Even if you’ve never been on a diet, you’ve most likely noticed 100-calorie snack packs on store shelves. In this selling tactic, a food manufacturer will take a brand of chips, cookies or crackers and package 100 calories worth of them into a small bag. Although this food trend is probably past its peak by now, these snack packs still sell very well. Their success is rooted in dieters’ struggle with self-control, and considering that many of us self-employed creatives have difficulty staying focused in our home offices, snack packs can teach us a lesson about willpower and productivity.
Hundred-calorie snack packs are not a good deal in objective terms. According to Consumer Reports, consumers are paying 16% to 279% more per ounce than if they purchased the same product in standard bags or boxes. “If you can buy snacks in their regular packages and use an ounce of willpower, your wallet will stay fatter,” says the magazine.
But apparently that “ounce of willpower” is hard for some people to come by. Shoppers who pick up the snack packs undoubtedly know they are paying more than they need to, but what that extra cost ultimately buys them is portion control.
External controls can help people stick to their goals, whether that means eating less or focusing on work. As a self-employed writer, I understand that the more I work, the more I get paid. At the same time, I can find myself tempted by distractions. So over the years, I’ve developed a number of tricks to help me shore up my willpower and stay focused on what I need to do:
- Track time – I track all the time I spend on my business using an online service, whether or not the time is billable. Whenever I take a break, I clock out. I’ve set goals for a certain number of hours to work each week and run a report every Monday to see how I did.
- Write detailed task lists – When I have big project or just find myself struggling to get started, I take the time to write up a list of small tasks and then gain a sense of accomplishment each time I check off a completed item.
- Use the Pomodoro technique – I’ve been experimenting with this productivity strategy and have never been able to do it all day long (and am not sure I’d want to), but sometimes it does help me get into a productive groove. Basically, the Pomodoro technique has you work in 25-minute increments broken up by five-minute breaks.
- Keep a “distraction dump” – When I’m working and I feel a sudden urge to check Facebook or look up something pointless on Google, I note that urge in a little book I keep on my desk. Simply writing it down can make the urge go away, and if it doesn’t, I’ll take care of my curiosities during a break.
The list of my little tricks goes on. They won’t work for everyone, and truthfully they don’t always work for me. My processes are always changing. But generally speaking I find that if I want to remain productive, willpower alone won’t cut it. I need to develop an external structure for my workday.
To an outside observer watching me work, my productivity habits might seem overly complex and even counterproductive. For example, someone might argue the process of writing down lots of little tasks simply to check them off is waste of time. Sure, maybe it is a waste of time. Then again, 100-calorie snack packs are a poor value. Whatever works.
Henry Alpert is a New Orleans-based copywriter and business writer who works with design studios, ad agencies, and companies’ in-house marketing departments. More information about Henry can be found on the website for his company, Action Copy. Also, check out his blog The Awkward Adverb, a periodic look at substandard Standard English.