Powering through an unproductive state isn’t the answer. There are some ruts you have to climb out of both metaphorically and physically.
Doing good work is not always about sitting and staring at that work, repeating the same efforts over and over again until something clicks. On the contrary, trying to force your brain to operate at maximum capacity when you’re tired, frustrated, bored or confused will waste your time and exhaust you further.
Most of us treat willpower like it’s a superpower that we can draw from at any time. In reality, it’s a resource that’s limited but renewable, like wind or solar energy. We begin the day with a limited supply of willpower that wanes as the hours pass, and we have to organize our days in a way that protects this valuable resource. Like Gary Keller and Jay Papasan advise in The ONE Thing:
“Don’t fight your willpower. Build your days around how it works and let it do its part to build your life. Willpower may not be on will-call, but when you use it first on what matters most, you can always count on it.”
Give Willpower a Boost
One of the best ways to boost willpower, and therefore productivity, is to move. Literally. A study published in Frontiers in Psychology found that physical exercise contributes to increased blood flow, improved cerebrovascular health, and functions that carry “food” to the brain. Other studies hail the benefits of Brain Breaks, which are short, low intensity activities like walking that can help remove mental blocks in far less time than it would take to power through them.
You can add physical activity to your routine in many ways:
The Harvard Business Review cites studies showing that employees who exercise regularly have improved concentration, faster recall, prolonged mental stamina, enhanced creativity, and lower stress than those who don’t.
While many of us may have trouble prioritizing time for exercise like team sports, weight-lifting, or running, the benefits it offers to our work should be extra motivation. If we exercise before work or take a break midday to do so, our endorphin-filled brains are less likely to hit a wall that we can’t climb. You can’t always go running when you’re on a deadline, but you can set yourself up for success by integrating exercise into your daily routine.
Despite the ease of keeping things digital, sometimes it pays to do things the old-fashioned way. A study involving students from Universidade Aberta in Portugal found that, while digital mediums made it easy to track and share information, students still benefited from paper and pens because they provided immediacy, the ability to personalize information, and flexibility for creativity.
If you’re having trouble moving forward on a project, switch to the physical version of whatever you’re doing. Write in a notebook. Brainstorm on a whiteboard. Work out math problems on paper. The physical act of writing something down can trick your brain into thinking you’ve already accomplished something and set you on a path to get more done.
Complete a Manual Task
If you’re following the tenets of The ONE Thing, the most important task you complete in a day (the one that makes everything else easier) should be done when your willpower is at its peak.
Your willpower is strongest in the morning when you’re well-rested. More often than not, that means attending to your ONE Thing as early as possible is a best practice. That said, the typical workday is at least eight hours long or longer. Sometimes, it’s challenging to be able to find that extra motivation to attend to everything else we need to in the day.
When you feel yourself getting tired or distracted, choose a manual task (again, your most impactful tasks of the day take priority) and set aside fifteen minutes or so to do it. Clean out your desk. Walk a couple of documents over to another department. Recycle files that are no longer necessary per your company’s record-keeping rules. Any number of quick, tangible activities can give your brain a break and help you sort out your thoughts through the immediate gratification of getting something — anything — done.
Your willpower is a valuable resource, not a superpower. It needs to be cared for accordingly. Consider becoming a part of The ONE Thing community to get support as you learn to manage your willpower and focus, or begin a 66 Day Challenge to build a movement habit!