Work Better: A Christian Primer on Productivity
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Productivity is Continual 1% Improvement, Not a One-Time Achievement

One mistake I see over and over again when people want to get more productive is that they try to do too much all at once.

I'm sure at some point you’ve found several ways to improve and tried to implement all of them at the same time. And how did that work out? I’m willing to bet it lasted only a very short time before you collapsed into all your old, bad habits. Even worse, you feel guilty and begin to believe you can never change. So you actually take steps backward.

The truth is, productivity is a process, not an achievement. It is not a plateau you reach, but an ever-rising climb. Really productive people do not rely on huge bursts and then stop working. Rather, they grow constantly in tiny, almost invisible increments. Over time, these add up. And the growth never stops.

Productivity is a process, not an achievement.

Little Strokes Fell Big Oaks

Which sounds easier? Going from being a couch potato to being a workout buff or doing just one pushup today?

Obviously the single pushup is so much easier. And there lies the secret to building habits and becoming more productive through tiny changes that build on each other. After doing 1 pushup today, do 2 tomorrow. When you’re up to 15 pushups, add 1 situp. With time, you will be that workout buff!

This is the Japanese process of kaizen, or continuous, gradual progress. There is tremendous power in starting ridiculously small and easy, then growing by 1% until you are where you want to be. The image of the snail shell reminds me of this concept. The snail reminds me of the power of slow movement, while its shell gets wider and wider by the same small increments of kaizen habit-building.

BJ Fogg talks about the same thing with starting tiny habits. He uses the example of flossing just 1 tooth. It’s so small it's laughable. And that’s the point. You can definitely floss just 1 tooth. So do it. Then floss 2. Then 3. Eventually you’ll have formed the habit of flossing. However, if you had started by flossing your whole mouth, more than likely it would feel like too much at some point and you would stop.

Really productive people grow constantly in tiny, almost invisible increments

Little strokes fell big oaks.

It takes time, but slow and steady wins the race.

Do 1 pushup. Floss 1 tooth. Run for 1 minute. Get up 1 minute earlier.

Don’t Know Where to Start? Do This.

If you’re overwhelmed about where to start to get more productive, do this: Pick one thing. Only one. Don’t worry about the rest. Pick one and make a plan for how you will tackle it. Do a little research. Set goals. Get specific. Make a plan. Get accountability.

You will be tempted to pick the biggest, most urgent item on your list. Instead, pick the easiest one. It won’t make as big of a difference right away, but remember, that’s not the point. You are in for the long run, not the immediate gains. And the best way to start the lifelong journey of productivity is to pick the low-hanging fruit. Pick the easiest one, improve it each day by 1% and don’t stop until it’s routine. Then pick the next easiest one.

When I started, I chose getting up early because it is a foundational habit for many others. It wasn’t the easiest one, but it was incredibly simple. I either got up when my alarm went off or I didn’t. So I put aside my overflowing e-mail inbox, crazy to-do list, and hectic schedule. I focused only on getting up earlier. I found motivational articles. I used apps. I got accountability. And I considered it a victory if I got up at my goal time, no matter what else happened that day.

Instead of going straight from 7am (my current wake-up time) to 4:30am (my goal wake-up time), I started small and let the change build over time. The first day I got up at 6:59am. I felt a little silly. “Does that even count as getting up earlier?” I wondered. But I kept at it and the minutes kept adding up. I felt good getting up earlier so I began shaving a few minutes off instead of just one. And only after I was getting up at 4:30 automatically every day did I move on. That took almost two months. It was tempting to try tackling multiple things or move on before I was truly ready. But I’m convinced it’s only because I took the time to do it right that I’ve been able to keep growing slowly in other areas.

Don't know where to start? Pick the easiest change, improve it each day by 1% and don’t stop until it’s routine.

Instead of trying to do everything at once, what is the single easiest thing you could tackle now and stick with until it is routine? 

Tell me your ridiculous 1% growth idea in the comments.

Hi, I'm Jacob! I'm an at-home Dad and pastor in Fort Worth, TX, writing about productivity and rest. I'd love to hear from you about how I can write things that will help you specifically. You can talk to me via Facebook, Twitter, or email. And don’t forget to grab my free e-book!