How’s that for a headline? Headlines are an arms race these days, with every article competing to toss in more excitement and bigger promises.
One of my biggest annoyances is the way “science” is shamelessly used to back up weak claims in link-bait listicles. You may have noticed how common it is to include the phrase “backed by science” in a headline lately.
Unfortunately, as John Oliver exposed earlier this year, most reporting on scientific studies can’t be trusted:
Articles that claim to be backed by science are often wrong for a host of reasons, from misinterpretation of results, to poorly designed studies, to playing a game of “telephone” where one article reports on another article, which reports on another… until all original truth is lost and dozens of media outlets report that smelling farts cures cancer.
Even if a study is interpreted and reported on correctly, the results of one single study shouldn’t be used to make broad conclusions. Individual studies often contradict one another, to the point where everything we eat both causes and prevents cancer:
And here’s the craziest part of scientific research: only a small percentage of findings from studies are even reproducable. Several large scale attempts to reproduce scientific results found that only between 10% and 33% of studies could be replicated successfully.
To put it another way, between 66% and 90% of studies can’t be duplicated. Either the results were a fluke, or the study was designed poorly. Scientists are incentivized to publish sensational results, which leads to iffy science…
Science Can’t Be Trusted?
Before you conclude that science can’t be trusted, remember that science is a long, slow process based on mountains of evidence. Individual studies are only data points in a much bigger picture.
Scientific consensus (the collective judgment, position, and opinion of the community of scientists in a particular field of study) can be trusted. Individual studies can not. Consensus is the process that proves important theories like gravity, motion, the movement of planets, the germ theory of disease, thermodynamics and evolution.
The bottom line is this: don’t put too much stock into individual scientific studies, or the articles that report on individual studies. Use each of these as more data points (but not absolute truth) in your own knowledge of the world.
Back to The 10-Minute Activity that Could Make You More Productive Forever
I started writing this article to tell you about a 10-minute daily activity that could make you more productive.
As I outlined the article and looked into the supporting research, I found myself leaning hard on one scientific study to make a point. The more I dug into the study, the weaker it felt, and the less I found it to really be related to the technique I’m going to share with you.
I’ll tell you about the research anyway, so you can make your own judgement, and so you can hopefully see through fresh eyes how skeptical you should be when articles on blogs and in news media use science to make a point.
The point of an article like this is to convince you of something. In this case, to convince you that a technique is worth trying. Research is just one way to convince someone of something. Other ways include using stories, anecdotes, case studies, psychology and plain old reason.
Let’s start with a story.
I used to work without a to-do list. This was early in my career, when I was just 20 years old, working full time as an IT coordinator for local government and going to college in the mornings and evenings.
I worked 9 to 5 and had several more hours of classes each day. Somehow I managed to do a great job at work and a decent job at school, without keeping a list of things I needed to do. Every once in a while, if it felt like I had a lot of things to do, I’d write down a big list on a piece of paper and work from that for a while. But mostly I just kept a list in my head. Maybe my memory was just better back then. Maybe to-do lists aren’t as critical as we all think they are. Or, maybe most of us are using them wrong.
Eventually I started using to-do lists, first for my personal tasks, and later when I became an entrepreneur I built long lists of to-do items for the business. Sometimes these lists would stretch to hundreds and hundreds of items. Ideas, really.
Eventually these lists would get so long that I’d ignore my to-do app altogether, in favor of working from memory or a piece of paper again.
Then, over several years, two techniques radically changed my approach to to-do lists and made me far more effective than before:
First, I adopted the famous Ivy Lee “six things I must do tomorrow” approach, adapted from a story about Charles M. Schwab from 1918. Schwab commissioned Ivy Lee, a consultant to help make his managers at Bethlehem Steel more productive:
“He [Ivy Lee] advised managers to list and number their top priorities every day, and work on tasks in the order of their importance until daily time allows, not proceeding until a task was completed. For this suggestion company head Charles M. Schwab later paid him $25,000 (the equivalent of $400,000 in 2016 dollars), saying it had been the most profitable advice he had received.”
Here is how James Clear summarizes the approach:
- At the end of each work day, write down the six most important things you need to accomplish tomorrow. Do not write down more than six tasks.
- Prioritize those six items in order of their true importance.
