Seven Counterintuitive Ways to Be Insanely Productive

Seven Counterintuitive Ways to Be Insanely Productive

If you’re a misfit like me, the typical productivity advice just hasn’t worked for you.

You know what I’m talking about, the standard narrative of:

  • Create one inbox for processing everything.
  • Batch all like tasks together.
  • Use a system to manage yourself.

All of this advice is great, but it doesn’t work for the ADD stricken, creative misfit, right-brained tribe.

Don’t get me wrong, this stuff is awesome for certain people. I have many friends that absolutely thrive on GTD and the standard productivity hacks and tricks. But what if those don’t work for you? Are you hopeless? Are you a lost soul forever doomed to end each day with the same thoughts… “WTF did I actually do?” and “Will I ever be able to follow through?”

Absolutely not. Albeit a bit counterintuitive, there is another way.

But first, let’s get something out of the way:

You are not broken. These tips will make you insanely productive, even if all the standard advice hasn’t worked for you so far.

If the typical productivity hacks, strategies and methods haven’t worked for you, then perhaps it’s not your fault. Perhaps it’s the approach you’ve been taking that hasn’t been working for you.

One of the dumbest things I’ve tried (and maybe you can relate) is reframing my “To Do List” as a “Get To Do List.” In other words, trying to reframe all shoulds as wants.

The only problem is, I, like 90% of people, didn’t actually change what’s on the list in the first place. I just tried slapping the label of “want” on top of it.

Now, not only was I not doing stuff I wanted to do, but I felt like a fraud for trying to act like I was excited about it. I can’t think of a better recipe for massive resistance.

This article isn’t about trying on another productivity system (that clearly doesn’t fit), or attempting to put a square peg into a round hole. This is about counterintuitive approaches to getting shit done like a boss while not trying to make yourself into a robot.

time stampCounterintuitive Tip #1: Seasons and Cycles Over Steady-State Roboticism

Most people try to make themselves into productivity robots.

We force quotas, lists and deadlines on ourselves as if we’re some type of Input Fuel, Output Work Machine. We are not machines, and we need to stop acting like it. Machines are steady-state output producers. Humans are ebbing and flowing organic beings.

Relax your expectations of constant, never-ceasing production. Instead, focus your energies on how you want to feel and what you need to operate with greatness.

Maybe that means more self-care, more breaks, or more doing shit you actually care about.

Remember, we come from nature and are born from seasons. This means that we’ll naturally cycle inward and naturally cycle back outward. Sometimes we will feel drawn to reflect, meditate and grow internally with no outward signs of productivity or results. And sometimes we will feel an inescapable urge to create, shine and radiate our gifts uncontrollably to the world.

The key is in learning to identify and honor your natural rhythms. Listen and lean into whatever you’re being pulled to.

train jumpCounterintuitive Tip #2: Flow Before Patterns

If you start your day writing down the stuff you think you should do based on patterns of what you normally do or what’s just a good business move, you’re immediately screwed.

Resistance creeps in. You feel trapped. You feel an immediate urge to put it off in favor of something more fun and interesting.

Realize this: People don’t procrastinate because they’re lazy. People procrastinate as a self-defense mechanism against doing stuff they despise or doing things too mechanically.

Instead, ask yourself What would I absolutely love to do and feel immensely proud of doing today?

Most productivity systems are built like crutches meant to prop you up.

They’re pushing you to do something that might be unnatural.

So what if instead of needing to be pushed, you simply focused on activities that pulled you and were hard not to do?

A good rule of thumb: The more productivity tricks you need to get it done, the less likely it is that it’s meaningful to you. Share

microCounterintuitive Tip #3: Try to Get Almost Nothing Done

Do not start your day thinking, I need to accomplish everything! Do not start a project thinking, I need to finish this today. This leads to paralysis and indecision.

Instead, get insanely micro.

