How to Become a Breakthrough Productivity Machine Today

Last month I talked about the foundational part of being productive: we need to be clear on why we’re being productive and trim that to-do list until it’s only the things that actually matter to us. Once we’ve got that to-do list honed and focused, how do we become a well-oiled machine of productivity? Here’s how I do it.

A Well Oiled Machine?

Well, first off, becoming a “well-oiled machine” is an unachievable goal. You aren’t a machine. The human brain is based in reward systems. If something feels good or creates a positive response in your brain, you’ll do it again. You can’t just sit down and churn out checkmarks on your to-do list. Your brain is constantly weighing options with your needs in any given moment. If you need joy, relief, exercise, food, entertainment… any of those might win against a given to-do list item. Imitating a machine won’t help when your brain is looking at an unrewarding task like “call the cable company” and there are a million and five things you could do that would be more rewarding.

So what are we to do? This system isn’t broken, it just doesn’t work the way we might expect. It’s not about buckling down, gritting your teeth and just doing it. In fact, that much negativity will make it difficult to do it again the next time. We need to understand the system we’re working with and spin it in our favor. Sometimes getting started may be as simple as buckling down, but sometimes that just doesn’t work.

Getting Over the Hump of Getting Started

The first barrier to productivity is getting started. Sometimes it feels like we need inertia to get going, but where does inertia come from when we’re stuck? We can help catalyze our process by creating a feeling of forward movement. To do this I use a technique I call the “To Done” list. List everything you’ve already accomplished today. Even if the list is: woke up, got coffee, checked facebook. List every little thing. Look at how much you’ve done! Now all you have to do is do the next thing on your list!

Increasing Your Results

Sometimes the hump of getting started is more like a mountain. In these instances, we need to avoid the tendency to buckle down and instead, strategize. Let’s plot a course that’s going to improve your “mountain” climbing stamina. This involves an element of training; it’s not going to work to surmount the task once but with the consequence that you’ll never be able to climb it ever again. We need to develop and grow the muscles of productivity so that you can routinely summit this mountain. This is actually going to require that the drill sergeant take a back seat, and we cultivate some kindness towards ourselves.

First: Create a Relaxing and Desirable Environment

If work in general, or a specific type of task, seems ominous, find things that make it more pleasant or put you in a good mindset. Consider your location, the comfort of your work station, what you look at, how your outfit makes you feel, the sounds, smells, and tastes associated with working. (Cold coffee is not your friend!) All these things impact how desirable it feels to be productive. This won’t be an instantaneous fix, rather it will build with time if you consistently associate a set of stimuli with a particular type of task. Don’t hesitate to create a ritual that sets a number of sensory qualities into an optimal setting.

Second: Let Go of Punishments and Reward Your Good Behavior

Now that we’ve set up our environment, we’re going to face that drill sergeant in your mind head-on! We might think we can force ourselves into doing things, but that’s really not a winning long-term strategy. We’re going to coax. Here’s how: reduce criticism and increase celebrations.

Self-Criticism Knocks You Out of Productivity

Critical thoughts are micro-punishments that make it more difficult to be productive. To address them start by making a list of the criticisms that your brain loves to throw at you. My brain’s favorites are “you haven’t gotten _anything_ done today” and “if you don’t do more your business is going to fail.” Once you’ve jotted down a couple of favorites off your self-criticism playlist, use your logical mind to discredit them. Based on your logical mind’s perspective develop an affirmation. My affirmations might be “I get plenty done and it’s ok to have a slow day” and “I’m doing plenty to keep my business going; it’s going to be fine.”

Come up with your own affirmations, write them down and reference it when the micro-punishment comes up. With time and practice, you’ll find the affirmation starts to surface on its own and the criticisms are less frequent. This will help you stay in a productive space longer and with more ease.

Reward Yourself for Productive Behaviors

Productivity isn’t just about quieting the criticism. We also need to reward ourselves when we move in the right direction. Like with my earlier analogy of climbing a mountain, you need to celebrate every training hike. Even the short hikes; they are part of progress! Identify the behaviors that contribute to productivity for you and celebrate them! Can you celebrate every time you do your ritual to set up the optimal work environment? Can you celebrate every little task you do get completed off your task list (even if the important thing didn’t get accomplished?) Can you celebrate how long you focused (without your self-critical voice chiming in with a “yeah, but…”)

Third: Make Goals the Natural Result of Easy, Repeatable Habits

Productivity isn’t a mountain you’ll summit once, and the mountain in this analogy is not the goal. The goal is the more abstract goal that naturally results from the mountain climbing, e.g. amazing leg endurance, healthy heart and lungs, or time spent in nature. Your goal can’t be to “be productive.” Productivity needs to be a means to an end. And your productivity should result in a specific, attainable and complete-able goal. A goal of my productivity is to write a blog article once a month. (Cut it real close this month!) If I sit down to tackle blog writing semi-regularly this goal will be achieved. What goal do your behaviors connect to?

Action: Start with One Thing

I’ve covered a lot of different aspects of productivity in this article. Start small and just pick one that you think might work well for you. Set up a getting-down-to-work ritual, a behavior you want to encourage, or a clearer goal for yourself. If you’ve already been doing these things, try ending your day with a reflection on your achievements or writing a “5 things that went well” list. Choose one action and start doing it!

Want support and guidance cultivating productivity? I’m running an Accountability, Action and Acceptance Group for exactly that purpose. Check it out!

Originally published at on June 30, 2020.




Maggie is a business coach who helps launch and grow self-employed businesses. Learn how she could help you at

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Maggie Karshner

Maggie Karshner

Maggie is a business coach who helps launch and grow self-employed businesses. Learn how she could help you at

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