I’ve already discussed how important meaningful work is. It makes us more engaged at work, happier in the long-term, and even wealthier. But having a sense of purpose in your life can also improve your health.
An experiment by the nonprofit organisation Experience Corps paired adults 55 years-old or older with students in kindergarten for literacy help. While the students’ test scores and morale went up, the effects on the adults were even more interesting.
The physical health of the adult participants improved in a variety of ways: depression rates dropped, physical mobility and stamina increased, flexibility increased, and memory was improved. The sense of purpose that came from helping students with their literacy had a ripple effect in the lives of the tutors.
Other research has shown similar effects. Researchers at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago found that a greater sense of life purpose correlated to a lower risk of developing Alzheimer’s. And previous research has found that an increased sense of purpose predicts fewer subsequent strokes and heart attacks.
So you’re out in search of your purpose. Where do you start?
Start with what you’ve already done. Start looking at how you spend your time now—what you enjoy, what you don’t, what you care about. The clues to your purpose are all hidden in your existing experiences.
1. Find the reasons you lose track of time
You’ve probably heard this one before. Think of the activities you get lost in; the activities that make you forget to eat or lose track of time. This is fairly common advice for anyone looking for their passion or purpose in life.
But writer Mark Manson offers an interesting twist on this common approach: rather than stopping at what activities you enjoy, Manson suggests looking deeper.
Look for the principles underlying those activities, says Manson. The principles that all those activities have in common is what you really enjoy. The activities could be anything so long as they provide the same underlying principles that make you lose track of time.
Manson offers a personal example based on his love for video games:
I used to be like that with video games. This probably wasn’t a good thing. In fact, for many years it was kind of a problem. I would sit and play video games instead of doing more important things like studying for an exam, or showering regularly, or speaking to other humans face-to-face.
It wasn’t until I gave up the games that I realized my passion wasn’t for the games themselves (although I do love them). My passion is for improvement, being good at something and then trying to get better. The games themselves — the graphics, the stories — they were cool, but I can easily live without them. It’s the competition — with others, but especially with myself — that I thrive on.
Manson was able to apply his improvement and self-competition to his writing and business, and found that his love for video games translated to his work because he’d applied the same underlying principles that made him lose track of time.
2. Find the “suck” you’re willing to live with
Another suggestion from Mark Manson starts with admitting that pretty much everything in life sucks most of the time. Most jobs have boring, frustrating, or hard parts. In fact, most jobs are boring, frustrating, or hard most of the time, says Manson.
But once you’ve agreed that everything sucks most of the time, you’ve given yourself an advantage in finding your purpose. You can now decide what kind of sucking you’re willing to put up with.
As Manson says, there’s no point pursuing a life purpose that comes with bad parts you’re not willing to do:
If you want to be a brilliant tech entrepreneur, but you can’t handle failure, then you’re not going to make it far. If you want to be a professional artist, but you aren’t willing to see your work rejected hundreds, if not thousands of times, then you’re done before you start. If you want to be a hotshot court lawyer, but can’t stand the 80-hour workweeks, then I’ve got bad news for you.
The trick, says Manson, is to figure out what kind of boring, hard, and frustrating work you’re willing to put up with. Because putting up with the sucky parts will make sure you’re there for the best parts, too.
What unpleasant experiences are you able to handle? Are you able to stay up all night coding? Are you able to put off starting a family for 10 years? Are you able to have people laugh you off the stage over and over again until you get it right?
3. Choose a project, then do it
Here’s a refreshing approach to finding your purpose: stop looking for it.
Writer Alexandra Franzen says she always thought (as did I) that everything starts with your purpose. Once you’ve found your purpose you’ll know what work to do, what projects to start, what skills to build.
But what if we’ve got it all wrong, asks Franzen.
Finding your purpose is overwhelming, and it can be hard to pin down. Many of us are left frustrated and confused when our purpose doesn’t appear as if by magic.
Franzen suggests we start with projects instead, and let purpose follow.
This is her three-step process to finding projects to work on that will lead to purpose:
- Think about something that bothers you
- Think of a cool project you can do to fix that problem
- Complete that project no matter what
Things that bother you, says Franzen, can be as varied as boring dinner parties, online bullying, animal cruelty, or even poorly-designed websites. It doesn’t matter what it is, so long as it’s something you care about.
