Pretty much everyone wants to be more productive, especially if we can work more effectively or efficiently. Work smarter, not harder. One way to increase productivity is to be kind to your future self. Self-compassion can be a good guide to how and what to do in a day. Take a few minutes to imagine your future self, the one who will be there a week from now, or a month. Then take actions now that will help that person be happier, healthier, or well-cared for.
It might seem like being kind to yourself is just a dodge of hard work. It isn't. You're going to need food, shelter, and all the other necessities of life, not just for this moment, but in the future, too. People can worry way too much, but future planning helps create much better conditions and provide for those needs. So by thinking about how to treat your future self well, you will naturally consider what needs you'll have in the future... and take some steps now, the only time anyone ever has, to meet those needs.
Acting with self-compassion now tends to take away most of the drudgery. Instead of chores and jobs that we resent, the same actions become expressions of kindness. How could I resent actions that help myself, actions that I do out of self-compassion? Also, instead of flailing around without a clear plan, I'm more focused on doing the things that help me the most. Instead of procrastinating applying for a job by doing the dishes, for example, I focus on the most important thing first.
It might seem like this is a rosy, optimistic theory that doesn't stand up in gritty reality. You don't have to believe me. Just try it. Really imagine yourself a week or month from now, as clearly as you can. Then think about what you can do right now to help that person be happier or healthier or well-cared for. Use all the self-compassion you can generate. What's the most important action you can take for your future self's benefit? If the action is clear and you do it, this works.
The best way to succeed at study and work includes some play. People need to recharge and relax. I like more free time than I need, you understand, but everybody needs some time to relax. So be kind to yourself, and find your sunlight.
The first part of finding your sunlight is recreation and recharging. These are the activities that help people relax and regain energy. To be clear, people do a lot of pointless and stupid things in the pursuit of fun and relaxation. Most of those aren't actually relaxing. In fact, a lot of supposedly-recreational activities bring a lot of stress, distress, pain, and heartache. I'm not a Puritan, but I do think we're way better avoiding all that garbage. In fact, everyone around us benefits when we avoid doing stupid things. Sometimes we cause other people's suffering. For example, suppose people seek relaxation in alcohol. No problem. Suppose people pass out drunk four times a week, every week, for years. Big Problems. Damaged relationships, lost jobs, and liver disease could be just the start. It could include a drunk driving accident that kills someone. Sometimes we cause each other's suffering.
So what is recreation? It's different for different people. You can recognize it when you do it, though, in several ways. It's fun. It lets you slow down and stop rushing around for a bit. For example, I played indoor intramural volleyball some in grad school. No trophies, no fans, no prizes, no hoopla. Just enough structure (days, times, net set-up, and rules) to organize. I was on the English department team, and we played the chemistry team one day. We only had three people, not enough according to the rules. The chemistry team were very concerned with the rules, with writing down a victory by forfeit. Our team captain said, “You win. We lose. Now, do you want to play?” The chemistry team leader was suspicious, as if we were trying to cheat somehow. Our guy had to repeat himself at least twice, patiently.
The chemistry team eventually agreed. Six of them trotted onto the court, while the other three prepared to rotate in as per the rules. The three of us looked at them across the net a moment. Finally, my friend said that we'd happily take them on as the terrible three, but would anyone like to play on this side to make a more enjoyable game? Eventually one guy joined us to make a team of four.
I gently suggest that most of the chemistry team were not approaching the activity as recreation. They'd shown up, apparently not to play and have fun, but to write down a victory in a competition that truly didn't matter. Then most were ready to rush off to the next thing even though we had the net and court for another 53 minutes. Most of them loosened up, though. We had a good game, especially when another guy switched sides and a woman on our team who had lost track of time turned up.
Another good example for me is gardening. I don't have to rush. I don't have to be anywhere else just then. I can take care of the plants. I can just observe them, or close my eyes and feel the sun on my face. The bees that come to the flowers aren't scary. I know they won't bother me unless we stumble into each other. The vast living world breathes together. I feel connected to the world, or less like a separate isolated bit and more part of it.
