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Barker is the author of Barking Up The Wrong Tree

Want to know how to be productive? Create goals, make a plan and execute. We all know this is a good idea… and it never, ever seems to work.

It’s like simplifying boxing down to “Just go into the ring and punch the other guy until he’s knocked out.” Sounds easy. (Hint: it’s not that easy.)

So let’s ask a different question: what’s stopping you from being productive? By fixing those things, we’re well on our way to accomplishment.

Whenever you’re not getting stuff done (or not getting the right stuff done), ask which of these 5 is the problem and apply the solution…

Problem 1: Priorities

Sometimes you do get a lot done… but they’re not the right things.

Whenever you hear or say, “I don’t have time” — it’s a lie. Often a well-intentioned one, but whatever. We all have 24 hours in a day. Period. The accurate statement is, “It’s not a priority.”

You need to be realistic. Often, that means being a little bit cynical. Do you usually get to the bottom of your to-do list? (Optimism Setting: OFF) No, you don’t. So everything is not going to get done. Accept that. Okay, so what has to get done?

Ask yourself, “What’s important?” The 80/20 rule says that you often get 80% of your results from 20% of the things you do. So doing more of the 20% is the best way to move the needle in terms of accomplishing things.

And this is where procrastination can help. Paul Graham says there’s a good type of procrastinator: the people who put off unimportant things in order to get important things done:

It’s not a question of objective important/not-important. We’re all about relative importance. Is X the mostimportant thing of all the stuff you need to get done?

So how do you implement this? Georgetown professor Cal Newport has a brilliant solution: assume you’re going home at 5:30 (or whenever) and plan backwards. He calls it “fixed schedule productivity.”

Now you can’t be overly optimistic. You have limited hours. What makes the cut and what doesn’t for those precious few hours you have? What’s a priority?

(To learn the best way to manage your time, click here.)

But maybe you do have your priorities straight. Heck, maybe you’re a productivity Superman — but interruptions are your kryptonite…

Read more: How To Get People To Like You: 7 Ways From An FBI Behavior Expert

Problem 2: Context

Research shows open-plan offices are a productivity disaster. Why? Distractions.

What does research show the most productive computer programmers have in common? Not smarts. They all had employers who created an environment free from distraction.

Via Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can’t Stop Talking:

So what do you do when the interruptions keep coming?

Find a place to hide. Book a conference room for an hour and get the real work done where no one can interrupt you.

Sound like a joke? It’s not. Professor Sune Carlsson did a study of how CEO’s get things done. What did the research show? None of them could work longer than 20 minutes without an interruption.

So how did they accomplish things without distraction? They worked for 90 minutes at home before coming into the office.

Via The Practice of Management:

(To learn the schedule successful people follow every day, click here.)

But eliminating distractions isn’t everything. Not doing bad things doesn’t mean you will do the right things. So how do you avoid wasting your time with unproductive habits?

Problem 3: Habits

“Well, I was going to start on that big project but whenever I sit down at my desk, the first thing I do is check my email. And in my inbox there were 1000 screaming requests I had to handle so…”

All too often you have a plan but something triggers a habit which casts a mind control spell over you and makes you do something else. And that triggers another habit, which leads to another habit and…

What’s the problem here? Your brain. When I spoke to UCLA neuroscientist Alex Korb, he said the way our grey matter is wired can be a problem.

When it comes to the choices you make and the things you do, Alex says there are 3 regions of the brain you need to be concerned with. You don’t need to memorize the names. It’s just important to realize they all get a vote:

  • The Prefrontal Cortex: The only one thinking about long-term goals like, “We need to prepare that report for work.”
  • The Dorsal Striatum: This guy is always voting to do what you’ve done in the past, like, “When it’s time to work we usually start by checking email 9 times, then Facebook, and then Instagram.”
  • The Nucleus Accumbens: The party animal of the three. “Email, Facebook and Instagram are fun. Work sucks.”

So guess what you end up doing? Yeah… Ouch.

But when you exert effort, the prefrontal cortex can override the other two and do the right thing. Repeat this enough times and you rewire the dorsal striatum: “We usually start reports quickly. I vote we do that again.

So how do we start the rewiring?

First, identify the bad habit. Next, make it a pain in the ass to do.

Cornell professor Brian Wansink’s research showed that just making food harder to reach caused people to eat less and lose weight. Harvard happiness expert Shawn Achor refers to it as the “20 second rule.” Here’sShawn:

You don’t want it to be easy to flow from one bad habit to another. That’s how hours get eaten up checking email, then Facebook, then… If your habits aren’t good, you want to strictly follow a plan.

