Whenever you run into tips on productivity it's always this earth shaking advice
You're advised to make these monumental changes to improve your business or life. In reality all you need are tiny little tweaks.
Important tweaks, but tiny ones. And some of these tweaks are slightly irreverent. Which is what makes these productivity tips even more interesting. You'll enjoy this episode on productivity—gentle productivity—and here's a tip. You may end up sleeping a lot more as well!
In this episode Sean talks about
Part 1: How to work with a timer
Part 2: The power of sleep
Part 3: Why you need to focus on the road, not the destination.
I’ve always assumed you needed a nut cracker to open a walnut.
Then I learned you could easily use the rear end of a screwdriver. A couple of hard whacks along the ridge, and the nut cracks open easily.
To prove the point, I asked my niece Marsha to crack open the nut.
She’s just 12 and her gentle taps were driving me crazy until I realised that once again I was assuming erroneously. I found out you don’t need to whack the nut at all. A few Marsha-taps and it opens just as effectively—and without any splatter.
We assume we have to do something great and wonderful to get productive. In reality, the changes needed are Marsha-taps. They’re gentle, almost negligible changes that enable us to get a lot done with little or no effort. In fact, one of the biggest productivity tools is to do nothing.
Intrigued? Well, follow along.
The three points of gentle productivity are:
1) Working with a timer
3) Focus on the road, not the destination.
Part 1: Working with a timer
The Psychotactics Article Writing Course is billed as the toughest writing course in the world. And rightly so. In fewer than 12 weeks a participant has to go from a “frozen state” to being able to write an article exceedingly well. When you look at all the components involved in article writing, you run into a mountain of elements to master.
A single course covers “topics, sub-topics, outlines, how to start an article, different types of formulas of writing, subheads, objections, examples, summary, sandwiching and yes, the incredibly important task of starting an article.” And in the process of juggling all these components, the participants do something that jeopardises the entire learning process.
They will try to write an article that seems to meet their own standard
Participants complain about the quality of their article. After they write their articles, they somehow feel something's missing. So they go back to write and rewrite until they reach some sort of “quality standard.
No one starts off wanting to spend three or four hours on an article, but invariably that's how we go about trying to get our work to a higher “quality”.
In reality, all that's happening is the build up of exhaustion
If you spend four hours writing an article today, and four hours writing an article tomorrow, will you be awake on the day after? The chances are you’re just going through the motions as the tiredness seeps into your bones. When you’re tired, you’re not only robotic, but you miss out on very important learning cues.
It seems very much like a Catch 22 situation. You can't create a “great” article unless you work hard at it. And yet, working hard leads to so much exhaustion that the rest of your work suffers. Is there really a way out of this mess?
The answer lies in a timer
The Article Writing Course runs to a timer. You have a fixed time to do the outlines; a fixed time to do your assignment; and yes, a fixed time to spend your time on the forum looking at the work of others in your group. When your time is up, you’re done.
But does this make any sense at all? With a fixed time would the quality not get a lot worse? After all, when you labour over your work, you get time to fix the glitches, tidy the work and make it better.
A student that is given just 90 minutes to write an article may well be dissatisfied with their work, but give them 180 minutes and they don’t turn out 200% better work. Their work is probably improved by a mere 5-10%. But their exhaustion level goes sky high when they take more time to do the task.
Tasks that have fixed deadlines may not be the best in the world but they’re the key to productivity
I draw a daily diary of cartoons in watercolour. I’m fastidious about doing one watercolour every day. Then a big project comes along and I’m suddenly lost. I skip a day, which turns out to be a week. Soon a month has slipped by without any work being completed.
What’s worse is that I ache to do that watercolour every day, but hey, a watercolour takes me anywhere between 45 minutes to an hour. Which is why I can’t handle the watercolour when that project rolls along.
But what if I only painted for 15 minutes in the day?
Instantly I feel the need to rebel. I know it takes 45 minutes so how on earth can I achieve something in 15 minutes? Anyway, I made the rule, so may as well use it, right? And so I did. I did what I could in 15 minutes. Was it as good as the 45 minutes painting. Probably not, but that’s what we found on the Article Writing Course as well.
At first, there’s this intense sense of rebellion coursing through the logical part of our brains. Yet, the moment we realise there’s no way out, the creative side seems to take over and we work out how we can achieve the task in a shorter duration.
Will it be as awesome as the 45 minute watercolour?
Let me be very clear with you. I’ve slaved over a watercolour for 5 hours and it’s not like additional time makes a better painting. Granted there are going to be deficiencies in the final product, but if you keep up the speed every single day, something interesting happens.
You manage to put out not average, but some really good work in a fraction of the time. And most importantly, where there was a blank canvas, there’s work.