And when you’re done with the project? Rinse and repeat. Keep completing projects that aim to fix things that bother you, says Franzen. Rather than waiting for your purpose to show up, or struggling to choose a purpose, just start working. Purpose will come, as you complete more projects and home in on what you care about most.
What’s helped you find your life purpose? Share your tips in the comments.
Every time I read something about how much notifications are taking over our lives, I tone down my phone and turn off alerts for all my social media accounts. But somehow, by the next time I come across an article or study about our addiction to notifications, a bunch of them have crept back into my life.
Why is so hard to turn off—and keep off—notifications? Why can’t we stop picking up our phones and checking social media, even when we know there’s nothing new to see?
And what can we do to make a toned-down approach stick?
We’re addicted to our phones
As our phones become smarter and more powerful, our dependency on them only increases. In fact, when completing interviews for her book The Big Disconnect: Protecting Childhood and Family Relationships in the Digital Age, author Catherine Steiner-Adair found many people shared experiences that showed symptoms of psychological dependency. For instance, many of the interviewees said they couldn’t leave the house without their phones or go to the bathroom without them, and they felt anxious when separated from their phones.
Other research has found, similarly, that we tend to feel more uncomfortable and anxious without our phones, or when we can’t access social media.
Just to prove how little we know about what’s good for us, research shows that people who rely on their phones most, and feel anxious without them, don’t actually feel better when they do have their phones nearby. Those who rely most on their phones and/or social media tend to have higher levels of stress, aggression, distraction, and depression, have lower self-esteem, and get less sleep on average.
Further research has shown that push notifications from email are a “toxic source of stress” for many UK workers. This study also found a strong connection between the use of push notifications and perceived email stress, according to lead author Dr. Richard MacKinnon:
The people who reported it being most useful to them also reported the highest levels of email pressure.
Another study also explored how connecting with people online affects our emotional state. The researchers found connecting with others via Facebook left people feeling sad and dissatisfied, but following up with a phone call or a face-to-face exchange left people feeling uplifted.
According to psychologist Susan Pinker, online relationships without face-to-face contact fail to create the trust needed for authentic personal connections.
So if email, social media, and mobile notifications are so bad for us, why can’t we give them up?
Software is designed to make us addicted
While some might say it’s up to users to take responsibility for our reliance on our phones, Tristan Harris, former product philosopher at Google and co-founder of advocacy group Time Well Spent, says this assessment isn’t fair:
… but that’s not acknowledging that there’s a thousand people on the other side of the screen whose job is to break down whatever responsibility I can maintain.
Harris’s goal is to have product designers sign a kind of hippocratic oath, swearing to design products that don’t take advantage of users. “There is a way to design based not on addiction,” he says.
Joe Edelman, who helped Harris with the research for Time Well Spent, compares the tech industry to Big Tobacco before the link between cigarettes and cancer was proven: giving customers more of what they want, even if it’s harmful.
Nir Eyal, author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products, explains that software, especially social media, is designed around an idea described by researcher B.F. Skinner in the 1950s: variable rewards. Skinner, experimenting with mice, found that providing the same treats every time a mouse pressed a lever was less motivating than varying the rewards. Mice who received either a big treat, a small treat, or no treat when pressing the lever pressed far more often than mice receiving the same treat every time. Mice receiving variable rewards also kept pressing the lever for much longer after the treats stopped coming than the mice receiving consistent treats, who stopped pressing almost immediately.
Though using this research in software design might seem sinister, Eyal says it can be beneficial when used in the right way:
If used for good, habits can enhance people’s lives with entertaining and even healthful routines. If used to exploit, habits can turn into wasteful addictions.
Eyal disagrees with Harris’s idea that software designers are consciously building products we’ll become addicted to. There’s nothing wrong with using this research in human behavior when designing software, says Eyal. He says it’s simply new and unknown, making people like Harris wary:
Saying ‘Don’t use these techniques’ is essentially saying ‘Don’t make your products fun to use.’ That’s silly. With every new technology, the older generation says ‘Kids these days are using too much of this and too much of that and it’s melting their brains.’ And it turns out that what we’ve always done is to adapt.
But Harris doesn’t buy it. The onus is on software designers, he says, to avoid making us all addicted to their products:
Never before in history have the decisions of a handful of designers (mostly men, white, living in SF, aged 25-35) working at 3 companies [Google, Facebook, and Apple] had so much impact on how millions of people around the world spend their attention. We should feel an enormous responsibility to get this right.
