When most people think about productivity, it often conjures up mental images of all-nighters fueled by gallons of caffeinated drinks and sleep deprivation. TV shows and movies have also done their part in promoting this image: the truly successful entrepreneur/hacker/artist/whatever wastes very little time on trivial things such as sleeping or eating, accomplishing his or her work through a montage of tireless nights.

Trust me, I’ve tried that method. As a biology major turned frontend engineer, I’ve spent many nights bent over textbooks attempting to cram every piece of information into my head or working late into the night on exhaustively exciting hackathon projects. While it feels like I’ve made a lot of progress in a short amount of time initially, I soon begin to notice those little signs of wear and tear tugging away at me. Before I know it, I feel like my brain’s turned to mush and I can’t even fathom doing another ounce of work ever again.

We're all familiar with these signs of a burnout. As much as we try to overcome it, we can’t. But why does it happen? Why is it, when we're trying so hard to do more, do we come to a screeching halt?

Aldous Huxley, an English philosopher, once pondered this very same thing and noted that often:

The harder we try with the conscious will to do something, the less we shall succeed.

He dubbed this strange psychological phenomenon as “The Law of Reversed Effort”.

A French psychologist, Émile Coué, was also very intrigued by this effect and explained this to be a result of our conscious and our unconscious minds clashing:

When the imagination and willpower are in conflict, are antagonistic, it is always the imagination which wins, without any exception.

This is our mind’s way of protecting us from very unconscious fears and, unfortunately, while it’s not very rational or enjoyable, we’re all susceptible to it.

For example, say I put a long sturdy plank of wood on the ground in front of you and asked you to walk across it. You’d tell me “no problem” as you scurried along it. It’s such a simple task. You actively tell yourself you want to walk to across this plank of wood, and so you do it.

However, what if I then took that very same board, placed it 30 stories high in the air with each end on a skyscraper and asked you to walk across it again. We both know you can do it; you just demonstrated that on the ground. So why are you suddenly sweating at the thought of walking across that very same board? And if you do end up walking across, you’re shaking, scared, and anxious the entire time, even more so when you try to will yourself to calm down. Even though you have no more of a chance of stepping off the board than you did on the ground, your brain starts subconsciously imagining all the terrifying outcomes and prevents you from being able to complete your task as easily.

That exact same concept is what halts our attempts at productivity and can cause us to burnout. We often subconsciously start questioning our capabilities, wondering if we’re learning and doing enough fast enough while neglecting our health and relationships. Soon, your mind’s had enough of this masochism, and to protect yourself from these fears, it tries to shut you down.

So how do we conquer this self-defeating battle of our minds? How do we achieve true productivity?

Coué offers up a simple and elegant answer:

The solution for this fear, is to relax, to let go and to think about relaxing things that can provide us with the confident feeling. From this confident feeling, when we feel fresh and secure, we can, easily deal with anything that will appear less threatening.

So stop fighting with yourself.

Instead of banging your head against your desk trying to solve that dilemma you’ve been stuck on for hours, shut down your computer and go and take a nice long walk. Go check out that new workout class you’ve been meaning to try. Call that friend you haven’t heard from in a long time. Or even just throw on some good music and dance like no one’s watching. You’re guaranteed to come back to your problem more refreshed, calmer, and ready for a challenge.