Not only did I do my painting, but I’m proud to have something, instead of nothing. Instead of giving up, I’m moving ahead by putting a restriction on how much time I can allocate to the project.
Amazingly this has reflected in the dropout rate of the Article Writing Course
When you call a course the “toughest writing course in the world”, it usually lives up to its billing. And at least 20% of the students drop out (most other courses online have a drop out rate of 80-95%).
Yet, once we put the timer system in place, we are in Week 7 of the course, and only one student seems to be teetering. Will that student come back? We don’t know for sure, but a lack of exhaustion is the key to productivity.
It seems ridiculous to let a timer dictate your output
Yet, the timer system works for our courses, for workshops, for our personal productivity and even when Marsha’s doing her school assignments. Given endless time, she fills in the time in some magical way. Put her on a timer and she astounds everyone, including herself. In trying to get more productive we’re looking for that super-big tool that will change our lives.
Instead the first of those tools is the humble timer
You may go overtime—but you’ll finish your work quickly enough. Will it be amazingly good? No it won’t. But if you don’t use the timer, nothing gets done, which is a lot worse.
And that’s the first gentle tool of productivity. So what’s the second tool? You know this one well. It’s called sleep.
Sleep? How are you productive when you sleep?
Part 2: Sleep enhances productivity—but how?
Sleep helps us in many different ways, but we don’t relate garbage disposal to sleep, do we?
Lack of sleep affects brain function, reduces learning and impairs performance
It also seems to prevent us from transferring short term memory to long term memory. However, researcher, Dr. Maiken Nedergaard has a mind-blowing theory (he submitted a paper to the prestigious journal called Science). His research shows that the brain apparently goes through a garbage clearance when we’re asleep.
Nedergaard’s team showed brain cells shrink during sleep. This shrinking of the brain cells opens up the gaps between neurons, which in turn allow fluids to wash the brain clean. The research also suggests that failing to clear away some toxic proteins may play a role in brain disorders like dementia.
But let’s put brain disorders aside for a moment, and focus only on the and think of what happens when you don't sleep. With every sleep deprived hour, more toxins keep building up in our brain, impairing our productivity.
We’re more sleep-deprived than ever, and we have the idiots to prove it
Everywhere you look, you’ll have the so-called gurus berating you for dreaming about the weekend. Very few people seem to take breaks, let alone weekends.
Sleep is associated with laziness, and there’s utter disdain for the afternoon siesta. In many countries, they derogatorily call it the “nana nap”.
Yet Nedergaard is pretty clear about the value of sleep and how it affects the clearing of junk from your brain. “You can think of it like having a house party. You can either entertain the guests or clean up the house, but you can’t really do both at the same time.”
Productivity is the house party!
The more productive we are, the harder we work, the greater the amount of “garbage” we seem to accumulate. And boasting about little sleep is hardly the way to go about getting rid of the garbage.
I know this seems ironic seeing that I’m the 4 am guy, but I’m well into counting sheep by 10 pm or earlier. Then there’s a solid hour or even two hours of sleep in the afternoon. This regime of getting more sleep, rather than less is what counts towards productivity.
But what if you feel groggy after an afternoon sleep?
Many people do. And it’s good to measure how much sleep is restorative and how much makes you groggy. Some people nap in sleep cycles. I’ve found I can sleep in 45 minutes or 90-minute cycles. If I’m woken up in between, I feel groggy.
But here’s the really interesting bit.
I sleep longer when I’m more rested. On workdays, I’ll sleep for about 45-90 minutes, but on vacation that sleep gets extended to an enormous 3 hours. While no one is asking you to sleep three hours or even 45 minutes, you should try a 20-minute nap at the very least.
Instead of trying to create yet another to-do list, your biggest item should be garbage clearance
Lauren Hale is an associate professor of preventive medicine at Stony Brook University. She reckons screens of any kind inhibit our sleep. Whether it’s a phone, tablet, computer or TV, it affects our sleep.
Getting rid of all those devices at least 30 minutes before you sleep is one way of getting a sounder sleep. Anyway, it stops us from checking e-mail or looking at Facebook, which only increases the churn in our brain instead of letting us sleep well.
Sleep may be on everyone’s to-do list and no one’s productivity list
We don’t see sleep as important, and yet it’s been amazingly useful when training clients in courses.
In the 2008 version of the Article Writing Course, for instance, clients needed to write five articles a week, with no limits on time. And they all turned out decent articles.
In the 2016 version of the Article Writing Course, clients are required to write 2-3 articles a week, and there are limits on time. In every instance, the 2016 batch is writing far superior articles in smaller portions of time.
And how do I know this to be true?
