What to do when your productivity slips: The “Goldilocks rule” of how to be productive all day, every day

Most of us have really productive days once in a while. We might even string a few together or even get an entire week of productivity. But when it comes to how to be productive on a consistent basis? That’s a whole other question.

We’ve all faced moments where our productivity slips. Something happens or our routine changes and all of a sudden we feel defeated, frustrated, and angry that what was working so well suddenly stopped.

So what do we do? Maybe we look for a new app, tool, or productivity system. And while those might fix some short-term issues, eventually, the cycle starts up again.

The truth is, learning how to be productive on a consistent basis is a skill on its own. And one that doesn’t come down to a single “productivity hack.” In fact, the only way to be truly productive for long periods of time is to optimize not just for time and effort, but for your emotional state.

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You can’t just “choose” a new behavior and stick with it

How to be productive - Directions

Most productivity advice has good intentions but misses a critical factor of behavior change: how you’re currently feeling.

As we wrote in our Guide to Overcoming Procrastinationmost time management and productivity issues are really emotional issues. Unfortunately, it’s not always easy to understand how our emotional state affects our ability to get things done. This becomes especially clear when we think about how most of us try to become more productive.

We’ve written about plenty of productivity strategies in the past. But what never really gets mentioned is that sticking with them takes more than just following a set of steps.

A productivity strategy will only work for you if it doesn’t interfere with  your current habits, routines, mental biases, and something called “Shadow intentions.”

Here’s how Linda and Charlie Bloom explain the idea of shadow intentions in Psychology Today:

“Behind every intention, there is a (usually unconscious) competing commitment, or shadow intention, to do the opposite.

“For example, behind the intention to be more open is another intention to close down and protect. Behind the intention to stand up and speak your truth, there may be an intention to avoid disapproval.

Our failure to adequately appreciate the strength of our shadow commitments’ grip can leave us angry at ourselves for not ‘doing what I know I should do.’

When it comes to how to be more productive, succumbing to your shadow intentions can undo all of the hard work you’ve put in. For example:

It’s these shadow intentions that break your productivity streaks and cause you to act against your better judgment. And the more you ignore them, the more powerful they become.

Shadow intentions, willpower, and why you can’t draw a line between instant and delayed gratification

How to be productive - Shadow intentions

Let’s break down this gap between our intentions and “shadow intentions” a bit further and look at why we’re drawn to one or the other.

As we wrote in our recent Guide to Understanding Motivation at Work, human beings are pleasure-seeking creatures. A lot of why we choose to do (or stick with) a behavior comes down to what it gives us in return.

On one hand, there’s the mindset that chases instant gratification (i.e. doing what feels good right now like skipping your workout or checking Twitter instead of finishing that presentation). And then there’s the mindset that wants delayed gratification (i.e. the “adult” mindset that prioritizes long-term gains while sacrificing your current happiness).

Let’s use one of our examples from above to make this point a bit more clear.

Your intention to get better at asking for feedback is probably driven by a desire to be more confident in your work and grow personally. These are intrinsic qualities that take time to come to fruition.

Whereas its “shadow intention”–to avoid negative criticism–is likely based on a desire to be seen as competent and intelligent and maybe even rewarded with a promotion. In other words, instant gratification.

The problem is, you can’t draw a line between instant gratification and delayed gratification at work. Too much (or too little) of either will have negative consequences.

You can't draw a line between instant gratification and delayed gratification at work. Too much (or too little) of either will have negative consequences. Click To Tweet

Too much instant gratification and you have zero chance of being productive. But attempting to delay all your gratification doesn’t work either. We all have limited energy and willpower during the day, and constantly delaying your gratification leaves you vulnerable to distraction, stress, and unhappiness.

How to be more productive with the “Goldilocks Rule”

How to be productive - Goldilocks Rule lead

The only way you can be consistently productive is to find a balance between instant and delayed gratification. Think of it like the fairy tale of Goldilocks and the Three Bears. You need to find your “just right” level of motivation each day.

To get there, let’s go through a simple exercise.

Start with a “productivity audit”.  This is where you list all of the productivity strategies, routines, goals, and techniques you use each day.