Another part of recreation, then, may be to recognize that we're part of something bigger. We're part of the larger world. My problems stop being problems for a little while because I'm focused on being here now. If that sounds like mindfulness meditation, it at least has a lot in common. One goal of mindfulness mediation is to learn to focus on being aware of the moment and accepting it. One psychologist, Dr. Karen Wegela, say that people practicing mindfulness meditation “become more present with ourselves just as we are.” She goes on to say that this “shows us glimpses of our inherent wisdom and teaches us” how to stop creating more suffering trying to escape unpleasantness.
It's worth noting that mindfulness meditation has roots in Buddhism, but modern Western psychology and psychiatry have found a lot of value in it as well. An article by Dr. Edo Shonin points out that it's probably the fastest-growing area of psychological research right now. Dr. Shonin and the other writers explore the quality of the research. They found many studies with positive results, but a fair chunk of those results relied on self-reported data. (It's tricky to measure how someone feels without them telling you as part of the answer.) I take this as a good sign. Scientists are finding a lot of real value in mindfulness, but they continue to cautiously check facts and assumptions.
Mindfulness meditation, then, could be recreation for you. It could at least help you recognize the feeling of calm focus and moment of peace that good recreation provides. This leads right to the second feature of finding your sunlight, which is to ground us.
Here's what I mean by grounding. People who are grounded or centered are calmer, with a core of strength to draw from in stressful times. I can't help but think of this in terms of martial arts. The centered martial artist is stable on his or her feet, capable of movement as needed in any direction. There's an alert calmness. It's a strength. Emotionally grounded, centered people have the same calm for the same reasons: they can take whatever actions they need to with a minimum of energy. Good recreation helps us regain that centered-ness. We regain our balance, emotionally and spiritually.
Psychologists talk about mental and emotional balance as resilience. This is the ability to deal with a crisis and return to a calmer state. For example, an American Psychological Association article “The Road to Resilience” offers 10 ways to build resilience. They include self-discovery, keeping things in perspective, maintaining a hopeful outlook, taking care of yourself, and mediation. Huh, finding things that help you feel grounded helps you get through the tough times. What helps you re-center?
Finally, recreation reminds us why we work so hard. Good recreation is enjoyable living, and it reminds us that there are purposes for what we do. Did you work well today? Did you make progress towards your goals? Stay focused on tasks and accomplish them? You did all that for your future self, to make things better in the future. Well done! But that's a bit abstract. Imagining a better future is fantastic, but you worked today. There should be some reward today. A bit of healthy recreation after the progress makes it easier to imagine the futures that we hope for.
Maybe this all seems a bit theoretical so far. After all, what does it have to do with college student success? College students, maybe in particular community college students, tend to be really busy. You may be taking classes full time, working full time, and raising a family (full time). By my count, that's three full time jobs, and you don't get any more hours in a day than anyone else. On the one hand, people may try to cut out almost all recreation to get all the work done. It feels virtuous and temporary, but people need some time to recharge. Nursing students that I've spoken with, in particular, seem more likely than others to see sacrificing all recreation as a noble necessity. If you skip all healthy recreation, though, you may forget why you're working. You might get totally discouraged and want to quit from less resilience. Or students may choose a lot of unhealthy outlets.
Whatever you're doing, make sure it's healthy and benefits you. This makes it better for others, as well. When you make progress towards your goals, you also earn a little time for healthy recreation. You wouldn't deny anyone else a few minutes to recharge and re-center. Be as kind to yourself. Everyone else in contact with you benefits, too, since you can bring your calmest, most stable self to life's many challenges. The more you succeed in college and your career, the more value you bring to your community too. So find your sunlight for the rest of us, too.
“Road to Resilience.” American Psychological Association. 2018. https://www.apa.org/helpcenter/road-resilience.aspx
Shonin, Edo et al. “Mindfulness in psychology - a breath of fresh air?” British Psychological Journal. Vol 28, 2015, pp 28-31. https://thepsychologist.bps.org.uk/volume-28/january-2015/mindfulness-psychology-breath-fresh-air.
