Your hand stays motionless, pinching the wooden block between your fingers, and you look down at the other collapsed pieces.
That’s right. You just lost that round of Jenga.
Productivity can often look and feel like that pile of wooden blocks. You’ve squeezed so much into a day that by the end of it you think, look and feel exhausted.
It’s one of the challenges for us high-achievers who take pride in what we do – work or otherwise. When you can fit in 10 To-Dos in a day with ease, before you know it, you’re on the next Jenga challenge to fit in 99 things in one day, pushing your productivity to the limits. And beyond.
The “why?” is obvious when we pause to think about it: we are humans, not robots. Increasing throughput is not our only way to productivity.
The truth is, we know deep down what we need to do. But in the pursuit of our deadlines and getting things done, we focus on robotic throughput rather than human productivity.
In the middle of a big corporate M&A transaction with deadlines popping up all the time, it was easy for me to default to doing more: sending that email, drafting that clause, and reviewing another presentation. But at the end of the day, my brain and body felt drained.
So what was the productivity hack I was missing to get things done but feel good and energised at the end of a busy day? Tuning into my awareness.
THE productivity hack is your awareness
You see, we know what we need to do.
It’s just that we’re not tuning in to it.
We let the pursuit of doing more in less time and with more limited resources drown out the things that nourish and enhance our ability to get things done.
Because those things that nourish and enhance aren’t quick tips, like swallowing a painkiller. They’re practices and disciplines to cultivate over time, and which build the foundations for you feeling good at the end of a busy day.
How do we tune in?
Usually there’s some trigger.
You start yawning. You go round in circles, unable to concentrate on the task at hand. You get a creative block. Or you feel anger and frustration stewing in the depths of your body.
And when these triggers happen, what do we do? We ignore them.
I know what you’re thinking. “But what about deadlines”.
Often we have hard deadlines: this press announcement must go out at 7am when the stock market opens.
But many of our deadlines are more malleable – the ones that involve slipping into “I’ll just push through” mindset.
- “It’s just easier for me to do this now”
- “My client will quit and go to another firm if I don’t send this today”
The answer isn’t to ignore these deadlines militantly, but to bring our full awareness into play.
When we allow the “this doesn’t count” mental loophole to flourish unchecked, we allow the brain in our heads to ruminate on the fears and “what ifs”. They take over without allowing our other two brains – our heart and our gut – a say.
- What is your gut instinct telling you?
- Which direction is your heart pointing you in?
The answer isn’t also to trust your gut, your heart and ignore your head.
It’s easy to flip to the other extreme and think “well, I need a f*&king break from this job”.
The solution in that moment lies in simply being aware of what your three brains are telling you. You’re experienced and wise enough when you have the right information. You already know exactly what to do with it.
In that moment, you can tap into your wisdom and help expand your awareness by asking:
- What do I really need?
- What permission can I give myself?
Let your heart and your gut sing to you, and listen!
Over to You!
So what next with awareness?
So here are the three mindsets I wish I had focused on more back then so I could feel good and energised at the end of a busy, productive day.
Although within these mindsets, there are practices to cultivate over time, I’ve starred the ones that you can use in the moment if you notice a trigger event happening.
You can activate these mindsets and your awareness by asking yourself:
Mindset 1: Calm your nervous system
Calming your nervous system is a virtuous circle. When we’re not on edge, or looking out for danger constantly, it helps us to be more aware of what’s going on in our head, our heart and our gut.
If you’re not on edge, you can make better decisions. So a client shouting at you down the telephone is something you can respond to with ease, rather than retaliation or simmering resentment.
So how do we respond to challenging situations with intention, rather than reacting?
- Be curious and playful – when things are getting heavy, put on your creative cap and ask
- How can I be curious?
- How can I be playful?
- ⭐️ Say “Piff paff poof” – the words uttered by the Great Suprendo, a TV magician who I loved for conjuring up magical miracles in the 1980s and uttering those magic words. Here they are (at 00:02:28). He used it to create magic, but I’ve used them with great effect to take the heat out of a moment of frustration or nerves!
- ⭐️ Smile – find someone to laugh with! Or smile at yourself in a mirror (it works!)