Focus on doing two minutes of important work on whatever it is you want to do. Set a timer and just do two minutes. Anyone can do two freaking minutes.

Starting and getting momentum is the hardest part. Getting insanely micro is the cure.

forgetCounterintuitive Tip #4: Forget Everything You Know

We humans abhor the predictable.

Have you ever noticed that if you feel like you can predict what a speaker or teacher is saying, you immediately start ignoring them and doze off?

That’s because we can’t stand anything we think we already know. It’s boring. It’s done. It’s old hat.

So whenever you begin a task, even if you’ve done it before, focus on changing your approach.

Ask yourself:

  • What new lessons can storytelling teach me today?
  • How can I make writing this blog post incredibly ridiculous and off-the-wall?
  • Where are the limits to this project, how can I take this to the extreme?

When you completely change your approach, you renew your excitement.

StartCounterintuitive Tip #5: Make it Painful Not to Do

Sometimes there’s shit you need to get done that you’re not going to jump for joy at the thought of.

Taxes are due. Your manuscript needs to be edited. Whatever it is, it sucks and it needs to be done regardless.

Trying to get excited about it is only tricking yourself, which makes you feel like even more of a phony.

Instead, do this: tell someone (a team member, close friend, your coach) that you’re going to get this done by X date at X time. But not only that, you’re going to show them what you’ve done. And if you need even more motivation: if you don’t complete it, you’re going to actually give money to a cause you don’t believe in.

Misfits are plagued by procrastination because we have no tolerance for doing things we don’t want to do. Share

But that doesn’t take away the fact that sometimes you need to get it done. And that can require a kick in the ass to do it.

escape-hatchCounterintuitive Tip #6: Give Yourself Less Time

It’s ridiculous how often we think that more = better. More time means more productivity, right? Wrong.

More time often means more time spent screwing around. Face time is not important. Ass-in-chair is not important. What is important is getting things accomplished that really matter to you.

Stop measuring your self-worth (how much you get done) based on how much time you put in.

First, divorce your self-worth from your productivity. You are worthy no matter what.

Secondly, give yourself less time. Try getting everything on your list done by noon. You’ll be amazed at what you can do.

overwhelmedCounterintuitive Tip #7: Productivity Doesn’t Matter

At the end of the day, what you’ve done and what you’ve accomplished is no where near as important as how you feel.

If you feel amazing, who cares what you did?

If you did something that’s meaningful, who cares how many things you checked off a list?

The whole point of being productive should be to do things that are interesting and meaningful to you so that you feel good.

If you don’t feel good at the end of the day, then what’s the point?

The final tip: Acknowledging your complexity

I’ll repeat the obvious: you are human.

The industrial and agricultural revolutions shifted human focus away from community and flow to production and measurement.

But our complexities and needs haven’t changed.

Just because you’re doing something that “isn’t productive” doesn’t mean that it doesn’t matter.

  • Is taking care of your sick grandmother productive?
  • Is walking aimlessly in the woods productive?
  • Is sleeping in with your lover on a random Tuesday productive?

Just because something does not produce a measurable result, it doesn’t mean that it’s not productive. Share

When we’re able to change how we view value and what’s important, only then can we truly live fully.

We can honor both our gifts that create transformation, and the those that are beautifully unmeasurable.

Over to you: Have you ever felt like the typical productivity advice doesn’t work for you? Share in the comments.

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61 Comments on "Seven Counterintuitive Ways to Be Insanely Productive"

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andai
Guest

in the phrase “be your own **** boss”, does **** refer to a 7-letter word? I filled in various 4-letter words and was utterly bemused.

