For many of us, to-do lists are like productivity catnip. Check, check, check — clearing a long list of tasks, one after the other, just makes us feel good. We may even add things to our lists that we already did just so we can cross them off.

Why? It’s how our brains work.

Each time you complete a goal that you set out for yourself, no matter how small, your brain receives a little boost of dopamine. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter that’s associated with rewards and pleasure. When it’s released, it signals to your brain, “Yeah, that’s good, let’s keep doing that.”

The problem with dopamine — and for many, the problem with to-do lists — is that it doesn’t care whether you’re actually getting anything done. This is how you end up addicted to mindlessly clearing tickets out of your support queue without closing the loop and striking at the root of their issues.

Or it’s how you end up spending inordinate amounts of time in Slack, clicking through every channel’s notifications “just to see” what other people are discussing.

(Don’t slack off. Turn Slack off.)

When dopamine runs amok, we can be left feeilng scatter-brained. However, this critical reward-system can be set up for good. Below are four ways you can “rewire your brain” and boost productivity. All it takes is an applied understanding of how our brains work.

1. Break up big goals into smaller sets.

Your typical to-do list can include a smorgasbord of tasks — some of them easy and others not-so-much. To-do lists work much better when big, lofty goals are broken up into their component parts.
Consider this list of lofty goals:

  • Increase conversions from the blog
  • Write content that gets people talking
  • Figure out marketing site

Your brain can’t do much with this list. Where do you begin? How do you get that dopamine hit when the objective is hours or even days of work away? We’re quick to put lofty goals on our to-do list because they are so important, but our brain will veer away from lofty goals, favoring smaller tasks it can easily complete. That’s how you end up spending too much time A/B testing minor headline changes and/or rewriting the “perfect” caption.

Recommendation: break down your larger goals into more achievable chunks. Psychologists who have studied rhetoric have found that not only do smaller, concrete goals get accomplished more often, they’re more inspiring and motivating to us and those around us.

To do this, you have to rethink your goals and connect the dots between high-level goals and low-level tasks.

Write out the high-level goal but go one step further and then break it down into actionable steps that you can check off as you go. For example:

» High-level goal: Improve our customer knowledge base so customers can help themselves.

  • Small actionable step: Review FullStory sessions for users on the knowledge base who use search every Monday. (You can discover what common things your users search for using FullStory and filtering your users based on those who interact with the search bar. Seeing what they type and what they were doing before they searched can help tease out gaps in the knowledge base.)
  • Small actionable step: Determine one opportunity to improve knowledge base through new content.
  • Small actionable step: Every Tuesday, outline new content for knowledge base to fill gap.
  • Small actionable step: Every Wednesday Timebox 1 hour to write content.
  • Small actionable step: Finalize draft on Thursday and publish.

Unpacking the big goal into smaller, bite-sized steps serves to give you the dopamine hits on a day-by-day basis. Repeating the sequence each week amounts to a system that will ultimately achieve the high-level goal — without you even paying explicit attention to it.

At regular intervals (e.g. four weeks), reevaluate your high-level goal and smaller tasks. Ask if they are still relevant to one another and relevant to the company’s plans for growth.

2. Structure your day according to ultradian rhythms.

It’s not physiologically possible for you to work throughout the day with unflagging attention. But you can hack your psychology to break your day up into sessions in which you’ll be most focused and productive.

According to Tony Schwartz, president and CEO of The Energy Project, our attention is best divided into 90-120 minute sessions, between which we need a break. These are known as ultradian rhythms. Furthermore, the kind of work we do in those 90-120 minute sessions should vary in substance.

Image via FastCompany.

Depending on your role, there are probably various different ways you can be productive. If you work in support, you might split some time answering simpler tickets, some time building documentation for your knowledge base, and some time talking to customers who have trickier issues.

By building different kinds of activities into your workday, you create opportunities to step back from one project, gain perspective, and acknowledge progress. You can also begin each new cycle with renewed focus.

Pay attention to when you typically have the most productive work time — and what (dopamine-driving) distractions can creep in to hijack that time. If you need heads-down time to focus on writing and you find you have a strong ultradian cycle first thing in the morning, work that into your schedule.

