The Science of Productivity, by Gregory Ciotti

The Science of Productivity, by Gregory Ciotti.

The Science of Productivity

–by Gregory Ciotti, syndicated from, Jun 08, 2015

In today’s busy world, we’ve become a people obsessed with productivity and “work hacks.”

Getting more done in less time allows us to get ahead, and even gives us more availability to do the things we love outside of work.

The problem we run into is that it is easy to get motivated, but hard to stay disciplined.

Most of us look at productivity in the wrong way: task management tools are shiny at first and then go unused. Being chained to your desk is as unhealthy as it is unproductive.

Achievement isn’t about doing everything, it’s about doing the right things–productivity means saying no.

Focus and consistency are the bread-and-butter of being truly productive. Right now, we’ll take a look at the science behind how the brain works in the synthesis state, and what changes you can make for the better.

Productivity in a 3 Minute Video

I collaborated with Mitchell Moffit of the ASAPscience team to create the above video.

Click play to learn…

Why worrying about having “more willpower” is a fool’s game.

How world class experts stay productive… and what they do differently.

The reason why better energy management = a more productive you.

Big pitfalls that lead to busywork and procrastination.

Watch and enjoy.

Once you’ve done that, if you’re still itching to know more just scroll down: a dozen studies and far more explanation await.

Abandon All Willpower, Ye Who Enter Here

The first thing to acknowledge in the pursuit of getting more done is the mountain of evidence that suggests willpower alone will not be enough to stay productive.

According to research by Janet Polivy, our brain fears big projects and often fails to commit to long-term goals because we’re susceptible to “abandoning ship” at the first sign of distress.

Think of the last time you went on a failed diet.

You stocked your fridge with the healthiest foods & planned to exercise every day… until the first day you slipped up. After that, it was back to your old ways.

To make matters worse, research by Kenneth McGraw was able to show that the biggest “wall” to success was often just getting started. Additional research in this area suggests that we’re prone to procrastinating on large projects because we visualize the worst parts; the perfect way to delay getting started.

According to researcher John Bargh, your brain will attempt to “simulate” real productive work by avoiding big projects and focusing on small, mindless tasks to fill your time.

“Big project due tomorrow? Better reorganize my movie collection!”

Perhaps worst of all, numerous studies on the concept of “ego-depletion”have provided some evidence that suggests our willpower is a limited resource that can be used up in it’s entirety. The more you fight it, the more gas you burn. An empty tank leads to empty motivation.

With all of that stacked against us, what can we possibly do to be more productive?

In order to figure this out, one of our best bets is to observe the habits of consistently productive people.

The Habits of Productive People

If I were to ask to describe the practice regiments of world-class musicians, you’d probably envision a shut-in artist who plays all day long and then tucks in their instrument at night.

Amazingly though, research by Anders Ericsson that examined the practice sessions of elite violinists clearly showed that the best performers were not spending more time on the violin, but rather were being more productive during their practice sessions.

Better yet, the most elite players were getting more sleep on average than everyone else.

How is that possible?

Subsequent research by Anders reveals the answer: the best players were engaging in more “deliberate practice.” You’ve heard the term, but beyond the hype, what is it all about?

It’s nothing more than spending time on the hardest tasks, and being better at managing your energy levels.

Think of it this way: If you were trying to get better at basketball, you’d be much better off practicing specific drills for two hours rather than “shooting hoops” all day long.

Since deliberate practice requires you to spend more brainpower than busy work, how can you implement it without draining your willpower?

The first answer isn’t very sexy, but it’s necessary: the best way to overcome your fear of spending a lot of energy on a big project is to simply get started.

The Zeigarnik Effect (mentioned above) is a construct that psychologists have observed in numerous studies on “suspense.” One such study gave participants brain-buster puzzles to complete, but not enough time to complete them. The surprising thing was, even when participants were asked to stop, over 90% of them went on to complete the puzzles anyway.

According to the lead researcher:

“It seems to be human nature to finish what we start and, if it is not finished, we experience dissonance.”

It’s the same thing that happens when we become engaged in a story in a book, movie or TV show: we want to see how it ends.

