Over 100 years ago, researchers discovered Optimal Anxiety Theory when studying mice performance. It turns out that neither being relaxed, nor being under a lot of pressure, maximize productivity. Instead, it's when we have just enough pressure on us that it is exciting-- but not so much that we crumble under the stress--that things are new and attainable, yet neither boring nor impossible.
Many people are inspired by big audacious goals. Although these are important and exciting, a person must believe both that they can achieve it and understand that it will be difficult in the process. But when we are facing a global pandemic, intense new anxieties, and social pressures-- not to mention an economic downturn-- how do we create a condition of optimal anxiety?
The answer might be in something as simple as how you wrote papers in high school. If you were anything like me, you would keep putting it off until the night or two before, pull an all nighter and get it done. (As you can imagine, those weren't the most eloquently written essays.)
But the reason that you would get them done is because we were accountable to somebody-- specifically our teachers-- and they had enough authority over us that it created a condition of productivity.
So how do we recreate these conditions so that we finally start that new project and are excited about our work, and we stop binge watching Tiger King? What follows are three key steps to being more productive, that you can instill on your own, without the help of spending money on a productivity coach or consultant.
Find somebody you can be accountable to
This person must be someone that won't fall for your tricks and doesn't care about your excuses. The problem with picking a good friend for this is that they are typically your friend because they agree with you. There is an unwritten agreement that they don't call us out if we don't call them out. Which is why whoever you are accountable to, must be somebody who is no-nonsense.
If being accountable to someone specific doesn't work, try leveraging the flywheel effect when setting goals and assignments for yourself. Continually setting a goal that you know you will miss will only create a consistent self-fulfilling failure loop. Instead, start with a small task like making your bed to build up confidence.
Each time you complete something, tackle a slightly larger task, building up speed like a flywheel. With each win you will become more confident and more likely to complete the next task. This is also known as "Winner Effect," as athletes are more likely to win when coming off of a recent win.
Consider a Ulysses Pact
If you need something more drastic, learn from Ulysses of Greek mythology. Understanding that the captivating songs of the Sirens would pull him to his death in the sea, but still wanting to hear the song, he had his crew fill their ears with wax and tie him to the ship's mast. In this way he would not be drawn in and his crew would manage the ship safely. A Ulysses pact is an agreement you make ahead of time that "traps" you somehow and ensures you fulfil on your promise.
The key about a Ulysses Pact is that you make it when you are at your strongest: early in the morning when you are most optimistic. You can use software that restricts phone or website access, so you can't watch netflix. You can have time locks that hold your video game controllers, or even a faraday cage so your phone won't get a signal. Some people have gone as far as having money donated to the opposing political party if they don't fulfill their work.
As important as it is to set goals, it is essential for us to be accountable for those goals. The fact is that none of us are as productive as we want to be. Hopefully understanding these behavioral quirks and techniques will give you some momentum for your productivity, and accountability for what you do.
But be honest with yourself, if these don't work for you, you might be best off hiring a company, consultant or coach to make sure you get things done as they will probably pay for themselves. After all, hiring someone to help you is way less expensive than the emotional burden of knowing you didn't get things done.