Cedric
Admin

It means whatever you want it to. :)

jill goldman
Guest
loved this! i have often resisted any “productivity plan”, even if i started out trying it. every single one of your points felt right on target to me, and thankfully, i have figured some of them out for myself already. otherwise, i think i might have gone bonkers by now. but i appreciate your listing and detailing them and reminding me today. i do find that when i spend time in my day doing what makes me feel good (and sometimes this means thinking ahead to what will make me feel good in the long run), and allow myself time… Read more »
Tiffany Marie
Guest

It took me some time in my 37 years to realize that the long duration spent in academic pursuit and in parenting was an extremely fulfilling responsibility. Especially in comparison to my suburban neighbors who were off to work faithfully every morning, save the weekends. This played heavily daily on my psyche making me feel useless and unproductive. Yet when in conversation with my fellow bored suburbanites, they were constantly amazed at how much I was able to accomplish towards my personal goals of self fulfillment and spiritual growth. Thank you for your insight as it was very enlightening.
TMG

Cedric
Admin

I think you touched on something really important Tiffany. Just because the people around us are incredibly productive, it doesn’t mean they’re necessarily happy. We have a tendency to think that doing more will bring us to freedom.

Joel Zaslofsky
Guest
Tiffany, The part about your comment that resonated with me was the “Especially in comparison…” segment. OK, actually the whole thing made a lot of sense. It seems like you have achieved great self-awareness, which is a better gift than anything a person with money could buy. Keep rockin’ your self-fulfillment and spiritual growth while the rest of your community (or Western culture at least) chases things that don’t ultimately matter a ton. Jonathan, Totally, man! Productivity ? Happiness. On a separate note, I really dig the way you approach tips #1 and #4. Perhaps it’s the paleo enthusiast in… Read more »
Don C
Guest

Tiffany sparked a thought, it’s possible that the regimented, 9-5’ers see something you don’t and might want to be more like you. When folks that this article addresses focus and kick it in the butt, they are a force of nature. I mean, they CREATE energy. That’s attractive and notable. I’m betting, at the end of production bender, other people are asking “how did you do that” and you’re are asking “do what?”

Tom
Guest
Dig the article. I think tip #6 is the best technique…when it comes down to it, when things become ‘urgent’ – we tend to get them done… I do this all the time with my own projects (setting explicit deadlines and purposefully limiting my time to work on something). Also like the idea of ‘seasons’…I think of everything as a ‘project’ so everything I do is project based. Usually my projects take anywhere from a day to a month. Or, if it’s a huge project, I break it down (I call it chunking) into sub-projects. The point is: the more… Read more »
Henry Daquipel Tiu
Guest

Thank you so much for this article. I always feel like a slave to my to do list. If I cannot achieve my goals in one day, I’d end up feeling guilty.

Jess
Guest

Wow. For me the best part of this entire article, right here:

“Just because you’re doing something that “isn’t productive” doesn’t mean that it doesn’t matter.

Is taking care of your sick grandmother productive?
Is walking aimlessly in the woods productive?
Is sleeping in with your lover on a random Tuesday productive?

Just because something does not produce a measurable result, it doesn’t mean that it’s not productive.”

Totally true and so often not thought of. LOVE this. Rock on! Thank you for this article, Jonathan! xo

Alia Arlys Alford
Guest

I agree with Tom, great article and I also think #6 is my best technique that I’ve unknowing been putting into practice along with #5. Here I thought I was procrastinating, but what I was really doing was limiting the time I had to accomplish something while making it painful not to complete. I recently read Tony Robbins “Awaken the Giant” and “make it painful not to do” was a huge working takeaway for me from that reading.

Thank you so much for the article. It was better than a shot of espresso. :-)

Vincent Nguyen
Guest

Wow, every single tip was just flowing with great advice. Haven’t seen a productivity article written up like this in a LONG time, maybe not ever. I like the idea of micro-ing your tasks. Sometimes I work in bursts like this, but I’ve realized over the years I’m much better at just tackling things and going all out on them in one go.

Rocky Guloy
Guest

Great article! My favorite part is micro manage everything. I find that when I break down tasks to 10 – 15 minute tasks, it makes everything way more focused.

