Toothbrush Productivity Redux

March 28, 2021

Last summer, I wrote an article on toothbrush productivity. In that article, I confessed an embarrassing habit: I tended to browse my phone while brushing my teeth, often resulting in me drooling toothpaste all over my pajamas. Since then, I’ve made progress on avoiding toothbrush productivity, but I haven’t quite stamped out this bad habit.

At its heart, toothbrush productivity is about resisting less-than-ideal situations. Brushing your teeth can be boring, so it’s tempting to do something else in the meantime: browsing Twitter, listening to a podcast, or watching a YouTube video. Anything so you don’t have to actually notice what it’s like to—gasp!—brush your teeth.

When I spoke with Jesse Mecham from YNAB the other day for my podcast—it was episode 9—Jesse mentioned a pattern that he noticed whenever he was about to do some hard work, like writing a chapter of his book. His brain resisted that work because hard work is, well, hard—and in that moment, Jesse’s brain became incredibly good at identifying all sorts of other tasks that surely had to be done before beginning the hard work, such as going to the toilet or making tea.

My brain also loves tea and toilet reminders, as well as reminders to moisturize my hands, refill my water bottle, check whether there’s any COVID news, and blow my nose. (That last one is actually legit. I’ve had surgery on my nose twice because I could never breathe through it very well. I still have to use a steroidal nasal spray daily so my nostrils don’t clog up.)

What Jesse said reminded me about toothbrush productivity because in both situations, the brain is trying to prevent us from doing something we don’t want to do, whether that’s simply paying attention to toothbrushing or doing some hard work.

When you start paying attention to how your brain sabotages you, it’s quite comical. You can predict what’s going to happen: sit down at your desk and, from nowhere, a thought appears: “I should make tea”. It’s like when I go for a walk without my phone: when I get in line at the coffee house to order some coffee, my hand automatically reaches down my pocket to grab my phone—which isn’t there. Gotcha!

You can use the comical and predictable nature of your brain to your advantage. Next time you want to start a difficult task, pay attention to what fantastic ideas your mind comes up with for other things to do. You’ll be amazed at its sudden creativity. Then just write those things down.

“I’m sitting at my desk, wanting to analyze this report, but my brain suggests that now would be a good time to check Twitter. Or to clean up my desk. Or to empty the dishwasher. Come to think of it, even sorting through my old clothes seems appealing right now.”

This truly works as an anti-procrastination technique. When you can laugh at your own mind, its objections aren’t as scary anymore and its suggestions not as convincing. So happy observing!

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