Finding out what not to do can be as helpful as knowing what to do. It can be hard to determine which diet might be best for your health, but the diet of strictly fast food it is not. This goes for productivity too. Eliminating the wrong tools can be as helpful as choosing the right ones. The psychology behind this idea was first presented to me in Mindless Eating by Dr. Brian Wansink. Just as a cookie will sabotage our diets, social media can derail our work. The psychological mechanisms under each is the same, set up an effective system and you’ll have the results you want.
Step 1: Put the cookies out of sight. In his research, Wansink found that secretaries who were given candy in transparent bowls ate more than those with candy in opaque bowls. It was a empirical example of the oft-cited adage, out of sight, out of mind. For your productivity think about your digital cookie jar. Is it in sight? Can you see what’s inside? Maybe you need to take Reddit off your link bar and stop saving passwords. Maybe you need to engage the do not disturb feature of your phone. The obstacles don’t have to be big, even the smallest hindrance can change how often you reach for a treat.
Step 2: Eat only a single type of cookie. Another human aspect that Wansink found is that we like diversity in our consumption. We want sweet and salty rather than sweet or salty. Even if the only difference is visual, like with jelly beans, people consume more when there are more colors. For your productive diet then you can choose to limit your distractions to a single place. If you turn the tomato timer to twenty-two minutes and then take a five minute break, spend that time on a single site only. Scroll through Twitter, Feedly, or Amazon but not all of them. Odds are you’ll return to work sooner after one indulgence rather than many.
Step 3: Get a new dish for each thing you eat, and leave the used ones on the table. This is a visual display of how much food you’ve eaten and will likely have you eating less. In Wansink’s research he found that people at tables being cleared away ate 25% more than their peers who had their dishes left in front of them. To be more productive consider keeping open all your browser tabs to see where you’ve been. Rather than a distraction, these can be reminders that you’ve already indulged away from your most important work. You can also use software like RescueTime to see how much “snacking” you did on any given day.
The big tips about food aren’t about keeping your keyboard clear of crumbs, but finding the underlying principles that are most powerful. These ideas are found in the psychology of people and manifested in the act of eating but can be leveraged in the art of productivity.
For further reading, you can see how this applies to your diet at Better Humans.