Recommendation: start by identifying your main and secondary responsibilities and how much of your day you spend on each one. You may find you spend:

  • 80% of your time on work for your main responsibility
  • 20% of the time doing ad hoc work

Don’t leave that 20% for the end of the day when your brain is spent. Put your variable work between longer sessions within your day to break up your 80% work into ultradian chunks. That could look like this:

  • Come into office, answer a few emails. Timebox email to 30 minutes.
  • Write knowledge base content (90 minutes)
  • Cross-team meeting with product team (30 minutes)
  • Work the support queue for (90 minutes)
  • Lunch
  • Return to the support queue (90 minutes)
  • Long call with a customer for in-depth support (30 minutes)
  • Work in the support queue (90 minutes)
  • Make CRM updates and organize customer feedback (time as needed)
  • Go home!

Another way to break up your work is to take pauses to review your work with others. Checking in with others on the progress of a project can give you good perspective on your work and it allows you to step back and acknowledge what you’ve accomplished.

Breaking up your day doesn’t just help you maintain attention and energy. Building in these moments of progress recognition promotes dopamine and reward, which gives you a mental push to keep going.

3. Procrastinate productively.

Have you ever noticed that procrastination sorta, kinda works? You put off a challenging task for weeks, waiting until the day before its due to even begin. Yet almost miraculously, you are able to go “heads down” in those final hours and knock it out?

What’s going on?

All procrastinators have experienced the principles of Parkinson’s law: work, no matter how trivial, will take up all of the time allotted for it. That means that if you have all day to do a project, it will take all day to complete. But if you only have two hours, chances are that two hours will be all you need.

Procrastination constrains your time, requiring you to focus and be more efficient. What’s happening? The way you perceive the allotted time for a task has a significant impact on how long you actually take to complete it. You can game procrastination by changing your perspective on how you can be productive.

Anyone can do any amount of work, provided it isn’t the work he is supposed to be doing at that moment.

— Dr. John Perry, philosopher at Stanford University

One way you can do this is by creating “fake” to-do lists. Dr. John Perry, philosopher at Stanford University, believes that we can trick ourselves into doing work based on where we place things on a to-do list and how actionable we perceive the task. Dr. Perry recommends making a to-do list with vague and more challenging tasks at the top, and more actionable steps (that you really need to do immediately) further down. On a given day, it might look like this:

  • Design new team structure
  • Answer all outstanding emails
  • Finish edits on recent project and send to client

You’ll gravitate towards those things farther down as a way to procrastinate those things at the top — and as a way to get that dopamine kick. But lo and behold, you’ll actually be accomplishing your most pressing tasks.

Another way to change your perspective on your productivity is to actively create time for procrastination. Chris Savage, Wistia CEO, recommends building an hour of “unassigned” time into your day to do what might be perceived as nothing — reading, going for a walk, meditating.

But by building in this time, you’re reducing the need to procrastinate at other times when you really need to be working. You reduce the mental fatigue and the need for procrastination, and you’ll work harder knowing you also have time to do “unstructured” things. This all comes from resetting your own expectations of your time.

4. Put the things you enjoy after the things you don’t.

The “carrot and the stick” is an idiom whereby you combine punishment and rewards in order to elicit a certain behavior. In the case of the idiom, the carrot dangles from a stick in front of a mule. The mule pursues the carrot and moves away from the stick.

Everyone loves carrots — even marmots. Putting the hard stuff before the easy stuff will naturally drive you forward, boosting productivity.

One way to structure your to-do list is to order your tasks in reverse, putting the things you want to do the least first and the tasks you enjoy the most last. Hence, the less enjoyable tasks are the stick — you will work to get them over with and behind you — and the things you enjoy the carrot. You’ll be incentivized to finish the drudgery in order to get to the reward.

Reordering your day may seem too simple to work, but you might be surprised.

Take your psychology back.

It’s true that your psychology has a significant influence on how you work — whether you’re aware of it or not. But that doesn’t mean you have to let it control where you direct your energy.

Work the system to your advantage. Break big goals into small, repeatable tasks. Block your time into productive sections. Understand how procrastination works and use it to your advantage. And order your day to get the hard stuff done first.

You might be surprised what you get done.