Making notifications and social media manageable
While Harris is making some progress in getting software designers on board with the idea of designing products that don’t rely on user addiction to succeed, there are plenty of products we use every day that are already built around addictive behaviors.
Using Eyal’s “Hook Model,” products use triggers such as notifications to encourage us to take actions—opening the app, looking at a photo, etc. Variable rewards encourage us take action more often: opening our inboxes, refreshing our social feeds, and so on, in the hope of a treat, just like Skinner’s lab mice.
Eyal’s model also includes investment: a step where the user, having already interacted with the product, is asked to invest time, money, data, or effort to make the product more useful to them and make it more likely they’ll come back in the future. Inviting friends to a social network or learning to use new features of an app are examples of the investment stage, that only increase our reliance on these products and make us more likely to keep using them.
So until Harris can successfully get all software designers on board with his hippocratic oath, it’s up to us to fight the addictive design of the products we use every day.
Let’s look at three ways to do this.
Adjust your notification settings
Rather than completely culling all notifications—which, if you remember the research I mentioned earlier, could make you more anxious than having them all turned on—Davide Casali suggests only keeping notifications turned on for the apps you really need to stay on top of.
Casali split his own app usage into three groups:
- Instant: Anything he wants to know about as soon as it happens
- Relevant: Anything he wants to know about when he’s open to new updates, but not immediately
- Kill: Anything he really doesn’t need to know about
For the first group, Casali left notifications on as usual. For the “Relevant” group, he turned off all notification and alert options except for app icon badges. This made it obvious which apps had new updates when Casali took the time to check their icons, but didn’t interrupt his day with updates whenever they were available.
For the final group, Casali turned off all notification and alert options completely.
Fine-tuning your notifications in this way may be a better compromise than turning them off completely, because being completely cut-off tends to make us anxious. Try putting just one or two apps or services into the “Kill” and “Relevant” sections, and adding more over time as you become more comfortable with getting fewer notifications.
Check your email less often
A study of 124 workers tested the difference between allowing workers to have email notifications turned on and check their email anytime, and having workers turn off notifications and check their email just three times each day.
While checking less often was tough on workers, keeping their email use restricted reduced stress:
Most participants in our study found it quite difficult to check their email only a few times a day. This is what makes our obvious-in-hindsight findings so striking: People find it difficult to resist the temptation of checking email, and yet resisting this temptation reduces their stress.
So while it might be difficult to adjust to, try turning off email notifications and setting just a few specific times aside for checking your inbox. You might find you feel better overall, even if the immediate change is tough.
Make rewards less variable
Since our addiction to our phones and social media tends to be a result of the variable nature of the rewards we get, making those rewards more predictable can help us cut down on our obsessive behaviors.
For any service that offers a daily digest of updates rather than immediate notifications, try turning that on. You’ll get a predictable daily roundup of everything that’s new, so you’ll stay in the loop without checking several times a day for a new reward.
For services that don’t offer this feature built-in, you can use Zapier’s Digest feature to create your own. For any of Zapier’s 750+ connected apps, you can use Digest to create a daily roundup of updates you care about. You can even decide where to have your digest sent, so if email isn’t your thing you could use a Slack channel instead, for instance.
If you’re struggling with notification overload or addiction to your phone, rest assured you’re not alone. Not only is this a common problem, but it’s a tough one to solve because many product designers want to keep us in this state.
Being aware of the behavioral research used by product designers can help us understand why we’re so addicted to notifications and checking for updates online, but we need to take further steps to overcome those behaviors.
The more we can reduce the variability of rewards offered to us by social media and mobile apps, the easier it will be to reduce our reliance on technology and focus more of our time on doing meaningful work.
We’ve come to revere busyness, and to see it as being an indicator of high status. But busyness is harmful to our productivity and our health. It’s not something to aim for or be proud of.
If you’re struggling with busyness and need to carve out more opportunities to do meaningful work, here are some tips for protecting your time from distractions and busywork.
Schedule focused work sessions in advance
Cal Newport knows the importance of setting aside time for his most important, and demanding, work. In fact, he’s written a whole book about it.
Newport is known for being prolific, and doesn’t shy away from the fact that he deliberately prioritizes his most important work over email, spontaneous opportunities, or meetings with colleagues.
