Conversations about productivity have turned into a math game: everyone is looking for the perfect formula or equation. This rational approach to how to make the most out of our time creates a huge emotional burden. We spend more time worried about not doing more than actually doing stuff. We get caught in a vicious cycle –feeling unsatisfied- that goes on and on. That’s not productive.

I believe we should shift the conversation around productivity. We have to stop obsessing about how much we can accomplish and bring back the joy in what we do.

Shut up, legs!

We need to shut up that internal voice. The one that is telling you that you can’t do it or you’re too busy. Same as pain, it’s something that you need to overcome in order to recover the joy of doing.

When asked how he could keep up such high-pedaling speeds, Jens Voigt coined his catchphrase. “I scream: shut up, legs,” the German road cyclist told the press. It’s because when we start to feel some pain -physical or mental- we haven’t yet reached full capacity. You can either follow that voice (and quit), or you continue pushing. Believe me, it’s really rewarding to see how you can go beyond your (perceived) limits.

Unfortunately, organizations –both in the academic and corporate world- believe that removing pain it’s better for people. Actually, by creating a too easy environment, they end weakening people’s determination. The “no pain, no gain” is not a masochist approach but rather a way towards personal growth. Going beyond your limits might feel uncomfortable –an even hurt- at the beginning. Yet it’s critical to build resilience: that rewarding experience of achieving something that, at first, you thought you couldn’t.

Productivity is a habit that needs to be built up. When I started biking more frequently as a way to survive Chicago’s fierce weather, I went for 15 miles. And it felt like a lot. I kept pushing myself little by little until a 30-mile ride became my new normal. I kept aiming for longer distances: my first Century (100 miles) was a huge achievement that I will never forget. Today, riding 75 or 100 miles has turned into something completely achievable. But it wasn’t always easy. I had to challenge myself to improve my physical endurance and, most importantly, win the mind game.

Turning the mind game into a fun ride

Your ability to learn is not fixed –according to Carol Dweck from Stanford University- it can actually change with your effort. Your brain can grow and change in response to the challenges you face. If you don’t see failure as something permanent, your brain will overcome it and persevere. Here are some tips I learned along the way:

  • Split a long ride into smaller laps: when dealing with a problem, don’t get stuck on the big challenge. Break it down into smaller chunks. Solving a small problem is always simpler. The joy of quick problem solving will boost your energy. You’ll build a habit of checking things off of your list faster.
  • Let your mood dictate how you ride: feeling like you want to explore? Maybe it’s time to brainstorm new ideas. Feeling bored? Try learning new things to push you out of your comfort zone. Feeling low on energy? Take care of ordinary tasks. Let the habit of doing refill your tank.
  • Shorten your rides and ride more often: Why should meetings last one full hour? Or even 30 minutes? Earlier this year, we started with our team working on shorter meetings. 15-minutes-long meetings have become my favorites. You’ll be amazed at how much you can accomplish in that time frame when everyone’s energy is still high.
  • Make room for recovery: always make time for other needs in-between meetings. By leaving a 5-minute window, you will always have a cushion to get ready for what’s next.
  • Focus on the ride, not just on the destination: Enjoying the scenery as you ride will keep your mood up and make the effort more enjoyable. Don’t let the outcome overshadow the journey.
  • Build your pre-ride ritual: like it or not we are animals and, as such, we can be conditioned. My ritual is to plug my earphones and play “You Go To My Head” by Cassandra Wilson before I jump into my bike. My legs start to feel the excitement, ready to roll.

Productivity is not about to-do lists but to-enjoy lists. It’s up to you to create your path and rituals towards enjoyment. It could take close to two months to turn it into a habit. In the meantime, enjoy the ride. One lap at a time.

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