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10 of the Most Controversial Productivity Tips That Actually Work

Apr 23, 2013 8 min readResources
controversial productivity tips

We’ve all heard what makes us more productive. To be more productive, get: Better sleep, better food, better work environment, etc. And I think these tips are amazing and a great focus to have. Heck, we even wrote about most of these and the science behind it here on the Buffer blog.

And yet, today, I thought of changing it up dramatically. It goes nicely with Tim Ferriss’ moto:

“To do the impossible, you need to ignore the popular.”

So with this article, I tried to really step aside from the popular and look for the counter-intuitive. Of course, it’s all backed by the latest and most reputable studies.

Let’s dig and find out some of the most controversial things you could do today to boost your creativity, happiness and productivity:

1.)  Give up

Often, if you are anything like myself, we are in an endless quest for “feeling productive” and for “getting motivated” to do great work. Shoma Morita, a famous Japanese psychiatrist influenced by Zen Buddhism that this might be the absolute wrong way to think about it.

Most of our biggest achievements get done, even without being motivated or inspired, so he describes:

“Is it accurate to assume that we must ‘overcome’ fear to jump off the high dive at the pool, or increase our confidence before we ask someone out for a date?” he asks. “If it was, most of us would still be waiting to do these things.

So, instead of trying to get motivated, embrace your fear, the negativity and dreading of doing the next task ahead. Tell yourself “Yes, I don’t feel great right now to work on this.”

Then, start doing it anyway, without trying to change your emotions.

2.)  Procrastinate (with structure)

For a long time, the productivity space has taught us to focus on your MIT (“Most Important Task”) when you start your day. And yet, seeing the MIT at the top of your list, makes you want to do anything, but that task.

The key is, to give in to the urge of not doing that task, writes Walter Chen. Instead, do some of those easier tasks on your list, that don’t feel that important and are easier to tackle:

“The mental trick is to regard other tasks as more important in order to make the Very Important Task an easier choice.”

In doing so, and moving the original MIT down the list, you are now able to complete it much more easily, as you don’t dread it anymore. In his famous essay on structured procrastination Stanford Professor John Perry writes this:

“With this sort of appropriate task structure, the procrastinator becomes a useful citizen” and “an effective human being.”

So go ahead, procrastinate, it’s ok!

3.)  Stop using the words “great job”  (especially with kids)

Here is something that I’m particularly prone to go wrong with. Too often, especially with kids, we are using the word “great job”, especially if very little effort was put in.

This, so Shelley Phillips writes, only erodes the meaning of the word and gives others little to no motivation.

“Instead try, “You really tried hard on that!” By focusing on a child’s effort, we’re teaching her that the effort is more important than the results.”

Personally, I find myself too often, even within the Buffer team to just say “great job”, when really I should either hold off, or think really hard about what I appreciated about something that’s been mentioned or accomplished.

4.)  Work less

Within the Buffer team, we have an informal rule, that goes something like this:

“Working more is never the answer.”

This is derived from Tony Schwartz’ book “The Power of Full Engagement”, where he proposes a solution to working, that completely changed my productivity. His key idea is simple: “Manage your energy, not your time.”

Harvard Business School professor Leslie Perlow also has some explanations:

“There are first order benefits to taking the time off, but I think the real business case is (that) in working together to make that time off possible, companies actually re-think how you work and how to be productive.”

So if you start working less, you will have to think really hard about what you will spend your time doing. Here is also more on managing energy, rather than time.

5.)  Stop saying “yes”

One of the best way to regain control of your day and time is to stop saying “Yes” so many times. It’s very obvious that saying “yes” is much easier than saying “no”. That’s why we need a good strategy to prevent it.

In one of the most interesting studies on learning to say “no”, the devil still lies in the detail. The most common ways of saying no are either “I can’t” or “I don’t”. In a recent study two groups were trained to use either one, when asked for how they feel about something. And here is the outcome:

“The students who told themselves “I can’t eat X” chose to eat the chocolate candy bar 61% of the time. Meanwhile, the students who told themselves “I don’t eat X” chose to eat the chocolate candy bars only 36% of the time. This simple change in terminology significantly improved the odds that each person would make a more healthy food choice.”

In order for a better way to say no, here are 2 of my favorite tips for doing so:

  • Decide a lot of things beforehand on whether you do them or not. Some examples are: “I don’t drink”, “I don’t check email in the morning”, “I don’t go to bed after 11pm”. This makes any potential temptations much easier to avoid.
  • Hold yourself accountable with these points. Write them down, share them with your family and friends or put them over your bed on a poster. Being held accountable has worked wonders for me.

