How I changed my life: from chaos to productivity



Belgium an intriguing and rainy country. I moved here 3 years ago and I’m still getting used to the fact that everything in my life has changed. Not only do I live in a timezone difference of 6 hours from my family but also my entire world was switched into Dutch. Because of the situation in the country I was living in, see Venezuela, I had to leave.  Of course being an 18 year-old I still had my life ahead of me and I made the decision to come here in search of a brighter future for me and my family. I took a one-year course of Dutch and dove straight into college. I have always wanted to be a journalist and I had no plans of not becoming one. With a lot of work I was able to pass through all the barriers and got into my second year. But after all the efforts I had done I was starting to get more and more tired. I needed a bit more structure to make that overwhelming amount of work, that was twice as hard for me, to be finished smoothly without consuming all my energy and time. I hadn’t had any success until I came across the word productivity.


Productivity, another word from the dictionary that went from economical term to a word we use in our daily slang. Not only has it become a frequent word for every boss but also house moms use it nowadays. But what is productivity?


The dictionary defines it as “achieving a significant amount or result”.  But as many things in life, productivity has its own meaning for every single one of us. For an economist, his company is more productive when it produces more and better in less time. An artist may feel more productive when he can paint a beautiful painting at 3 am and sleep until 12 pm. For a stay at home, dad productivity means doing laundry, dishes, helping the kids with their homework and still be able to watch a film with his wife at the end of the day. The bottom line is that in this era of internet, apps and social media, everyone wants to do more in less time.


More in less time… More in less time… that phrase seems to live in my head all day, all the time.  To me it slowly begins to feel like with all these apps, internet features, and gadgets, time is becoming a need that we are not able to fulfill.  We have so much to do and so little time we end up swamped in things with a lot of stress, bad results and of course no productivity.


As students, we all think we are still in one of the easiest stages of life, but the way in which society is developing we are getting more and more stress by the minute. Standards and requirements get higher and we are asked to do many things our older generations didn’t even dream of.  As a journalist student believe it or not I’m swamped: books to read, tasks and papers to write, stories to tell, pictures to take, interviews to listen to and edit, videos that need royalty free background music, classes, exams, internships, etc. The thing is that every activity and task has to fit in a 16-hour schedule if you want to sleep 8 hours a day, which does not often happen. Not to mention the fact that above all the things we have to do we also have to eat, exercise, try to have a social life and stay sane. At the end of the story, we are a car that has fuel for 30km when it needs to travel 50km.


Foto obtained through
Foto obtained through


As I make my way to uni every day I like to keep myself busy with interesting things that make me grow as a person but more importantly as a journalist. Telling stories, I believe, requires not only the talent to hold a pen but also the ability and knowledge to share something new and exciting. That is why I love to read, or most recently, listen to podcasts. Along the way, I found a podcast hosted by a journalist working for one of my favorite publications, The New York Times. The podcast tries to illustrate many aspects of life and tries to link it with the economy in a way that everyone understands it. As funny as it may seem I hate economy and everything that has to do with numbers, but I’ve gotten to learn that economy is more than just numbers and has more links with our daily life than we think. That was the first time I came across productivity and Charles Duhigg.


                        Embedded Freakonomics podcast from


After listening to the podcast  3 times, I couldn’t do anything else than look for his book. I mean, who doesn’t melt at the promise of making your life more productive. I mean people on Google, one of the most productive companies in the world, was a part of it. The book is amazing, truly. And I decided that I was going to try it out, everything he said, turn my daily routine around in order to do more in less time. If it did work as he said it would, then everybody should be doing it, and like a true journalist I had to share it with you and everyone who was interested. My experience has its fun ups and downs but, I’m going to sound like a teacher now, I need to share first a bit of the interesting theory. Sit tight because I’m about to teach you how your life is going to be more productive and in my experience, it is one hell of a ride.


Duhigg defines productivity as the name we give to our attempts to figure out the best uses of our energy, intellect and time as we try to seize the most meaningful rewards with the least wasted effort. In short do more in less time, energy and effort. He himself was looking for it not only in a professional way but for his family. He wanted to be able to do all his work at the office and still be able to have dinner with his family. Here appears one of the most important things you need to have in mind while in this journey towards productivity, motivation. Yet he means motivation as a skill that you can learn and own, even though you feel like you can’t go on any further. That is, if you think about it, a really crazy thing to say at first. Motivation feels like it comes as very naturally while it is difficult to maintain if you are doing something you don’t like, but with organisation and practice it becomes a skill you slowly learn. And here is another term that is key, organisation. Making good choices shapes your organisation that little by little start shaping your life. What he teaches us above that is that making those good choices relies on forecasting the future, what you’ll be doing for example, that way you’ll arrange your day in a checklist to success.


