As it turns out, achieving work productivity at home is far from a given, particularly for modern distracted brains unaccustomed to the rigors of self-regulation.
The Problem with Instant Gratification
For example, in order to engage in deep reading and solitary concentration, as Nicholas Carr describes in The Shallows, we not only have to want to do it, but our brain has to know how. Herein lies both the problem and solution. Thanks to neuroscience, we are beginning to understand that when our brain is triggered to expect pleasure or reward, dopamine is released. When we engage in that pleasurable activity (i.e. for me, eating moist banana bread over the sink), the flood of dopamine acts to reinforce the craving for more of the same. And thus the cycle of motivation, reward, and reinforcement is created.
Today, the amount and accessibility of information and communication provide fertile ground for instant gratification—creating a constant “feel good” (or now, “feel bad”) distracted state our brains have grown accustomed to. It’s no wonder we can’t read more than three pages in a book without impulsively texting or Googling something. Add in the barrage of recent dystopian news—and our focus is toast.
Rewire Your Brain
But hope is not lost. In fact, far from it. As Carr explains, contrary to the debunked views that the brain is ‘hardwired’ and ‘fixed,’ scientists now know that the brain is moldable—or plastic—and that neurons rewire when exposed to repeated stimuli. In other words, we can intentionally train our brain to create new neural pathways in response to new experiences. And the more we do something, the more we’ll be able to do it—cells that fire together wire together.
In my day job, we are frequently called upon to teach our students self-regulation skills to improve their learning. Below are some of our top “brain training” techniques.
- Stay Calm. I am moving this one to the top of the list. Staying calm is not easy, especially when there is chaos all around you. The body and mind are integrally connected - panic affects you not only physically, but also mentally and emotionally. Obsessive news checking and panic buying will only create added anxiety. Start your morning with a doable mindfulness practice taught by my teacher: take a few deep breaths, acknowledge how you are feeling, connect with that emotion without judgment, and extend compassion to yourself and others during this time of collective uncertainty.
- Identify Your Top Priority. We often delay the things we want to do the least. Move that to the top of your list. What if everything feels critical? Create intentional categories for work and home instead of generic to-do lists: must do, should do, could do, and won’t do (because it’s not worth it). Each day, complete at least one thing from the must-do and should-do lists.
- Time Blocking. Time blocking is a strategy where you break up the day into clear (and ideally, small and realistic) blocks of time. Then you fit your tasks into those blocks. Include blocks for checking email, texting, and surfing the web - go to town when the time comes but don’t do it otherwise. Calendar these blocks if it helps you stay accountable.
- Single-Tasking is In. I once read a funny quote: “I’m multi-tasking. I can listen, ignore and forget at the same time.” Juggling divides our attention and actually makes us less productive by increasing the time refocusing on tasks. Giving our attention to the task at hand enables us to go deeper, leading to better quality and a sense of accomplishment.
- HIIT Training for the Brain. I love high-intensity interval training because of its effectiveness: it drives physical results by using short bursts of focused energy followed by quick resting periods. We can apply the same principles to getting things done. Here’s how to do it. Choose a task. Set a timer for, say, 25 minutes. Work on the task until the timer rings. Place a check on a post-it for completing a round. Take a short 5-10 minute break. After 4 rounds, take a longer break. If you prefer an app, I like Be Focused. This “Pomodoro” technique is a great way to power through distractions when you have a must-do task.
- Spend Time with Mother Nature. A growing body of research points to the beneficial effects that exposure to nature has on mental health, stress reduction, and healing. If you don’t have time for Tahoe, even taking a few deep breaths from a park bench while gazing at greenery can give you a mental boost and elicit a feeling of gratitude that will keep you going.
- Know When to Stop. Parkinson’s Law states that work expands to fill the available time. If we give a task a week to complete, it will take a week. Thus, create ambitious yet achievable timelines. Additionally, when we lack physical boundaries between work and home, it’s important to create time boundaries. Creating a firm stopping time will ensure that your work doesn’t bleed into all aspects of your life and that you’re actually working when you’re supposed to.
- Stay Accountable. Don’t go at it alone. Studies show that you have a higher chance of completing a goal if you commit to someone. Entice your co-workers to a productivity challenge (i.e. how many HIIT “rounds” can you do in a day?).
Special thanks to my life-changing mindfulness teacher, Su-Wen Yang, my favorite productivity coach Alexis Haselberger who actually models her own advice and my colleague Professor Mark Yates for encouraging me to read The Shallows.