When I sat down to write this post, I drew a blank. I knew what I wanted to write about, but the words just weren’t there.
My head was empty — a smooth, cavernous zilch.
So I answered some emails. And then I went to the gym. After the gym, I headed for a coffee shop, which is where I sit now, hammering out this post.
It might seem like I was procrastinating — and in a way, I was. But these procrastinatory steps were actually some of my tried-and-true tricks for getting my mind in the mood to write.
An unavoidable part of being a writer is that inspiration doesn’t always come through for us. And no matter how hard you try, you can’t force it.
But here’s a secret:
Even though we can’t force inspiration, we can learn to set the table for it.
How environment influences your productivity
For the past year or so, I’ve been obsessed with the connection between the self and the physical world.
I’ve read dozens of books and even experimented on myself.
The one thing I’ve learned is this: context matters.
As much as we’ve tried to forget it, we are creatures of space and time. We’ve managed to sidestep many limitations of both, by building machines to do things we could never have done on our own.
But that hasn’t changed the fact that simple environmental cues still influence our behaviors. Unnatural blue light keeps us up late into the night, tempers flare up more often in the heat, and the presence of a cell phone on the table decreases the quality of our conversations.
Of course, not all environmental cues are negative. In fact, some are quite useful.
In her book Alone Together, researcher Sherry Turkle observes:
“Humans are skilled at creating rituals for demarcating the boundaries between the world of work and the world of family, play, and relaxation.”
Weekends, weekdays, family dinners, changing out of work clothes when we get home — these are all boundaries people have built to separate work and leisure.
This kind of structure — the confluence of time, place, and sensation — helps us move through our day, seamlessly transitioning from one context to another. Working when it’s time to work, relaxing when it’s time to relax.
And all of this happens behind the scenes, so subtle we don’t realize it’s happening. As Adam Alter notes in Drunk Tank Pink (a book full of research on the influence of environmental cues):
“The physical world — ambient colors, locations, and weather conditions — hides in plain sight precisely because it forms a constant backdrop against which we live our ever-changing lives.”
Everything from where we are to what we’re listening to contribute to one of productivity’s most crucial components: mindset.
When you know how to leverage these cues to help control your mindset, you hold the secret to the magical thinking that makes productivity easier.
Which cues help you set the stage for productivity?
The first step of learning to use this magic for yourself is to pay attention to your habits and your feelings.
When you’re feeling your most productive, where do you tend to be? What time of day is it? What else is going on around you?
Everyone has cues and habits that help them work. Some are learned, others are innate, but the outcome is the same: You’re in the zone, being productive, and you feel good about yourself.
By observing my own behaviors, I’ve learned that starting my day right is the best thing I can do for my productivity. If I don’t stick with my morning routine, my mood the rest of the day just feels … off.
You’ll probably find that your morning routine makes a difference, too. In his book When, Dan Pink devotes a whole chapter to beginnings:
“Beginnings stay with us far longer than we know; their effects linger to the end.”
But it’s not just the time of day that matters — smaller cues can also make a big difference.
For example, I’ve found I’m much more productive if I put on jeans instead of yoga pants before I sit down to work. Strangely, wearing shoes helps even more.
At first, it might be hard to tell which cues make the most difference. If that’s the case, just pay attention to which cues “set the scene” for your most productive days.
We’re not looking for magic buttons to press — those don’t exist. We’re just looking for the cues that create the context in which we are our best, most productive selves.
Plan your day to take advantage of your productivity cues
Once you’ve figured out a few things that set the stage for your productivity, it’s time to put them to work by developing a daily routine that supports those cues.
Sometimes, this is easier said than done. Even though I knew mornings were important for my productivity, I had a hard time sticking to my routine.
To fix this, I started to pay attention to the cues that helped me have my best mornings. I came up with two things: give myself at least an hour to write and eat breakfast, and listen to the radio.
Since college, I’ve listened to NPR as I got ready. And I found that on mornings where I waited too long to turn on the radio, I tended to dawdle more. So now, the radio goes on as soon as I finish writing, and its familiar sounds and timings help keep me on track to have a good morning.
Like a school bell ringing to let students know it’s time to go to class, the radio serves as a physical cue that helps me know it’s time to get ready for work, which in turn helps set me up for a productive day.
The goal is to find cues that help keep you on track for productivity without you having to worry about it. The less work you have to do to be productive, the more energy you’ll have to get work done.
Protect your cues by staying true to their purpose
The final step in this process is an ongoing one: protect your cues.
Ideally, the habits and cues you use to be productive would work every single time. Thanks to your marvelous routine, you’d be on top of your game every day, and you’d be able to churn work out like a machine.
Unfortunately, you’re not a machine.
No matter how perfect your routine is, there will be days that are harder than others — you won’t have slept well, you’ll be preoccupied with an argument you had with your significant other, you’ll have your entire day thrown by an urgent request from a client.
That’s life, and it’s okay. You don’t protect your routine by neglecting your responsibilities or by forcing yourself to follow your routine when you’re having an off day. You protect your routine by staying true to its intention.
For example, listening to music on my headphones helps me get into the zone and focus. If I get distracted, I take off the headphones and deal with the distraction. Only when I’m ready to get back to working do I put them back on again.
This way, I’m reinforcing the idea that my headphones are for working, which in turn helps protect their purpose for my brain.
“Attention shapes the self, and is in turn shaped by it.” – Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, ‘Flow: The Psychology of Happiness’
Ultimately, this entire process is an exercise in directing your attention. Our attention and mindset can be directed by external things — like the music in my headphones — but they are also directed internally, by our goals and intentions.
By aligning these dual forces — our intentions and our surroundings — we equip ourselves to get more done, set the table for inspiration, and be our best selves.