- Eat real food – try to eat only what was available in your great-grandmother’s generation
- ⭐️ Walk – take a walk outside, preferably where there are trees and plants if you live or work in a concrete jungle.
- Exercise – improve your cardiovascular system with Zone 2 training, aka “when you exercise, you can hold a normal paced conversation with someone; they know you’re exercising, but you’re not gasping or panting for breath”
- ⭐️ Reflect – what’s good about this moment now?
- Practise mindfulness or meditation, or some other relaxation practice
- ⭐️ Inhale: take in a slow, deep breath deep into your belly when the going gets tough and exhale slowly. Don’t fret about whether you’re inhaling for 4 counts, or 5. Simply focus on your breath. If you want to explore more targetted breathwork, I love the “Relaxing Breath”. Dr Andrew Weil demonstrates this 4-7-8 breathing and explains why it’s so effective for reducing stress, anxiety and improving sleep.
- Sleep – you know this one already! Sleep allows your immune system to repair. It’s probably the most difficult thing to get right, so I’ll leave my thoughts on how to get good sleep to another article. Hint: the more you apply the three mindsets in here, the better your sleep will be.
Mindset 2: Boost your immune system
When we push ourselves beyond what our heart and our gut tell us to, it’s easy to fall ill.
I remember the cycle I used to end up in:
Work hard, long hours with high pressure, and squeeze in a hard run or swim. Find yourself having a spare hour so it’s time to push hard at the gym. And then fall ill. Recover. And repeat.
The reality of this cycle is that we’re overloading our immune systems with too many stressors.
My productivity plummeted at most points when I was in this cycle, perhaps with the exception of the short-lived endorphin-flooded afterglow of a workout.
So here’s what to be aware of and what you can do to be kind to your immune system so your productivity can soar.
- Be a crossfitter or a workaholic, but not both – more of something isn’t always better. But when we strive for great things, our robotic approach to productivity makes us want to cram in more at the expense of getting injured, or getting ill.
- Avoid unnecessary stressors – fasting and cold showers are very popular at the moment. They also add to the stress burden on your body. They can bring a positive adaptive response – as a hormetic stressor – but if you’re overloaded with a lack of sleep, eating poorly, not exercising and feeling stressed, listen to what your heart and gut are telling you: avoid these stressors for another time
- Eat real food – an alternative way of eating real food is to cut out refined flours, refined sugars and industrial seed oils.
- Practise mindfulness or meditation
You might have noticed that lots of these practices listed above are in mindset 1 as well. That’s because one of the key approaches of Functional Medicine is at play: getting to the root cause to deal with the downstream manifestations of chronic disease. So in my case, what’s good for resolving my autoimmune skin condition, psoriasis, (eating real food) was also good for eliminating my hayfever symptoms, thinking clearly without brain fog, and having abundant energy during the day.
It’s the approach that I’ve embraced in my own life and share with my clients, friends and family. If you’re interested, here’s Chris Kresser L.Ac, one of the leaders in Functional Medicine explaining what Functional Medicine is.
Mindset 3: Make decisions wisely
In that scintilla of time when you’re boiling angry or blindingly frustrated, it can be really difficult to respond in the way you want to a difficult colleague, rather than how you reacted. Difficult, of course, if you haven’t cultivated the other two mindsets to calm your nervous system and boost your immune system!
So what are the other things we can do to boost our productivity?
Be aware to making wise decisions!
- Minimise – the cognitive load of making decisions every day from what project to providing funding for, or which clothes to wear can leave us feeling mentally exhausted.
- Minimise task switching – in his book Deep Work Cal Newport shows how disruptive it is for our brains to switch tasks, like from working on an essay, to answering a call or email, or seeing a notification pop up on your phone. Set aside deep focus time to do one thing, and exclude
- Eat the frog later – there’s lots of advice out there suggesting that you do the most difficult task (aka eating the frog) first thing in the morning. Does that align with what your head, heart and gut are telling you? I used to think that, but now I start the day with something that sparks joy in my life (usually it’s writing or coaching) and move straight onto the difficult challenge with zest and motivation.
- Do nothing – this one sounds like a doozy for productivity. But it works, and allows our creative minds to work in the background so we can then focus when we need to. Here’s my take on this approach that I re-discovered listening to Professor Vincent Walsh talk about the neuroscience of creativity.