Karen Renee
Guest

This is very timely, since I’ve been wondering why I’m not progressing at all on a certain project. Turns out I’ve already reviewed my goals and content several times, so now it feels boring. Guess I’ll have to be careful not to pre-prep too much so I can save that fresh&new feeling for the day I intend to get the most done!

Now that I understand the source of the problem, I can shift perspective. Maybe a fresh view of the concept will pull me through. Next … set the timer for two minutes!

Elizabeth
Guest

You put on paper what I’ve been figuring out on my own, through experience, over the years. Excellent! It’s time the world woke up and started treating humans as HUMANS, not robots who exist to get tasks done. Now, I’m going to get back to figuring out what I’m in the mood to work on right now, while I enjoy the sound of the rain falling down…. :)

Amy
Guest

It’s like you jumped inside my head and listened to the internal struggle I have every day trying to be productive… and then came up with solutions – thank you thank you thank you!

Michael Schechter
Guest
So I tend to be a combo, an ADHD type who actually found a lot of value in the structure of GTD and the like. To be honest, most people tend to make a lot of pre-conceptions about it. If it’s all about cranking out crap, I hear you, but that’s not really what David Allen tends to be aiming for (unless that’s the aim of the person). It’s more about not keeping crap in your crappy head and then using what’s left of your crappy head to determine which of the thing you aren’t keeping there matter to you…… Read more »
Ev`Yan
Guest

“First, divorce your self-worth from your productivity. You are worthy no matter what.”

And can you tell us/me, Jonathan Mead, how one we/I do this? I am very, very attached to productivity reflecting my self-worth, & this causes me to admonish myself when I am not productive (whatever that means).

I know this is a loaded topic & I’m sure entire books have been written on the subject. But if you could shed some light (in 200 characters or less!) that would be great. :)

PS: God-awesome post. xx

Greg
Guest
That’s a great, fair question. Without knowing anything about you, just a couple questions: Do you work for someone else, or are you self-employed? Growing up, were you judged by what you accomplished, or by who you were? I speak as one who struggled with the constant stress of trying to please everyone else, because that was how I was validated. When I finally realized that I was created uniquely and gloriously (and not dependant on the affirmation of others), I was able to freely pursue my goals on my terms. I guess what I’m saying/asking is, ‘Who are you… Read more »
Marty
Guest
Very good article, as one of those misfits I can soo relate. I have been trying all kinds of advice on time management and focusing. Then it totally messes up my flow, then I feel like crap when I am not able to do this for this amount of time. I think I am happiest when I just follow my Intuition, what is important comes out. 2 minutes I can do, it will usually lead to a longer time. I tried 30min+then focus two hours work 15-20 min break its ok when I stick to it :P I like the… Read more »
Janelle
Guest
Another fantastic piece, Jonathan. I especially love the part about recognizing that we are humans not robots and, as such we have our own rhythms, cycles and flow. Personally, I’m somewhere in the middle. I like to have a to-do list, but I will also banish that list and take a nice long nap in the middle of the day if I feel the need. Or ride my bike. Or whatever. I learned long ago that if I don’t feel like doing something to just walk away and come back to it. It is hard, though. I’ve found that meditation… Read more »
K N
Guest

Thanks for writing this great article! I am not a robot.

Me
Guest

GTD? I’m not sure what that is.

Ev`Yan
Guest

GTD = Get Things Done. :)

Shawn
Guest

This is a great post! Very non-traditional approach… Not what I was expecting at all. I love the part about only doing the things you want to do…. I think this is a great way to daily bring you closer to having the career that you truly want.
Keep it up!

amy
Guest

I’m an intense Right Brain married to a GTD junkie. Such an interesting ongoing comparison of different life models that make us feel authentic and incomplete at the same time. Great article Johnathan!

