I’ve had to get shit done despite having ADHD for my entire life. It’s been a persistent struggle that’s led to lousy grades and poor job performance. Ironically, I now teach workshops about building a more attentive workforce for companies that would never hire me as an employee. These research-backed productivity strategies are based on the work of three amazing authors: Shawn Achor, Adam Gazzaley, and Teresa Amabile.
These ideas have helped me to develop a habit of writing 1000 words a day. I’ve used them to read over 100 books a year, which led to a 2-book deal with a publisher. On the surface, they seem so simple that you might question their effectiveness. But don’t be fooled. There’s great power in simplicity.
Research-Backed Productive Strategies I Use Every Day
1. Shorten Perceived Distance and Leverage Success Accelerants
When the challenges we face are particularly challenging and the payoff remains far away, setting smaller, more manageable goals helps us build our confidence and celebrate our forward progress, and keeps us committed to the task at hand. – Shawn Achor, The Happiness Advantage
Your brain makes progress towards a goal based on the perceived distance. Most self-help books tell us to set big, hairy, audacious goals. The problem with such goals is that they increase the perceived distance and slow down our progress.
Hitting a Word Count
Because of a conversation with Julien Smith, I was determined to start writing 1000 words every day. But when you’re starting at a blank page, the perceived distance to 1000 words can seem daunting. This is why so many aspiring writers struggle with writer’s block.
But you don’t have to start with a blank page. Because I always read before I write, I start each writing session with a quote from something I’m reading.
- First, starting with the quote reduces the perceived distance to 1000 words.
- Second, it serves as a prompt and eliminates writer’s block.
Writing is just one area that you could do this. It’s something you can apply to money, weight loss, and other goals. Reducing the perceived distance to a goal is a research-backed productivity strategy that lets you leverage the power of success accelerants and make rapid progress.
2. Lower the Activation Energy
We are drawn—powerfully, magnetically—to those things that are easy, convenient, and habitual, and it is incredibly difficult to overcome this inertia. – Shawn Achor
Activation energy is a principle from physics which is the amount of energy it takes for a specific action. It’s also one of the research-backed productivity hacks I learned from Shawn Achor’s book. When we reduce the number of steps required for an action, we’re more likely to complete it.
Set Your Work Space Up the Night Before
Before I go to sleep, I set a book, a pen, and my notebook on my desk. By doing this, I eliminate the following steps:
- Choosing a book to read.
- Finding something to write with.
- Taking out my notebook.
This lowers the activation energy. As a result, I rarely miss a day of creative work.
You can replicate this in a digital setting as well. If you need a specific app for your most important task, open it before you shut down for the night. It will be the first thing you see when you flip your computer open.
Practicing the Guitar
In his book, Shawn writes about his struggles with learning to play the guitar. But the guitar wasn’t somewhere he would see it every day. So, he bought a guitar stand, put it somewhere he’d see it every day and developed the habit of practicing every day. The more accessible something is for the desired habit, the more likely you are to develop the habit.
You can lower the activation energy for going to the gym, eating healthier and almost any other action you’re struggling to get done.
3. Hide the Clock
If you’ve ever had a job you hate, you know that watching the clock makes 8 hours feel like an eternity. On the flip side, if you’re enjoying what you do, you almost never look at your watch. It’s not a coincidence that there no clocks in Las Vegas casinos.
The lack of clocks ensures that you lose your sense of time. You never feel tired, and piss away a small fortune, and walk out at sunrise hungover. Yes, I’m speaking from experience.
But we can apply this research-backed productivity hack to developing good habits and breaking bad ones. Let’s face it. As far as exercise goes, treadmills and elliptical machines are as mind-numbing as it gets.
30 minutes on a treadmill feels like an eternity because you see the time ticking away in front of you. But if all you do is throw a towel over the clock, the time will fly by.
This is why distraction-free writing tools like Notion and working in full-screen mode are such effective methods for staying focused. Instead of focusing on the time, we’re focused on the work.
4. Take Advantage of The Progress Principle
When people make progress toward, or actually meet, personally meaningful goals, the good match between their expectations and their reading of reality allows them to feel good, grow their positive self-efficacy, get even more revved up to tackle the next job, and mentally move on to something else. Progress motivates people to accept difficult challenges more readily and to persist longer. – Teresa Amabile, The Progress Principle
One of the members of our loyal audience mastermind was missing a daily appointment he made with himself. So, I gave him a ridiculous assignment.
- Make it a 5-minute appointment.
- Draw a stick figure every day.
This would help him take advantage of the research-backed productivity hack known as the progress principle. The Progress Principle is based on the research and work of Teresa Amabile.
Visible progress is one of our greatest sources of motivation. The progress principle creates a virtuous cycle of visible progress, motivation, and momentum.
The most famous example of the progress principle came from something Jerry Seinfeld told the comedian Brad Isaacs at the start of his career.
- Buy a wall calendar.
- Write jokes every day.
- Mark on “x” on the calendar for each day that you don’t miss.
- Eventually, there will be a chain. Don’t break the chain.
This became known as the “don’t break the chain” method. The point of the stick figure assignment was to create a sense of visible progress. However, there’s one caveat that most people overlook. If you measure your progress based on outcomes, you will feel as if you’re not making any.
5. Reduce the Competition for your Attention
Reducing the competition for your attention is a research-backed productivity hack from the work of Adam Gazzaley.
Limit Your Inputs to the Task at Hand
You should not consider anything that’s not relevant to the task at hand and goal irrelevant information. When you decrease the competition for your attention, you’ll get better at managing it.
Working in full-screen mode, using distraction blockers and having an uncluttered desk will reduce the competition for your attention.
Leave Your Phone Out of the Room or Turn it Off
We think our phones are essential to our survival, but they’re not. And phones are one of our biggest sources of distraction. Once I’m done writing, I put my phone in airplane mode and leave it out of the room.
Long stretches of time with our phone out of sight might be one of the best things we could possibly do for our productivity.
You might be tempted to implement all this advice at once. I encourage you to avoid that. The biggest reason that new behaviors don’t stick is that people make them unsustainable. Don’t underestimate the power of starting small.