The Four Big Ideas

Ok let’s talk about the four big ideas, those tips you need from this book. This is the amazing things I learned from Duhigg and my research and how I built my strategy around them to achieve productivity in my life.


  1. Motivation:


Motivation is the key element for anything you want to do in life. It doesn’t matter if it’s learning to sing, swim or trying to get a master in a foreign language, you need that oil that keeps your engines running even in the hardest of paths. Cliché right? But it is quite true in my experience, there is nothing else that can help you get there. Since I was little I have wanted to excel at everything but the truth is, you can’t be successful if you don’t like what you are doing. I was always a straight-A student, but I hated math with all my heart. You could notice it not because I said it, but because my grades were almost below zero when it came to numbers. It did not matter how much effort I put into studying I never got better. It was not the teacher, or the way I studied, it was just the fact that I hated it so much there was no motivation, no grit.


    Here’s an interesting podcast about grit and how it fuels our motivation towards that one goal:

                                           Embedded Freakonomics podcast from


So, we already know motivation is key, but if you don’t have it how do you motivate yourself? Well, according to what I read on Duhiggs book to motivate yourself, you need to believe you have autonomy over your actions and surroundings. I know sounds very scientific and complicated but I think is all about trusting yourself and your capacities to have control over what you do or don’t and how you play with that in a specific scenario. That means you decide in what way you use your energy and brain to deliver in a specific way. To motivate ourselves we simply need to feel like we are in control, and that my friends I can tell you is a feeling you become addicted to.


While trying to apply this tips and tricks into my life, it was a bit chaotic. I was motivated but I didn’t feel in control. I didn’t know where I had to start and how to do it. That is the type of fear you get when you have a lot of things to do and no time, your lack of trust in yourself and your abilities to solve problems under pressure make you lose control. But lucky to all of us, motivation and confidence is a skill, like reading or writing, that can be learned and mastered.


The stress levels were blocking my confidence and in moments like this you need to step out, breath and try to give the situation some perspective. Many years ago, in a vacation with my family, my brother and I decided to sign up for surf lessons. That was our first time doing it and it was quite scary. Huge boards and waves in an ocean full of things we didn’t know about and without any skills. The first thing our teacher said was “focus on you. You are the one in control, you decide how and when you go on that board and ride that wave. Stay calm, breath in and breath out, surf is about keeping yourself in control so you can control the rest”. Valuable lesson, not only for surfing but apparently for life. But of course, floating behind the waves seating on a board waiting by yourself was a big challenge. Loads of falling, fighting against the waves and current, we were tired and my confidence started fading away. But then I remembered what he said, I focused on me and remembered that I was the one in control. I paddled my way into the waves and when the teacher said it, I went for the wave. I rode it like someone who had surfed for a while, or at least that’s what the teacher said. One of the best feelings in the world, and the best part was I was completely in control thanks to that stepping back, breathing and taking that decision. This is what immediately came to my mind when I tried to fix my productivity, I stepped back like I did on the sea and focused on me. My confidence and motivation have been helping me bring this confidence into my life. Like Duhigg says: “When people believe they are in control, they tend to work harder and push themselves more. One way to prove to ourselves that we are in control is by making decisions.”




To train my confidence and motivation I added to my daily routine things I loved and things that made me feel in control. For example, I knew I wanted to have a healthier lifestyle, but with so much to do it was kind of impossible. I scheduled every day an hour or two for myself. That me-time that I needed to relax or do things for me.  Then I chose to fill them with what I wanted and trust myself that I would make the right decisions. I went for a run and then maybe came back to read a book or do some Pilates. I was in control, I made my decisions and I had that time to relax and free my mind a bit to keep my motivation going and not turn it into stress.


But of course, it’s not always rainbows and butterflies. When motivation is triggered by making choices that prove to us that we are in control, every choice we make becomes ours and therefore our fault.  That meant that if I didn’t catch a deadline because I went 2 hours to the gym, that was my fault and that is, of course, heavy on everyone.  Even though it maybe wasn’t my fault, or that specific decision wasn’t wrong. Duhigg defines this as someone with an internal locus of control. People that believe that they are responsible for their own success and therefore if anything goes wrong their failure as well.


“Researchers have found that people with an internal locus of control tend to praise or blame themselves for success or failure, rather than assigning responsibility to things outside their influence.” – C. Duhigg


This concept was brought up in the 1950’s by Julian Rotter an American psychologist known for developing influential theories. He was trying to give an answer to that question we have at least once in our lives asked: “Do I control my life or does something else (like God or Karma) control the way things happen in it? A person with an internal locus of control, according to Rotter, believes that he or she can influence events and their outcomes, while someone with an external locus of control blames outside forces for everything.