To do so, Newport relies heavily on his calendar. He schedules blocks of time for his most demanding projects in advance, and protects those time blocks as he would any other calendar appointment. When the most important work is scheduled well in advance, Newport’s colleagues and fans fit their demands on his time around those appointments and Newport never has to de-prioritize his most important projects in order to find time for busyness.
The idea is also straightforward. I now schedule my deep work on my calendar four weeks in advance. That is, at any given point, I should have deep work scheduled for roughly the next month.
This four week lead time is sufficiently long that when someone requests a chunk of my time and attention for a given week, I’ve almost certainly already reserved my deep work blocks for that period. I can, therefore, schedule the request with confidence in any time that remains.
Automate your focus time
It’s all well and good to say you should be setting aside time for your most important work, but when it comes time to actually do that work, how do you avoid interrupting colleagues or busywork vying for your attention?
One way to make sure your focused work sessions run smoothly is to automate all the hassle around getting started. Here are a few options to get you thinking:
- Use RescueTime’s FocusTime feature to stop you visiting distracting websites
- Automatically set your Slack status to “away” during a Focustime session
- Automatically post a message to Slack at the start of your FocusTime session, letting your colleagues know you’re unavailable
- Automatically start a RescueTime FocusTime session based on time you’ve blocked off on your calendar or as soon as you arrive at the office
Think about what interrupts you during focused work periods and stops you getting your most important work done. Find ways to automate starting your session, staying away from distractions, and keeping others informed of your status to ease the transition away from busywork and into a deep, focused work period.
Turn meetings into gatherings
If your time is often taken up by 1:1 meetings, or you’re constantly turning these down due to time constraints, try this trick. Marketing strategist Dorie Clark suggests turning 1:1 requests into 1:many situations, so you can get more out of the time you spend helping others:
I’ll ask the student to email me his question, I’ll respond back electronically, and will later turn it into a blog post. Similarly, instead of one-on-one coffees, I’ll often organize dinners to bring together interesting groups of people who could also benefit from knowing one another.
If you spend a lot of time answering questions via email or contact forms, try writing a blog post you can point people to in future. This way, you only spend the time needed to answer the question once, but many people can benefit. Tech writer Robert Scoble answers questions on Quora, rather than via email, so many people can benefit from the time he spends answering a question.
If it’s face-to-face meetings you’re struggling with, try setting up a group coffee meeting or dinner party for people with lots in common. Rather than only one person benefitting from your experience and ideas, you can facilitate a group of people to share with each other, so you spend the same amount of time but help many people at once.
Choose something to be bad at
No matter how much we try, we’re never going to have time for every single thing.
The trick, according to Dorie Clark, is to decide consciously what you’re going to be bad at. If you decide to be good at email, replying quickly and thoroughly to every message that hits your inbox, you’re subconsciously deciding to be bad at something else. And that could be your most important work.
I’ve chosen to be bad at email response time because it’s less important to me than serving clients or creating new content like this article. But I’ll never let it get to the point where there’s no response.
Decide upfront which activities you can afford to put less time and effort into. Maybe that’s email, maybe it’s networking, maybe it’s filing your paperwork on time. The point is, something has to suffer if you’re going to prioritize your most important work, so you should decide ahead of time what you’re going to be bad at.
If you’re not getting enough meaningful work done, take a look at how you spend your time. You probably need to work harder to protect your time from the busyness and distractions that are so common for us all.
What are your best tips for protecting your time? Let us know in the comments.
I once worked at a company that held positivity as a core value. Employees were so encouraged to remain positive all the time that I was once reprimanded by my boss at this company for posting a personal tweet about wanting to stay in bed one cold weekend morning. Apparently, positivity extends so far as always being happy to get out of bed, even when it’s cold outside, it’s not a workday, and your bed is toasty warm.
I thought I was a fairly positive person in general before I joined that company. But that experience made me think I’m more of a cynic. Being positive about everything all day long just didn’t come naturally to me.
In fact, it turns out few of us can be positive every minute of every day—even if it’s just while we’re at work. And the side effects of a workplace that enforces positivity (and, as a result, the suppressing of any negative emotions) can be downright dangerous.
Why suppressing negative emotions is worse than venting them
Perhaps the most dangerous effect of a workplace culture focused on positive emotions is that none of us are positive all the time. Which means to fit in at work we end up suppressing our negative emotions.
Much worse than venting, suppressing negative emotions is bad for our health. One study found people who suppressed anger had a three times higher risk of heart attack than those who let their anger out.