Wegela, Karen. “How to Practice Mindfulness Meditation: Mindfulness is important; how do we develop it?” Psychology Today. 19 Jan. 2010. https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/the-courage-be-present/201001/how-practice-mindfulness-meditation
People can improve their productivity by choosing their work times, places, and rewards. People's attention levels vary throughout the day, so it's best to match the task to the available attention. People work better by creating or adapting a space for their work, especially studying. People work the best when they also play and relax, so good routines include some time for recreation too. All of this will help you improve your productivity to get more done and enjoy life more, too.
People have only limited amounts of attention in a day. Also, our attention levels naturally vary throughout the day. The biochemistry of this focuses on circadian rhythms. Some of the research comes from education, since the times that students can pay attention the best affects how well they can learn. The results...vary. One study finds that delaying the start of school by an hour helps. Another study finds that many people struggling with reading and recall tests (generally done in the morning) do better with the same tasks and tests in the afternoon. That finding particularly intrigues me because it suggests that the best times are different for different people.
Unless you're visiting from Krypton, it makes sense to manage your attention by matching your work to your attention level. The master of this is Graham Alcott in his amazing book Productivity Ninja . Briefly, he identifies three levels of attention: high, medium, and low. The highest, most focused attention is very limited, and should be used on the most challenging, important tasks. It's usually at the same times everyday, so you can usually plan to get your best work done during those times. The lowest levels of attention and focus can be used for work, but it's best for the sort of mindless stuff that doesn't require too much thought and decision making. Fortunately, the lowest levels are fairly short, too. There's a good amount of medium level attention, where you can clear most items on your to-do list.
During my lowest levels of attention, I have mush mind. Doing much thinking is tough. Not impossible, but way tougher. For me, this happens mid-afternoon, a hour or so after lunch, and can continue until a couple of hours before dinner. So I deliberately plan to do chores, basic errands, and exercise during that time of day. My very best times are about an hour after breakfast, an hour before lunch, and maybe an hour late at night. I try to make the big decisions and plan during those times. Those are also the times I'm most likely to be inspired in writing. As William Butler Yeats says though, “Do not wait to strike till the iron is hot; but make the iron hot by striking”.
The point is, you can study and note your attention and focus levels throughout the day. You can find the precious few hours when you're most focused naturally. You can find the fortunately few hours where you're at low ebb. And the fairly plentiful times in the middle. You can choose to match your highest-attention tasks to your best-attention times, and so on. If this is just enough to whet your appetite, go buy Graham Alcott's book. He sets out step by step instructions for how to do each part of this process in an easy, approachable style.
Not only is studying and working on a regular schedule really helpful to increase your productivity, but establishing a regular place to study and work helps you learn and work better, too. You don't have to have a fancy office or room just for studying. In fact, the kitchen table could be your regular study place. Wipe it down, move the salt and pepper and napkins, and the little ritual makes it your study place. It might not be ideal –kitchens tend to be high traffic areas for the whole family. But you could make it work if you need. Maybe you'd also have to teach the other family members that books out equals leave you alone unless it's an emergency. Where do you study best? How do you handle balancing work and family?
A student of mine, a mother with kids in elementary school, told me a story about how she finally got the assigned novel read. She just couldn't get much read because of the constant interruptions from her kids and husband. Finally, she announced a few things. She said that she loved them, but that she had to read and study to pass her class. She was going into the bedroom at 4:30pm. She was staying for one hour. She would rejoin the family then, and dinner would be at the usual time. Unless someone was bleeding, she would not be disturbed. And then she ignored knocks on the door except to listen to hear if anyone was hurt. After laying down the law, her reading pace soared. She finished the novel, wrote essays, and did everything else she needed to do to pass the class. She also spent a lot of quality time with her family, just separate from study time. My students don't always stay in touch, but I believe she went on to become a nurse and provide better for her family. Side note: did a teacher make a big difference for you? Have you ever told them that? If so, super. If not, why not look up their office phone or email and send them a brief message to thank them? I guarantee it would make their day!