Do you want to maybe read more about it? Here’s a link


You are probably asking yourself now: do I have and internal locus of control? Well, I asked myself the same question but I couldn’t get an answer. Maybe because I wasn’t the only one making decisions in my life, or maybe I was and I didn’t want to accept it. Anyways, there is nothing to worry about because according to researchers referred to in the book, studies have shown that someone’s locus of control can be influenced through training and feedback. Meaning like a dog, your locus of control can behave better with a couple of treats.


“The students who had been praised for their intelligence—who had been primed to think in terms of things they could not influence—were much more likely to focus on the easier puzzles during the second round of play, even though they had been complimented for being smart. They were less motivated to push themselves. They later said the experiment wasn’t much fun. In contrast, students who had been praised for their hard work—who were encouraged to frame the experience in terms of self-determination—went to the hard puzzles. They worked longer and scored better. They later said they had a great time.” – C. Duhigg

But what does motivation have to do with me and doing more in less time and effort you may ask. Simple, the moment you are motivated about, let’s say school or your job, the easier and more fluent your actions will become. You turn your choices into something you care about and not only as the expression of your control over the situation but as affirmations that you are one step further into achieving your goal. When you start a chore and maybe you are not feeling it, you stop, breath, and look at it with perspective “why do I do it?”. As you do that small actions become part of a larger constellation of important goals. That way you won’t latch on to the easiest and most obvious tasks that are often used just to scratch something out of your to-do list.

“If you can link something hard to a choice you care about, it makes the task easier. Make a chore into a meaningful decision, and self-motivation will emerge.”- C. Duhigg

And that brings us to number two.


  1. Your very own, storytelling:


According to Duhigg’s research “People who are particularly good at managing their attention are in the habit of telling themselves stories all the time”. And they all share certain characteristics:



–       They create pictures in their minds of what they expect to see

–       They tell themselves stories about what’s going on as it occurs

–       They narrate their own experiences within their heads

–       They are more likely to answer questions with anecdotes rather than simple responses

–       They say when they daydream, they’re often imagining future conversations

–       They visualize their days with more specificity than the rest of us do


Psychologists name that ‘creating mental model’ for me it was a simple hobby. To be honest, I do this a lot, and here I thought it was going to make me a great storyteller. The fact is we all do it, we all rely on mental models. We all tell ourselves in our mind how the day is going to go and how the world works and we don’t even notice. C’mon admit it, you know you are prepared for that one fight with that someone, you even have a script of what you are going to say! The truth is we all do that, some more specifically than others but that makes us better at choosing what we are giving our full attention and what we are going to ignore. Good planners, according to Duhigg, are in the habit of telling stories all the time and engage in constant forecasting and when life clashes with their imagination then life tumbles down.


Once again, this book went right to my heart, that is a fact. When things go out of my specific and well thought through plan, I freak. And I mean I freak! The last few years nothing goes according to plan. I mean from one moment to the other I was taken out of my comfort zone, placed into a completely different society and forced to learn a language to be able to study what I wanted. To answer your question, yes, I freaked out, a lot. I even got prescribed an inhaler because I was having panic attacks. You’d think poor girl, it’s normal. But it’s not, and thanks to understanding that sometimes life just goes out of your mental picture and it’s ok, I was able to manage my time properly and better.




But, storytelling is not that bad, trust me I’m a journalist. By developing this habit of telling ourselves stories and imagining scenarios, we are not only stimulating our creativity but we learn to sharpen where our attention goes and we are prepared for different scenarios. That is a mix of cognitive tunneling and reactive thinking. I am no psychologist but from my Googling skills I can tell you that cognitive tunneling is the use of visual information under stress and reactive thinking is done in response to a problem or situation when they occur instead of preventing them. That means that by creating a scenario you have an immediate response to a problem under stress which is not as easy as it sounds. Not only you develop that amazing skill but you also have an immediate response to that problem in the case you didn’t do anything to prevent them. I told you, mom, daydreaming is useful!



“Cognitive tunnelling and reactive thinking occur when our mental spotlights go from dim to bright in a split second. But if we are constantly telling ourselves stories and creating mental pictures, that beam never fully powers down. It’s always jumping around inside our heads. And, as a result, when it flares to life in the real world, we’re not blinded by its glare.                                                              
If you want to make yourself more sensitive to the small details in your work, cultivate a habit of imagining, as specifically as possible, what you expect to see and do when you get to your desk. Then you’ll be prone to notice the tiny ways in which real life deviates from the narrative inside your head. Narrate your life, as you are living it, and you’ll encode those experiences deeper in your brain. It is easier to know what’s ahead when there’s a well-rounded script inside your head.” – Smarter Faster Better by Charles Duhigg 

To be fair I didn’t have to add this to my daily routine, because I did it every day but I now take a few hours in the weekend when I am not overwhelmed with work and my studies, to sit down and write, about anything. That way I am also training my imagination, creativity, and writing.




