The Art of Productivity

Productivity is rare. Those who do manage to accomplish impressive tasks appear to be superhuman! Do productive people hold some ancient secret? The secret to productivity isn’t locked in a vault or hidden in the mind of a monk, but it is shrouded by misinformation and hampered by human nature. 
Most people realize that food fuels our ability to do work. Our physical energy is a finite resource: there’s only so much of it. Likewise, the mental energy which powers our ability to focus and be creative will run out. Because there are many draws on our mental fuel, it is wise to be deliberate about maintaining enough brainpower for the pursuits we care about. 

Why You Need Mental Energy
When pursuing productivity, it can be confusing why sometimes we are able to be effective and other times we aren’t. It is hard to track because our motivation, focus and creativity are powered by an intangible force.
Have you ever wanted to work on a project, but instead you procrastinated and watched YouTube or even cleaned the house? Procrastination, even “productive procrastination”, is a sign that your mental energy is low. It’s like the gas light coming on when driving your car: you might not have enough power to get where you want to go.
Many people feel that if you “want” to do something, but don’t, then you don’t want it bad enough. That is partly true. It is important to make sure our actions reflect what we really value. But desire alone is not enough, we also need the ability to do those tasks. 
In the gym, you may want to bench press a specific amount of weight. But if you’re lying on the bench and can’t push up the bar, it’s not because you don’t want to. It’s because you don’t have the strength. Mental energy is like that: it provides the strength to start on projects or accomplish tasks. 
Mental energy not only motivates us to start but also provides focus to keep working. Often when I get tired, I’ll lose focus and have trouble tracking the words on a page or understanding what I am reading. When I am low on energy I have also noticed that I begin browsing the web more. Often I don’t even remember loading the web pages! It seems like some little wizard whisks me away to lands of distraction without me realizing it.  It’s not that I log on the web without any work or that I lose my ability to read. I simply don’t have the focus to stay on task. The ability to focus is a vital part of productivity and a huge draw on our mental reverse. 
Creativity is also fueled by mental energy. Many people think of creativity as only expressions of art: music, acting, painting and the like. But creativity has a role in every area of life. Every new way of thinking, every profound piece of writing and every ground-breaking invention is because of creativity.
Mental energy not only powers our motivation to begin tasks, but also our motivation to stay on task and our ability to create innovative approaches to life. It’s the fuel behind everything we want to achieve. 

What Drains Mental Energy
Everyone wants to achieve different things in life. But I think we are united in our desire to be focused, inspired and overall effective in our pursuits. Why do we never seem to have enough mental energy to be effective? 
Often, the reason we can't be as productive as we want to be is because our energy is being drawn by activities that aren’t productive, activities we often don’t even care about. 
If our focus is powered by our mental energy it makes sense that being focused would drain it. The human brain can multitask, but it can’t really “multi-focus”. Singular focus is taxing enough on the brain. Multi-focusing is too much to handle and reduces the proficiency. “Focus” is the ability to dedicate attention and effort to one pursuit. You can walk and chew gum because those are relatively passive actions. Neither one requires concentration for most people. That’s multitasking, not multi-focusing. 
I worked on an egg farm for a while where my job was to sort through 20,000 eggs every day to ensure quality.  I worked there long enough I could almost sort the eggs with my eyes closed. I could tell if an egg had a crack or even a pinprick hole in it just by the sound. My hands were so sensitive that I knew if there were any blemishes on the eggs without looking. It took a high degree of attention, but a low level of focus. Because of the low focus, I was often able to passively listen to audiobooks while I worked. But if I had the conveyor belt moving too fast, I would lose track of the audiobook because I needed to focus more on the eggs and less on listening. It is possible to do a few activities at the same time, but both receive less attention because your focus is divided. 
It took such a high degree of attention and physical speed for me to keep up that I could only run the belts at full speed for a few minutes at a time. I needed to make hundreds of evaluations and prioritizations every second to gauge which eggs were good enough to go in the trays and which ones needed to be cleaned or culled. That intense level of focus, even for a short time was very exhausting. I loved the work though because I could feel myself turn on “hyper-drive” and my attention focus on the eggs. The feeling of slipping into the zone, working at an almost-superhuman speed and blocking out all distractions was amazing.
Distractions are the biggest threat to focus. Allowing distractions is really like trying to multi-focus. It just reduces the quality of focus and drains mental energy twice as fast. 
Many recent studies have shown how checking social media (every few minutes for many people) has become a chronic distraction. Studies also show that whenever we disengage from our task at hand, it takes about 23 minutes to focus again. Twenty-three minutes to refocus after a simple check of email or texts! Many of us never go for more than 23 minutes without checking emails or texting. Many people have never really focused. 
Social media is a huge problem that has recently come under criticism. Many people have realized how harmful the constant distraction of notifications and texts can be. So why don’t we just stop checking? Well, we’re hindered by our very own brain. 
When we see a new message or notification, a little dose of dopamine is released into the bloodstream that makes us feel good. Dopamine can be very addictive. Because dopamine feels good and is addictive, resisting the urge to check notifications wears us down also.
Our mental energy is worn down by many activities. Being awake slowly wears us down. Making decisions and being focused wears us down rather quickly. Distractions wear us down, but so does resisting distractions. It seems like a no-win situation: everything wears us down.