In case you are interested, we have also written more on the science of saying no.

6.)  Get rejected

Here is something to finally stop being angry or disappointed about: Being rejected. Instead welcome it in and work on how you react to it. In a recent experiment at John Hopkins University, Sharon Kim tried to prove exactly that.

Here is what happened. 2 groups of people were each given a set of personality type questions. They were told, that they might (or might not) be considered for future exercises again. When both groups returned 2 weeks later, the first one was told to complete a few tasks before joining the next group (inclusion). The other group was being told to complete tasks, but wouldn’t join the next group again (rejection).

The tasks to complete were so called RAT tasks. You get a few unrelated words like “cottage | swiss | cake” and you need to combine each one with the same word to build a useful connection. For example: “cottage cheese”, “swiss cheese” and “cheese cake”. (Here is a fun website to do more of these).

The results, and I bet you can already guess them. The people being rejected from joining the group again consistently outperformed those that were included. And those, that were labeled as “independent” by the researchers outperformed everyone else even more in the tasks.

The conclusions from study author Kim:

“Social rejection can inspire imaginative thinking, particularly in individuals with a strong sense of their own independence”

99u also writes more about this and shows how deep the implications of this are. In an incredibly awesome other experiment titled “100 Days of Rejection”, a guy tries to get rejected 100 times every day and see what this does to him. Here is a list of all his experiments.

Ready to get rejected? It might just make you a lot more creative.

7.)  Use at least Facebook, Twitter and 3 other social networks

Are social networks blocked by your employer? That’s probably not a good thing for your productivity, according to a recent study by Evolv. They monitored hundreds of metrics from Fortune 500 companies and found an exciting correlation between usage of social networks and productivity/output per employee.

And here is what they found:

“Employees who belonged to more than five social networks had a 1.6 percent higher sales conversion than their counterparts and a 2.8 percent lower average call time.”

Of course, confusing causation and correlation is not something we want to do here. And yet, the study goes on to explain:

“Individuals who have a higher technical proficiency and are more productive also stay in their jobs longer.”

So the reason, is probably not because these employees use more social networks, but simply that they are more tech-savvy and have thought more about what drives them to be productive.

If it all holds true, at least we hope to make your life easier keeping up with multiple social networks through Buffer.

8.)  Spend time on email first thing in the morning

This one is indeed a highly controversial one. It seems that almost every article nowadays is about spending less time or eliminating email. Recently, Joel, CEO here at Buffer noticed something interesting. Almost all the top CEO’s in the world start their day with email.  Here is a list of a few who do:

  • Tim Cook (CEO at Apple)
  • David Cush (CEO at Virgin America)
  • Robert Iger (CEO at Disney)

That is interesting and after discussing this more with Joel, this was his intuition:

“my thinking is that the better I communicate with the team the more we get done and improve productivity of whole team”

Depending on the position you hold in a company, email might be more or less of a focus for you. Excluding it, based on 99% of advice on avoiding email might not be so good though.

9.)  Stop visualizing or telling anyone your goals

If you are anything like me, tons of people have told you something like “Write down your goal, put it up on the wall or the mirror, so you can see and be reminded of it every day!”. Sounds like a great idea in theory right? Because we see it every day, or because we hold ourselves accountable through telling others, we are likely to achieve it and keep working on it.

Not so true, according to Heather Kappes and Gabriele Oettingen at NYU:

“Positive fantasies of success drains the energy out of ambition.”

That good feeling about defining the goal and mentioning it to someone or writing it down makes you less likely to achieve. Partly because you are (accidentally!) playing a trick on yourself and telling it that you’ve already achieved it, so you don’t have to work so hard anymore.

Instead, keep your goals to yourself and in your head. There is also a great Ted Talk by Derek Sivers on this.

10.) Do an impossible task

Here is the last tip for you, that I’ve found to work extremely well. Give yourself, or your employees and team members an absolutely impossible task to achieve. Whenever you notice that you’ve started to work on something and realise “I will fail with this”, keep on working.

The reason, according to Robert Epstein, is that you put your brain under shock. It is like going to the gym and lifting an incredibly heavy weight, where you quickly fail after a few reps.

By overwhelming your brain like this, similar to a muscle, it expands and gets activated. Any other “normal” task thereafter appears incredibly easy and allows you to push much further than before. Doing an impossible task is an amazing way to increase your brain’s capacity.

These are my best, controversial productivity tips to help you become a better self. Have you tried any of these before? I’d love your thoughts and additions here.

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