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Rethinking Productivity: Why Your Brain May Be Keeping You from Getting Things Done

Rethinking Productivity: Why Your Brain May Be Keeping You from Getting Things Done

(Editor’s Note: We’re starting a new series this week featuring new Lifehack contributor Kirsten Simmons called “Rethinking Productivity”. The hope is our readers will ask Kirsten questions about productivity, organization, and time management so that she can provide answers that will make people take a step back and “rethink” productivity. Enjoy.)

    Dear Kirsten,

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    I’m about ready to scream.  Everywhere I look there’s “Five Steps to Inbox Nirvana” or “The ONE Secret to Productivity Flow.”  I swear I’ve tried it all and none of it works.  Sometimes I look at the systems and think, there’s no way in hell.  Other times I can see potential and I jump into it with both feet and a rush of enthusiasm, only to crash and burn within a week.  I have so much that I *want* to do, and yet I find myself jumping from this deadline to that emergency, and my projects rarely take form in the way I want.  I’m skeptical that you’ll have any ideas I haven’t tried, but I figured it was worth a shot… do I have a change to someday finishing everything, or should I just let it go as a dream and focus on the day-to-day?

    Signed,
    Gaaaa!

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    Dear Gaaaa!,

    Oh, honey, I totally understand where you’re coming from. Letters like yours make me want to give you a giant hug and then step out to do battle with the ego-centered productivity industry where everyone believes that their system is the key to endless productivity and happiness. I may well be tilting at windmills, but a gal’s got to try, right?

    First off, there are a few ideas that I’d like you to internalize, 100%.

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    1. You are totally capable of finishing everything. BUT, everything is a slippery target because it’s constantly growing. If you had an extra 24 hours in the day, you’d be able to fill it in a heartbeat. Every time you finish something, another project comes up that is just as enticing as the previous. You won’t stop expanding until the day you die.
    2. Your projects may not take form in the way you want, but they are taking form! No one is able to realize fully the visions we have in our heads. I went to a reading with Neil Gaiman last year, and he commented that he had hated the initial edits for American Gods, so he jumped at the chance to do an “author’s definitive edition” a few years later. But then as he continued to tour and do readings, he found even more places he wanted to change, and he had the opportunity to do so when the 10th anniversary edition came out.  But even then, in the months between the time the book went to press and the day I saw him, he had found more that he would have liked to have tweaked.  But, as he put it, you can’t put out the “author’s definitive definitive edition.”  There is a time when you must let your projects go.  To quote The Cult of Done Manifesto, “Laugh at perfection.  It’s boring and keeps you from being done… Done is the engine of more.”
    3. Productivity in isolation is useless. All of those steps and tips and secrets do absolutely nothing for you if you can’t place them in context. And what is the context, you might ask? Simple. Your productivity fits within the ecosystem of you – your goals, your commitments, your habits and your personality. Trying to apply tips and tricks is like treating symptoms without trying to understand the cause of the illness. Every system you consider must work with your needs and serve to move you toward your goals. Your personality may not be conducive to maintaining a system like Getting Things Done. In fact, most people’s personalities aren’t! If you don’t know your personality type and you’re not putting productivity systems in the context of your goals, commitments and habits, no wonder you’re crashing! All the pieces have to work together. When they don’t, you struggle with overwhelm, burnout and frustration.

    You are not at all flawed or wrong because you don’t fit into society’s narrow definition of a “productive” person. You are capable of achieving every goal you’ve ever dreamed about, and a good deal more that you can’t even conceive of yet. We just have to bring your ecosystem back into balance by putting your productivity in context. So here’s what I want you to do. Write me back with an example of the last trick, tip or system you jumped into with enthusiasm, and recount for me all the painful details of your crash and burn. It’s not going to be fun, but I can start to pull your personality type from the story, and from there we can move forward to put your productivity in perspective.

    With love,
    Kirsten

    Now it’s your turn! Please leave a comment and tell me about your most recent crash and burn with a new productivity system.

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    Featured photo credit: Thinker via Shutterstock and inline photo by Andrew Mason via Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

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    1 Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed 2 12 Rules for Self-Management 3 How to Take Notes Effectively: Powerful Note-Taking Techniques 4 How to Stop Procrastinating: 11 Practical Ways for Procrastinators 5 How to Master the Art of Prioritization

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    Last Updated on October 15, 2019

    Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed

    Is Procrastination Bad? The Truth About Procrastination Revealed

    Procrastination is very literally the opposite of productivity. To produce something is to pull it forward, while to procrastinate is to push it forward — to tomorrow, to next week, or ultimately to never.

    Procrastination fills us with shame — we curse ourselves for our laziness, our inability to focus on the task at hand, our tendency to be easily led into easier and more immediate gratifications. And with good reason: for the most part, time spent procrastinating is time spent not doing things that are, in some way or other, important to us.

