How to Think More Productively: A Cheat Sheet

Unproductive: ‘How long will this take?’ Productive: ‘How much time am I willing to give this?’

Credit: Luis Alvarez/Getty Images

WWhen people learn that I’m a time management and productivity coach, they often grill me about the most effective tricks and tools. “What’s the best system? What apps or planner should I use? Got any hacks I can try?”

They’re asking the wrong questions.

Don’t get me wrong — systems like Bullet Journaling and Getting Things Done are excellent. But if you’re struggling to be productive, overhauling your process won’t help you much. To really achieve sustainable productivity, you must first learn to manage your thoughts.

Emails like this — from Evernote last November — perpetuate our false belief that a better system will solve our productivity problems. Evernote is great (I use it), but so is a pen and paper, a Google Doc, or any other system.

When we talk about productivity in my workshops and coaching sessions, I often hear people say, “I work so hard and I’m so stressed. I just don’t know how I’ll possibly get everything done.” If you’re feeling the same way (and many of us are), it means you’re focused on the wrong thing. Productivity isn’t about working “hard” or about crossing tasks off your list. Productivity is about creating results.

Tony Robbins has said: “The reason you’re suffering is you’re focused on yourself.” Most busy people waste a lot of energy feeling sorry for themselves, which not only makes them unhappy, but also unproductive.

To become more productive in a meaningful way, you need to catch your unproductive thought patterns early and make quick mental shifts. I call this The Productivity Shift and have created a printable cheat sheet that you can quickly refer to whenever you’re feeling stuck. (Note: the PDF includes four copies — you can give the other three to your friends or colleagues).

Instead of thinking: “I have so much to do.”

Try: “What do I want to create (in my life/for the world)?”

“I have so much to do” borders on a victim mentality — you believe life is happening to you and you have no control. Notice that “What do I want to create?” is a different thought entirely. Don’t try to resolve the original thought (by convincing yourself that your workload actually is manageable, or that you’ll get everything done eventually). Simply empower yourself by choosing to shift your focus to what you want to create in your life or for the world.

Instead of thinking: “I need to do work.”
“I am willing to produce results.”

When you look back on your life, will you be prouder of the tasks you completed or the results you produced? “Work” itself is meaningless — it’s the results of that work that bring us joy and contribute to the lives of others.

Instead of thinking: “How long will this take?”
“How much time am I willing to give this?

People often estimate how long something will take them and then budget that amount of time for it. But truly productive people decide how much time they’re willing to give something and stick to that commitment. This allows them to dedicate their most valuable hours to what really matters.

Instead of thinking: “I worked so hard.”
“Here’s what I produced.”

Have you ever noticed how we tend to say things like, I’ve been working so hard or I’ve been putting in such long hours? These profoundly uninteresting statements do not reflect your courage, commitment, and brilliance. As with the previous mental shift, try focusing on what you created instead. Talking about your results helps you to focus on your results.

Instead of thinking: “This isn’t good enough.”
“I am willing to receive feedback.”

Most of my clients struggle with perfectionism. They waste hours finalizing that report, assignment, or article because they fear their results won’t be good enough. If you have this worry, open yourself up to feedback early and often. When you see yourself as a work in progress, you can start focusing on how you can improve.

Instead of thinking: “I don’t know how.”
“I’ll find out how.”

To create this mental shift, it helps to take just one small step that will kick-start the learning process. Can you read an essay on the topic? Or set up a call with a friend who has a solid grasp on the skill you’re trying to learn? Life coach Brooke Castillo has a great podcast episode that might help you if you find this mental shift challenging.

Thinking productive thoughts begins with figuring out what you want to create in your own life and for the world. I’ve noticed that those who change their thinking produce more results in less time, feel happier, and are less likely to burn out from working “hard” all the time. They’re no longer obsessed with what they have to do, and instead marvel at all that they get to do.

Career & Personal Development Coach.

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