Darius Foroux doesn’t use to-do lists. (Don’t worry, we’ll tell you why below).
For the past 15 years, he’s been on a personal mission to find the strategies, workflows, and mentalities that actually help you do more each day and feel better about yourself.
There’s no hustle porn. No lofty lists of 100 productivity strategies you can try. Instead, he’s more like a scientist taking productivity hypotheses and seeing if they hold up in his own lab.
“I kept seeing the same advice being shared everywhere but it wasn’t working for me. So instead, I decided to experiment and share the blueprints of what has worked. If you can relate to it, feel free to use it and see if it works for you too.”
His brand of authentic, down-to-earth advice struck a chord. But now, with people trying to balance work, life, and dealing with a pandemic, it’s become even more significant.
In this article, we asked Darius to walk us through the steps and processes he uses to develop the mental toughness and resilience to stay focused, productive, and useful no matter what the world throws at you.
Jump to a section:
- Why most productivity strategies fail the “Does it actually work?” test
- How to develop the mental resilience to stay focused during a crisis like the pandemic
- How to uncover your true purpose and use the “indifferent” exercise to block the stress of work and life
- The 5 areas of like you need to focus on to get over feeling like you’ve never done “enough”
- Why Darius Foroux stopped using to-do lists (and what he does instead)
- How we can come out of the pandemic stronger and calmer
Why most productivity strategies fail the “Does it actually work?” test
Writing about productivity is a lot like learning to ski.
You can read as much as you want about how to ski. But that all goes out the window when you’re facing a sheer cliff of ice with two sticks attached to your feet.
The unfortunate truth for those people struggling with their daily output or focus is that experience and experimentation are more important than research.
For Darius, it was that disconnect between learning about productivity and actually trying to be more productive that set him down his current path.
But what he quickly realized is that much of the productivity advice that’s widely shared is ‘practical’ to the point of being disconnected from reality.
So-called “gurus” treat the day like a machine with a few broken pieces and ignore the fact that our emotions and energy control our ability to stay focused and get things done.
“My whole philosophy behind productivity and overcoming procrastination is that we have these two forces inside of us. One is saying ‘Ok, I know I need to schedule my day exactly like this and apply these productivity tips to get all this work done.’ While the other is constantly worrying about the future or stressing out that you’re not doing enough.”
“Unfortunately, most people ignore the second force or think using an app or system will shut it off. And sometimes that can work temporarily. But eventually, you have to face the real issues–and those aren’t your schedule or what app you’re using to track your tasks.”
The key here is knowing the difference between short-term and long-term productivity.
However, if you want to be consistently productive, even on days where you’re “not feeling it” or unmotivated, you need to develop a system that addresses not just your work, but your whole life.
How to develop the mental resilience to stay focused during a crisis like the pandemic
So what does a system of long-term productivity look like?
Ultimately, long-term productivity comes down to focusing on two key factors: your emotional well-being and your energy. Unfortunately, these are the two things that are most impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.
As Jenna Jonaitis writes in The Washington Post:
“This pandemic is exhausting, mentally and physically. Our worlds have shifted, and it takes emotional energy to cope with that.”
In order to get ourselves back on track, Darius says we need to develop the resilience and mental toughness to block out the general anxiety of the world and commit to our goals.
This is where Darius suggests more people turn to the teachings of the Stoics of Ancient Greece.
“In the Stoic philosophy, there’s an idea called indifference. The basic premise is that you become indifferent to things that you label as indifferent. For example, if my copier breaks, instead of getting angry, I label it as indifferent. It’s not an important thing and doesn’t deserve your attention.”
It’s easy to label annoyances as indifferent, but much harder when you’re dealing with something that impacts you emotionally or on a higher level.
Being indifferent to bigger issues requires a deeper understanding of your priorities and what’s truly important in your life and work. In other words, to be able to label most distractions, interruptions, and anxieties as indifferent, you first need to understand your purpose.
