5 Productivity Hacks (Or, How To Stop Hating Work)

This post by Jan Bruce, CEO and co-founder of meQuilibrium, first appeared on Forbes.com.

In their popular New York Times piece, “Why You Hate Work,” Tony Schwartz and Christine Porath discuss a study of 12,000 white-collar workers they conducted in collaboration with the Harvard BusinessReview to find out what feeds real productivity. They found that people are most productive and satisfied at work when they feel supported, rewarded, and aligned with the work they’re doing and encouraged to take breaks to recharge.

While this may sound obvious to you, the fact is, it’s not how we’ve been working (nor how we expect work to be). You’ve heard that working hard at something you hate is stress, while working at something you love is passion. I believe this—and yet, there are plenty of passionate people who burn themselves out because they’re clinging to old notions of what defines productivity. In order to set yourself up for success today, you need to see productivity—and act—in a new way.

The New Productivity Hacks

Productivity is no longer about how much you can get done in the least amount of time, as it was once traditionally measured. It’s not output-driven, but mission-driven. The degree to which we can connect with and be inspired by the work we do will determine how effective we are–and how happy. Here’s what that looks like.

Hack #1: Think Thrive, Not Just Survive

To maintain the rapid-fire pace of our lives, we need something better than just “go faster”’ to keep up. We’re investing more in our work than ever before, not just because we “have” to, but because we want more from it. So it’s not just about how much you can get done in a set number of hours, nor is it about giving til you drop.

Beyond just box-checking and keeping your head above the rising tide of work, you need to find the thing that matters. And the responsibility lies in both the company to provide that opportunity, and for the employee to connect with it.

If you’re not sure why your well has run dry, ask yourself, where do you get your juice from? How are you contributing, not just to the bottom line, but to your customers’ lives, and the world at large? Knowing you have an impact and can make a change is the key to feeling connected to your work. Without it, the work overcomes your desire to keep paddling, and overwhelm ensues.

 Hack #2: Invest More, Not Less

In our post-recession world, everyone’s on a budget. It’s not the first time we’ve been here and it won’t be the last. But a singular focus on simply halting spending and expecting productivity is like trying to lose weight by starving yourself. As any health expert can tell you, that doesn’t work. When you stop feeding your body, your metabolism slows to match. The answer isn’t to overeat, nor is it in this case to spend more than you should. But you can’t expect people to thrive without resources.

The shift here is stop seeing yourself and your budget as an either/or situation. It’s not. Your investment in yourself is the most valuable investment you can make: Go to that event and meet some new people who might inspire and energize you. Read that book or this article so that you feel more connected to what you’re doing and have more tools to do it with. Get your juice from the dialogue with people, not just the boxes you’ve checked.

Hack #3: Be a Realistic Optimist

The positivity movement took off in a big way, and turned mawkish very quickly. The idea of forcing yourself to only think positive does you a disservice. It keeps you from acknowledging risks and downsides, assuming that “it’ll all work out.” Oliver Burkeman writes about this brilliantly in The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, where he notes that “our constant efforts to eliminate the negative… is what causes us to feel so insecure, anxious, uncertain, or unhappy,” and advocates instead the embrace of a ‘negative’ approach to happiness.

(Read more about how optimism can be a liability.)

This doesn’t mean you should assume the worst, either—after all, positivity is one of the markers of resilience. The new rule is a tempered optimism—one that maintains a positive approach while maintaining what Susan David and Christina Congleton of Evidence Based Psychology call “emotional agility,” or the ability to consider both ups and downsides without getting derailed.

Hack #4: Don’t Toil In Isolation; Reach Out

The idea that you just have to buckle down and churn out work, endlessly, won’t cut it nowadays. Because you know that if you could somehow go without food or sleep and work for one straight week, you still wouldn’t get everything done. Just because the work is nonstop doesn’t mean we should be. We can’t! It just isn’t how we’re built. And while more than a few power hours can help you be productive, a tendency to shut yourself away can work against you (and your team.)

Isolation does not breed productivity. The only way to maintain your current pace is to stay connected to your team. As my colleague Dr. Andrew Shatté says, this vital connection, particularly in times of stress, feeds our own personal resilience. What’s been relegated jokingly in office culture to the ‘water cooler’ undermines the importance of connecting with coworkers. It’s not just about taking a break and gossiping, but about building community. The more you can set the stage for and encourage real, authentic connection with the people you work with, the more power you give yourself and your team the wherewithal to cope with just about anything.

Hack #5: Think “I Can Do It,” Not “I Must.”

External rewards and super-high standards can inspire productivity—to a point. There’s a difference between a fixation on doing everything to prove yourself to someone, and a real belief in your own abilities. The first is ego-driven (not to mention a recipe for burnout); the second is driven by self-empowerment. Self-efficacy, or your ability to access resources and get the support you need to do what needs doing, is the most empowering. When that is your goal, rather than perfection, life and work are a lot more sustainable.

At the end of the day, the only way to stay productive and keep up is to be responsible for our own success and self-care. And in the new age of productivity, you shouldn’t have to choose one over the other.