Studies of people in rehab and addiction treatment facilities have also found suppressing negative thoughts can be harmful. Those who suppressed thoughts relating to their addiction and cravings tended to harbor more of those thoughts overall. Suppressing addiction-related thoughts also made study participants have stronger stress reactions to cues relating to their addictions.
Other research has found suppressing negative emotions can lead to emotional overeating, and emotional exhaustion. And suppressing thoughts tends to lead to an effect called dream rebound, where the more those thoughts are suppressed, the more likely they are to show up in dreams later.
The downsides of positivity
It might seem counterintuitive to talk about the downsides of being positive, but there are two main ways positivity can lead to negative effects: when we’re overly positive, or when we’re trying to be positive always. And though studies have shown benefits to a positive attitude, experts say the link between positivity and better health or wealth is generally undemonstrated, and we’re lacking any proof of positive emotions causing any related benefits.
On the other hand, research has shown too much positivity can lead people to be less motivated, pay less attention to detail, be more selfish, and indulge more in risky behaviors like binge drinking and overeating.
One reason positive emotions lead to risky behavior is because we tend to equate happiness and safety. When we feel happy and connected to others, we’re also likely to have higher oxytocin levels—often called the “cuddle hormone,” oxytocin makes us feel safe, and tends to peak when we’re feeling close to others emotionally and physically. With higher levels of oxytocin in our bodies, we feel more safe, and thus pay less attention to danger. While that might have meant being vulnerable to predators for our ancestors, today it’s more likely to mean indulging in risky behaviors like unsafe sex or binge drinking.
Other studies have found we’re more gullible when we’re in a good mood. Researchers used films to put people in good or bad moods before surveying them on their thoughts about common urban myths. Those in positive moods tended to be more likely to believe urban myths, rather than questioning their validity.
This shows there could be negative effects on employees’ critical thinking skills if they’re always suppressing negative emotions.
It’s not just feeling positive that has downsides, either. Forcing people to feel happy when they don’t can also have bad side effects.
Research has shown positive affirmations (e.g. saying “I am loved” or “I am strong” to yourself) actually backfire when used by people with low self-esteem. Rather than buying into the affirmations, these people tend to believe the opposite even more strongly than they did before.
So if being positive all the time is a bad idea, what benefits can we get from negative emotions?
The benefits of negativity
While negative emotions can obviously hinder our performance and communication in some cases, they exist for a reason. Negative emotions alert us to danger, whether physical, emotional, or social, and help us solve problems.
Anger, in particular, has also been shown to improve creativity. When researchers put subjects into an angry or sad mood before testing their creativity, they found angry participants came up with more creative solutions (and more solutions overall) when given problems to solve.
When we’re feeling a little down, researchers have also shown we pay more attention to social cues, helping us get along better with others. We also tend to treat others more fairly when we’re not feeling at our best.
And pessimists have the upper hand when things go badly, too. One study showed pessimists are less prone to depression when dealing with a negative life event, such as the death of a friend.
Finally, negative people have been shown to have better negotiation and decision-making skills, more stable marriages, lower risk of heart attack, longer lives overall, and even more wealth.
None of this is to say there’s anything wrong with positive emotions. We all love to feel happy, excited, and motivated.
The issue is the growing tendency for workplaces to force constant positivity on employees. To be human is to have negative emotions, and if we try to suppress them, nature has a way of making sure they get out somehow—even if they have to pop up in our dreams.
From the lighting in your office to the style of desk you work at, your environment can help or hinder your productivity. Let’s take a look at some ways you can adjust your workspace to suit your needs and improve your efficiency at work.
1. Add natural light
Studies have found a strong link between the amount of natural daylight employees are exposed to throughout the day and the quality of their sleep. Lack of natural light in the office can increase sleep disturbances, reduce sleep quality and duration, and even affect our overall quality of life.
Other research has found increasing the amount of natural light employees are exposed to can increase productivity, reduce absenteeism and turnover, and decrease headaches and eyestrain—two of the most common health-related office worker complaints.
If you already work in an office with windows, try rearranging so all employees can see out a window from their desks.
2. Bring nature into the office
Various studies have proven the benefits of natural surroundings on mood, memory, and focus. One study found simply adding plants to a workspace improved productivity by up to 15%.
One study found simply adding plants to a workspace improved productivity by up to 15%.
