How to Perform 20% Better By Doing Less Work

"We do not learn from experience ... we learn from reflecting on experience." —John Dewey

The power of self-reflection is simple but mighty. It’s how you recognize and celebrate progress, gain nourishing motivation, and detach from the workday. Successful people like David Heinemeier Hansson and Marc Andreessen use this tactic to keep their momentum going while managing the pressure of always having more work to do.

But like most activities that aren’t yet a daily habit, even taking out five to fifteen minutes a day just to think and write about your day feels like a drag. That’s because a deliberate practice of reflection, like regular exercise, isn’t always easy or fun. It requires energy, discipline, and some time. Philosopher and psychologist John Dewey explained in his 1910 book, How We Think, why the beneficial act of reflection can feel like, well, such a chore:

Reflective thinking is always more or less troublesome because it involves overcoming the inertia that inclines one to accept suggestions at their face value; it involves willingness to endure a condition of mental unrest and disturbance.

So self-reflection can be tough, but it produces more value than whatever you would’ve spent those minutes on anyway. When you’re constantly chasing that feeling of being productive by conquering more items on your to-do list or cranking out those extra emails, you’d be better off stopping your work to think a little.

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Don’t Let Your Huge Goal Distract You from Small Wins

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Go big or go home. Shoot for the stars. Aim high. These types of platitudes could be holding you back, because they’re distracting you from all the small things.

A kind word or a moment of honest listening can be enough fuel to keep you going. Doing one push-up a day, writing one line a day seems laughably easy and ridiculously unambitious — but that’s how you build a practice.

We think small actions leads to small consequences, and grand motions have the most impact. But that’s just not true. We presume this “consequence-cause matching,” because it helps the world seem more predictable and manageable — but in return for believing this myth, we’re less happy and successful.

Small things might seem silly, but they can have exactly some of the outsize impact we need to reach our big dreams.

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How 3 Entrepreneurs End Their Day Even When They Have More Work To Do

For the most productive people, the work is never done. The problem is that when there’s always more work to do, how can you possibly end your day and go home without feeling stressed out and guilty?

You might think that this is just a personal problem, but it turns out that this is a struggle that even the most successful entrepreneurs have had to grapple with.

Here is the system that three highly effective and seasoned tech executives use to manage their own psychology. It’s not sexy, but it’s incredibly powerful, and it’s a simple process you can start today — tracking and reflecting on your day’s accomplishments.

David Heinemeier Hansson (37signals) quote on daily reflection

“One pattern to help yourself fight the mad dash for the mirage of being done is to think of a good day’s work. Look at the progress of the day towards the end and ask yourself: ‘Have I done a good day’s work?’”

David Heinemeier Hansson, 37signals

Taking time for daily reflection on the question “Have I done a good day’s work” is “liberating” because if the answer is yes, “you can leave your desk feeling like you accomplished something important, if not entirely ‘done.’”

If the answer is no, you’re empowered to delve more deeply into why that happened and how you can fix it.

For the people who think they’re too busy to take time out for what sounds like just another task, here’s the twist — “it feels good to be productive,” and feeling productive requires that you take time out to recognize your accomplishments.

When you do, you’ll get on a roll and you’ll want to keep the momentum going. “And if you can keep the roll, everything else will probably take care of itself.”

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How to Trick Yourself into Making Real Progress

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Progress motivates like no other method.

Thanks to rigorous research by Harvard Business School professor Teresa Amabile and psychologist Steven Kramer, authors of the aptly titled The Progress Principle, we know that it’s not money, fame, or fear that drives us to do our best work. Instead, it’s making progress on meaningful work that’s key for staying motivated, productive, and creative.

Even small steps count. Events and experiences that seem trivial or take mere minutes help to build that sense of progress, whether it’s having a constructive chat with a coworker about how your project’s going, a particularly positive customer interaction, or fixing a paragraph in your report.

Progress is so alluring that even the illusion of forward steps increases your drive — which means you might not be taking full advantage of how progress motivates to kick-start your productivity.

