The Productivity Threatdown

Fans of Steven Colbert are familiar with his “Threatdown” segment, an irreverent countdown of the five greatest threats facing the United States at any given moment. As I watched this segment one night – instead of, you know, working on the project I was desperately trying to get done – it occurred to me that the “threatdown” was one of the five greatest threats facing my productivity, at least right at that moment. So I thought I’d count down the biggest threats to productivity, as I see them.

#5. Distractions

I didn’t have to be watching The Colbert Report instead of finishing my project. I’d turned the TV on to have some noise in the house – it gets a little too quiet when I’m working late at night – and before I knew it I was watching the TV instead of working. I’d gotten distracted.

While there are times when distractions can be helpful – we often make greater headway on sticky problems when we think about something else rather than obsessing over them – for the most part, outside distractions pull our focus away from whatever we’re working on and slow us down.

Only you can determine the degree of distraction-free-edness you need to work well. For me, too much quiet is itself a distraction, hence the TV. But the risk of getting sucked into a program or overhearing something that pulls my mind off my work is too great, I’ve decided – since my “Threatdown” epiphany, I’ve limited myself to playing instrumental music on the stereo instead.

#4. Lack of constraints

It’s true – one of the biggest threats to getting things done is not having any limits. Unlimited time, budget, personnel, resources – these are very often the elements of projects that just go on and on and on without ever getting anywhere.

We see this in big government projects all the time. Although military contracts, big construction efforts, the design and implementation of new computer systems, and other programs are usually budgeted when they start, contractors know that after a certain point, they can ask for whatever increases they want and they’ll get them. After all, it does nobody any good to have half a tunnel under Boston Harbor or two-thirds of a secure border or an almost-working bomber.

At a smaller scale, most of us notice that we get almost everything with a deadline done on time, while projects without deadlines languish for months, years, even whole lifetimes. Writers often make fun at the”one-day” novel – not a novel written in one day, but a novel a writer intends to write one day. That “one day” almost never comes…

#3. Imposed goals or no goals at all

Not having a clear goal in mind for a project is a sure-fire way to kill the project. It’s hard to get passionate about something if we’re not really sure why we want to do it in the first place.

Goals imposed on us by others are just as dangerous. If the reason we’re doing something doesn’t have significant personal meaning, we’re likely to be unmotivated and sloppy. Businesses know this all too well – there’s a whole library of advice for corporations on building “buy-in” – that is, on getting employees to internalize the goals of a project as their own. Turns out, workers aren’t very motivated to excel when they’re just putting in hours for a paycheck – and material incentives like bonuses, promotions, and prizes rarely do much, either. What does work is when people feel that the success of their projects is meaningful to them personally, regardless of the benefits it might have for someone else.

#2. Perfectionism

Having too clear an idea of what you want to accomplish can be even more dangerous than having no idea at all! Not being sure about what we’re doing at least has the potential for opening up a space for improvisation and innovation, which may lead to success in any number of ways. But perfectionism doesn’t allow for such sloppiness – it accepts only the fulfillment of rigidly defined standards.

Because perfectionists are often aware of the impossibility of perfection, they can even develop a resistance to achieving the perfection they think they are working towards. When we set out to do something that’s “good enough”, we accept that it will have shortcomings, so we can divorce our own identity and self-esteem from the faulty product knowing we did the best we could with what we had. Perfectionism brooks no such escape – the lack of perfection is perceived as a fault in the self, and we often sabotage our “good enough” efforts to avoid facing our own faults.

#1. Procrastination

Of course. There are thousands of reasons we procrastinate, including all of the above, but the end result is always the same: we don’t work on something we need to get done. And while the notion of productive procrastination is a nice one – meaning we work on other things that are also important to avoid working on the big one we’re procrastinating – having that big old project just hanging there inevitably produces stress, guilt, self-incrimination, and other unpleasantness. If productivity were just measured in units of work done per unit of time, that wouldn’t matter, but I see productivity’s best measure as satisfaction with ourselves, and we’ll never be satisfied with ourselves with big unfinished projects hanging over us.

#0 Bears

You can’t get anything done if you get eaten by a bear. So avoid that.

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