Once you’re satisfied with your list, it’s time to fill out the rest of your audit. For each strategy, goal, and routine write down:

  • Consistency: How often do you use this strategy? Daily? Weekly? Monthly? This will help you see if you’re trying to do too much in a day or if your day is skewed one way or the other (too much/little delayed gratification).
  • Time Commitment: How much time do you commit to each? Try not to fall victim to the Planning Fallacy. If you need help, try using a tool like RescueTime that gives you an accurate picture of how you spend your time on your digital devices.
  • Instant or Delayed Gratification? Is this something you are rewarded for right away?
  • Emotional response: How does it make you feel thinking about this strategy? Listen to your gut and think about the emotional reaction to each one. Do they make you feel joy? Excitement? Creativity? Or dread, laziness, and anxiety? Try to think about your “Shadow intentions” here as well. What are you giving up when you choose to do this? How does that impact you?

Finally, go through your list and choose the Next step for each: Keep, tweak, delete, delegate, move to a “someday” list to revisit at a later stage.

Here’s how this might look for one of my favorite productivity strategies: setting aside time each morning for heads down meaningful work:

StrategyConsistencyTime CommitmentInstant or delayed?Emotional responseNext step
Meaningful work first thing in the morningDaily90 minutesDelayedJoy but also anxiety when I have urgent tasks that need to be doneTweak. Be more flexible with the time commitment. Even 15-30 minutes is better than missing a day.

Pretty quickly, you’ll see where you’re employing too many productivity strategies; where you’re punishing yourself by trying to delay too much gratification; or where a strategy that once worked has stopped.

By understanding all of these factors and writing them down, you can start to build a better daily routine that’s balanced and helps you stay productive and focused all day long.

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When a productivity strategy stops working, ask these two questions

How to be productive - questions

While you might be able to identify some strategies, goals, and routines you can simply get rid of, in many cases, you’ll want to tweak them to fit your routine better.

Can you make the strategies more inviting or reduce the friction to start them? The more you can be honest and easy on yourself, the more likely you’ll be to stick with this routine.

As Oliver Burkeman writes in The Guardian:

“I’ve experimented with countless time-management techniques, but the results leave me forced to agree: by far the biggest predictor of whether something gets done is whether it’s fun to do. The secret of productivity is simple: just do what you enjoy.

The trick here is to learn that difficult tasks with delayed gratification can be just as enjoyable as ones with more instant gratification.

The human brain craves tasks that are difficult enough to push our abilities just beyond their limit but not so much that we become anxious. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi calls this getting into a state of Flow (We even wrote an entire guide on Finding Flow at Work).

According to Csikszentmihalyi, you can find more Flow in your work by asking these two questions:

  1. Is this task challenging enough? Finding Flow depends on pushing the limits of your abilities. If you find yourself losing the motivation you once had, it’s probably time to find ways to challenge yourself.
  2. Am I able to see the progress I’m making? Flow also depends on seeing the progress you’re making and being able to react to it, which isn’t always easy for modern workers. Whenever possible, set up systems and tools that can show you the work you’ve put in (either through time spent or hitting goals).
RescueTime helps you find more Flow at work by giving you real-time feedback on your progress and how you’re spending your time across all your digital devices. Try it for free

The only way to be consistently productive is to be honest with yourself

Our emotions drive more of our actions and decisions than we like to admit. But while it’s easier to think of yourself as a to-do list-crushing machine, you’re a human being (which is a lot messier).

Being consistently productive isn’t just about choosing an intention and forcing yourself to stick with it. Instead, it’s about understanding all the things you’re currently trying to do and how they actually impact your mood and motivation.

Once you understand your emotional triggers, you can use them to keep your productivity (and your happiness levels) high all day long.

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Jory MacKay

Jory MacKay is a writer, content marketer, and editor of the RescueTime blog.

2 comments

  1. This was a thought-pricking post, thank you. Can you give examples of productivity techniques that result in instant gratification?

    I did this exercise and I noticed my productivity system seems to be all about planning (heavy on the delayed gratification). One of my next steps is to find ways to be more flexible when things inevitably don’t go to plan.

    1. Thanks Amy! Glad to hear you’re looking for ways to be more flexible. I think that’s the most important part of finding a way of working that works for you.

      As for instant gratification, I see this mostly in goals and expectations. For example, clearing out your inbox every morning or responding to Slack messages within 5 minutes. These things can seem productive at the time, but in the long-run they end up being a distraction from meaningful work. Hope that helps!

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