From apps to journals, manifesting and productivity grids, these are what we actually use and what neuroscientists recommend
Resolutions, goals, intentions, yearly planning (whether you like it or not), go hand in hand with a new calendar year. While the days of New Year New You marketing slogans seem to be (thankfully) dwindling, one in seven of us still set a resolution as the clock chimed midnight on 31 December , according to a YouGov survey. Even if you didn’t set an actual resolution, then you probably have some vague intention of having a January reset.
But however good our intentions are, we’re not always great at sticking to them. In fact, 19 January is the day most resolutions start to crumble , revealed research from running app Strava. Whether it's promising to eat more vegetables or vowing to sort out your beauty storage , why is it so difficult to stick to these plans?
Often, it's because we expect results too quickly, says neuroscientist Tara Swart. “More often than not we don’t stick to the promise of using a meditation app every night or drinking apple cider vinegar every morning, Why? Because sometimes the scientific claims fall short on their promises, but often we don’t give ourselves long enough to train our brain into learning a new habit.”
There’s no timeline for creating a habit though, says Swart. “Neuroplasticity promises that with dedicated effort, change will come. This principle of neuroplasticity — the power to create new pathways in the subconscious and conscious parts of our brain is the key to any deep and lasting shift in our habits and thinking.”
Creating routines is the key to sticking to our goals
Routine is the key to productivity, notes Magdalena Bak-Maier, neuroscientist and wellness coach . “Routines take away the need to 'think' about it as they literally work on automatic mode,” she says. “They rely on a strengthened connection between muscle memory (action) and our cognitive intention. Once honed in, they can keep us safe and on track and stick with behaviours we want to sustain.”
Think of the things that you do every day without really thinking, getting up, brushing your teeth, eating breakfast, she says, it’s just routine. “Your brain develops cues from your actions,” says Bak-Maier, “so as you’re moving about your day, your mind is getting cues that you’re achieving things. This reinforces a sort of positive loop of experiences.”
A routine not only helps you get on with your day without faffing but also makes you feel good. It’s not just the scientists who say that. In 2021 Mintel reported that 62 per cent of people agreed that rituals are a good way to lift the mood.
If you're a procrastinator, Alexandra Taylor, cognitive behavioural therapist and founder of Aegle Mind and Body says you're not alone. “Feeling overwhelmed, not having clear goals or direction, an unpleasant task, the fear of failing or lacking focus or motivation are all common reasons we procrastinate."
She recommends utilizing a technique called chunking , which involves breaking tasks down into bite-size chunks, to boost productivity by making daunting objectives feel more manageable. How to start the process? We've rounded up the best productivity tools that work for us and our experts to turn “I want to” into “I’ve done”.
Best productivity tools to make your plans happen
1. For the digital junkie - apps to track healthy habits
It may seem counterintuitive to be using your phone instead of getting on with the task at hand but actually, there are some great apps around which encourage you to monitor your habits and hold you accountable when you’re not eating as many vegetables as you promised yourself you would.
Done is a to-do list based app which encourages you to write down habits or goals. These can be anything from drinking three cups of green tea a day to calling your grandma once a week. The app then tracks your progress using a cute colour coded system and gives you summary stats to show how you’re getting on. There’s a free plan which allows you to track three habits; you set how often you want to do something, categorise it and create reminders so you don’t forget about it. That last one is key since many habits are dropped simply because we forget about them!
Get the Gloss social media and design manager Jemma downloaded Done after seeing it go viral on Tik-Tok. "I love a to-do list and that dopamine hit you get when you tick something off. I love that it’s on my phone so I can easily track and get things done when I’m out. Plus, seeing your streaks add up gives you the accountability and motivation you need."
If you’re a serial scroller who loves to share, then download The Head Plan App and make your phone time productive. The platform aims to shift your mindset into being more positive by getting you to think differently via guided meditations and journaling prompts. You’re encouraged to form rituals and habits and share them with the community or join one of the workshops hosted by wellness professionals who can help answer any questions you have on being in a productivity funk. Plus, it’s free which is always a positive.
