June 19, 2018

Ever sit down to tackle a work assignment—then find a million other ways to spend your time?

I like to think I’m an expert at it. I plan out my list of daily tasks, then drag my feet for a solid 45 minutes, fitting in one last scroll through Instagram before I get to working. And, once I get started, it still can take hours for me to find a rhythm.

But recently, I found a simple hack that helps me quickly dive into my most tedious to-dos.

One morning, as I sat at my computer trying to will myself to work, a name popped into my head—an old co-worker I’d been meaning to email and congratulate on a recent success. I typed out a quick note, hit send, and then got to work.

When I got her reply hours later, I was still humming along. My email had made her day, she said. The thing was, it had made mine, too. Starting my day with a quick moment of generosity had been just the motivation I needed to get going and stay productive for hours.

Starting my day with a quick moment of generosity had been just the motivation I needed to get going and stay productive for hours.

So the next morning, I sent another email—this time, connecting a journalist friend with a source who could help her out. Later that week, I washed my boyfriend’s coffee mug—not a task I’m particularly fond of—so he could get out the door faster. And on Friday, when I headed to a cafe to get some work done, I tipped more than I typically do (meaning, I actually tipped)—and then basked in the barista’s smile as I worked away.

Now, I know that the point of generosity is that it benefits the other person, and that turning a selfless act into a productivity hack seems a little soulless. But I couldn’t help but notice how good I felt each morning, and how much easier it felt to start working afterward. According to psychiatry resident Jessica Clemmons, M.D., I’m not the only one who feels this way.

“[A quick, generous act] definitely helps to boost the confidence of a person who is doing the good deed, because they’ll see the impact of their efforts,” she says. “If you do it enough, it can help improve your mood.” That mood boost, she says, is what was helping me start my day and stay productive.

Research backs this up. Studies have found that helping others, or engaging in prosocial behavior, benefits the well-being of both parties—including giving an energy boost to the one doing the good deed. A study by a Stanford business school professor found that helping others at the office boosts social standing—and that providing as much help and generosity as you’ve been given can boost productivity. Doing good, it seems, boosts the self-esteem of the do-gooder, which in turn makes him or her a better and more productive worker.

Doing good, it seems, boosts the self-esteem of the do-gooder, which in turn makes him or her a better and more productive worker.

While my small acts of generosity help me kick off my solo work, Clemmons says that office workers can get an extra benefit by being generous toward one another. “If you are making an effort to connect with your co-workers, you will feel and more connected,” Clemmons says. “That keeps your mood in an elevated state,” which can inspire better and more efficient work.

That feeling of connection is the key, Clemmons says. Loneliness has recently been deemed a pressing public health issue, with repercussions ranging from mood disorders to a greater risk of early death. “One of the ways that we recommend treating it is though behavioral activation—engaging with others, even if you don’t feel like it,” Clemmons says. By starting your day with a good deed, you can also chip away at that feeling of isolation.

So, ready to start your day with generosity? Try these easy acts of kindness and stick with what works for you.

1. Grab a cup of joe for a co-worker, friend, or S.O.

“I love the idea of buying someone a cup of coffee,” says Clemmons. It’s not as big a financial burden as a nice dinner out, but it’s enough to surprise and delight the recipient. That hit of endorphins can kick-start both of your days.

2. Make your commute better for everyone

“In the subway, if you see a woman with a stroller, assist them by getting the stroller up and down the stairs,” Clemmons suggests. “If you see someone who needs a seat, give it up.” Drive to work? Check your road rage and let someone merge in front of you in traffic.

3. Pay someone a compliment

Don’t have cash for coffee or time to be a nice driver? When you get to work—or wherever you’re headed—dole out an authentic complement, either IRL or over email. Studies have found that both giving and receiving compliments can seriously boost your mood, self-image, and work performance.

4. Clean up before heading out

I hate cleaning up after myself in the morning, but cleaning up after a loved one feels strangely productive—I’m both eliminating mess and doing something to make their day easier. There’s no need to take on full-time maid responsibilities, but consider washing a coffee mug or organizing a stack of books before you run out the door.

5. Check in on family

Long commute? Use the time to chat with mom or talk through your younger brother’s work dilema. You can check it off your list and start your day feeling a little closer to far-away family members.

6. Meditate for a moment

If you don’t have any in-person generosity opportunities, try a loving-kindness meditation, also called metta. Think of someone who needs a boost, then send them love, repeating the following in your head (or quietly out loud): “May you be happy. May you be well. May you be safe. May you be peaceful and at ease.”

You’ll be sending them love—and cultivating your own happiness and motivation.


Read next: 10 Things That Steal Our Motivation—and How to Get It Back