You can use this knowledge to your advantage by just getting started on that next big project; in the most basic sense, don’t focus your motivation on doing Activity X. Instead, focus on making Activity X easier to do.

Start the night before. Is your to-do list already written up? Is your place of work ready for you to get started? Break down barriers of friction before relying on willpower.

On Working Like an Expert

A multitude of research has shown us that discipline is best maintained through habits, not through willpower.

According to Tony Schwartz, CEO of The Energy Project, most people hold their productivity back by not rigidly scheduling work & rest breaks throughout the day.

Since most of us are worried about willpower, we don’t push ourselves to maximum output: instead of “giving our all” for brief sessions, we distribute our effort throughout the day, leading us back to busywork to fill our time.

What should we do instead?

Schwartz often cites a research study conducted by the Federal Aviation Administration that revealed how short breaks between longer working sessions resulted in a 16% improvement in awareness & focus.

Research from Peretz Lavie on ultradian rhythms matches up with these findings: longer productive sessions (of 90 minutes) followed by short breaks (of no more than 15-20 minutes) sync more closely with our natural energy cycles and allow us to maintain a better focus and higher energy level throughout the day.

Both of these studies on energy management match up with the practice schedules of the violinists: the most common regimen for the cream of the crop players was a 90-minute block of intense practice followed by a 15-minute break.

The moral of the story is that it’s hard to be productive while trying to maintain high energy levels through your entire day.

It’s much easier to work intensely when you know that a break is just around the corner, not at the end of the day. Instead of trying to conserve energy for hours, break big projects down into smaller chunks and plan a recovery period right after.

For projects done on your own time, try scheduling blocks of 90-minute work sessions with a planned cool down time of 15 minutes directly afterwards. When you know a break is on the horizon, you won’t try to “pace yourself” with your work, and will be more inclined to dive into the difficult stuff.

While great for tackling the toughest parts of large projects, this technique doesn’t really address many problems related to discipline, an important part of staying productive for more than just a day or two.

The Art of Staying Disciplined

One segment of the population known for struggling with discipline are those who are addicted to hard drugs.

Given their disposition for being unable to commit to many things, you might be surprised to find thatduring an experiment testing the ability of drug addicts to write & submit a 5 paragraph essay on time, those who wrote down when & where they would complete the essay were far more likely to turn it in.

These findings have some interesting correlation with those related to discipline in other people: in a study examining the ability of average people to stick with a strict dieting plan, researchers found that those participants who rigorously monitored what they were eating were able to maintain far higher levels of self-control when it came to maintaining their diet.

Last but not least, Dan Ariely and colleagues conducted a study involving college students and found that students who imposed strict deadlines on themselves for assignments performed far better (and more consistently) than those who didn’t.

These findings were especially interesting because Ariely noted that students who gave themselves too generous of a deadline often suffered from the same problems as students who set zero deadlines: when you allot yourself too much time to complete a task, you can end up creating a “mountain out of a molehill.”

Since we now know that tracking our progress is a key component of productivity, how can we implement this practice into our daily routine?

One method is to use an Accountability Chart to track what work you’ve completed during your 90-minute productive sessions, similar to how the dieters tracked their food consumption.

To easily implement one, simply create two-columns on a piece of paper, Google Docs spreadsheet, or even a whiteboard.

   * Column 1 will list the time-span of one of your productivity sessions.

   * Column 2 will list what tasks you’ve accomplished in that limited time-span.

Don’t include any columns for your 15-minute breaks, as those times are for your own sake and means to replenish your willpower.

This works well for 2 specific reasons:

Dr. Kentaro Fujita argues that tracking your progress in this way is helpful because you’ll be exposed to the work you’ve actually accomplished, and not the (inaccurate) assumption of work you might construe in your head.

Forcing yourself to write down the fact that you spent 2 hours on YouTube isn’t about shaming, it’s about awareness; you’ll be less likely to do it again.

Progress tracking is also a known strategy for stopping yourself from engaging in robotic behavior (also known as ‘busywork’), a habit thatresearcher John Bargh describes as the #1 enemy of goal striving.