Spending time in nature has also been linked to improved mental health.
Another study showed accuracy and focus can be improved simply by looking at photos of greenery.
You don’t need to build entire treehouses for your meeting rooms, but adding potted plants and photos of nature throughout the office could boost your team’s happiness and productivity.
3. Switch to a standing desk—sometimes
Though we love to rely on the extreme idea that “sitting is the new smoking,” using a standing desk for hours on end isn’t necessarily the answer, either, as we’ve said before:
Our bodies are complex physical structures capable of and designed for a dynamic range of movement. The sedentary aspect of standing or sitting for too long creates stresses on the body that accumulate over time. Those physical strains can result in fatigue, and – if not managed properly – potential injury.
Though standing desks have been shown to improve focus and engagement, there are also situations when standing desks make tasks more difficult, resulting in frustration. Some fine motor skill tasks, for instance, can be more difficult to complete while standing.
The best solution, then, may be a combination of sitting and standing, with plenty of breaks to move around in-between work periods.
4. Improve your desk ergonomics
Whether you use a standing or sitting desk, getting the ergonomics right can improve your comfort and productivity.
For instance, keeping your screen clean and free of glare can make it easier to read so your eyes don’t have to work too hard. Your computer screen should be about an arm’s length away from you when working, and the center of your screen should be a few inches below your eye level so you’re looking down slightly.
When you’re using a mobile device, remember your ergonomics as well. Most of us hold our mobile devices too close, making our eyes work harder to focus.
What are your best tips for improving your work environment? Let us know in the comments.
Can you tell us what you do, and what your typical workday looks like?
Right now, I split my time between building products and freelancing. My typical work day is usually spent about half writing code at my desk (or in a coffeeshop) and half doing marketing, sales, copy, and all other sorts of tasks that are not quite as interesting to me as software.
Do you have a morning routine as part of waking up or starting your workday? What does your routine consist of?
My morning routine varies, but on an ideal day, I wake up around 7:30am, eat breakfast, go to the gym for an hour, shower, and then get ready to work. In reality, I often am too tired to go to the gym and just waste time on my phone in my bed, but I’m trying to cut back on that.
What’s the first thing you normally do when you start work/arrive at your office/desk?
The first thing I do when I go to my desk is check my email and Slack, browse HackerNews and ProductHunt for anything interesting to check out, and look at traffic or revenue analytics. Then, I create a daily to-do list of what I believe I can/should accomplish today.
What’s your favorite thing about your daily workspace?
My favorite thing about my workspace is my monitor – I absolutely love having a big screen.
What does a successful workday look like for you? How do you measure success on a day-to-day basis?
A successful workday for me involves pushing features to production, making product sales or landing clients, and having some time for myself to go to the gym, read, or watch a movie. I measure success by evaluating 3 things – how many of the tasks I said I would complete that I actually completed, how many sales/clients I landed, and how happy/fulfilled I am (this is the most important one).
What’s your biggest productivity struggle? How do you deal with that?
My biggest productivity struggle is probably procrastination – I often have the urge to just zone out and watch Netflix or order food when I should be doing something productive that I don’t want to do.
How does RescueTime fit into your workday?
RescueTime is something that I don’t use every day, because obsessing over time too much stresses me out. I use it more retrospectively to look back on a week or a month. From that viewpoint, I can see if I was productive or not, and make adjustments for next month accordingly.
How do you plan for mid-term and long-term work? Do you set goals, conduct regular reviews, or do other planning for big projects?
For mid and long term work, I use project planning boards like Trello or Waffle and Google Docs.
What are the most important tools, apps, tricks, or techniques that help you stay focused and productive during the workday?
One of the most important tricks for me that keeps me productive is to use the Pomorodo timer technique, where I spend 25 minutes working and then take a 5 minute break. I often have the urge to work through the break, especially when I feel like I’m being very productive, but I almost always am better off if I just take the break.
What are you working on right now (or coming up) that you’re most excited about?
Right now, I’m working on launching Everydev, a job board that features inclusive companies. I’m really excited about this and can’t wait to see what people think. You can check it out here, at everydev.io.
The to-do list is one of the most classic productivity tools we have. And a lot of us rely on one. But that doesn’t mean we know how to use them well.
If you tend to lose your to-do list, avoid it when it becomes overwhelmingly long, or you simply forget to use one, these tips are for you.
