Practical mindful productivity

Picture a perfect leisurely Sunday morning: You wake up. Think about your breakfast or brunch. Get up, get ready, and then go enjoy it.

Now picture every stressful morning: You wake up. You’re thinking about the 15 things you need to do that day. You’re brushing your teeth while listening to a podcast and get stressed about a call you have to make later.

What’s the difference between these two days? For a long time I’ve tried all sorts of experiments to figure out how I can live in a majority of calm Sunday mornings. Because I don’t think it’s time off is what I’m really looking for. I think it’s the calm, clear, mindful way to go about a day.

Based on that thoughts I naturally started my experiments around mindfulness. I started meditating daily. While it helps but was not the magic ingredient. I did cold showers, daily pages, journalling… Name any mindfulness strategy, I probably tried it.

The experiments that worked best for me were:

media fasting, not taking in any media input at all except music.

single tasking, meaning you limit yourself to doing one thing at a time.

Both of them are impractical though, and even with all that effort my success rate was still less than my 80% goal.

I had started giving up on this idea, thinking that maybe I was just too hard on myself, maybe I should accept that most days are not filled with clarity and get on with it, when I saw this clip on youtube:

It’s Andrew Huberman, of Huberman Labs fame, talking about resetting your dopamine in the mornings. And something clicked for me. Be warned however, this is a productivity porn video.

What Huberman is saying in this video is that by explicitly setting a single goal for yourself in the morning, and then achieving that goal, you’ve started the day by practicing rewarding yourself for doing work. And I think there’s a deep truth to take from this.

Dopamine, which I’ve written about before, is a neuro transmitter that gives you drive in the form of anticipation, and a rewarding sense of achievement when you’ve done something. It’s the reason you can’t stop scrolling dumb stuff on the internet, because each new small discovery gives you a little dopamine hit.

What Huberman is saying in this video is that in the morning you are naturally a bit dopamine low, and your mind will be craving stimulation. If you give it that with social media, or news, you’ve just set your mind up for short term quick wins of consumption.

This matters because our brains adapt to repetition. The mechanics of brain plasticity mean that anything we do get’s easier with each time we do it.

So getting a dopamine kick from consumption in the morning is training our brains to seek distraction, to seek stress.

Instead if we set a goal and achieve it, like making our beds, putting away our clothes before getting breakfast, whatever it is, we’re training our brains to get rewarded by conscious action. To seek clear goals.

This effect is probably quite small day to day, but large over decades. After 20 years of morning news, you will probably find it really hard to start a day without a jolt of worry and anger.

But I believe this also works on a psychological level.

When we start the day with consumption, or reacting to events, we’re getting into the autopilot mode of living. We’re reacting to events, maybe a little behind schedule, a little short on time, thinking about the 17 things we need to do before lunch. We’re in the anxious closed mode, or system 0, depending on which schools of thought you like.

If we instead start with extremely specific goals, even though they’re small, we are putting ourselves in the active mode of living. We’re proactive about spending our time. We act instead of react. We’re in the relaxed open mode, or system 1.

This mode is, I believe, the “calm Sunday morning” lifestyle I’ve been chasing for the last 20 years.

When we are in the relaxed and open state, we’re also more present. Because we’re focused on the specific short term goal of what we’re doing. We’re not daydreaming about that time we made a friend uncomfortable, or the stressful meeting planned for later.

I think there’s one more layer to this worth thinking about. When we are overwhelmed and react, we’re constantly letting ourselves down. We’re beating ourselves up with thoughts like “I should do X more” “I really should do Y today”.

When we’re completing specific tasks, we’re basically setting short deadlines with ourselves and keeping them. So we’re building self reliance. We’re showing ourselves that we can get things done.

Instead of reminding ourselves that we’re not going to the gym more. We made the bed. Had a coffee. Read the keeping-up-with-newsletter. Called the landlord. We’re building up a chain of small successes.

I’m not sure I’m explaining this well. But I think I’ve found a key to live a more focused, mindful, and calm life.

The method is really simple:

Before you start doing things in the morning, tell yourself what you will do, and then only do that. Keep it simple enough that you can’t fail. And be specific, intentional, about what you’re doing.