it’s all pretend, but for the 90 minutes or so you’re watching the film, you agree to forget that it’s make-believe. You believe. And this allows the film to move you, to cause you to cry, be angry, be scared, be overjoyed by the climax. Not everyone does this — some of us think, “God, the story-telling is awful, the actors aren’t very good, the special effects are cheesy, I can’t believe they’re making me watch this.” Those of us who don’t suspend our disbelief aren’t very moved.

In the rest of our lives, we constantly believe in the stories in our heads. When we think about how someone has been inconsiderate, we believe in a story where we are the hero and the other person is the villain, and think of how they wronged us. When we are disappointed when someone else doesn’t love us the way we want them to, we believe we’re in a romantic comedy and the other person should fall in love with us and be the perfect partner. This happens over and over: all of our anger, stress, sadness, depression … it all comes from the stories we tell ourselves about what’s happening in the world around us.

The things happening in the world around us don’t revolve around us, and aren’t part of a story. They’re just happening. Often it’s all random, but to deal with this chaos, we try to make sense of it as part of a story. We create meaning where none exists. We think the other person has bad intentions towards us when actually they are just thinking about their own stories.

So what’s the answer? The answer is in how we watch films: if we stop believing in the story of a film, and start to see the film as a series of moving pictures that someone has created from props, sets, costumes, digital effects, scripts, sound studios and more … we see the reality and don’t feel the hurt, the anger, the fear.

When we feel difficult emotions in real life, we can stop believing in the story, and start to see the reality of what’s happening: there’s just physical objects around us, moving. There are atoms and molecules, living organisms, people who can talk and create. Those are not part of a story, but just happening. By letting go of this false belief, this mis-belief in the made-up story, we can let go of the fears and anger and frustrations that come with it.

So when you feel stressed, sad, mad … that’s totally fine. But just realize that you can stop believing in the story, if you choose.

The Miracle of Suspending Mis-Belief was first published on Zen Habits on 6/12/15.