How to Save Mental Energy
But there is hope to overcome this.
Imagine you are trying to roll a marble into a target on the other side of the room. There’s only one problem: the floor is very warped so the marble rolls all over the place. You roll the marble at the target, but it crashes into the wall. So you try aiming more carefully. It crashes into the wall again. In hope that extra velocity will keep the marble straight, you try flicking the marble really hard. The marble goes crashing into the wall again, only harder than before. 
Don’t waste energy sending your marble crashing into walls. Build a track for the marble to focus the effort and get the results you want. The marble will get where you want it to go because it can only travel along the track. You can use this idea of tracks to get the productivity you want. Be strategic with your mental energy so you don’t waste it on trivial matters. 
If you can make a few strategic choices when you have good mental energy, it can reduce harder choices when you are low on energy and prone to making unproductive choices. I made a choice a while ago not to get a phone. Now I don’t need to worry about checking media because I don’t have the same easy access. One choice eliminated the need to make millions of choices about avoiding distractions every day. 
Internet blockers are a great way to eliminate choices and distractions. It’s a win-win situation because it blocks distraction-inducing notifications but also prevents you from using your own strength to resist those distractions. There are several free versions, such as Cold Turkey, StayFocused and WasteNoTime that you can use.
You could also try setting a system for your schedule. I call this system a “premeditated schedule”. Make a few choices now about what you will spend time on to avoid being distracted by non-essential events later. It will also prevent you from using mental energy deciding about each event and opportunity that comes up.
Try using notebooks and lists to prevent multi-focusing and focus your attention on concrete plans. When you make a list, complete an item, and cross it off the list, you get a little boost of dopamine. You’re hijacking the dopamine cycle and forcing it to work for you! 
Many things drain our energy. But if you spend a little bit of effort to set systems in place, you can prevent unwanted energy drains from other areas of life. 

How to Recharge Mental Energy
Being aware of what you need mental energy for is important. At times it can be discouraging because you only have so much energy and it feels like everything in life drains it. Energy is finite, but not fixed. Many activities drain your mental energy, but some can also recharge it. 
If being awake drains your mental energy, what fills it? Sleep! That is why many people find they are most productive in the morning then they have a full tank of energy. 
Naps can be like a quick pit-stop to recharge also. Churchill was a famous napper who said people can't work well for 16 hours straight without rest. NASA says that a 21-minute nap is a perfect length for most people to feel rested and refreshed without waking up sluggish. I would agree that about 20 minutes is perfect. 
Being awake is mildly draining, but being focused is even more so. Taking a quick break from intense focus is also a form of rest.  It’s important to balance breaks so they don’t become distractions and to make the work time long enough so you can really focus.  I’ve found that a quick 5-minute break to grab a cup of water or do some stretches is very helpful after about 25 minutes of focused work.
Sometimes though, a quick power nap or 5-minute break isn’t enough. That would be like saying adding 1L of fuel to your car every 500km is sustainable. It’s not. 
I have found that if I have been mentally working, most physical activities will be a nice break. Even going for an intense workout can be a form of rest to prepare me for more mental work and focus. Any form of linear movement also helps me. Driving, running, hiking and walking all help me be able to let my mind wander and process ideas without focused work. 
I’ve noticed that I work best when I feel positive and prepared for the work. Numerous studies have shown how walking outside for 15 minutes can drastically improve your mood. I’ve begun walking every morning and have found that it gives me time to prepare for the day and improves my mood.

We need mental energy for everything from motivation to begin projects to creativity and focus. Our modern life is full of distractions that drain our ability to focus, without us even realizing it. To be productive, we need to savour and protect our mind at all costs. But we don’t naturally know how to use our mental energy. We like things that wear it down. We like distractions. To outsmart ourselves, we must set up systems to help guard our minds. We need to intentionally schedule activities to refill our reserve of energy. 
It’s not natural to be productive. It is not easy. I think Captain America would agree that being a superhuman is never easy. But it is worth the effort.


  1. I needed this reminder...I'll have to go evaluate some screen time and look for ways to change some things up.
    Great job writing this one!

    1. I am glad it was helpful. Thanks so much. :)
      "What gets evaluated gets improved"...

  2. Thank you so much for posting this, I really needed it right now.

    1. Thanks for reading. :) I'm glad you were able to get some ideas.


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