Some days you work at your best, other days you just don’t. Your good days probably outnumber your bad, but chances are you know how it feels to really slog through work inefficiently. That’s why lots of us try productivity hacks and strategies in the first place. And a lot of the time, they work—at least for a little while.
But they tend to wear off. The most truly productive people manage to make progress on their most important goals consistently. And while there are multiple reasons why, psychological research on motivation suggests a few steps you might be able to take to not just boost your productivity but hang onto it–depending on the way you already view your work.
Most of the time, people motivate themselves by focusing on a particular goal. Important goals create motivation because people value the outcome of achieving them. They contrast where they are right now with where they’d like to be, and that creates energy to get to work.
It doesn’t always last, though. That’s because your motivation is project-based—you’re engaged in your work mainly because this or that individual project is important. This tends to make you more enthusiastic at the start of a project, because it’s new and the reasons for doing it are fresh in mind. But then you hit a wall. Toward the middle, your motivation wanes. It can be hard to see that you’re making progress toward the goal, and the goal that once seemed so desirable may feel distant and less important.
This is the period that few productivity strategies successfully address. If you’re thinking of your work as projects, you need a technique that doesn’t try to pry you out of that mind-set—which usually will only cause more mayhem. Instead, create sub-goals, mini “projects” that can help you track your progress on the bigger one. If you look forward to (and celebrate) the completion of those smaller tasks, you may have better luck keeping your productivity consistent all the way through.
Sometimes we still think of our work as a string of projects even when what we do requires sustained effort. Writers, for instance, may have particular articles or books they’re working on, but their long-term success simply involves a lot of writing—it doesn’t just hinge on this or that published piece.
In these cases, you may actually need the opposite strategy: Rather than add smaller goals on your path toward the big one, stop thinking of your work in terms of goals altogether. Instead, reimagine what you do in terms of the processes you follow to do it, with the goals as mere side effects. This process orientation can be valuable, because it helps you focus on the habits that contribute to your success—consistently.
Successful writers don’t just start writing when they have a certain story or book to work on. They write regularly. Often, the most innovative people are expert generalists who are constantly seeking opportunities to learn new things. Those habits are actually a productivity strategy in disguise. Take the most important goals in your life and find ways to add activities related to those goals into your daily or weekly schedule, until they’re just a part of how you get through the day.
This can also help you appreciate the intrinsic rewards of the task itself. A writer who focuses just on finishing articles may get enjoyment from that, but wind up seeing the writing process as a drag—a difficult slog to get from point A to B. But the same writer who focuses on the process can come to enjoy the small victories of putting together and revising a draft, placing less ultimate satisfaction in finally seeing it published.
It’s not necessarily that a process-based approach to your work is categorically better than a project-based attitude. When it comes to sustaining your productivity, both mind-sets have their own upsides and perils. The key to actually sticking with the productivity work strategy that pays off best for you is simply to tailor it what you already do. That’s much easier said than done, of course, but it’s a simple truth that hints at another reason why so many productivity hacks lose steam over the long term: One size really doesn’t fit all.