Productivity & Multitasking

With a work schedule, an energy management strategy and a task-tracking system in place, the last challenge we have to face is that of multitasking.

According to a 1999 study, we have a tendency to view multitasking as effective, even when it isn’t

However, researcher Zhen Wang was able to show that on average, multitaskers are actually less likely to be productive, yet they feel more “emotionally satisfied” with their work–creating an illusion of productivity.

Worse yet, Stanford researcher Clifford Nass examined the work patterns of multitaskers and analyzed their ability to:

   1. Filter information

   2. Switch between tasks

   3. Maintain a high working memory

He found that they were terrible at all three.

According to Nass:

“We were absolutely shocked. We all lost our bets. It turns out multitaskers are terrible at every aspect of multitasking.”

When working on the computer, the best thing you can do is turn on Airplane Mode; no need for temptation when you can’t even access the web. If you’re unable, help yourself with tools like andStayFocusd to block distracting sites.

The next best strategy is to create an evening planning ritual where you select a few priority tasks to accomplish the next day.

The reason this method works far better than planning your daily tasks in the morning is because researchfrom the Kellogg School has shown that we miscalculate the amount of focus we’ll be able to maintain in the future. We strongly believe that we’ll be able to quickly plan our day the next morning, but when tomorrow rolls we stumble off track.

You can create an evening planning ritual with a simple pen & paper or use an online tool like TeuxDeuxeach night. List only priority tasks (the “big 5”) for the day.

Instead of listing “Work on research project” as a daily goal, try something like “Finish introduction” or “Find additional sources” as a task you can actually complete.

The Instant Replay

Let’s play that all back real quick:

Willpower alone is not enough: Your productivity shouldn’t be reliant on your sheer force of will alone. Mental toughness will go a long way, but in order to stay disciplined you’re better off relying on systems.

Give yourself the ability to go “all-in”: Working harder on the stuff that matters is going to drain you mentally & physically. Don’t be afraid of giving yourself multiple breaks throughout the day. It’s better to “chunk” productivity sessions into 90 minute periods (in order to keep yourself sharp and to alleviate the stress of pacing your energy throughout the entire day.

If it’s not worth measuring, it’s not worth doing: Tracking has been proven to be the best way to stay diligent about your progress. Create an accountability chart to list what productive things you’ve gotten done throughout the day. You’ll see how much you’re really accomplishing.

Multitasking is your enemy: Treat it as such. Block out unwanted distractions and as Ron Swanson would say, “Never half-ass two things, whole-ass one thing.” Plan your day the night before so you won’t get consumed with the wonderful distractions of the internet when you start your day.


Not Quite Asian, Not Quite American; Fully Human

He has amazing parents that we could all take a lesson from the first time we think about complaining about the bad hand we were dealt in life. I can’t imagine moving to a new country with nothing but a few dollars and the clothes on your back. Can you?

J.S. Park: Hospital Chaplain, Skeptical Christian

My mom and dad came to this country separately over thirty years ago and met in New York City, where they were married; my dad came to the U.S. with sixty dollars in his single pair of pants, and my mom couldn’t speak a word of English.  My dad was a Vietnam War Veteran, 2nd Lieutenant in the R.O.K. Army on the side of the U.S., and the only escaped prisoner of war from the Tet Offensive in 1969.  He’s also a licensed veterinarian and a Grand Master of Tae Kwon Do, a ninth degree black belt, the 54th 9th degree in the world.

Before my parents divorced when I was fourteen, my mom owned a laundromat and a grocery store next door to each other and would run back and forth between them to serve customers; sometimes she took old clothes that people left behind because we were…

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Getting Here

chance running on the beach

Like many people in the years between 2009 to 2011, I lost everything.  This is difficult for me to talk about and all of the people I work with now have no idea I’ve gone through this.  If someone asked me about it, I would be forthright.  I think the reason I keep it to myself is that there is shame associated with your life collapsing and it’s not a pleasant time to remember.  Simply writing about it now causes me to feel a lot of anxiety. I don’t think you can appreciate where you are unless you tell the story of where you’ve been and how you got here.