When a CEO works more hours, the company’s sales increase. But when you dig deeper in the research you find that the sales only increase as a result of more hours spent on planned activities.

Via What the Most Successful People Do at Work: A Short Guide to Making Over Your Career:

Best way to get started? Follow a checklist.

(To learn how to banish bad habits for good, click here.)

Still not as productive as you’d like? Okay, ask yourself, “What happens if I don’t get this done?” If the answer is “Nothing”, well, Houston, we have all kinds of problems…

Read more: New Neuroscience Reveals 4 Rituals That Will Make You Happy

Problem 4: Stakes

This is why long term goals can be so challenging. There’s no pressing reason to work on them today instead of tomorrow. What are the two magic words when it comes to weight loss?

“Wedding photos.” Many people suddenly become experts at sticking to a diet and hitting the gym when the ceremony is looming. Why? Stakes.

When I spoke to Tim Ferriss about how to learn skills quickly, he said you need an incentive to keep practicing. Or, even better: a penalty if you don’t practice. Here’s Tim:

Research shows that rewards are responsible for three-quarters of why you do things.

Via The 100 Simple Secrets of Successful People:

So how do you increase the stakes? Here’s where things get interesting…

For dull or simple tasks, offering yourself a reward (or having someone else offer you a reward) is pretty effective.

But when it comes to complex or creative tasks, they’re not optimal. Bestselling author Dan Pink, the 10th degree black belt of motivation, explains:

So instead of rewards, we need to go deeper and more emotional for motivation. Ask yourself, “Why is this task important?”

When we don’t feel meaning, when what we’re doing doesn’t have a purpose, motivation goes out the window. Noah Goldstein, author of Yes!: 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive, explains:

Dan Pink calls this “purpose” — and it’s one of the three big motivators. Here’s Dan:

When we see the results of our work and know it makes a difference, when we feel we’re helping others or making progress — BOOM. That’s when we get motivated and get productive.

(To learn how to stop being lazy and get more done, click here.)

All of this has been pretty straightforward and logical. But we humans aren’t always so straightforward and logical. So what else might be getting in the way of supreme accomplishment and causing you to procrastinate?

Read more: New Harvard Research Reveals A Fun Way To Be More Successful

Problem 5: Mood

Yup, your mood matters a lot. Research shows a lot of procrastination is caused by not feeling so great. When you’re in a good mood or when you don’t think you can improve how you feel, you screw around a lot less.

Via Temptation: Finding Self-Control in an Age of Excess:

In fact, your mood in the morning affects how productive you are all day:

So what to do? Do something quick to make yourself happy. Yes, it’s that simple.

From The Happiness Advantage:

So this is the part when people’s minds go blank and they can’t think of anything that makes them happy. Really, it’s absurdly simple:

Take a moment to look at puppy pictures on the internet. (If this doesn’t make you happier, you probably have much bigger problems.)

Crazy as it sounds, looking at puppies has been shown to increase performance, as well as reduce stress — which Alex the neuroscientist said can help your prefrontal cortex take control and get you back on track.

(To learn the four rituals neuroscience says will make you happy, click here.)

Okay, I hope this has been productive for you. Let’s round it up and learn the best thing that can help you get started on implementing all these things into your very busy day…

Sum Up

Here’s how to be productive:

  • Prioritize: Use “fixed schedule productivity.” You won’t get everything done. You will get the right things done.
  • Context: Distractions make you stupid. Find a place to hide or work from home in the morning.
  • Habits: Use the “20 second rule” to make bad habits hard to engage in. Follow a plan.
  • Stakes: For dull tasks, reward yourself. For complex tasks, ask why they are important to find purpose.
  • Mood: Manage your mood, especially in the morning. Oh, and puppies, puppies, puppies.

So what’s a great tool for working all of this into your schedule? (No, you don’t need to work at a pet store.)

Establish a good morning ritual.

A solid morning ritual gives you the time to prioritize before you hit the office and the insanity starts. You can plan when you want to leave and work backward to do your “fixed schedule productivity.”

As for context, you can do some work from home before the interruptions start — or at least reserve that conference room.

Take the time to think about those bad habits and apply the “20 second rule” before you hit the office. (Occasionally, I like to remove my email account from my phone. I can always set it up again, but that’s a real pain… which is good.)

A moment in the morning to think about what’s important is critical. And it clarifies the stakes of everything you need to do — and what you don’t.

And most importantly, since your mood in the morning affects your productivity all day, then it’s critical to make sure you start the day right. Don’t check email immediately and stress yourself out with all the new “emergencies” coming in.

Instead, start with this:

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This article originally appeared on Barking Up the Wrong Tree

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