    There is a positive side to procrastination, but it’s important not to confuse procrastination at its best with everyday garden-variety procrastination.

    Sometimes — sometimes! — procrastination gives us the time we need to sort through a thorny issue or to generate ideas. In those rare instances, we should embrace procrastination — even as we push it away the rest of the time.

    Why we procrastinate after all

    We procrastinate for a number of reasons, some better than others. One reason we procrastinate is that, while we know what we want to do, we need time to let the ideas “ferment” before we are ready to sit down and put them into action.

    Some might call this “creative faffing”; I call it, following copywriter Ray Del Savio’s lead, “concepting”.[1]

    Whatever you choose to call it, it’s the time spent dreaming up what you want to say or do, weighing ideas in your mind, following false leads and tearing off on mental wild goose chases, and generally thinking things through.

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    To the outside observer, concepting looks like… well, like nothing much at all. Maybe you’re leaning back in your chair, feet up, staring at the wall or ceiling, or laying in bed apparently dozing, or looking out over the skyline or feeding pigeons in the park or fiddling with the Japanese vinyl toys that stand watch over your desk.

    If ideas are the lifeblood of your work, you have to make time for concepting, and you have to overcome the sensation— often overpowering in our work-obsessed culture — that faffing, however creative, is not work.

    So, is procrastination bad?

    Yes it is.

    Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you’re “concepting” when in fact you’re just not sure what you’re supposed to be doing.

    Spending an hour staring at the wall while thinking up the perfect tagline for a marketing campaign is creative faffing; staring at the wall for an hour because you don’t know how to come up with a tagline, or don’t know the product you’re marketing well enough to come up with one, is just wasting time.

    Lack of definition is perhaps the biggest friend of your procrastination demons. When we’re not sure what to do — whether because we haven’t planned thoroughly enough, we haven’t specified the scope of what we hope to accomplish in the immediate present, or we lack important information, skills, or resources to get the job done.

    It’s easy to get distracted or to trick ourselves into spinning our wheels doing nothing. It takes our mind off the uncomfortable sensation of failing to make progress on something important.

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    The answer to this is in planning and scheduling. Rather than giving yourself an unspecified length of time to perform an unspecified task (“Let’s see, I guess I’ll work on that spreadsheet for a while”) give yourself a limited amount of time to work on a clearly defined task (“Now I’ll enter the figures from last months sales report into the spreadsheet for an hour”).

    Giving yourself a deadline, even an artificial one, helps build a sense of urgency and also offers the promise of time to “screw around” later, once more important things are done.

    For larger projects, planning plays a huge role in whether or not you’ll spend too much time procrastinating to reach the end reasonably quickly.

    A good plan not only lists the steps you have to take to reach the end, but takes into account the resources, knowledge and inputs from other people you’re going to need to perform those steps.

    Instead of futzing around doing nothing because you don’t have last month’s sales report, getting the report should be a step in the project.

    Otherwise, you’ll spend time cooling your heels, justifying your lack of action as necessary: you aren’t wasting time because you want to, but because you have to.

    How bad procrastination can be

    Our mind can often trick us into procrastinating, often to the point that we don’t realize we’re procrastinating at all.

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    After all, we have lots and lots of things to do; if we’re working on something, aren’t we being productive – even if the one big thing we need to work on doesn’t get done?

    One way this plays out is that we scan our to-do list, skipping over the big challenging projects in favor of the short, easy projects. At the end of the day, we feel very productive: we’ve crossed twelve things off our list!

    That big project we didn’t work on gets put onto the next day’s list, and when the same thing happens, it gets moved forward again. And again.

    Big tasks often present us with the problem above – we aren’t sure what to do exactly, so we look for other ways to occupy ourselves.

    In many cases too, big tasks aren’t really tasks at all; they’re aggregates of many smaller tasks. If something’s sitting on your list for a long time, each day getting skipped over in favor of more immediately doable tasks, it’s probably not very well thought out.

    You’re actively resisting it because you don’t really know what it is. Try to break it down into a set of small tasks, something more like the tasks you are doing in place of the one big task you aren’t doing.

    More consequences of procrastination can be found in this article:

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    8 Dreadful Effects of Procrastination That Can Destroy Your Life

    Procrastination, a technical failure

    Procrastination is, more often than not, a sign of a technical failure, not a moral failure.

    It’s not because we’re bad people that we procrastinate. Most times, procrastination serves as a symptom of something more fundamentally wrong with the tasks we’ve set ourselves.

    It’s important to keep an eye on our procrastinating tendencies, to ask ourselves whenever we notice ourselves pushing things forward what it is about the task we’ve set ourselves that simply isn’t working for us.

    Featured photo credit: chuttersnap via unsplash.com

    Reference

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