“A man is a success if he gets up in the morning and gets to bed at night, and in between he does what he wants.”

— Bob Dylan

Just Do It

I like my Adidas running shoes. I really do. But there’s just something about Nike’s Just Do It sloganthat resonates with me. Probably because it’s true. Truth, however, —despite what many philosophers say— won’t get you very far. So how do you “just do it”? That question of productivity has become more important with my returning to university a couple of months ago, but it is an issue that I believe is important for anyone who wants to get things done and stay happy doing it. I believe there are a few aspects that are important when it comes to productivity. 

  • Firstly, trying to be productive can be very stressful, especially if can’t appreciate, like Douglas Adams, the whooshing sound of deadlines as they fly by. A lack of focus and concentration is often the biggest problem here. 
  • Secondly, I believe this sort of stress is linked to what is sometimes called FOMO, Fear Of Missing Out. 
  • Thirdly, just doing it requires some long term thinking on life, goals, learning, success and, most importantly, failure. Lastly, there is a lot of inspiration and techniques to be found to make your life a lot easier. That means for example outsourcing parts of your brain to something like Evernote. But there are also plenty of people who can inspire you by giving an insight in the way they work. In the following I will elaborate a bit on these points and try to give you some tips and inspiration along the way.

Focus & Concentration

So let’s get to the meat of it. You’re working on your essay, report, new project, job application, marriage, fill in the blank. And you’re stressed out. Why? I know that in my case it’s mostly because of procrastinating.  I have to read this other article first, then send that e-mail and then definitely make some more coffee first. Then the day before the deadline I’d pull an all-nighter, only to find out that I did some decent work. But in our case decent is not good enough, especially not considering the time we spend thinking about when to start our work. You’d probably like to be more productive, more efficient, spend your time learning from your work, not running to catch your deadline, I know I do. The problems here are focus and concentration. And no, there is no magic trick to solve them, despite what all the ads say. You have to do it yourself.

Luckily people can tell you where to start. By saying no, for example, or by making a schedule for yourself. The next problem though is sticking to it. Changing habits is hard, but far from impossible. The easiest way to do it is to know why you do it. Set yourself a goal for the next task, for the day, for the month, and most importantly keep asking yourself question: Why am I doing this now, at this moment? What do I get from it? How does it help me to get where I want to be? Just like Usain Bolt can’t finish the 100m sprint in two places at the same time, you can’t have two goals to focus on. You can of course do one first and then the other or work some less important goal on your weekends. But the key take-out here is saying “no”. To people asking you to work on a project, to distractions, to Facebook, Twitter. Often you know very well what you shouldn’t be doing, however tempting it may be. What you must do is ask “Why?” Know why you’re doing what you’re doing right now is necessary to keep you motivated. And if you can’t seem to get yourself motivated to read that text or write that report, spend at least thirty minutes before you give up. Frustrated? It’s all part of the creative process.

Yes, that frustration is part of staying concentrated. But what you will find out is that the more you do it, the easier it gets. One of the things I found when going back to university after working a day job and loads of side projects was that I lost my concentration. It took me ages to read articles, to focus on core concepts, to actually learn something. In the process I’ve found a couple of things. Most importantly, the brain is like a muscle. That means that if you want to concentrate for longer periods of time, all you have to do is exercise. Of course exercising isn’t always easy. Your best games probably aren’t played after a heavy night of drinking. That’s why it might help to figure out what helps you concentrate best with a tool that is able to track those things like Quantified Mind or if you’re willing to pay a little for a brain training you might like Lumosity. If you’re really serious about things, you might also want to think about what changes in your diet or a little more physical exercise can do. For me eating more fruit, nuts and vitamins as well as being outside for some football or a run at least once a week has been really helpful, even if only as a placebo. 

Why you have to suck

Good, so your in your best shape to get productive, now it’s time to fail. That’s right. You need to fail. A lot. If you want to get better at anything you need practice. And the best way to get better is to try and fail, try and fail, learn and fail, learn and succeed. You need to learn how to love failure. Failure is the best way to learn. You can’t speak a language from a textbook, you need to try and fail. That’s why practising exams for your test works so well. It shows you where the gaps in your knowledge are, so you can fill them. But learning to love failure is a change in lifestyle that, I believe has to be part of a bigger change to learn to appreciate your own life. Think about the decisions you make and why you don’t have to stand 10 minutes in front of the shampoo and toothpaste without being able to make a decision. You have to ask yourself if you want an optimal solution or an adequate solution. The key here is to be conscious of your choice. Even if you want to spend ten minutes finding the best toothpaste available to you, choose to inform yourself, to set the standards and constraints and then look over the possible options. The last thing you want is to spend ten minutes and feel guilty about it. That will only, as you might have guessed, make you feel guilty.

Let’s get practical on this though. You’re not changing things dramatically over night, but there are a couple of easy things you can do to start with. 

  • First of all, many people struggle with the same problem of finding out how they work best. Lifehacker has a great series on how people work, that may serve as an inspiration. 
  • Secondly, kill the distractions. That means not using Facebook, switching your phone off or have it out of reach, and one thing I always like to do for my reading or writing is using full-screen mode. Yes, you might fear that you miss out (FOMO), but trust me, you’ll be around long enough to enjoy your life to the fullest.  
  • Lastly, sleep is your friend, so work on your relation. That means preferably having a structure in your sleep pattern that works for the weekend as well. But at least stop using screens and to much light an hour before going to sleep.