We all wish we could get more work done in less time. If we were more productive, we'd have a better chance at getting that raise, we'd have more personal time to do what we wanted, and we'd get closer to our goals much faster. Unfortunately, you can't bully yourself into working harder. There's no switch you can flip to suddenly make yourself a task-executing, process-churning machine.
There are, however, a number of different psychological tricks and games you can use to create an environment that naturally encourages you to do your best. These are seven of the best:
1. Create Mini-Tasks. First, take large tasks and break them up into much smaller tasks. On the surface, this won't make much of a difference; you'll still be doing the same amount of work either way. But the mini-task structure will make it easier for you to work harder and more consistently to get that work done. Creating smaller tasks will compartmentalize your thinking, giving you perspective into the scope of the master problem and allowing you to strategize before jumping in. Then, executing those small tasks one by one will dramatically increase your motivation in continuing. The end result is that you'll be able to work more efficiently, and you'll be more motivated to keep working hard once you get going.
2. Start With Something Easy. Getting the ball rolling is one of the hardest parts of working productively, as any chronic Monday-hater will tell you. How you approach the morning will determine your flow for much of the rest of the day. For example, you could get sucked into a spiral of email responses and phone calls, never to touch a task, or you could get lost reading a hundred articles you saw on Twitter. Instead, knock out something easy as soon as you get to work. Because it's easy, you won't be intimidated to start it. Because you can do it quickly, you'll feel good and you'll be motivated to take on the next task in front of you. It's a shortcut to building momentum.
3. Tackle Challenging Tasks Early. Once you've got that first easy task under your belt, consider moving on to something much more challenging. In fact, take a look at your task list for the day and select your most challenging problem. Work on that as soon as you've warmed up with an easy piece. If you can complete this challenging task, everything else you have to do throughout the day will seem easier by comparison, and you'll be more likely to work through the lesser problems you'll inevitably face. If you're struggling with the big task, work back to my first piece of advice and break it up into smaller sections.
4. Create a Consistent Routine or Process. As humans, we are creatures of consistency. Some of us crave surprises, adventures, and new thrills, but when it comes to work, being grounded in some level of consistency is necessary in order to work consistently. Create a routine that you can predictably and comfortably follow for executing your work on a daily basis. And if you hate routines, at least create a few recurring processes for handling certain tasks in your wheelhouse. For example, if you always organize your email inbox by 9:30 and always work on a challenging problem between 9:30 and 10:30, you'll eventually master those sections of your day, and you'll end up getting more done faster.
5. Use a Reward System. Just like animals, humans can be trained through the use of rewards--even if you're rewarding yourself. Use big rewards to motivate yourself--for example, you could buy yourself something new and fancy if you meet your professional goals for the month--but don't hesitate to use smaller rewards throughout the day. For example, if you complete three tasks before 10, you can reward yourself with a cup of coffee. These micro rewards will contextualize your work, give you excuses to take breaks and decompress your mind, and encourage you to work harder to achieve those rewards.
6. Be Social. We're social by nature. While some conversations might seem counterproductive, staying social in the workplace can keep your brain active, make you feel more satisfied, and help you tackle more challenging problems. Socializing with others exposes you to different perspectives and new ideas, and will help you see your work in a better light while relieving some of the stresses that can hold you back.
7. Isolate Your Focus. This trick is perfect for people who find themselves chronically distracted. Isolate your focus by removing anything that competes for your attention. If you keep checking your emails, close your email client. If you keep checking Facebook, close your browser. If you keep looking at the paperwork piling up on your desk, put it under your desk. When you're really trying to execute work, remove any possible distraction that could pull you away from that work.
Not all of these tricks will work for everyone because every worker is unique, with unique preferences, and unique strengths and weaknesses. In order to figure out which strategies work best for you, you'll simply have to experiment. Practice using the strategies you find to increase your productivity, and forget about the ones that don't. Never stop trying to improve your own capacity to perform well; the more time you spend refining your approach to working, the more time you'll save in the long run.