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Build Brick by Brick

John Heywood was an English playwright who lived hundreds of years ago.

Today, Heywood is known for his poems, proverbs, and plays. But more than any one work, it’s his phrases that have made him famous. For example, here are some popular sayings that have been attributed to Heywood:

“Out of sight out of mind.”
“Better late than never.”
“The more the merrier.”
“Many hands make light work.”

There is one phrase from Heywood that is particularly interesting when it comes to building better habits:

“Rome was not built in one day.”

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Stop Life from Passing You By: the Weird Science of How to Slow Down Time

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One unnerving aspect of getting older is how life seems to start speeding up. Feeling that whoosh as time rushes past you can be disheartening as you wonder where the days, or months, or even years go.

Yet we’re not doomed to march to time’s relentless beat. Your sense of time is weird and pliable — stretching, compressing, coming to a standstill. And you can mold it, to some extent, to move to your own beat. You can slow down time.

When you encounter the familiar, time seems to constrict and when you acquire new knowledge, it expands. Neuroscientist David Eagleman explains:

Time is this rubbery thing…. It stretches out when you really turn your brain resources on, and when you say, “Oh, I got this, everything is as expected,” it shrinks up.

That relationship between time’s elasticity and whether your brain is processing new information gets at why time seems to turn up the tempo as we age. As the world starts to become more familiar, we learn less and sometimes even seek information and experiences that fit within what we already know. There’s less adventure, play, exploration, creativity, and wonder to invite and engage with newness.

The way you spend your time influences how you perceive it. So the choices you make about what to do now impacts how you’ll manage your time later. Here are two ways to make your days richer and more memorable so that your sense of time expands and life doesn’t pass you by.

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The Lasting Power of Slow Gains

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You’ll never walk into the gym and hear someone say, “You should do something easy today.” But after ten years of training, I think embracing slow and easy gains is one of the most important lessons I’ve learned.

In fact, this lesson applies to most things in life. It comes down to the difference between progress and achievement.

Let me explain:

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Treat Yourself Like a Role Model

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In December I completed my first 200-hour yoga instructor certification. With New Year’s resolutions in full gear and Q1 initiatives in motion, I’m often reminded of an idea I explored during my certification and has guided me since, in both my personal life and in all of my work at Zirtual.

The idea is simple yet stunningly important: You are exactly where you’re supposed to be.

Our society has an intense quest for productivity and endless improvement. We look at our past with a dissecting eye and zoom in on what we didn’t accomplish. We set goals and record what we did, day in and day out.

But how do we use this data? Is it to celebrate each accomplishment? Hardly! We usually use what we have done to highlight what we haven’t, and everything starts to center around what’s next. “Tomorrow I’ll get through this,” we say. Or “next quarter I’m finally going to tackle that.”

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Understanding How to Function at Your Best: Defining Positive Psychology

Here at iDoneThis, we often talk about how principles of positive psychology can be used to improve our well-being and happiness at work. We wanted to go back to basics and get an expert to explain what positive psychology is and how it can help you live your life better. So we spoke with Dr. Stephen Schueller about defining positive psychology and what progress and timing have to do with living a good life.

Dr. Stephen Schueller on positive psychologyDr. Schueller is a professor at Northwestern University’s Feinberg School of Medicine and member of the Center for Behavioral Intervention Technologies, where he works on developing internet and mobile interventions in behavioral and mental health service delivery. (This is the first installment of our interview. Head here for the second, 5 Reasons You Don’t Do What Really Makes You Happy).

Here’s our interview with Dr.Schueller on positive psychology and how it can improve our lives.

Initially I think I misunderstood positive psychology as being all about positive thinking and positive emotions — and that’s really not what it’s about.

That’s definitely true. One of the things I really try to differentiate positive psychology from is this positive thinking movement, things like reading The Secret — where you think it, you’ll get it, or think positively and your life will be better. That’s not what positive psychology is about at all.

Lots of research shows that experiencing positive emotions is very beneficial, but that’s not really the point in positive psychology. Positive psychology is a movement focusing on trying to understand what optimal functioning means.

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