The Richard Nicholls Podcast

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Episode 167: How To Get More Done

If you Google the words "how to be more productive" you get 187 million results. Interestingly that's the same number of results as "how to learn Romanian." And although everyone learns in different ways we all know the answer to both of those questions.
If you want to learn a new language, you need to read it, listen to it and absorb it until you understand it. And the key to that is simply to practise.
And the answer to how to get more things done is simply to "do more things."

But is everything really that easy?
Can it be so black and white?

No of course not, because there isn't a single once and for all solution to productivity. There isn't a specific trendy personal planner or piece of software or mantra that you repeat every hour that will make you more productive.
Don't get me wrong one of the things might work for you, but that doesn't mean it's also going to work for Jeff next door. or your kids or the undergraduate that follows you around work like a sheep trying to mimic you.

The thing is, becoming more productive is a bit of a double edged sword because once your capacity to get more done improves you're likely to take on more things or make time frames shorter because you feel more capable. And by becoming more productive and taking on more you could soon become overwhelmed.

So where's the middle ground? Are there any processes that we can practise that improves our productivity without encouraging us to take on more?


There are common themes that tend to work well for a lot of people. Firstly we need energy. There are 2 main ways we get energy, eating and sleeping and they're both really important but sometimes we overlook them thinking that it will help us get more done. Going to bed late might seem as if it gives you more time to be productive but it might mean that you end up working inefficiently because you're tired.
If your alarm clock woke you up this morning then you needed more sleep, pure and simple.
The same with food, skipping lunch to try and get more done can really backfire and slow down our concentration and prevent us from focussing on the job at hand. Which is already quite tricky anyway when we're overwhelmed with tasks.
Learning to focus on one thing at a time takes practise. So practise!

The idea of mindfulness probably isn't going to be new to you but if it is then research it. Learning to be more mindful is a great skill to have and improves focus and concentration.
And by mindfulness I don't necessarily mean formal meditation, so don't worry you don't HAVE to spend 20 minutes a day listening to wind chimes to learn to focus if you don't want to.
The point of mindfulness is to train yourself how to think about one thing at a time, even eating a plate of beans on toast can be an opportunity to be mindful. Just focus on it one aspect at a time, the warmth of the air around the plate, the smell of the food, the texture in your mouth as you chew.
In doing this you're training the brain to think about one thing at a time and its a really handy skill. Subscribe to my newsletter, if you haven't already, and you'll get access to some hypnosis tracks that will definitely help you.

It's important to make sure that there isn't too much clutter in your head though. If something's on your mind then your mind isn't clear and all the hypnosis in the world still won't change the fact that you've got 20 jobs to do and haven't even done 1 of them. So you might need to capture those 20 things somewhere so that you don't need to think about them, thats why making lists does work.
In the same way that knowing that the answer to a question is just a Google search away makes it harder to retain information, if we know that we don't need to remember something then it frees up our brain to remember things that we actually do need to remember. This same process applies to things that we actually WANT out of our mind. So anything that you consider unfinished in any way needs to be captured elsewhere, in a trusted system that's outside of our own head.
So make a to do list that you can refer to later. A list of all the important stuff and all the silly stuff, everything from arranging a pension to choosing some books to take on holiday. If you know that you've got the things-to-do list outside of your mind it's much easier to let something go if it pops in, believe me.

Once you've done that it's time to get serious about what you actually want to achieve, because if you don't have a specific goal in mind then things get aimless. So, don't just make your goal "Get More Done" be more specific. If it's housework or DIY then be specific about it, don't just have the goal of "sort out the house" make it things like:

Plane the living room door,
Glue the kids bedroom drawer unit,
Put a new plug on the iron.

Be specific!

One thing that is worth bearing in and is something Author Tony Robbins would regularly promote, and that's change state. What Tony means by this is to give yourself a bit of shake up sometimes, to get you out of a poor state and into what he calls a peak state.
A peak state gets your body lifted, your focus shifted and your inner dialogue optimistic. It's certainly true that if you're in a bad mood, things are more likely to go wrong and if you're in a good mood things just seem get better. And changing state might just mean we need to jump up and down for a few seconds to get our heart pumping, or just clap our hands together and say "Come on then" to ourselves, to remind our bodies that we don't have to be slow and static, which can give us a feeling of motivation.

Tony would pound his chest and then punch the air and scream, you probably don't need to do that, unless you want to of course. Go for it if you do!

But however you get yourself into a better state of body and mind, once you have you can then start making some progress. Even if that is simply documenting what the outcomes and actions are, which is quite an important thing to do.
If the reason why we cant get stuff done is because we're overwhelmed and don't know where to start and what to do first, then we'll become anxious and try to do everything at once, and that's not efficient. That's why documenting your outcomes and actions is vital. Otherwise your brain tries to make you think about everything you've not done, and your brain needs to trust that it doesn't need to remind you because you have a system that will remind you on its behalf.
But it needs to be something that you very regularly look through and needs to contain the right things, having a to-do-list that says things like "Sort the leaky shed roof" won't stop your brain mulling it over and getting overwhelmed. But "Buy waterproof tape from B&Q, make time on Saturday to stick it down" will.

It reminds me of what is sometimes called In psychology the Zeigarnik effect. Bluma Zeigarnik was a Lithuanian psychologist and when she was studying, her lecturer mentioned that he'd spotted a memory phenomenon where waiters in restaurants had better recollections of orders that were unpaid than orders that had been completed. She did some experiments and showed that tasks that have been started but not completed create a tension that improves our ability to recall information. Which is great if we actually want to recall stuff, but what if we don't need these things rattling around our head to remind us that a task is unfinished?
What if we can only deal with one thing at a time anyway. Well then we need to override the Zeigarnik effect and tell our brain that the task is completed by splitting the outcome into multiple actions that one by one can be ticked off as we do them.
This way when we're not actually in the middle of doing them we don't need it on our mind at all.