How To Unlock Your Secret Productivity Powers

According to psychologists, we are biologically set up to have trouble being productive, but luckily there’s a process to overcome it.

How To Unlock Your Secret Productivity Powers
[Photo: Flickr user Joel Kramer; App Photos: courtesy of Drafthouse Cinemas]

Simply put, the modern worker is overwhelmed because there just isn’t enough time in the day to get through all the tasks required.


“I don’t think there’s anyone who could get through their whole to-do list,” says psychologist Josh Davis, PhD, author of Two Awesome Hours. Consequently, people end up either working constantly—or they rely on psychology and neuroscience to help them reach maximum productivity potential.

But hacking your brain is different for everyone. We know that what makes some people productive doesn’t have the same outcomes for others. If this is the case, how do you know what makes you perform at your best?

Before we can talk about unlocking our productivity powers, let’s first discuss what happens to the brain during big, stressful moments, and why you can’t focus.


Why We Shut Down During Stressful Situations

If we think about ourselves in the most primitive way, we have a higher order of processing our activities, according to Leslie Sherlin, a psychologist, neuroperformance specialist, and the cofounder of the brain-training company SenseLabs. Typically, staying alive is the highest priority, followed by keeping ourselves fed, clothed, and sheltered. At some point, all the way down near the bottom of our priorities in the primitive sense, is successfully executing an email or delivering a speech.

“It’s way down the line as far as survival skills go,” explains Sherlin, but in our culture, “that ability to deliver a speech is in fact one of the most important things we can do as a business person, because that then feeds and shelters our family.”

When you think about things this way, no wonder our society feels so much stress surrounding work.


“When we feel that pressure, it’s the same as a wild animal being hunted or being chased by its predator,” says Sherlin. “The thing that then happens is the body goes into the flight-or-fight response, basically. And there’s a hormone released. There’s a chemical signature change in the brain. And we begin to develop this pattern over a period of time just by constantly putting ourselves in those kind of high stakes—high risks and rewards—situations where the body learns how to be in that state almost all the time.”

Once we get here, we can no longer perform at our maximum potential. You won’t even be able to respond to emails effectively because your body says, “I have to protect myself, I need to escape.” According to Sherlin, we have to be able to shut down this process, or it’ll eventually become a biological habit.


“We see it in the most extreme cases of combat soldiers in war zones,” explains Sherlin. “In combat zones, they learn how to be hyper-vigilant as a matter of staying alive. Then you take all the danger away, and you put them into suburbia and it’s challenging because their body, their brain, their thought process, the whole interaction is primed to stay alive.”

So, if we’re up against our own biological process, what’s the secret behind tackling every task that comes your way?


How To Unlock Your Productivity Powers

1. Evaluate your success process
Often, after successfully completing an experience, people focus so much on the action that they usually neglect the process that got them to that action. Instead, Sherlin says people should be focusing on the thought process, the strategy, the planning, and all of the other little things along the way that ultimately led them to be successful. Then, they should take the details of that process and apply that same strategy to different domains of their lives.

“Most of the time, we were just happy we finished it, so we just move on,” explains Sherlin. “We need to really think through that success. What caused me to succeed? What state of mind was I in? What was my process?”

He adds: “We have the ability to learn how to self-regulate our thought process. Where you are, doesn’t have to be where you stay. Small, incremental steps changing our experience, ultimately this changes our physiology, changes the way our body reacts to stimuli, and propels us to more successful opportunities.”


2. Say the word “done” for the physiological response your brain needs
We know that, sometimes, in order to get through the most mundane tasks, we need to give ourselves rewards to keep us going. This strategy also breaks the tasks into smaller increments, making it much more manageable.


According to Sherlin, simply saying the word “done” can shift our brain from a heightened state—where it’s at when we’re concentrated on a task—to a more relaxed, mindful state. When this happens, a “feel-good chemical” is released, and this new relaxed state builds our confidence, pumping us up for the next task on our to-do list.

3. Anticipate your emotional state
For anyone who has had to go to work on a bad day, you know how much your emotional state affects your mental energy. Being emotionally aware ahead of time can make it easier or harder for your productivity powers. How do you do this? By keeping in mind how you felt the last time this happened, then altering your emotional state through simple pleasures, like taking a walk or thinking about something positive, like a good memory or an upcoming vacation.

“Learn to recognize when it’s happening,” explains Davis. “Let’s say, first thing in the morning, when I get up, if I give myself the space to wake up, have coffee and think . . . and then say, ‘Hey, I’ve been wanting to get to this writing thing, I have some pretty good energy right now, I’m going to use it.’”


In short, learn the conditions that get you into modes so that you can be really productive. If there’s a pattern in those conditions, anticipate how you’ll feel in the future.

4. Don’t try to be productive before you need to be
Most of us have done this—we respond to as many emails as possible when we have 15 minutes free before a big meeting. This sounds like a good use of your time, but this kind of activity kills your productivity when you need it the most: during the meeting, says Davis.

“You’ll be more productive by thinking, ‘How can I walk into that room and be amazing?’ Part of it is going to come from taking a walk, being social, doing something creative,” he explains. “Or take advantage of the short-term effects of exercise.”


“I use exercise as a strategic tool for getting myself ready for something important, and as a result, I end up exercising more,” he adds.

5. Become an effective reader
“If you can read more effectively, you’ll be much more productive,” says Bob Pozen, author of the book Extreme Productivity and senior lecturer at MIT’s Maximizing Your Personal Productivity.

If you take a look at Pozen’s CV, it’s clear he knows a few things about maximizing his time to work effectively. In his productivity classes, Pozen teaches students to develop certain techniques to read more effectively.


“My approach is to read less words each minute but to really understand why you’re reading what you’re reading,” he explains. “I joke with people that I read the Boston Globe in five minutes. I read the politics page and the sports page . . . there’s a business and economics page too, but I go to the Wall Street Journal for that.”

In short, be more deliberate and strategic about what you’re reading. You should read less to gain more.

6. Know the simple effects food and water has on you
There’s definitely going to be some days when you’re not feeling it. At those points, it’s more important than ever to make strategic choices—especially if you have a big meeting or major presentation in which you need to be productive. Below are some tips from Davis on food and water:

  • Drink water—“After a couple of hours, we get dehydrated,” he says.
  • Maintain stable blood sugar—“If you’re having a day like that where it’s really tough to get through, divide your lunch in half. Eat half of it now, then half later, and this will allow your blood to stabilize.”
  • Have your optimal dose of coffee—“When it comes to coffee, people should have a dose that they respond to well. When you just have your dose rather than have a ton of coffee all at once, that’s key.”

7. Always look for growth opportunities
If you want to keep unlocking your productivity potential at higher pressure levels, then you always need to be experiencing more, says Sherlin.

“It’s really about experiencing more things,” he explains. “That’s really the attraction for a lot of people. Learning how to overcome the obstacles. The number of people who run a marathon at some point in their lives is huge. Talk about bucket-list things that people carry around with them. It’s usually so they can have that experience to learn how to apply that skill or that strategy.”

To truly understand our brain, we need to continuously look for growth opportunities, both physically and mentally.


“Change is going to happen, whether you grow or not,” adds Sherlin.

About the author

Vivian Giang is a business writer of gender conversations, leadership, entrepreneurship, workplace psychology, and whatever else she finds interesting related to work and play. You can find her on Twitter at @vivian_giang.