Post-divorce, I threw myself into an opportunity as an independent contractor working for a company doing outside sales for a program that targeted employees of large companies.  My primary contacts were the people who were the decision makers of Accounting or Human Resources.  I did very well.  I was able to buy a house and on occasion have income that I couldn’t believe I had earned.  When the company went out of business after a slow crawl to death at the end of 2009, I was unable to find a new job.

It was a desperate time in the national economy and I was one of the many who were out there losing our lives, in shock for how difficult it was to even get an interview, and trying to figure out how to survive.  Eventually, I had to take a job waitressing in a Mexican restaurant where everyone was Mexican except for me and I don’t speak Spanish, however, I was desperate and grateful for the $60-$100 a night I would make in tips.  I could barely pay the utility bill, could not afford a cell phone or internet and usually couldn’t make a car payment and definitely could not make a mortgage payment.  There was one 45 day period of time where my electricity was shut off in March and April about five years ago and the ambient temperature in my house was in the low 40’s.  Thank God, I had a wood burning fireplace and moved the sofa in front of it so that I could burn wood and stay warm at night.  Eventually I found a very bad sales job with a low salary, but that got me working again in a ‘real job,’ which eventually led to a better-very-bad-sales job with a bit higher salary and onward until I got to where I am now; can barely pay my bills but the income is steady and the company is excellent.

As you would expect, not making a mortgage payment for three years would lead to a foreclosure which led to a bankruptcy and soon I had to find a new place to live.  The timing was working out; my three kids were all going to be in college so I only had to worry about finding a place for my thirteen year old, extremely large, one hundred pound Golden Retriever, Chance, and myself.  I’d saved enough money for the three month rent I would need due to my now wrecked credit rating and took a day off in May of 2014 to go look for an apartment.

Chance falling alseep

I live in a sketchy region for rentals on the Indiana side of Chicago where there are Norman Rockwell neighborhoods and contrasting neighborhoods and whole towns know for gangs, thugs, trash, danger, murder, assaults and high rental rates.  In the neighborhoods I would have loved to reside, the rental rates were twice as much as I could afford.  In the price range I could afford, I was afraid I could die.

I did a lot of research,  took many scouting drives and finally came up with a list of about a half dozen apartment complexes that seemed okay and advertised would accept a dog.  I had no idea that meant a very small dog.  That day I set out to make a fresh start I was repeatedly told there is no way they would allow a one hundred pound dog in the place, even if he was a quiet old man who never barked.  Defeated, I stopped to get an oil change and regroup.  I would have preferred to rent a house but the rental rate on homes was way out of my stratosphere. Now I knew that was my only option.  I had been looking at Zillow and Trulia every day for months.  I bought a cup of coffee and I sat down with my lap top while the guys worked on my car and pulled the sites up again with a different perspective; anything affordable that would take a big dog.

And then there was a miracle.  So much of a miracle it seems like Divine Intervention.  A very small cottage in a community that my entire adult life I had wanted to live in had opened up overnight.  It was incredibly small – 800 square feet, but a block from the beach and completely in my price range.  I was practically sweating as I hurried out of the Jiffy Lube and drove up to Beverly Shores.  As soon as I saw it I knew it was perfect.  It needed a lot of TLC on the outside, but the inside was adorable.  Within a week I had signed the lease.

cottage 1

To put this in perspective for you, Beverly Shores is a very old beach community about 60 miles from down town Chicago.  It is home to the Indiana Dunes National Lake Shore and borders the Dunes State Park.  For twenty five years I have been driving out here to go walk on the beach or run or hike.  I have dreamed of living out here but was short a million dollars to buy any of the real estate.  Primarily, Beverly Shores is the weekend beach community for Chicago people who can afford a second home at the beach.  Only 160 residents live here all year round.  It is right on the South Shore Train Line so it’s an excellent and short commute to Chicago.  I don’t work in Chicago but it’s still handy to have it available.

