How to Improve Your Meaningful Productivity Apply the principles of Japanese psychology to help you do what’s important. - Seth J. Gillihan

When it comes to doing the things that matter to you, two things can get in the way. One is procrastination—you know what you need to do, and yet you struggle to do it. Research has found that we procrastinate either because we dread the task or because we’re not sure how to do it. Either way, we put it off until a later time.

The other obstacle to meaningful productivity is a subtle and more pernicious variant of procrastination. Instead of obviously putting off a task, you busy yourself with activities that you feel more comfortable doing—what I call "virtuous avoidance":

  • You need to write that article, but instead you return emails.
  • Rather than working on your book, you update your budget.

And while others see you as a model of productivity and efficiency, you know you’re not doing what’s most important.

If you’d like to do more of the things that matter most to you, here are three steps that can help to move you in that direction. They come from my discussion with Gregg Krech, an expert in Japanese psychology and author of The Art of Taking Action: Lessons from Japanese Psychology who has helped thousands of individuals build the lives they want through his writings and workshops.

1. The Rule of Three

Many of us are better at meeting our “most pressing deadlines” than at doing what’s “fundamentally important,” writes Dr. Alice Boyes in the Harvard Business Review. Accordingly, you end up prioritizing things like reaching Inbox Zero over less urgent but more valuable activities like investing in your training for work.

The solution is to focus your efforts before you actually start to work, using the Rule of Three. “Identify the three most important things that you need to do,” said Krech, “before you actually get into doing anything at the beginning of the day.” It’s crucial to do this practice first thing in the day, before getting sucked into activities that may or may not be top priorities.

Keep in mind that the most important things are often not the easiest. They also might not be urgent. “Sometimes those things will have deadlines, and sometimes they won’t,” said Krech. Putting together your book proposal, for example, may well have no deadline. If you rely on a sense of urgency to do the things that are important to you, you’ll probably never end up getting to them.

“Build your schedule for the day around those three things,” advised Krech. “By the end of the day, if you’ve gotten nothing else done but those three things, then you’ve succeeded—because you’ve done the most important things.” This approach can free you from the feeling of being on a treadmill, constantly in motion but not really getting anywhere.

Action Step: Take a minute now to set your three priorities for today. What is most important for you to accomplish so that you’ll know you’ve spent your time well?

Planning important activities is a crucial step. But how do we find the discipline to avoid sliding back into activities that are easy and enjoyable—especially when the three things we list are difficult or we're not sure how to get started? Where do we find the discipline to do what needs to be done?

2. Ask What Needs to Be Done

The second step is to focus our attention on just that, by asking ourselves, What need to be done? This seems like an obvious question, and yet if you listen carefully, it’s likely not the one that’s driving your actions. Much of the time we’re asking ourselves instead, What do I feel like doing?

Krech gives the example of sitting down to write something and staring at a blank page, which can trigger emotional discomfort even among professional writers. If you let that emotion guide your actions, you’ll probably do something like check your email or visit a news website—anything to feel more comfortable. As a result, your productivity will drop.

Asking what needs to be done, in contrast, centers your efforts on what’s important, and on the priorities you set with the Rule of Three. “By sticking to these three things,” said Krech, “we avoid working from a feeling state and gravitating to the things we feel like doing while we avoid the things we don’t feel like doing.”

This approach offers a fundamental shift in what we’re aiming to accomplish. “The outcome we’re hoping for is not a change in our feeling state,” said Krech, “but the accomplishment of an important purpose in our life.” Thankfully we can accomplish our purpose even when we’re still feeling uncomfortable emotions like anxiety or depression.

As a result, we no longer have to change how we feel in order to do what matters to us. “The real goal is to coexist with that feeling state, and still do what you want to do,” said Krech. “You can move from a feeling-centered approach to life to a purpose-centered approach."

Action Step: Write down the question that you want to guide your actions today—for example, “What needs to be done?” or, “What’s really important for me to do?” Place it somewhere visible while you work.

3. Focus Your Attention Outward

Shifting our attention away from our internal feeling states is easier said than done. We’re used to taking stock of how we’re doing—taking our emotional temperature—and are even encouraged to do so as part of self-care. “Most of us are very good at self-focused attention,” said Krech, “as a habit that we’ve developed over our life.”

While it can be useful to know how we’re doing, a focus on ourselves has obvious downsides. It gets boring, for one thing. It can also get in the way of your goals, especially when an obsessive self-focus leads you to prioritize feelings over doing what’s important to you. Most of us wouldn’t feel satisfied to look back on a life that was dominated by managing our emotions, at the expense of other experiences.

The antidote to habitual self-focused attention, according to Krech, is as simple as learning to “shift attention away from ourselves and onto the world around us.” This shift can bring welcome surprises, including “getting engaged with the miraculousness around us,” said Krech. “Immersing ourselves in the present moment and what’s actually going on is a rich experience.”

And not uncommonly, focusing attention outward leads to pleasant emotions like joy and serenity. Of course, if we make those emotions the goal, then we’re back to the old habit of letting our emotions rule our actions. But we can allow these experiences to emerge as “byproducts” of an outward and present focus.

Action Step: Practice directing your attention outward by tuning in to subtle sounds you’re usually not aware of—for example, your shoes as you slip them on, an orange as you peel it, or the wind chimes in your neighborhood. (Adapted from The CBT Deck.)

Seth J. Gillihan, Ph.D., is a clinical assistant professor of psychology in the Psychiatry Department at the University of Pennsylvania.

In Print: The CBT Deck: 101 Practices to Improve Thoughts, Be in the Moment & Take Action in Your LifeOnline: Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, LLC, Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn

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