Kate Bacon
Guest

I recently learned through an exercise with @SandiAmorim and @CigdemKobu that in line with my Myers Briggs personality type: I work best in inspired bursts with quiet time in between. This was such a relief and I’m beginning to let myself off the hook for not being productive 7 hours a day – really we are NOT machines!

I will not try out Tip #6 and design a two hour workshop in 3 hours instead of the allotted 5. (Better report back later today, huh?!)

Kate Bacon
Guest

Nearly done (in only 3 3/4 hours!)

Sherrill Leverich-Fries
Guest
Sherrill Leverich-Fries

Kate, mind sharing your MB type? I’m curious if this is part of my “issue”; part of it is seasons but there’s another component that your comment makes me wonder about! I’m an INFP.

And great job on the nearly done! :-)

Deacon Bradley
Guest

Awesome list! It’s refreshing to read an article about getting things done that isn’t yet another robotic system. I love the last tip, “just because something isn’t productive, doesn’t mean it’s not important.” With a wife and infant son, this is SO true :).

Sharon
Guest

A great article! I can’t tell you how many prioritized lists I’ve thrown away because I just kept moving things to the next day instead of being able o check them off….thanks for the advice!

Darius B.
Guest
Hey, Personally I use a combination of regular productivity techniques and also some counter-intuitive ones. For example, I do work in patterns: start mornings with exercise, write daily, do research and all that. I found that the having pre-defined daily tasks, in set times works great for me. On the other hand, I noticed that most days, 1 pm to 7 pm my brain stops working (enjoy bit too much beer yesterday, so today’s an exception :) ). Just like that, generally nothing worthwhile comes from this period no matter what. So instead of forcing myself through this period with… Read more »
Melissa
Guest
Love this article! I really resonated with this: “The industrial and agricultural revolutions shifted human focus away from community and flow to production and measurement.” That is exactly what I have been feeling for years but couldn’t quite put my finger on it. I have been watching how I approach being productive and how I resist, and ‘community and flow’ is what I’m most drawn to; I get the most accomplished and always feel happiest about what I am doing when I’m in the flow and collaborating with others, and not so concerned about ‘being productive’. Thank you again for… Read more »
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Kyle Richey
Guest
#2 and #6 are my favorites. The part about humans being “ebbing and flowing” beings is so true, so trying to force ourselves into patterns is going against our nature. Flow is something we have to achieve, it’s doing what our bodies and minds are predisposed to do. As for limiting your time, this is the best productivity tip of all, in my opinion. It’s like Parkinson’s Law says so eloquently: “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” In this way, I think deadlines can be useful, but only if they’re used flexibly for the… Read more »
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Keith Sykes
Guest
Great article. I can definitely relate to trying the traditional methods of productivity and seeing little or no results. I especially agree with numbers 3 and 6. For number 3 “Try to get almost nothing done” I feel like if you spend two minutes doing something, you’re getting some momentum going and after starting, you’re naturally going to just dive in and be completely focused on the task. For number 6 “give yourself less time” It’s amazing what we can get done when we put a time limit on it. If you wake up and say I need to get… Read more »
Aaron Morton
Guest
I like 6 and 3. Chunking down is such a simple concept but a lot of people miss it, especially writers I find. They tell me they haven’t written in 4 days so I suggest just to do 3 minutes, I sometimes get a look as though to say ‘thats so easy, its almost a bad suggestion because in my mind I should be writing for hours’! Putting a deadline on something cuts off the continuous loop in our head that occurs when we pursue a task with no definitive end point, so i like how you have addressed it… Read more »
Jolanda van der Horst
Guest

Thank you thank you thank you. This was exactly what I needed as I am not so productive lately. Yes I do need a break. Yes I am not always creative. And it is OK.

Matthew Riley
Guest

Really like #6. I am a huge fan of free time and getting things done as early as possible has allowed me to have the time I need to do personal things I want to get done. It has also given me time to think about myself and evaluate my own life which is something people don’t do enough.