When I moved into the cottage on June 1st last summer I felt like I had moved into a dream.  My entire lifestyle changed.  I would get up by 4:30 and take my Retriever down to the beach to fetch tennis balls and swim as I walked barefoot up the sand and watched the sun come up over the eastern horizon in bold orange and golden yellows.  The sand is white, the shore is topped by tall pines, and across the water is the clear horizon of the city of Chicago.  At the end of the day I would come home and sometimes pour a beer in a plastic cup, put on shorts and a t-shirt and flip flops and take Chance back down to swim and run and explore.  As I walked barefoot up the sand I would say to myself, “How is this even possible? How could I possibly live here?”

I got here because of my dog Chance and he passed away suddenly and quickly of a heart attack on October 15th.  We both had the best summer of our lives.  I am happy for him that our final summer brought him daily runs on the beach and swimming every day.  I am happy for me that he brought me here because I would not have looked if I hadn’t been thinking of him.

I am in graduate school, the final steps, and the funny thing is that being in graduate school has caused me to be a much more prolific and disciplined writer.  Previously I would write in absolute fits and starts; frantically for seven days and then nothing for two months.  Being in graduate school with a six to eight page paper due every Sunday by midnight turned a key and built habits for me that I hope I can maintain when I am done next May.  It does not matter if you don’t know what you are going to write about or how to say it when you have to turn something in by midnight.  Somehow, some way, you figure out how to get it done.  Deadlines are important.  Most of us independent writers don’t have deadlines.  Building habits for writing is difficult when you juggle a lot of balls; family, work, commuting, and everything else in between.  And I do commute. I drive 70 miles one way for the privilege of living on the beach.  Now that gas prices are at $2.20 a gallon, it almost seems reasonable.  It’s a huge amount of drive time.  The best case scenario on that drive is about an hour and twenty minutes; throw in some bad weather or an accident and I can be in the car over two hours one way.

I know; most people who know I do this think I am out of my mind.  Except for this; imagine driving five minutes from the office to a high rise apartment that overlooked malls and buildings and nothing interesting or driving an hour and a half, the final twenty minutes on a winding road through pine trees and deer and beauty to arrive in the forest, at the beach, directly across from down town Chicago and I think it is a no-brainer.  As soon as I am slipping off my flip flops on the beach and walking up the sand barefoot I think to myself again, and again, how could you not want to be doing this?

chance in water

And so all things have combined like water running down a funnel to bring me to this unbelievable place in my life where I have a lot of solitude and nature and reflection and time to write.

I’ve always been writing, as most writers say, since my earliest days.  I wrote like a deranged woman while I went through my divorce, through the dark days of the financial collapse, now…starting since I was young enough I told stories with pictures.

My grandparents had a roll-top desk where they kept a seemingly endless supply of little blank white two by three inch note pads.  When I spent two weeks with them every summer I would open the desk top and feel like I hit the lottery.  Blank, white pads ready for me to fill up with my stories.  I have never stopped.  I’m old enough that much of what I have written is in the form of notebooks or typed manuscripts.  The joy of moving is that I consolidated all of those things; scraps of paper, half-finished manuscripts, and dozens of notebooks and journals into three, huge, plastic crates.  When I take out those crates and start to look at those things I realize I have a huge treasure trove of material and ideas.  I feel like an artist must feel when they walk into their studio with multiple easels holding half-completed canvases and tubes of paint and brushes and space to let go and start working.

There is divinity and serendipity in life and no matter what happens to you the most important thing to remember is that life is fluid.  It can feel as though we are braced in between boulders trying desperately to grasp the slick granite stones against the on rush of tons of pounds of water or it can feel like we are riding that water down the river, gliding on top of it, slipping between the obstacles until we reach that lazy pool at the bottom where everything stops and is easy.

