Increase Your Productivity: 5 Easy Ways to Get Things Done Even When You are Stuck

Productivity is such a mystery for most of us. In a previous article, I wrote at length and I admit, rather philosophically, about getting things done. In this article, I am going to do something a little different. Clients often ask me for specific tips to help them get moving and increase their productivity. We’ve all had the experience of being completely blocked, seemingly unable to get anything done, and struggling to get moving. Some of this is mood and energy based. When we are tired, sleep deprived, or blue, it’s hard to motivate to do anything, especially tasks that are not fun or interesting. But life demands that we function even under these circumstances, so here are 5 tips for how to get moving when you are blocked.


1. Priming the Getting Things Done Pump

The first secret of increasing your productivity is to prime your “getting things done” pump by getting something done, anything. Pick a small task that you’ve avoided or failed to do for a long time. It can be anything. It should take no more than 5 or 10 minutes to complete. The key here is that you are going to complete something, and it’s something you’ve been avoiding for a long time.

I picked a Microsoft Class Action legal settlement form that entitled me to $125 in rebates on computer products. I had sent it in a long time ago, but it had been rejected and returned on a technicality. I pulled it out, found an appropriate receipt to attach it to, and put it in an envelope, and mailed it. Time? About 8 minutes. Not only did I get something done, but I made $125 in 8 minutes, that’s $937 per hour!

The principle is to get something a small task done, which flexes your “getting things done” muscles. By picking something you’ve avoided for a while, you get an even bigger kick.

2. The Smallest Piece Technique

You can use a related technique even for huge and complicated tasks that we all tend to avoid starting, and thus never finish. If you have a huge task, break it down into component pieces. Then pick a very small piece, a piece that will take 5 to 10 minutes, and do it.

This breaks the ice and gets you moving on the big task. Often once you’ve done the first small piece you can then do more pieces. Often it is best to use a pump-priming strategy here. Pick the smallest piece there is, and get it done. For instance, if you want to do your taxes, you might simply set the task of pulling out your tax folders and putting them on your desk. That’s it, you are done. (But now you want to do more, don’t you!)

This also works well for getting started with exercise. Rather than saying to yourself, “I’m going to take a 1-hour walk”, and then doing nothing, decide to take a 5-minute walk. Once you are outside and walking, you probably will find yourself walking for more than 5 minutes. The key is to set the task of walking 5 minutes every day, and then you break down your resistance.

3. The Dice Man (or Woman) Technique

The next technique is a good one if you find yourself frozen with indecision. You have many important tasks to do, and you can’t decide which one to do first. You are like an octopus that is pulled in many different directions by each of its tentacles and hence is frozen in place completely. This can really harm your productivity. 

In this case, use the Diceman strategy. The The Dice Man is the title of a comedic novel published in 1971 by George Cockcroft under the pen name Luke Rhinehart, in which a psychiatrist begins to make all his life decisions using a set of dice. (It’s a wild novel, and pretty interesting.)

To use this strategy, make a short list of the some of your main tasks. Number them 1-6 or 1-12. Then throw one or two dice, and do the one that the dice indicates. Or you can throw darts at the list, or even just toss a penny onto the list, and do the task the penny falls upon.

What this does it to short-circuit the part of your brain that is trying to prioritize many equally important tasks, and gets you moving and finishing a task. Often, once you do this, it is much easier to continue picking tasks and doing them. Sometimes the secret to productivity is just to do anything. 

4. The Entertainment Strategy

What about those tasks that are just plain boring? For instance, like filing, or unloading or loading the dishwasher. The best way to do these tasks is to pair them with some other activity that is fun.

For loading or unloading the dishwasher, you could use a phone with a hands-free headset, and talk to someone you like while you take care of the dishes. The same technique is useful for straightening up the house. For filing, this is also a good technique. Another approach is to do the boring task while watching or listening to some entertainment. I find baseball and football games on television perfect for tasks like filing. Both have many slow points, which allows me to get a lot done without missing key points. Listening to a good show on the radio also works. I have a whole bunch of multitasking media consumption methods that help increase my productivity.  Even the famous writer, Tim Ferris, uses this technique, putting the movies Casino Royale and Shawn of the Dead on repeat, muted, late at night, to provide an illusion of social contact while writing late at night. 

5. When All Else Fails, Bribe Yourself!

Another way of increasing your productivity, and getting unpleasant boring tasks done is to pair them with specific rewards. For instance, let’s say you have a big task to do like doing your taxes. This is a task that takes a couple of days. Before you start, set yourself a specific reward once you have finished. It could be that you get to buy something for yourself. Or go do an activity that you like. The key is to make sure that the reward is big enough to motivate the task. Telling yourself you get to eat a piece of pie after spending two days doing taxes won’t work. It probably will take something bigger, and not pie! I call this strategy “paying yourself to get things done.”

So there you have it. Five quick ways to increase your productivity, explode your resistance and get something done! Good luck!

I have to go now and pay one bill.

Copyright 2008 The Psychology Lounge/TPL Productions

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Dr. Andrew Gottlieb is a clinical psychologist in Palo Alto, California. His practice serves the greater Silicon Valley area, including the towns of San Jose, Cupertino, Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Los Altos, Menlo Park, San Carlos, Redwood City, Belmont, and San Mateo. Dr. Gottlieb specializes in treating anxiety, depression, relationship problems, OCD, and other difficulties using evidence-based Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT). CBT is a modern no-drug therapy approach that is targeted, skill-based, and proven effective by many research studies. Visit his website at or watch Dr. Gottlieb on YouTube. He can be reached by phone at (650) 324-2666 and email at: Dr. Gottlieb Email.

2 thoughts on “Increase Your Productivity: 5 Easy Ways to Get Things Done Even When You are Stuck

  1. When you need to organize or clean up, start with the largest thing in the room. Why? Because the largest item will make the most impact thus encouraging you to do more.

    Also, don’t take everything out at once when you’re cleaning out an area. Organize as you go. You’ll then avoid getting intimidated by a huge mess scattered all over the floor. You should first have bins or bags for “donate” and “toss.” Put the items directly into the bags so you keep the area organized and you don’t hesitate and pull it out to keep. If you haven’t worn or used something in a year, ask yourself if you really need it. Once you start clearing out unnecessary items, you’ll probably feel good about how clean and clutter free your area looks. My kids and I have brought our donations directly to a homeless shelter to get satisfaction of seeing others who are less fortunate use our things.

  2. Thanks for the comment. All good ideas. I would relabel the first concept as “Always take the Elephant out of the room first, before the sparrow!”

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