Putting the FUN Back in Productivity

It’s not a secret that it’s hard to get stuff done. Procrastination is practically a super power for me. I’ve tried so many methods and systems to keep myself on track over the years that I should probably start a review site. Sadly, the battle of my executive function being on constant vacation and the inability to get organized saps a lot of my ability to execute. It’s gotten to the point where I’ve finally realized that I need to start tricking my brain into getting things done.

Any reputable researcher will tell you that dealing with neurodivergent behaviors like ADHD is all about understanding the reasons why you do the things you do. I know what needs to be done. I just don’t want to do it. Worse yet, anything that I can do to avoid working on something is going to capture my attention because I’d rather be doing something unproductive as opposed to something I don’t like. This can manifest itself in strange ways like preferring to do the dishes instead of writing a blog post or mowing the yard instead of practicing a presentation.

Not DisFUNctional

It’s taken me a while but I’ve finally come up with a system that makes it easier to get me into a rhythm to get things done. And because you wouldn’t remember it unless I made it spell out some memorable word, we’re going to call it the FUN System. Because more than three points would likely have gotten lost anyway.

F – Fake It! – It’s going to sound silly but the first step in convincing yourself to do something is often to lie to yourself about how much better it will be when you get it done. Your brain has convinced itself that this is bad and you shouldn’t be doing it. So in order to get it done you’re going to have to convince it otherwise.

We do this all the time to others. Telling kids that veggies taste good. Telling our friends that they should do something for us so they feel better. Selling pretty much anything to anyone. It’s all about convincing someone skeptical to do something they don’t want to do. Your brain is no different. You need to convince yourself to get the thing done. Maybe you promise yourself a reward or some extra downtime or something that just gets you moving. You don’t even have to keep the promise. The key is to use it to overcome the objections your brain has already but up. Fake it however you need to in order to make something happen.

U -Understand It – This one is especially powerful for me. I love learning. Like a lot. Enough that I can often convince myself to get a bigger task accomplished more quickly by learning about it. Understanding the details or the process or figuring out how to make it all work. I binge watch documentaries on Youtube and enjoy reading up on random things to learn more about how they work or why they are the way they are.

This extends to things beyond emails and simple tasks for me. Cooking was something that was easier to accomplish and do more often when I learned how it all works together. Why 350 degrees is the magic baking temperature, for example. Or how different spices can create different styles of flavors. It’s all about learning the ins-and-outs of what you’re trying to do.

The key here is not to fall down the hole of learning more about what you’re trying to do than actually doing it. It’s very easy to get paralyzed by over learning and just sitting there going over the details again and again instead of putting them into practice. Using the above example you may have to tell yourself you can come back to the investigation after you’ve tried it once or twice. Ensure that you use the desire to learn as the driver for getting something accomplished before you procrastinate your day away.

N – Next On The List – The third way I tell myself to get things done is to move them down on the list behind an easy task. It’s a cruel trick that relies on momentum. I tell myself that I got the little easy thing done so I might as well tackle the bigger thing. And it works more often than you might think.

The brain only needs a little dopamine from a sense of accomplishment to keep going. It’s the idea that you’re being productive. So if you need to write something long then put it after a short response email. If you’re dreading a phone call then do it after you’ve tidied your desk or taken out the trash. Doing something small will help you get prepared for the big task and ensure that you can carry forward that little extra push to get through it. As a bonus, the sense of accomplishment from that extra big task will carry forward to a couple others! It’s a like a productivity feedback loop.


Tom’s Take

The usual disclaimers apply here. This is my method and it may not work for you. You have to learn how your brain works and find ways to keep it moving and working. There are other things that help create the sense of accomplishment, like routine or the enjoyment of results. But in the long run the key is finding a way to get your brain out of the funk of not wanting to do stuff. My FUN System helps me and maybe it will help you too. Try it out if you’re struggling and use it as a basis to make your own fun.

Attention Resource Deficit

How much did your last laptop cost? You probably know down to the penny. How much time did it take for you to put together your last Powerpoint deck or fix an issue for a customer? You can probably track that time in the hours you recorded on your timesheet. What about the last big meeting you had of the department? Can you figure out how many hours combined of time that it took to get the business discussed? Pretty easy to calculate when you know how many people and how long it took.