- When you arrive tomorrow, concentrate only on the first task. Work until the first task is finished before moving on to the second task.
- Approach the rest of your list in the same fashion. At the end of the day, move any unfinished items to a new list of six tasks for the following day.
- Repeat this process every working day.
Later, I learned about productivity journaling, first in episode 99 of The Fizzle Show. The idea behind productivity journaling is simple: spend 15 minutes at the end of your day to reflect on what you did.
Research from Harvard University (here it comes…) showed that workers in training who spent the last 15 minutes of each day reflecting on what they learned that day performed 23% better on a final assessment test than workers who spent the last 15 minutes of each day simply doing more tasks.
Here are the exact instructions provided to the reflection group:
“Please take the next 15 minutes to reflect on the training day you just completed. Please write about the main key lessons you learned as you were completing your training. Please reflect on and write about at least two key lessons. Please be as specific as possible.“
This study is about training effectiveness, not overall productivity, but it shows that 15 minutes of reflection to end the day was much more effective than 15 minutes of additional work, for this group. This research actually included three separate experiments on different groups, each of which showed significant performance benefits associated with reflection compared to additional task experience.
These two approaches can easily be combined into one daily 10-15 minute activity: end every work day by reflecting on what you did, and what you learned, followed by writing down the most important tasks to accomplish the next day. Start the next day by working on your most important tasks in order of priority until each is completed. Rinse and repeat.
How well does this approach work? In The Fizzle Show episode I mentioned earlier, we interviewed Mike Vardy and Shawn Blanc, two entrepreneurs who use productivity journaling, combined with the Ivy Lee approach. They’re both enthusiastic about the process and end every day with it.
Shawn noted that this approach helps him focus on the “quadrant two” activities (in Steven Covey’s language — quadrant two represents things that are important but not urgent, the most important category of tasks on your list):
I am doing it more [the most important stuff] because I’m recognizing it, I’m training my mind to recognize, this is the important work, this is what you should be doing. It’s interesting to see how things have shifted for me.
Listen to the full podcast episode on productivity journaling:
After hearing these stories and reading more about productivity journaling, Chase and I each decided to give this approach a shot. Chase swears by the approach and has followed it religiously. From my perspective, I’ve noticed his output has remained solidly high, without many dips.
For me, using this process works wonders, when I remember to do it consistently. That’s the trick with most productivity hacks, getting them to stick, to become habits.
How to Try this Approach:
Again, this process doesn’t have to be long or difficult. Here are some tips to get started:
- Use an app like Day One that makes it easy to add daily journal entries and provides reminders when you want them.
- End each day with 10-15 minutes of reflection and planning. Simply ask these two questions: “what did I do today? What are the most important tasks to finish tomorrow?”
- Write either bullets or stream of consciousness, whatever works best for you.
- Reflect on what you accomplished, and what you learned.
- Include both your business and personal life if you like.
- There’s no need to revisit your journal entries, unless you want to.
- Start the next day focused on your most important tasks. Work on each one until it’s done, in order of priority.
Everyone I have talked to who has tried this method raves about it and claims to be much more productive (and focused on tasks that actually matter) than before.
Have you tried productivity journaling? Will you try it?
Give productivity journaling a shot for a week. See how you feel and pay attention to how much you accomplish. Come back here and tell us if it made you more productive.
Have you tried this approach before? If so, let us know how well it has worked for you in the comments below!
Try Our Productivity Essentials Course Free
Your ability to get things done, to execute, will define your success more than anything else. Ideas are important, but they’re really just a multiplier of execution.
As an entrepreneur, freelancer or independent creative person, you have to learn how to focus on what matters most. Simply being busy won’t ensure you’re making progress.
We talk a lot about productivity around here because we know how essential it is. We also know that it’s possible to train yourself to become more productive over time. Every successful entrepreneur I know has evolved their personal productivity systems over time.
Inside the Fizzle training library, we have a full course on Productivity Essentials aimed to help you get more done and stop procrastinating. It’s full of techniques and frameworks like CEO vs. Worker Bee, along with exercises to put you on track.
You can take the Productivity Essentials course for free, along with any of our other courses included as part of your completely free trial of Fizzle. Sign up today and click on the “library” tab to find this course and the dozens of others, including our completely rebuilt Start a Blog that Matters course.