Chartered Occupational Psychologist, Consultant, Speaker and Writer

Two Useful Principles to Use When the Usual Productivity Advice Fails You


I’m sitting in my mum’s spare room in the UK, and everything I own that’s not in storage is scattered around me, in an explosion of clothes, shoes, toiletries and electronics.

There are wires tangled up with t-shirts, bars of soap stuffed into trainers, and a big pile of receipts and papers which has slid down to fan itself out across my kindle, and some coffee sachets and shower caps that I took with me from the last hotel I stayed in, ‘just in case’.

My spirits are pretty low, and I’m wondering how on earth I’m going to get all this unpacked, cleared away, sorted, tidy. I need to get things washed and put into drawers and wardrobes and the attic, and pack a new bag for a short work trip where I’ll be away for a few days.

I packed up my last house a week ago in Thailand, and went through a similar process, working through the ‘stuff’ I’d accumulated over a few months of living in one place – giving away summer dresses bought in a fit of excitement (£3! I’ll have two!) but that I’ll never wear again; handing over to a friend the sharp knife I bought to cut tropical fruit; and working through the bits of paper that I don’t quite understand how I built up in a place where I don’t have a printer.

From Thailand I went to Dubai for some work, where I kept one side of the case packed – I’d, cleverly I thought, made sure that the less-used stuff was there – which was fine until I needed the one thing which was at the bottom of the wrong side of the case.

Having to go through the same stuff (which, against all the laws of physics seems to have increased – again) within a week is depressing me.

I don’t know where to start.  I can’t see the wood for the trees.

The clock is ticking – I need to get a wash on, I need to go and buy a couple of things from the shops, and I need to prepare for the work engagement. But before all that, I need to sort out all this stuff.

I pick up a pair of shoes, empty them of the socks I stuffed in them, and move them to a different position on the floor. It doesn’t make much of an impact. I push some things around a bit to pretend I’m doing something.

I go and get a glass of water.

I come back and it’s all still sitting there. Looking at me.


After fiddling with the iPhone for a bit to put on a motivating podcast, I get distracted by my emails. Someone has sent me a picture and it takes a while to download. I switch to the laptop as it’s quicker, and while I’m on it, I check my social media.

Another 20 minutes has gone past before I raise my head. The stuff is still there.

Double Damn.

Now I have less time, but the same amount of stuff to do.

A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step (Lao Tzu)

And then I pull myself up short and remind myself: You can only do one thing at a time. And if you do enough of those things, the job will get done.

What productivity advice would I give to a friend? Or a client?

I go and get a laundry basket, and put two things in it. I move the equipment that will fit into my shoulder bag onto the bed.

A little space has appeared on the floor.

And I keep tackling the task, one item at a time, until it’s done.

And the two principles that I employ here, and have employed so many times before, are so basic, but so important – and can, as in my example above, be so easily forgotten, that I thought they were worth sharing.

The first principle is: Just Start.

I’m pretty motivated and productive, but I’m also human. I get distracted like anyone else, and there are some things I don’t really like doing. Packing and unpacking, unfortunately, given my lifestyle, is one of those things.

But the more I put off a task, the more it will continue to stay undone.

It’s pretty self-evident, but the best way to get momentum on a task is to Just Start.  Pick a part of the project – the easiest part, the bit you want to do, the fun bit, and start with that.

Once you have started something, you will be more inclined to finish it (‘A job begun is half done’!). Once you’re on your way, you can find some tips on Getting the Hard Things Done here.

The second principle is: Little by Little.

I know that there are some great productivity tips about chunking, doing things in groups, and using structures to approach a task. That it’s more efficient, for example, not to take each individual item that belongs in the bathroom to the bathroom one at a time. To gather them all up into one place, and take them through all at once.

