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The Productivity Threatdown

The Productivity Threatdown

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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    #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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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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