How to uncover your true purpose and use the “indifferent” exercise to block the stress of work and life
Your “purpose” is the driving force in your life.
When you know your purpose, it’s easier to focus on work that matters, prioritize tasks and projects, and label pretty much everything else as indifferent–even a crisis.
There’s a great quote that Darius like to share from American philosopher William James that captures this idea perfectly:
“If you can change your mind, you can change your life.”
As Darius describes it:
“Mental toughness is performing under pressure. And obviously there’s a lot of outside pressure these days. But that makes it even more important to maintain focus and attention on the things that matter to you.”
To build the mental toughness you need to stay focused on your most important work, you first need to understand what drives you. But what if you don’t know?
That’s completely OK. One of the most common questions Darius fields from readers and students is “how do I learn what my purpose is?”
Here’s what he suggests:
- Focus on your strengths: We’re more motivated and focused when we do tasks we’re good at or find personal meaning in. When the rest of the world feels crazy and out of control, it’s important to focus on what you can control.
- If you don’t know your strengths use this exercise to find them: For those people who don’t know their “purpose” at work, Darius teaches a simple exercise. Talk to a friend and have them as you the following two questions. They only answers you’re allowed to keep are the ones that meet both criteria (they must meet both):
- What are you good at?
- What do you enjoy doing?
- Use your journal to analyze your beliefs: Self-reflection is a key part of developing mental toughness. That’s why Darius suggests journaling daily as a way to work through your thoughts privately and question your choices. Journaling is a low-risk activity with huge rewards.
Your purpose will most likely change as you grow. That’s why you should think of this exercise as a feedback loop.
Self-reflection helps you understand when you should reassess your purpose. While the exercise listed above is a quick way to narrow in on what’s most important to you.
It’s also helpful to understand that it’s OK and totally normal to still not come out of this with a clear answer. Especially right now, it’s hard to think beyond the day-to-day and focus on your long-term well-being.
Instead, Darius suggests that if you don’t have a clear picture of your purpose, look for something you can be useful with:
“If you feel like you don’t know where your job or industry is going and there’s a lot of uncertainty just focus on your skills. You always want to focus on the things you can control–and the most powerful thing you can control is your effort and your skills.”
Overwhelmed but never feel like you’re doing “enough?” Focus on these 5 areas of your life
Not only does understanding your purpose help you become mentally resilient, but it also can clarify how you should be prioritizing your time each day.
Prioritization is the key to focus and mental resilience. But what do you do when there’s just so much you want to accomplish each day?
According to a recent survey of 850+ knowledge workers, the number one issue that gets in the way of finishing their daily tasks and feeling accomplished is “no clear priorities.”
“Our natural tendency is to do everything at the same time. We want to get fit and save money and be more productive. And under each of those categories, we have all sorts of smaller goals we’re working on at the same time.
“That’s too much. But here’s the thing: you don’t have to do less. Instead, one of my core principles is to do one thing per area of your life. If you have a specific career goal, you can work towards that at the same time as a relationship goal or a savings goal.”
More specifically, there are five areas of your life you should prioritize in order to feel accomplished each day. For each area, focus on just a single goal.
In order of importance, those are:
- Health: “If you’re not healthy, work doesn’t matter.” At the top of the productivity pyramid is your health. Diet, exercise, and proper sleep are huge influences on your emotional state, which in turn gives you the energy and focus you need to get things done.
- Relationships and family: “Besides health, the only other priority that never changes is maintaining important connections–your relationship, friends, and family.” There’s no shortage of research showing how social interaction makes people happier, healthier, and calmer (and therefore more productive and less stressed). Unfortunately, too many people leave relationships and health on the back burner and focus all their time on work.
- Career growth: This is where most people get lost and where Darius really drives home the importance of focus. Building your career and keeping up with work can be a massive source of stress if you don’t narrow in and prioritize your most important work each day. This doesn’t mean you need to ignore everything else. But rather to “rotate” in projects, tasks, and priorities.
