If you’re looking to get through more tasks per day, there is no shortage of schemes, systems, and tools out there to help you. From to-do list apps to productivity hacks, there are a million gurus selling a million ways to get more done.
But what if the problem isn’t how you arrange and track your tasks but how you think about them?
What if you could rip your reluctance to complete some essential item out at the root and make it an actually exciting task you were genuinely keen to do? Isn’t enthusiasm the greatest productivity hack of them all?
The Mary Poppins Solution
That’s the promise of a recent post by veteran hedge fund manager Brooke Allen on Quartz. "I’m terrible at doing what people tell me I should do," he confesses to kick off the post, but adds, "I still get things done." How? It’s not about how he processes the tasks; it’s about how he conceptualizes them.
He gives the example of a high school calculus class with incredibly boring homework. He was acing the tests but about to fail the class anyway, as he couldn’t bring himself to do the required practice problems at home. "So I decided that if I was going to do only one homework, I would make it suitable for hanging in a gallery. I spent a big chunk of my savings to buy a mathematical font attachment for my parents’ IBM Selectric, and I typeset my answers. In my dad’s sculpture studio, I was able to use fixative to emboss my answer sheet and mount it on a wooden backing that I carved by hand," he reports.
His calculus teacher was certainly satisfied, but the experience also taught Allen a lesson. "To this day, before doing something I don’t want to do, I try to transform it into something I’m eager to do," he writes, citing no less than Mary Poppins as an authority in support of this plan. She said: "In every job that must be done, there is an element of fun. You find the fun, and--SNAP--the job’s a game!"
Fun in EVERY Job?
Oh, come on, you might be thinking; I’d love to find a way to make every single task exciting, but some of us don’t have that privilege.
Some tasks are just pure drudgery, and no amount of creative reframing is going to make them more interesting. That may be true, but according to Allen, you should take a long, hard look at exactly how many such tasks you have on your plate. If nothing is going make a task less soul sucking, you should seriously consider changing your circumstances to avoid it entirely.
"If someone is paying you to do hard boring useless things, then you need to have a conversation with your boss," he writes. "If you are a student going into debt to have people give you hard boring useless assignments then perhaps you’d be better off dropping out."
This tough-love approach probably won’t always work in the real world, where most of us don’t have the luxury to pick and choose only the exact the tasks that engage us, but Allen’s point is worth pondering in a less extreme form nonetheless. The real reason many of us don’t get through as much work as we’d like is, if we’re honest with ourselves, we don’t enjoy the work. No amount of to-do-list wizardry is going to make much of a dent in your productivity if that’s the case. So perhaps instead of waiting for the productivity fairy to come, it’s worth trying to take a page out of Allen’s book and either reconceive or dump some of these dreaded tasks.