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[…] advice. Being a chaotic creative I really appreciate this. Don’t believe me? Read this […]

Gareth
Guest

Great Post Jonathan, lots of food for thought. Also, really like the way the pages are set out. Large titles, loads of white space – it makes a huge difference to the readability. Must also increase time on site I reckon.

Diogenes
Guest
Good stuff, especially the part about me not being broken. Climbing out of that. Having said that I’m still OK with a list. Not necessarily at monster-guilt-trip-inducing-must-do-or-die list but a list of no more than 6 things that are important to satisfying my clients. Start with #1 and work on it until you’re done, then go to #2. If you don’t get it all done at lest you did things in the right priority. Also I think anyone that works for themselves should get comfortable with the idea that each project has to be approached with a certain sense of… Read more »
patrick
Guest
Easily the BEST productivity advice i have ever read. I was in the midst of designing my own productivity program based on Tony Robbins OPA, and then remembered that i had read the headline to this post and needed to read it. the greatest hindrance to my personal success has been my lifelong battle with procrastination and Shiny Object Syndrome. this passage just changed the way i viewed everything i do “First, divorce your self-worth from your productivity. You are worthy no matter what.” too often was i comparing myself to what i had done. And funny enough i HAD… Read more »
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[…] for more suggestions?  Check out Paid to Exist’s “Seven Counterintuitive Ways to Be Insanely Productive.” for another […]

Chris
Guest

Jonathan,

Thank you for another well-written article.

I know I’m a procrastinator, and subconciously I “know” why, but you put it BEST: “People procrastinate as a self-defense mechanism against doing stuff they despise or doing things too mechanically.”

YEP, Me!

Knowing the truth, I can now change things and maybe by implementing the 2-Minute Rule, I won’t be procrastinating as much.

Many thanks,
chris

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Emily
Guest

I’ll second the give your less time strategy. I’m a type-A employee, but a misfit entrepreneur, which was unexpected. I always get more done in the afternoon, once I feel the panic of only have a few hours left to tackle something impactful. Perhaps I should throw out the Tony Robbins “first hour of the day” mentality and do something fun in the morning and get to work at 1!

Deb
Guest

Read every word. Loved it.
You’re good.

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Shiv
Guest

This is genius! I’ve actually done a couple of these, like given myself less time for a task, but blew it off afterwards as a lucky moment of reality distortion but it actually makes sense to use it as a productivity tool because what do you have to lose? Too much time left over after you’ve completed a task early? We often get stuck in thinking only regular productivity tools are effective but if this gets the job done, it’s just as good as any other tool regardless of how counterintuitive it is. Great post!

Josh
Guest

#6 hit the nail on the head for me. I really need to break the pattern of thinking more time spent working = more results.

Sandip
Guest

Awesome observation. I love the whole post and can’t stop reading it again and again. But my favorite few lines are “People don’t procrastinate because they’re lazy. People procrastinate as a self-defense mechanism against doing stuff they despise or doing things too mechanically.” Thanks a ton Jonathan!

Gareth Hutton
Guest

Super post. I just spent the past 2 months trying not to do a hell of a lot, things still got done and sales increased. Now I’m back focusing on getting things done, things are still getting done. but now I’m creating stress because I’m not doing everything I “need” to. Mindless. I think I’ll go do something fun.

elodie
Guest

thank you very much for writing down what i have been practicing for years and been trying to explain to people!! fabulous!!!

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[…] Have you tried giving yourself less time to work? How about trying not to get something done? “Paid to Exist” shares productivity tips with an emphasis on embracing your work. […]

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daphne
Guest

this is great although I wonder about #2. In War of Art by Steven Pressfield, he talks about resistance as a the thing that stands between the life we live and the life we want to live (to totally paraphrase). In other words resistance is something to “push through” to truly live. But you talk about it as a sign that it’s stuff that isn’t natural for us to do. Would love to hear your thoughts.

Brilliant piece. thank you.

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