The counterintuitive secret factor that highly productive people rely on

By Heather Hartnett

February 23, 2022
The counterintuitive secret factor that highly productive people rely on

Today, more than half of Americans consider themselves chronic procrastinators.

The rapid evolution of technology is largely to blame: on the one hand, we are more globally connected to others than ever and we have limitless information at our fingertips. On the other, life online increases physical isolation, information overload, and distraction.

In a recent workshop at Human Ventures, we asked Peter Shallard, founder of one of our portfolio companies, Commit Action, to present his thesis: Lack of human connection is at the root of the growing focus and productivity struggle.

The number of people feeling isolated has doubled in the past 30 years, a problem that has only been exacerbated by the pandemic. Mental and physical health risks aside—loneliness kills more than obesity does—isolation is the big, counterintuitive missing factor in personal productivity. A body of research is showing that regular, genuinely human accountability support can increase goal attainment by up to 95%.

Commit Action’s answer to this is clear-cut cognitive science: humans are social primates that are hardwired to be our best when we are connected.

Peter said that everything you need to know about personal effectiveness comes down to this question: “how many people on earth know if you crushed it this week, or just phoned it in?”

For the vast majority of entrepreneurs, the answer is zero.


Redefining productivity

Often, people think productivity is checking the most urgent items off a to-do list. Peter offers a new definition of productivity as “high leverage work.” The key characteristics of this type of work are:

  • Important but not urgent: The urgent work always gets done. High leverage work presents an opportunity because it’s proactive, not urgent
  • High reward and some risk: Big upside plus low(ish) risk means it’s truly worth it
  • Courageous: Your to-dos that demand courage—vs working purely smart or hard—will have the biggest impact.
  • Done in isolation: There’s no natural accountability for it because it’s always pushing beyond the status quo

Zero accountability makes high leverage work difficult, but those who figure it out will reap the rewards. Fortunately, there are a few cognitive science principles you can apply to hack your way to high leverage work.

Achieving high-leverage work

Implementation Granularity: Be specific. It’s really hard to approach a goal that feels insurmountable. Break up projects into the right-size pieces for your brain. The ideal project size is different for all of us, so that means learning what works best for you. To do that, think back to a project where you were in flow state, and ask yourself what that project size was. If you can figure that out, studies show that you’ll outperform and be more motivated.

How do you know if you’re missing this skill? You have too many #1 priorities and can’t take action, you agonize over how to get started with your work every day, or you can never tell people what you’re working on

Temporal Intention: Don’t just think about what you have to do, but when you are going to do it. The simple act of blocking time for specific projects more than doubles the likelihood of goals being accomplished and we get more done when we are time constrained. This only works if you keep your appointments with yourself: treat your most important projects like they are meetings with the most important person you know.

 How do you know if you’re missing this skill? You sit on long to-do lists for months or years, you start to feel like the passion in your work is missing, or you tend to hit plateaus because you feel there is no end in sight

Limbic resonance: Learn how to hack your mammalian brain. We are the most motivated when we think other humans are paying attention to us. Lots of us want to resist the urge to care about what others think, but if we use it as a tool, we can unlock our best work. In addition to motivating us, feeling accountable to others is essential to performance. Ongoing accountability check-ins increase the likelihood of accomplishing a goal by 95%.

Weekly productivity rituals

Once a week, take the time to plan your week and create the right cognitive conditions for high-leverage work. Ask yourself:

  • What is the highest leverage use of my time?
  • What size of accomplishment should I expect this week?
  • When am I going to commit to this work?

If you want to take this ritual to the next level, add an element of accountability (limbic resonance) by doing it with someone else. You can create accountability rituals with your team, or you can work with skilled facilitators. Peter’s company, Commit Action, uses cognitive science to help entrepreneurs, creatives and executives focus on high leverage work via a coached weekly ritual. Another great way to add accountability to your routine is through virtual coworking programs like Focusmate, My Focus Space, and Flow Club which can help give you a little extra support and motivation through connecting with others virtually to do your best work possible.

The new era of work presents both challenges and huge opportunities. The spoils will go to those victors who leverage genuine human connection to sharpen their focus and action-taking prowess.

Heather Hartnett is the CEO and founding partner of Human Ventures.

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