A skill like writing can never be treated like an objective science and it’s always going to be subjective. Yet, I think I could easily slide into a bit of a judging role as I've written between 3000-4000 articles in the past 16 years. It includes 52 articles for the Psychotactics Newsletter and between 3-5 articles for 5000bc per week.
It doesn’t include several books or reports. And every Article Writing Course generates between 800-1000 articles. Seeing I’ve conducted over ten consecutive courses, that’s about 10,000 articles read over the past ten years.
Add it all up and we’re looking at least 14,000 articles over the past 16 years. I know it still makes the skill subjective, but I’d say I have a pretty good handle on good vs. not so great article writing.
And the more rested the student, the better the articles.
I’d like to say writing more articles per week would make the client a better writer, but it doesn’t. Not in the early stages, at least. Once they’ve got a good handle on the elements of article writing, they write quickly, create less garbage, and they’re able to write every day, if necessary. And yes, without too much of a strain. Even so, sleep helps tremendously which is why weekends and breaks are crucial.
This improvement in productivity doesn’t need a team of researchers does it?
It’s not just a finding when it comes to article writing. You know from your experience how much you stagger about like a drunk when you’re sleep deprived.
You don’t need to get into a lab coat to figure out that sleep does beautiful things for your productivity. Knowing that it helps with removing all that garbage, helps, doesn’t it? Now you can sleep a lot more and contribute to your productivity.
This, of course, takes us to our third element: staggering the task.
Part 3: Most of us are told to start with the end in mind.
And it’s that end point that more often than not, unravels our entire sequence of productivity
The end point is why we get involved with any undertaking. We join a cartoon course to learn to draw cartoons. We get into karate class so we can protect ourselves should we find ourselves in a bit of a bother. And yet for most of us, the end point is fuzzy. What would the cartoon you draw in six months from now look like? What kind of moves would you make in karate a year from now?
No one can answer that question, no matter how prescient we happen to be.
So the end point is important, but in reality it’s just a point in the road. A better way to see an end point is to visualise the drive to your weekend picnic spot. You clearly know your destination, but as you get in the car and get going, what are you looking at?
Yes, it’s the road right in front of you. Every turn of the wheels forces you focus not on the endpoint, but the process instead.
Michael Phelps is the most decorated Olympian of all time
Behind Phelps’ amazing track record is his coach, Bob Bowman. And here’s what Bowman has to say about process. “Champions value the process more than any outcome. Because that’s what controllable and within our ability to deal with”. What he saying is that the journey itself is the benchmark—not the destination or outcome.
For example, if we were learning how to write a sales page, we shouldn’t be focused on the end point. We should be more aware of managing the process. On a sales page there are so many elements: headlines, bullets, features and benefits etc. If you’re learning to write headlines, you should be focusing on the headlines. If you’re writing bullets, they should be your benchmark.
You shouldn’t be asking: How is my sales letter doing? That’s the wrong question to ask. Instead, you should say: Am I benchmarking what I learned today? Or this week?
The moment we shift our focus on the end point, we’re easily frustrated
That’s because every journey has diversions or speed bumps. And if we haven’t accounted for those diversions, we get upset and start to wander away from our destination. And rightly so, because the destination is still a zillion miles away. However, if we focus on the immediate road, things change. Even if you hit diversions, that’s part of the journey.
Productivity is often measured by what you do
Instead, we also need to measure it by what gets in the way. The moment we’re focused on the end point, we come up with rather silly statements like, “My work isn’t up to the quality I expected”.
The reason for this seeming failure is you’re evaluating the entire project, and we’re not there yet. Frustration sets in, and you end up berating yourself, thinking everyone else is better than you. And can you believe being productive when your mental state is in a shambles?
The way to approach productivity is to break up your journey into smaller bits
When clients write an article, I advise them to first do the outline. Then do nothing for hours on end. After those hours have ticked away, write the First Fifty Words.
Again, you can walk away from the article. Bit by bit, mile by mile that article gets built until a day, even two days have passed. But how much time has the client spent on the article? Often it’s just a little less than two hours in all.
Yet, how do many writers attack an article?
They sit down and try to do what I used to do. I’d be adamant that I wanted to get to the end point, so I’d spend all day on the article. As the hours ticked away, I’d get so lost that many articles never made it to the finish line.
Instead, I’d throw yet another article in my article writing graveyard. What seemed like a good idea—the finish line—was, in reality, a terrible mistake. I lost energy, didn’t work with a timer, didn’t have the nerve to take a nap to replenish that energy. And so that article never did make it to the finish line. I was trying to be productive but ended up doing quite the opposite.
The end point is just a point.
There are points all along the road.
No one point is more important than the next.
If you managed to get 70% to the end point, it’s better than dropping out.
And since productivity is about getting things done, 70% is a lot better than nothing.