However, when I’m unpacking, sometimes I can’t see the wood for the trees (or the floor for the clothes). And in that case, I go easy on myself, and I start by physically addressing one item at a time – Little by Little. I take my toothbrush and toothpaste to the bathroom, and then I come back. I pick up the next thing, some socks I’ve worn, and I put them into the laundry basket. I pick up the next item, an envelope of work receipts, and I go and file them.

Logic would say that I should wait until I have all the things that belong in the bathroom, every bit of paper for filing, and all the dirty laundry before I then complete the next stage.

But I find once I have done a handful of these individual tasks – Little by Little – then some ‘space’ is cleared, I can see the floor, and THEN I can start piling things up.

Not the most productive – but more productive than not beginning at all…

Given how enthusiastic I am about productivity techniques in general, you might find it strange that these two are in my arsenal. But sometimes you have to go back to basics. Sometimes you don’t have the energy for 43 folders (a little Getting Things Done in-joke there). And in those cases, use whatever works for you.

What unusual productivity tricks work for you? Let me know yours in the comments below.

10 Comments... Read them below or add one of your own
  • Kellie October 28, 2014, 7:18 pm

    I love these Ellen, so simple but so true.

    I can procrastinate with the best of them. Whilst writing my thesis I never lived in a cleaner house and I had blossoming garden on my very small balcony in Manchester. It all just a way of avoiding the inevitable.

    Just do one thing, open that book, move a piece of laundry, unpack that bag.

    You don’t have to look at the whole problem, just one small bit and then little by little it gets done.

    Great advice!
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    • Ellen October 29, 2014, 5:24 am

      Thanks Kellie – I did my Masters at Manchester, sure I did my own fair share of procrastinating there! x

  • Anette October 29, 2014, 5:22 am

    I like the ‘just start’ advice but I also try to explore what the exact reason is on that exact day and hour and minute why I feel overwhelmed and what I am afraid of.
    My theory is that procrastination is fear.
    Fear of many different things, like not being up to the task, like losing myself in details, like fear of the very project I am trying to do.
    So I also try to take that fear seriously, investigate the part of me that is disturbed or sometimes even paralysed with fear.
    For me, seeing my life spread out around me and knowing that I constantly have to prune it in order to stay mobile, even if I want that, could sometimes be frightening and overwhelming.
    Then I need to take myself by the hand and listen. Or even have a good cry.
    At least that’s possible when you are a nomad and don’t have to go to the office…

    • Ellen October 29, 2014, 5:28 am

      Thanks Anette. I think that’s a good point. Procrastination is definitely caught up in fear. And I think it’s a good idea to step back and look at that fear as part of moving forward. But I know that personally I could just use that as more procrastination (I’m very self-reflective, perhaps too much so!), so sometimes ‘just start’ and ‘little by little’ will get me moving and I can come back to the fear later!

      Good reminder for us not to ignore the deeper reasons behind our procrastination. x

      • Anette October 29, 2014, 5:53 am

        I just remembered the day when I had to read a big chunk of the novel I’d been working on for so many months and just as I was opening the file i was so overwhelmed by fear that I had to go and lie down in bed. I actually managed to sleep!
        Sometimes the big stuff comes right up to the surface.
        Sometimes I just have to deal with it.
        Thanks for sharing your experience and stimulating discussion.

        • Ellen October 29, 2014, 10:31 am

          Thanks Anette, you’re right, there are definitely some times when the fear is so paralysing we need to deal with that before we can get on with things. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, appreciate it. x

  • Ellen Dunne October 29, 2014, 6:10 pm

    While agreeing with your two suggestions I also have to have The List or nothing gets done. As long as I have a list that I can tick the individual activities off on, my task will be completed. Clearly, planning, designing and writing The List burrows into the time available but there is so much satisfaction in ticking off the jobs done that’s it worth it in the end!

    • Ellen October 30, 2014, 1:55 pm

      I’m also a big fan of The List :-)

  • Judy Charlotte November 17, 2014, 8:31 pm

    I agree. The only way to be productive is to get started.
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    • Ellen November 18, 2014, 3:27 am

      Thanks Judy!

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