2. For pen-and-paper fans - the best goal tracking journals
Can writing something down make it more likely to happen? Yes it can, says wellness coach Denise Kenny Byrne, who tells us that while only three per cent of people write their goals down, those who do are 50 per cent more likely to achieve them. "When you write your goals and regularly review them you are signalling to your mind that this is something important," says Kenny Byrne. "The simple act of writing out our goals activates the brain’s reticular activating system (RAS), the part responsible for sorting through what’s important meaning when you get your goal on paper your brain is literally trained to focus on it."
The goal of a daily writing habit isn’t to be the next Joan Didion. Scribbling down your thoughts or even writing to-do lists is an incredibly effective way of boosting productivity and giving yourself mental clarity. “Writing about stressful events helps you come to terms with them,” says Taylor, “journaling can act as a stress management tool, helping to release the intensity of emotion and make us feel calmer.”
Taylor also notes that regular writing is a great way of working out what makes you feel happy and confident or equally to discover if certain people or foods, for example, are triggers for making you feel bad. In fact, studies have shown that regular journaling can help shift you from a negative mindset into a more positive one and could even help to ease anxiety.
Bullet journaling is a “ mindfulness practise disguised as a productivity system,” says the US creator of the thought organising method, Ryder Carroll. Made of simple dotted pages for you to fill out as you will, it’s a place to explore what you need to be doing and why, but the method is also credited with enhancing productivity and even helping people achieve their goals.
When lockdown struck, the beauty and wellness industry was hit hard. Octavia Coates's PR consultancy suffered as a result so she turned to the Get Stuff Done planner £34 to help her transform a new business concept from a dream into a reality. The result was a second business, The Well Heeled Hippy , a luxury camping and travel experience company that has taken off and is expanding.
"I really believe you can only be productive if you are looking after yourself and filling this planner out every day reminds me to factor in self-care as well as ensure that I make the most of my time," she says. As well as using the planning to keep everything from her nutrition and exercise to her finances in check, Octavia also uses the planner as a way of rewarding herself for accomplishing tasks.
“There is a self-care section that I implement at the end of the day. I give myself a positive pat on the back and reward myself with either a long hot bath, a facial, a trip to the cinema with friends or even just a movie with popcorn. Something that ends the day in a positive way and where you can appreciate your work and yourself and your achievements.”
There’s no ‘right’ time to start planning is a mantra that Head Plan holds close to its heart. The company’s Productivity and Wellness Journal £30, contains no dates so you can start scribbling down your goals at any time of the year. The luxe journal (it's made of vegan leather don’t ya know) has six months worth of daily pages to jot down your thoughts, as well as specific pages to set goals and places to reflect on them. It even has a vision boarding area (more on that below) to clearly set out what it is you want.
3. To prevent burnout - use a productivity Grid
Proof, if any were needed that self-care is a key part of achieving your goals, comes in the form of The Grid productivity tool, founded by neuroscientist and coach Dr Bak-Maier. So popular is the short goal-setting manual, that it's one of the top 50 productivity books on Amazon.co.uk .
How does it work? You might have thought productivity was all about career goals, but there are in fact four areas of our lives that we need to take care of if we're going to succeed (and more importantly enjoy succeeding) in anything, says Bak-Maier. They are personal life, self-care, work and career development. “Sadly, too often we get sucked into one or two at the expense of others and this takes our entire nervous system away from healthy balance,” she says. A nervous system that’s out of whack can lead to us being more stressed, anxious and rest-deprived, she notes.
You don’t need to see an expensive specialist to recalibrate your nervous system though. A pen and paper will do. The Grid method is a framework created by Bak-Maier, which is really is as simple as dividing a page into four squares entitled life, work/studies, self-care and career/personal development and filling in each square with specific goals. (You can download Grid templates for free from her website maketimecount.com). “Gridding invites you to show up to all four areas of your life and balance them in a way that actually supports healthy nervous system function,” says Bak-Maier.
Using the Grid sounds easy, and it is. Get the Gloss editorial director Victora Woodhall can attest to how something as simple as four squares can have a profound effect on productivity.
“I’m someone who is often teetering on the edge of burnout and Magdalena's Grid method, which I discovered on one of her workshops, is something of a safety net as it gives you a visual representation of how you spend your time.
