The secret to joyful productivity is learning how to find enjoyment in any activity — especially tasks that move your goals forward but isn’t naturally “fun” to do — being able to do what is important, no matter what it is, with a consistency of joy.
This blog post will offer some ways to learn this valuable meta-skill.
Let’s start with the idea of Muscle Memory.
Most of us can walk and talk at the same time. Yet we’re born with neither ability.
With practice, you can learn to type without having to look at each letter.
With practice, you can learn any sport you’re interested in, even though it requires the coordination of dozens of muscles at a moment’s notice.
These are all examples of muscle memory.
Through intentional repetition, any behavior or habit can become instinctual for you.
A closer look at a personal example:
I wanted to solidify my habit of doing the Energy Reboot Practice whenever I start work at the computer. Because otherwise, I can easily just plop down in front of the laptop and start doing email or other less intentional activities. Whatever comes instinctually — based on past patterns — isn’t always purposeful or optimal.
So I used this idea of muscle memory to break that pattern: I purposefully left the room, then came back in (where the computer is), sat down, and did my 30-second energy reboot practice, and got started on a purposeful task for a minute.
2 more times I repeated this exercise — leaving the room, coming back in, sitting down at the computer, doing my energy reboot, then a 1-minute work task.
The next morning, when I came to my computer to start work, I suddenly noticed a moment of choice before checking email — I realized I was now consciously aware for a few seconds and could choose whether to do my Energy Reboot Practice in that moment.
I had successfully inserted a conscious moment of choice within a pattern of behavior that had been habitual and instinctual for thousands of days. And this was all with a few minutes of intentional practice!
This is an exciting idea — any behavior you want to change, you can, by doing the following:
Step 1: Decide the new behavior.
Step 2: Go and practice it in the context where it usually happens.
Step 3: Repeat that practice 3 times now.
You will have inserted a new moment of choice into what was previously your autopilot.
When I walk into the kitchen, I was used to opening the snack cupboard and eating some junk food. It had become habitual.
With deliberate practice for a few minutes, I broke the pattern:
I practiced walking into the kitchen, right past the snack cupboard, and instead opened the refrigerator and got a carrot. Then I put it back and walked out of the kitchen.
I repeated this 3 times.
Next time I wanted to snack, I felt that conscious moment of choice. By intentionally choosing the healthier option, I began to solidify a better habit.
One final example:
When I pick up my phone, I naturally want to go and surf social media, and can lose track of time.
Deliberate practice: Pick up the phone, open the Calendar app, and think for a moment about my next task. (For leisure, open the Kindle app and read a book for a minute.) Put down the phone. Then repeat that exercise 3 times. I have now broken an unhelpful instinct, and will begin a new behavior, thanks to intentional repetition.
Conscious practice can create any new way of being.
Using this technique, even fear can be dispelled.
The psychologist Albert Bandura conducted laboratory studies demonstrating that someone with a fear of snakes can, through gradual exposure, lose that fear, handling snakes with no problem! This is all done without hypnosis, completely conscious.
The phobic patients began by watching movies of other people who are calm when handling snakes. That made them more open to starting the progressive exposure to snakes, which led to overcoming their fear completely.
This can work for you as well:
When you think of a task you dislike, such as taxes, could you imagine — see a movie in your mind — a zenlike master approaching their taxes with a mindful breath, even a joyful ease?
This is something I have actually practiced: Opening my spreadsheet for doing taxes, consciously breathing and putting a gentle smile on my face, and intentionally being grateful for each line item, thinking about the importance or necessity of each item, even marveling at it.
Here are the steps for overcoming negative emotional associations of any task:
Step 1: Imagine in your mind (or write down if it’s easier) a scene in which you are doing the task without any negative emotions, but instead, doing it in a way that you would enjoy, e.g. with a mindful breath, gentle smile, a sincere appreciation of the opportunity to do that task, with a marveling at the details, or in a joyful service to your growth and to the greater whole.
Step 2: Intentionally practice that behavior and mindset now.
Step 3: Repeat the practice at least 3 times.
Again, we are using the power of repetition to create an emotional muscle memory for how we approach the task.
In this way, you can change your relationship to any activity you “have to” do, into one that you can actually enjoy.
- Perhaps you’ve wanted to make regular videos like I do, but you’re steeped in self-criticism and perfectionism. Practice by pressing the Record button, then consciously replacing any negative emotion with something you would enjoy, perhaps a feeling of genuine connection to a caring audience member, or perhaps, a sense of adventure in the journey of your growth?
- Perhaps you’ve been meaning to contact some potential clients but you’re anxious and fearful about rejection, even though you know that if you do contact them, some of them are likely to hire, or refer you. Practice starting the contacting process and replacing any negative emotion with something you’d enjoy… perhaps imagining how grateful they (or someone they know) would be to hear that your service exists?
Again, it is possible to change your relationship to any task that you wish to do more consistently… to be able to do it with joy!
This can replace the idea of “discipline”, if you haven’t loved that word.
Instead of powering or hustling through a project with unpleasant feelings, use intentional practice to change your feelings about that task. As you’ve seen from all the above examples, even 3 minutes can start to change a habitual pattern.
You are a bundle of habits, of muscle memory, both physical and emotional. Whatever you think you “are”, can be radically different — if you are willing to practice a new way.
Just 3 minutes can set you on a new path. You are truly flexible and can become anything you passionately set your mind to.The key is to keep returning to the practice.