Sometimes all you can do is to hold on.  You hold on for dear life and you pray that you will make it one more day, and then one more day after that until a day comes that you don’t live in fear anymore.  And then again, like my grandparents who lived through the Great Depression, I am not certain I will ever shake the fear of losing everything and will take anything for granted.  It is so interesting how these experiences change us forever.  No matter how much I have or how much I succeed I will never forget living without electricity for 45 days and worrying that I would freeze to death at night if the fire went out.  My children and my dog had to move in with my ex-husband full time.  It was the most humiliating and depressing time of my life.  There were nights I wished that I would fall asleep and not wake up.  After you go through something like that and end up here, and you wake up and make your cup of coffee and step out on the porch to look at the pine trees and listen to the waves hit the beach your perspective changes.  Every single morning I start my day with gratitude.  I know – it’s an overused expression these days.   But for me it is real.  I am grateful to be here, to have my family, my children, my friends, my talents, my job, and money to pay my utility bills.  I dream of other things; of traveling a lot, of great philanthropic projects, but I will never fail to be grateful for the immediate luxury of waking up in my own life, where I am, and what life has taught me.

I go to sleep with the sound of the waves crashing on the shores of Lake Michigan and the South Shore Line running through Beverly Shores.  I go to sleep with the sounds of owls and raccoons and the wind blowing through the pine trees.  I go to sleep with the sound of my own heart beating steadily under the covers in a warm cottage and I am grateful.  I will always be grateful for those things that so many of us take for granted

Wish You Were Here

It was 2010 when I first learned about self-publishing through KDP and CreateSpace.  I was writing and I had stories to tell – most incomplete.  The truth is that I hadn’t actually wrapped my brain around the way the whole process works.  I have huge regrets about that now.  If I had published then, I would have been one of the pioneers and developed a niche before the market was swamped with everyone who ever wanted to write a book – and let’s be honest; that is virtually everyone you’ve ever known.  Right?  When you finally get up the courage to tell someone in your life that you are writing on the side, and its followed by the obligatory questions; perhaps raised eyebrows, and interest in what you are actually writing it will many times come with the statement, “I’ve always thought about doing that myself.”

I will be honest.  I thought that after I pushed ‘Publish’ I would get some quick results.  I have a problem with my Cover Art.  I may have a problem with my writing, but I won’t know that for sure until I have the cover issue fixed.  The results have been less than stunning.  When I listen to so many virtual over-night success stories through the KDP Select Author Feature I start to wonder what I’m trying to do and who do I think I am?  Frequently, driving to work at 5:30 A.M. I will say to myself, “Don’t quit your day job.”

Most of the time I tell myself to believe that it can work and to keep writing because of how much I enjoy it.

I’m still sorry that I did not get on the front end of this back in 2010.  Maybe you are new to self-publishing as well and wondering why what you have written is not selling as much as you would like it to sell.  It seems that many of our Indie Writer friends who are successful found a niche and a reader-following, mostly through readers discovering them, reading their work, and then posting a good review.  A couple dozen of those five star reviews and you will see some dramatic improvement in your position on Amazon.  (I’m not there yet.) (I’m not even close to being there yet.)

I think another reason for some of the success stories, other than great writing, is that they found a niche – a little one-off market- that turned into a trend.  Fifteen years ago you couldn’t imagine that people would get all caught up in the stories that revolved around vampires and werewolves.  Right story, right time.  Finding something that burns bright with the young adult audience seems to help.

Another week, another Sunday and I am going to receive my first KDP royalties this week.  It will not be enough to buy a tank of gas for the car, but it is a start.  I won’t stop believing that I can do this and it is worth my time, even though the truth of the matter is that even if I only sold ten books a year, (alright that would be depressing) – I would still write because I don’t know any other way to express myself.

Amanda Hocking Discusses How She Became a Self-Published Author who Sells 100,000+ Books a month on Amazon

Amanda Hocking is one of those writers that started publishing on Amazon in the early days of self-publishing.  She is selling more than 100,000 books a month on Amazon.  That kind of success is almost…chilling.  We all dream it don’t we?  She has a great blog post from a while back that described her whole story – from beginning to where she was when she posted, which I have added the link below.  Her sales were starting to get very strong – about 600 a month – and then she connected with book bloggers & reviewers and suddenly she was looking at several thousand and it all blew up from there.

Read her inspiring story on her blog:

Free Days for Baptism of Desire

There are only 3 more ‘free’ promotional days left for Baptism of Desire. Do me a huge favor, and if you read it and enjoy it, leave me a review.  I need them!  Visit Amazon to download for free on:

December 20th, 2014

December 26th, 2014

December 27th, 2014