"There are four quadrants which you fill out weekly, monthly and yearly with what you want to achieve, making sure that you devote enough energy to your personal life and development as to your to-do lists. If I didn’t have the Grid, my self-care box would be empty and my career development box rather lonely. I much prefer it to a to-do list and there’s great joy in highlighting things you’ve accomplished until, at the end of the week or month, your Grid is a riot of colour and you feel good about yourself and energised to start the next Grid. What’s more, it only takes me a few minutes on a Sunday night, and so I don’t wake up with the Monday dread feeling."
4. For picture lovers - create an action or vision board of your ideal future
“A vision board is essentially a visual representation of your goals and things you would like to accomplish,” says Taylor. Swart prefers to call them ‘action boards' because the purpose of them is to “create something that will inspire and manifest in your future through your actions rather than merely a vehicle for daydreams of second homes abroad.”
Image: Instagram @drtaraswart
Although if you want to stick a picture of a Mediterranean villa on your board you do you!
“Creating an action board is about identifying your innermost dreams and representing them pictorially,” says Swart. This can be done physically, by sticking pictures of, for example, a flexible body shape on a corkboard to encourage you to go to yoga or inspiring food pictures to encourage you to cook from scratch. But you could also create the board digitally on a digital design platform such as Canva.
All you have to do then is place it where you can see it every day.
For your vision board to do all its magic, it must be designed to send an important message to your subconscious mind every time you walk by. Says Taylor, "It’s more of a way of inspiring yourself to do the things that you really want to do. By turning your dreams into tangible objects of motivation, it is possible to stay on course to accomplish everything you set out to do”.
Sound woo-woo? There's neuroscience behind it - a process is known as ‘neural reconditioning’. Swart explains how it works in her book The Source: open your mind change your life, which essentially helps you to rewire your brain into the reality you want and contains a step-by-step guide to creating your action board. Time to get the Pritt-stick out!
For a speedier take, Aegle Mind & Body advocates sticking daily affirmations on Post-it notes where you can see them such as on your mirror.
5. For visualisers - manifest your goals
Sure, manifesting might be classed as ‘woo-woo’ or ‘millennial’ but it turns out you’re all obsessed with the subject. In 2021 there was a 1050 per cent increase in searches for manifestation, according to Mintel.
“Manifesting is deciding precisely what you want and putting yourself into the emotional state of having already achieved it,” says Taylor. It's a technique that athletes use to picture themselves winning in order to make that possibility more of a reality. There are various techniques for it but essentially it’s about “believing you deserve it," says Taylor.
The most popular manifestation method is visualisation which involves thinking of something that you want and visualising how you’ll feel once you get there. You can't rush it though. Put down your phone, sit quietly and hold an image of whatever it is you want in your mind. “When we are clear and concise about what we want, hold an image of it in our minds, maintain an elevated emotional state (gratitude/love/peace), and take action. Things fall into place and flow towards you,” says Taylor.
Self-development coach and manifesting practitioner Roxie Nafousi puts it like this, “If you wake up in the morning and you know, 'I want to be promoted in six months’ time', for example, you’re so much more likely to get up early and put your best foot forward at work.”
Do you need to sit on a mat and light candles to 'manifest'? Are crystals and sage de rigeur? The answer is no, but having something like a favourite candle or crystal while you're doing it may reinforce the habit, as Bak-Maier says, and help set the mood.
Think of manifesting as more of a visualistion practice, says Nafousi (above), who credits manifesting with taking her from a rock bottom pit of addiction and depression to completely transforming her life. “Pretty much everything in my life I thank manifesting for,” she says, citing a recent appearance on This Morning to talk about her new book, Manifest: 7 Steps to Living Your Best Life.
But you also have to put in the graft. “I manifested them not just by visualising what I want, but also by working hard, stepping outside my comfort zone and really applying myself — all of which are essential components of manifesting.”
Her favourite way to manifest? By being grateful! She suggests writing down all the good things that have happened that day and finding gratitude for them. “It is the most powerful manifesting tool in my opinion because it retrains our brain to focus on the good, to sink into a feeling of appreciation every day and to keep our vibe high, which will help us to attract abundance back to us effortlessly.”