One of my coworkers finishes all his work in his office before leaving for the day. He wants time at home to relax and spend with his girlfriend. Another coworker takes a lot of work home with her because she works better later at night. There isn't one single schedule or place to study and work that fits everyone perfectly. There are some definite ideas to keep in mind. You'll need to observe and experiment on your own. If you're in a relationship, married, or have kids, you'll also need to figure things out together with your partner, family, or kids. It probably won't be the first time you had to figure out something as a family. It won't be the last.
When my friend left the army to open up an affordable medical clinic, she went from long hours at work to much more time at home as she studies and sets up her practice. Her routines changed a lot. So did the routines of her superdad husband as he home-schools their teenage daughter and runs a business. Their daughter's routines changed, too. They're figuring it out together, and I'm confident their adapted routines will have them working well and productively. What parts of your routine are working well? When was the last time you needed to adapt or update them?
Building routines for where and when you work will have your productivity soaring and you work and study humming along. However, life isn't all work. As a reward for work, your routines should include some play, recreation, or relaxation. Fun. Enjoyment. You know, part of the reason you work so hard is so that you can enjoy life. So enjoy life, just a little, each day. What helps you recharge? For me, spending some time outdoors with nature helps me recharge. I garden, and taking care of the plants is soothing, not a chore. (I imagine that if I farmed or did road work for a living, I'd recharge by doing something indoors that had nothing to do with plants or roads.) I play computer games too. Recently, I started playing Equilinox, which is much like a laid-back city builder, except with an ecosystem instead of a city.
But wait, is playing and relaxing some every day the most efficient way to work? A study about workers at a college in Kenya concludes that yes, yes it is. “The study concluded that recreation is a significant factor in employee performance; increases the level of commitment, enhances bonding and improves employee wellbeing with a consequent positive effect on job satisfaction, service provision, customer satisfaction and productivity.” That was recreation while at work! If your job is studying right now, some recreation might increase your job satisfaction and dedication too. Just in case you want a more local perspective, another article sums up the same ground nicely. The reunion of work and play in Western business was experimented with in the dot.com expansion in the 90's. The article finds much the same results as the scholarly Kenya study before offering to help. What helps you recharge? So relax, you can relax... and still study and work.
In conclusion, there are three great ways to increase your productivity. First, consider how your attention level varies throughout the day and how different work requires different levels of attention. Then match the two as closely as you can, and a regular schedule will emerge. Second, establish a regular place (or places) to work and study. Third, make some time each day to play and for recreation. Contrary to a common cultural assumption, a little fun actually energies your performance. What else should I add here?
Allcott, Graham. Productivity Ninja: Worry Less, Achieve More, and Love What You Do. London:
Icon Books, 2014.
Hansen, Sarah. “How to Maximize Productivity Through Fun in the Workplace.” Dec. 18, 2013.
Lufi, Dubi et al. “Delaying school starting time by one hour: some effects on attention levels in
adolescents” Journal of clinical sleep medicine : JCSM : official publication of the American
Academy of Sleep Medicine vol. 7,2 (2011): 137-43.
Mokaya, Samuel O. and Jomo Kenyatta. “Effects of Workplace Recreation on Employee
Performance.” International Journal of Humanities and Social Science. Vol. 2, 3
Wile, Amanda J. and Gary A. Shouppe. “Does Time-of-Day of Instruction Impact Class
Achievement?” Perspectives in Learning: A Journal of the College of Education & Health
Professions. Columbus State University. Volume 12, Issue 1, Spring 2011.
Gregory Hanks has taught community college for upwards of 17 years. He's helped thousands of students achieve more of their potential, write better, and earn their degrees. In 2017, he left a traditional teaching role to help more people like you get better results, faster.
Copyright 2019 G. Hunter Hanks Media L.L.C.