As someone who writes about productivity and success, I come across a lot of life hacks, many of them sensible and research-backed. Meditate, spend time in nature, experience awe, have a hobby, keep a journal ... the list goes on and on. In fact, it goes on so long that anyone who follows this genre of advice quickly senses a problem.
If you tried to do all of these things, not only would your schedule explode but so would your brain.
Even the most go-getting among us only have so much free time and mental real estate. Which is why I am always on the lookout for advice so simple and compact you can squeeze it in between hungry toddlers, demanding clients, and the fifth Zoom of the day.
A recent HBR post by The Happiness Equation author Neil Pasricha delivers just such a nugget of self-improvement gold. The post tells the story of how Pasricha clawed his way out of depressed workaholism, but the actionable takeaway from this tale is a simple addition to your daily routine. Both Pasricha and science attest it can improve both your mental health and your productivity in mere minutes a day. It boils down to completing just three sentences.
1. "I will focus on ... "
Pasricha started writing down a single priority for each day at a time when he felt overwhelmed by his to-do list. Not only did the exercise give him clarity about his priorities, he found it also shrunk huge, overwhelming projects down to doable next-steps.
"The practice began providing ballast to my days, because it blew away the endless fog of 'What should I do next?' and helped break giant projects down into simple tasks," he reports. "A looming book deadline became 'Write 500 words,' an all-hands meeting about a major redesign became 'Send invite to three execs for feedback,' and my nonexistent exercise regime became 'Go for a 10-minute walk at lunch.'"
He's not the first to have discovered that breaking large to-do list items into bite-size pieces is a surprisingly simple cure for anxiety-induced procrastination. A parade of productivity experts advise cutting terrifying to-do's like "Plan conference" into non-threatening action steps like "Call three venues." That relieves you of the paralysis of imagining the long path to your final goal and reminds you that today you just need to put one foot in front of the other.
2. "I am grateful for ... "
At least in theory, radically simplifying your to-do list should calm your anxiety. But it turns out the human brain is exquisitely tuned by millions of years of evolution to threats. Worrying kept us alive when we were potential lion dinner, but the legacy of that vigilance is a hair-trigger sensitivity to anything negative (even imagined negativity).
Science is very clear on the antidote to this tendency -- gratitude. Just like going to the gym builds your muscles, nudging yourself to notice the positive trains your brain to get better at optimism and serenity. And no sweat is required for this mental health workout. You just have to complete this sentence every day.
"The key is that they really need to be specific. Writing down things like 'my apartment, my mom, and my job' over and over doesn't do anything. I had to write down things like, 'the way the sunset looks over the hostel across the street' or 'when my mom dropped off leftover mattar paneer,'" Pasricha advises.
3. "I will let go of ... "
Breaking down your to-do list is one proven way to beat anxiety and procrastination. Being nice to yourself is another. Counterintuitively, studies find that the more we forgive ourselves our lapses and failings, the more likely we are to move forward with positive action. Science also shows that being open about your flaws doesn't just make you happier and more productive. It can also make you a stronger, more creative, and even a more competent-seeming leader.
So stop beating yourself for inevitable human mistakes and instead follow Pasricha in forgiving yourself one minor screwup every day. Beating yourself up is a waste of time, and self-kindness is the foundation of kindness to others.
Completing these three sentences should take you two minutes, tops, each day. For that tiny investment in time you can reap a healthy harvest of improved mental well-being and performance. I challenge you to find a daily habit that delivers more self-improvement bang for your buck than Pasricha's.