All of these examples are ways that we track resources in the workplace. We want to know how many dollars were invested in a particular tool. We want to figure out how many hours someone has worked on a project or a proposal. We want to know how much of the company’s resources are being invested so we can track it and understand productivity and such. But when’s the last time you tracked your personal resources? I’m not talking about work you do or money you spend. I’m talking about something more personal than that. Because one of the things that I’ve seen recently that is starting to cause issues is the lack of attention we pay to our attention resource.

Running in Overdrive

Our brains run a lot of processes in our body. And a lot of those processes work without attention. Bodily functions like breathing, digestion, and our endocrine system work without us paying attention. That’s because these systems need to work for us every time without stopping. That’s the power of automation.

But the rest of our processes need our attention. Our cognitive processes and higher-order functioning need us to pay attention. Yes, even those tasks that you say you can do without thinking. They require you to pay some sort of conscious attention to what’s going on. And that comes out of your attention budget.

Ever wonder why people are good at multitasking? It’s because they are capable to splitting their attention budget up and paying attention to a couple of different things at the same time. Just like a multitasking computer, human multitasking is just devoting a portion of your attention to a different task for a little bit while you work on something else. But have you ever seen what happens when a CPU gets overloaded with tasks? Sluggish, slow, and unusable.

The same thing happens to people when their attention is drawn in too many different directions. When we exhaust our attention budget we let tasks drop and we stop being able to do things effectively. We have a pool of resources we can use and when those run out we have to take resources from other places. That’s when tasks start getting dropped and such.

People don’t tend to see attention as a finite resource. They see it as a bottomless well that always has a little more available when it’s necessary. We create tools and ideas and systems to help us manage it better. But all those tools are really designed to add a bit more of our fracture attention back to the resource pool. In reality, we’re still shuffling resources back and forth and not really adding to the overall pool. It’s not unlike dealing with a CPU with a finite amount of resources. You can’t get more than this no matter what tricks you use. So you need to learn how to deal with things as they are.

Retreating From the Redline

Internal combustion engines work best when they’re running in their power band, which is the area where they are most effective. The effectiveness of the engine drops off as it approaches the redline, which is the maximum amount of performance you can get without causing damage to the engine. It’s the hard limit, if you will. To apply this to our current discussion, you need to run your brain’s attention span in the power band of focusing on the right tasks as you need to and avoid pushing past the redline of inattention and letting things drop. But how can you do that knowing you have to work from a finite pool of resources? Your brain isn’t a CPU or an RPM gauge on a car. There isn’t a magic meter that will tell you when you’ve exceeded your resource pool.

Step One is the reduce the number of distractions you have. That is way harder than it sounds. There are some easy things you can do that have been documented over the years:

  • Set your email to only update in time segments. Every 15 minutes or even every hour for non-critical stuff. The less time you spend attaching yourself to a constantly-updating mailbox the more productive you can be.
  • Sign out of unnecessary Slack channels. The more you have open, the more attention you’re going to pay to them. And the less attention you have for other things too.
  • Limit social media engagement. Ever find yourself sucked into Facebook or TikTok? That’s by design. The operators want you to stick there and not do anything else. If you have to monitor social media for your job, create rules and lists to keep you focused on task. And save the causal stuff for another day.
  • Use the Pomodoro Technique. I’ve written about it before, but this is a great way to force your brain into focusing for short bursts. Once you can train yourself to block out distractions you can get a lot accomplished.

The second way that I find that I can help refuel my attention pool is to use checklists or some other method of dumping my brain contents in a way that lets me focus. I can put down things that need to be done and check them off as they are completed. But I don’t just put major projects like “Boil the Ocean” or “Put a spaceship on Mars”. Instead, I break everything down into simple, achievable tasks. Why? Because crossing those off the list gives you back some of the attention you dedicated to them. It’s like the programming equivalent of garbage collection. By returning your attention resources back to the pool you have more available to tackle bigger and badder things on your list. And when you ever feel like you aren’t getting enough done you can go back and see all the things you’ve crossed off!


Tom’s Take

I have a double whammy of being unfocused on my best days and being too forgetful to write things down. So I understand the issues of attention resource problems. As much as anyone I really wish I could just wave a magic wand and be able to pay closer attention to what I’m doing. The tricks above are ways that I cope with what I have to deal with. In fact, the number of times I got distracted even just writing this post would probably shock most people reading this. But we work with what we have and we do what we can. The key is to recognize that your attention is a resource that is just as valuable as money or work time. Treat is as such and plan for use and you may find yourself feeling better and being happier and more productive in a number of ways.