How to Smash Productivity Bottlenecks and Crush Your To-do List
Productivity bottlenecks are common in business and factories, and can also be called ‘limiting factors’, the one chain in the link that holds the rest of the process back.
You see it when Coke bottles pile up on a factory belt because the liquid fillers are taking their sweet time. You see it in a company when a new line of code forwards too many helpdesk tickets to one person. Bottlenecks get messy, fast.
Many of us have them within us: browsing social media, struggling to start, snacking, TV, animosity towards the task. They interrupt a normal workflow and slow down your production. For me, it’s going down ‘click holes’ (internet black holes), which may start with me checking my Facebook, and end with me studying Giant African Snails for no reason.
Productive people are masters of pushing past these bottlenecks and distractions. If you can control them, you’ll unlock substantial gains to ‘push production’.
Use a Daredevils’ Method
Being on the cast of MTV’s Jackass came with the implicit mandate that each member pulls their weight. This translates to performing your share of crazy.
Famously, in one scene, a cast member says to the director, “Okay, I’m going to do this — but this gets me out of something bad I have to do in the future.” The director agrees, “Absolutely.” Then the cast member does a ridiculously logic-defying stunt.
Steve-O, one of the shows bravest daredevils, is often asked how he works up the motivation and courage to do these tasks. He uses a simple tool that his fellow castmates use, which is actually highly useful for productivity: He counts down from five.
This is actually a Pomodoro Technique and one I embraced a few years ago. Most Pomodoro techniques are focused on stretches of time for productivity and time until starting a task.
For example, I also do five-second countdowns to start my tasks. You can also set five and ten-minute alarms if you need more time. I find that counting down from five, saying the numbers out loud causes my mind to drown out anti-productive thinking.
Additionally, I’ll also focus on a small part of the task. If I’m going to the gym, I’ll focus on putting my shoes on first. After that, I’ll focus on getting in my car and going from there. Take it one step at a time. It lowers the mental weight of your tasks.
Use Controlled Productivity Races
I’ve been using David Allen’s 2-Minute Rule to prevent my house from tumbling into chaos. It has a simple premise with an unexpected benefit.
- The premise: if it takes 2-minutes or less, do it now.
- The unexpected benefit: it causes you to rank order micro-tasks.
The process of turning it into a race forces you to cut the fluff from your actions. Also, don’t say, “I have to clean for 2 minutes.” Frame it as, “How much can I clean in 2 minutes?”
“Procrastination is the thief of time, collar him.”
— Charles Dickens
You can do quite a bit in a mere two minutes: wipe down furniture, sweep a room, or load the dishwasher. This drill often starts with me being a lazy bum and turns into flying through tasks and feeling revved up.
I’ll often combine the 2-minute rule with the countdown rule. Most large projects can be broken down into smaller projects. Just as a complex problem is usually just a bunch of simple problems combined.
The Power of Incentives
I won’t say I’m addicted to coffee, but I spend hours fantasizing about having my next cup, and I may occasionally dream of swimming in giant lakes full of black coffee beans.
I’m only a few years from 40 and I’m protecting this last vice with every ounce of my free will. It’s my last bridge. Then it’s all crotchet and bingo from there.
However, I do set rules for things like coffee. They make a big impact on my writing productivity (I’m a writer). I try to write in one and two-hour blocks and often have some sort of reward waiting for me at the end of that tunnel, “I can have some coffee after I blast out this article.”
This strategy isn’t as infantilizing as it sounds. It actually has two immediate perks.
- It helps you get more done in less time.
- It reinforces your ability to say no to yourself. Most successful people are great at saying no when it counts.
Create a reward. Put a productive roadblock in front of it.
The Secret Sauce of What You Eat
Years ago, I was stuck in this up and down of sugar highs and lows, hitting and crashing. I was constantly complaining about being tired and not having energy. I’d been a competitive college swimmer and got used to eating 7,000+ calories a day.
Then, when I stopped swimming, I kept the insane diet going and was paying the price. Unhealthy eating is a leading cause of low energy and I was another statistic. When I finally stopped my binge eating and addiction to sweets, I felt ten years younger and was brimming with energy.
I challenge you to try a week of eating healthy, drinking lots of water, with no fast food, no preservatives. Then watch the windfall of energy by the end of that week. I set four daily goals each day. Three are productivity-related. One is diet-focused. It can be as simple as “Drink 6 large cups of water.”
Remember that energy fundamentally comes from food. Don’t put dirty fuel in your engine.
Lastly, Visualize Disaster
Complacency is often a product of people underestimating the true danger of their predicament.
“I’ll do it later.”
“It won’t be a big deal.”
“Nobody will care.”
Some of my biggest mistakes came from this attitude.
Today, I often envision consequences unfolding to get myself moving. Put another way, I’m a firm believer in Murphy's Law: anything that can go wrong, will go wrong (and most things take longer than expected).
For example, if I’m writing, I’ll think, “I should just review this draft one more time. I’ll kick myself if this piece doesn’t get curated and I reread it and find some stupid, glaring typo.” The crazy thing? I often find a stupid glaring typo.
I was discussing attention to detail and the importance of proofing things and my friend, Colin Jensen, COO of Garteiser Honea, said, “I use the phrase, ‘Nobody will notice this, except my boss.’”
It’s a perfect reminder for those feeling complacent on a task.
- Think like a daredevil. Go on the count of five. It triggers your brain to be action-oriented.
- Use the 2-minute rule. See how much you can get done. Turn it into a race. Combine this with the countdown method.
- Ensure your diet isn’t hamstringing your productivity. Energy comes from food more than it does any positive affirmation or goal.
- See the disaster play out in your mind. It’s better to be worried about a tiger in the bush and be surprised by a squirrel than to assume it’s a squirrel.