- Learning & education: Darius suggests pairing your learning goals with your career goals. If you’re trying to move up at work, commit time each day to learning a new skill, or mastering your current ones. This way, you’re on the path towards 1% every single day.
- Investments: Darius also writes about personal investment and wealth building. But explains that for most people, the most important investment you can make at any stage of your life is in yourself.
“Invest in yourself so that later on when you have all these other categories in order, financial investing will come automatically.”
This might sound like a lot to fit into one day. But the truth is that many of these things take only a few minutes out of your day to complete.
You can go for a walk in the morning. Call a friend during your lunch break. Or read a blog post in the afternoon when your energy levels are naturally lower.
The key is in building a healthy routine that touches on all the most important aspects of your mental wellbeing.
As Darius explains:
“In my experience, if you stick to one goal per area of your life, it’s very difficult to get overwhelmed. It’s also very hard to be unproductive because you have clarity and you know what you need to do to make progress.”
Once you consistently work each of these categories into your daily schedule you’ll stop feeling the dreaded productivity shame and like you’ve never done “enough”.
Plus, it makes it so much easier to disconnect at the end of the day.
“It feels a lot better to sit down and watch a movie in the evening knowing that you did everything you could with the time you had to make progress in your life.”
Why Darius stopped using to-do lists (and what he does instead)
As Darius explains his approach to life and productivity, you can start to see a system emerge:
- Find your purpose. This gives you the mental resilience to ignore distractions and rebuild your focus.
- Focus on one task for each of the 5 core aspects of your life. This ensures you’re always getting better (without burning out) and feel accomplished at the end of each day.
- Give yourself enough breaks and spend time journaling. This creates a feedback loop so you’re able to recharge and reassess where your time and energy should be going.
But it’s still a lot to keep track of. So how does he do it without to-do lists?
“For me, to-do lists don’t work because they become one endless task. Most people look at their list and get overwhelmed and think ‘why bother?’”
As we’ve written before, your mind gets quickly overwhelmed when faced with too many options and will often default to the easiest (and lowest value work). That’s why people end up spending all day answering emails instead of working on larger projects.
But just because he doesn’t use to-do lists, doesn’t mean Darius foregoes all organization.
“Even though I don’t have to-do lists, I do keep track of all my ideas and projects I want to do in the future. I organize all those in Trello but I’m only allowed to work on one per area of my life at a time.
“So if you’re a freelancer, this might mean focusing on just one client until you finish that task. But you could also be working towards health goals and reading a book on copywriting.”
Instead of a long to-do list, this might look something like this:
Today I will focus on:
- Health: _________________________________
- Relationships: _________________________
- Career: _________________________________
- Learning: _______________________________
- Investments: ____________________________
(Note: Single-tasking like this is one of the biggest differentiators of the most productive people. For more ideas, check out ideas like “Highlights” from the authors of Make Time, or the MIT (Most Important Thing)).
How we can come out of the pandemic stronger and calmer
There’s another William James quote that Darius likes to share:
“The greatest weapon against stress is our ability to choose one thought over another.”
Controlling your mind is the key to finding your purpose, staying focused, and getting things done. But training your mind is an ongoing process that needs attention every single day.
“Knowledge work is incredibly difficult simply because we don’t know how our brains really work. So we have to look for other ways of understanding like philosophy.”
“What I’ve learned studying both Eastern and Western philosophies is that they’re both aiming for the same thing, which is tranquility.
“We all want to have calm and peace in our minds. The Eastern philosophers did that by doing nothing and observing the mind. While the Stoics and other Western philosophers approach it by arguing with themselves and managing their inner dialogue.
“But we need elements of both of those in our day if we’re going to come out of this pandemic stronger. Observe your mind and your thinking. Prioritize your work. And tell yourself at the end of each day ‘Hey, I did enough.’ If you say that to yourself enough, then that’s what it is.”