As your read before mental models help us like a funnel to catch that torrent of information around us and make it fit into our head in order and without stress. Model is a great word and the main tool for that injection of productivity in our lives. With them, you choose where we put our attention and that way we can make decisions instead to just react. When in control of our attention we multiply, our decision making and therefore our productivity.


Although we all need to find our own model and our own way of working there is one specific model that I tried out and really helped: SMART goals and stretch goals. Let’s define them:


A stretch goal inspires us to think big and reminds us to focus on the finish line, the big picture.


A SMART goal helps us form a concrete and realistic plan of action.





Experiments have shown that people with SMART goals are more likely to seize on the easiest tasks, to become obsessed with finishing projects, and to freeze on priorities once a goal has been set.

Numerous academic studies have examined the impact of stretch goals, and have consistently found that forcing people to commit to ambitious, seemingly out-of-reach objectives can spark outsized jumps in innovation and productivity 

For a stretch goal to inspire, it often needs to be paired with something like the SMART system. The reason why we need both stretch goals and SMART goals is that audaciousness, on its own, can be terrifying. It’s often not clear how to start on a stretch goal. And so, for a stretch goal to become more than just an aspiration, we need a disciplined mindset to show us how to turn a far-off objective into a series of realistic short-term aims”. – Smarter, Faster, Better by Charles Duhigg

I think that fragment of the book just explains exactly why I didn’t have a doubt when starting this project to use the combination of both goals. At the beginning, I started with something easy on a Saturday when I had no work: writing a story. I had made my whole day free for it. At the end of the 30 pages, I had planned to write it was only noon. The technique was so effective I did it exactly in half of the time and effort. I was completely blown away and I started applying the same for studying, school work and working out. Turns out I did have the time to relax now and then, I just hadn’t found the right planning.


That was the moment I discovered that my beloved to-do lists were made in a completely inefficient way. We are used to writing down a series of tasks and short-term objectives to allow our brains to feel the satisfaction of scratching a few of them. We are letting big goals for later while in our search for closure we start doing easy unimportant tasks. We find then ourselves emptying out inbox all day instead of writing that important paper just to scratch at least one item easily. What gives your brain satisfaction for a moment, causes stress later because of your waist of time.


The perfect To Do list at home
The perfect To Do list at home



“Come up with a menu of your biggest ambitions. Dream big and stretch. Describe the goals that, at first glance, seem impossible, such as starting a company or running a marathon. Then choose one aim and start breaking it into short-term, concrete steps. Ask yourself: What realistic progress can you make in the next day, week, month? How many miles can you realistically run tomorrow and over the next three weeks? What are the specific, short-term steps along the path to bigger success? What timeline makes sense? Will you open your store in six months or a year? How will you measure your progress? Within psychology, these smaller ambitions are known as “proximal goals,” and repeated studies have shown that breaking a big ambition into proximal goals makes the large objective more likely to occur.Smarter, Faster, Better by Charles Duhigg

And so, it began. I started writing a huge list of ambitions from passing all of my exams to leading a healthier life and even gaining followers for my blog. At the end, as I followed all the lists, stretch goals and the SMART system I got to do it all. I was working out 3 times a week, posting 3 blog posts per week which gained me 100 followers in a month and I had all my assignments done giving me enough time to relax. No guys, I’m not joking all that work I talked about in the beginning was completely in order.


  1. The best of both worlds


“Innovation becomes more likely when old ideas are mixed in new ways.” A great lesson. We are all humans and we all have our own truck filled with experiences. That’s what makes the world such a great and diverse place. Each and every single one of us should think about that when trying to adapt ourselves to a technique and looking for improvement. We don’t all work in the same way and that’s understandable. When I started trying Duhigg’s techniques out, I noticed that mixing it with my own ways of studying for example gave me more and better results than both of them on their own. And that is when the innovation begins.


Do you feel empowered now? Like you have the techniques to solve every problem in your life? Take that energy and put it to work. Remember the key is to stay focused and motivated even when the path becomes a stipe climb. What do I want you to learn from this? That everything is possible, even leaving your job at a decent hour to eat with your family without stressing that you have to do so much still. Don’t stress out, everything comes with time and habits need to be built, but using this strategy is, from what I learned, the perfect path to success.


I have nothing else to say than go ahead, take your tools and get started!


Special thanks to Charles Duhigg for an amazing book and the Freakonomics Podcast team for inspiring me every day.

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