1. Share your to-do list
To-do lists are traditionally private, or at least personal. We make individual lists to suit our individual needs and responsibilities.
But what if our to-do lists were public?
It turns out, sharing with others the goals and tasks you want to accomplish can boost your productivity.
According to software developer Joe Reddington, making his to-do list public helped him see it with fresh eyes. He suddenly noticed all the duplicate tasks he’d listed, all the badly-worded or misspelled tasks, and all the confusing or badly planned tasks.
… when you write a to-do item for someone else to read, you tell them what actually has to happen, but when you write it for yourself, you leave yourself a cryptic note.
When you write a to-do item for someone else to read, you tell them what actually has to happen
Making his to-do list public made Reddington notice what was wrong with it—and fix it. After a big clean-up of his list, Reddington found he was much more productive. And when he added new tasks to the list, the knowledge that the list was public and might be viewed by others made sure he was more thoughtful in how he wrote out tasks for his future self.
I can honestly say that it’s been the most effective change in my productivity in at least two, possibly five years.
You don’t have to make your to-do list completely public, but try sharing it with a colleague or your boss to add a little accountability and help you see your list with fresh eyes.
2. Draw your to-do list
If you struggle to remember what’s on your to-do list, this tip is for you. Studies have found drawing helps ideas stick in our memories more than writing.
A series of studies gave participants words that are easy to draw, such as “apple”, and pitted drawing the words against a variety of other approaches such as writing the word, describing its characteristics, or looking at a picture of the item.
In every case, those who drew the items remembered more of them.
Researchers suggest this may be because more skills are involved in drawing. We have to use our physical motor skills to make the drawing, as well as visualizing the item itself and thinking about its characteristics to help us draw it accurately. The combination of skills used may help to make more connections than simply writing down a word, which in turn helps us remember the item more easily later.
So try adding a doodle here and there to your to-do list if you need a memory boost.
3. Write a list of what you think you will do
Mark Forster has a blog chock-full of to-do list systems, methods, and ideas. One idea he used with great success himself was to swap his to-do list for a list of things he thought he would do.
Forster initially tried writing a standard to-do list and putting it away in a drawer, curious about whether he could complete the list without checking it all day. This experiment failed miserably, with not a single thing from the list completed at the end of the day:
On Friday I managed to spend the whole day without doing a single item on the list. I did plenty of other things but the “hidden list” seemed to repel me rather than attract me to its contents.
But when Forster wrote a list of things he thought he would do that day and left it in a drawer, he found the entire list got done:
I found myself doing the things that I had predicted. At the end of the day I had done every single item on the list without referring to it once.
Again, this may be memory-related, as imagining yourself doing various things throughout the day may make them stick better in your memory than simply writing a list of tasks you’d like to do.
Or perhaps it’s something more complicated. Perhaps by telling yourself you think you will do something, you’re actually increasing the chances that you will.
4. Keep a done list
If you never seem to get through your to-do list but you know you’re still being productive, the done list might be for you.
This idea flips the to-do list on its head. Instead of writing down things to do before you start work, you write down what you got done after you’ve done it.
So you spend your day working as you normally would, and as you finish each task or project, take a phone call or come out of a meeting, you note down on your done list what you spent your time doing.
Buffer’s CEO, Joel Gascoigne, uses this approach, though he calls it an “anti-to-do list”. Gascoigne found the done list helped him overcome the tug-of-war between his planned to-do list and the inevitable tasks that popped up throughout his work day:
I’ve realised that without the Anti-To-Do List, whenever I was doing a task not on my to-do list, no matter how important and useful the task (and many unexpected tasks lead to massive returns!), I generally always had on my mind that it was detracting from the time I had for the items on my to-do list, and that it didn’t “count.”
Gascoigne also says the done list helped him see more clearly how he was spending his time:
It’s made a real difference for my feeling of productivity, since a lot of the time I used to have that “where did the day go?” feeling without being able to remember what I did. Now I look at my Anti-To-Do List and feel great about all the things I got done.
(If you get this feeling a lot, you can use RescueTime’s daily highlights to keep an anti-to-do list alongside your productivity data.)
At the end of a day using a done list, you’ll have a long list of completed tasks, showing everything you spent time on throughout the day. Despite working in the same way you normally would, you’ll go home satisfied with your efforts rather than disappointed that your to-do list remains incomplete.
What improvements have you made to your to-do list? Let us know in the comments.