Advertising
Advertising

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.

    Advertising

    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.

    Advertising

    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.

    Advertising

    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.

    Advertising

    #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.

    More by this author

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide) The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work) How to Admit Your Mistakes How to Take Notes: 3 Effective Note-Taking Techniques How to Learn Something New Every Day and Stay Smart

    Trending in Featured

    1 Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide) 2 5 Steps To Move Out Of Stagnancy In Life 3 The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder Work) 4 How to Master the Art of Prioritization 5 40 Top Productivity Apps for iPhone (2020 Updated)

    Read Next

    Advertising
    Advertising
    Advertising

    Last Updated on January 21, 2020

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Becoming Self-Taught (The How-To Guide)

    Most of the skills I use to make a living are skills I’ve learned on my own: Web design, desktop publishing, marketing, personal productivity skills, even teaching! And most of what I know about science, politics, computers, art, guitar-playing, world history, writing, and a dozen other topics, I’ve picked up outside of any formal education.

    This is not to toot my own horn at all; if you stop to think about it, much of what you know how to do you’ve picked up on your own. But we rarely think about the process of becoming self-taught. This is too bad, because often, we shy away from things we don’t know how to do without stopping to think about how we might learn it — in many cases, fairly easily.

    The way you approach the world around you dictates to a great degree whether you will find learning something new easy or hard.

    The Keys to Learning Anything Easily

    Learning comes easily to people who have developed:

    Curiosity

    Being curious means you look forward to learning new things and are troubled by gaps in your understanding of the world. New words and ideas are received as challenges and the work of understanding them is embraced.

    People who lack curiosity see learning new things as a chore — or worse, as beyond their capacities.

    Patience

    Depending on the complexity of a topic, learning something new can take a long time. And it’s bound to be frustrating as you grapple with new terminologies, new models, and apparently irrelevant information.

    When you are learning something by yourself, there is nobody to control the flow of information, to make sure you move from basic knowledge to intermediate and finally advanced concepts.

    Advertising

    Patience with your topic, and more importantly with yourself is crucial — there’s no field of knowledge that someone in the world hasn’t managed to learn, starting from exactly where you are.

    A Feeling for Connectedness

    This is the hardest talent to cultivate, and is where most people flounder when approaching a new topic.

    A new body of knowledge is always easiest to learn if you can figure out the way it connects to what you already know. For years, I struggled with calculus in college until one day, my chemistry professor demonstrated how to do half-life calculations using integrals. From then on, calculus came much easier, because I had made a connection between a concept I understood well (the chemistry of half-lifes) and a field I had always struggled in (higher maths).

    The more you look for and pay attention to the connections between different fields, the more readily your mind will be able to latch onto new concepts.

    How to Self-Taught Effectively

    With a learning attitude in place, working your way into a new topic is simply a matter of research, practice, networking, and scheduling:

    1. Research

    Of course, the most important step in learning something new is actually finding out stuff about it. I tend to go through three distinct phases when I’m teaching myself a new topic:

    Learning the Basics

    Start as all things start today: Google it! Somehow people managed to learn before Google ( I learned HTML when Altavista was the best we got!) but nowadays a well-formed search on Google will get you a wealth of information on any topic in seconds.

    Advertising

    Surfing Wikipedia articles is a great way to get a basic grounding in a new field, too — and usually the Wikipedia entry for your search term will be on the first page of your Google search.

    What I look for is basic information and then the work of experts — blogs by researchers in a field, forums about a topic, organizational websites, magazines. I subscribe to a bunch of RSS feeds to keep up with new material as it’s posted, I print out articles to read in-depth later, and I look for the names of top authors or top books in the field.

    Hitting the Books

    Once I have a good outline of a field of knowledge, I hit the library. I look up the key names and titles I came across online, and then scan the shelves around those titles for other books that look interesting.

    Then, I go to the children’s section of the library and look up the same call numbers — a good overview for teens is probably going to be clearer, more concise, and more geared towards learning than many adult books.

    Long-Term Reference

    While I’m reading my stack of books from the library, I start keeping my eyes out for books I will want to give a permanent place on my shelves. I check online and brick-and-mortar bookstores, but also search thrift stores, used bookstores, library book sales, garage sales, wherever I happen to find myself in the presence of books.

    My goal is a collection of reference manuals and top books that I will come back to either to answer thorny questions or to refresh my knowledge as I put new skills into practice. And to do this cheaply and quickly.

    Advertising

    2. Practice

    Putting new knowledges into practice helps us develop better understandings now and remember more later. Although a lot of books offer exercises and self-tests, I prefer to jump right in and build something: a website, an essay, a desk, whatever.

    A great way to put any new body of knowledge into action is to start a blog on it — put it out there for the world to see and comment on.

    Just don’t lock your learning up in your head where nobody ever sees how much you know about something, and you never see how much you still don’t know.

    Check out this guide for useful techniques to help you practice efficiently: The Beginner’s Guide to Deliberate Practice

    3. Network

    One of the most powerful sources of knowledge and understanding in my life have been the social networks I have become embedded in over the years — the websites I write on, the LISTSERV I belong to, the people I talk with and present alongside at conferences, my colleagues in the department where I studied and the department where I now teach, and so on.

    These networks are crucial to extending my knowledge in areas I am already involved, and for referring me to contacts in areas where I have no prior experience. Joining an email list, emailing someone working in the field, asking colleagues for recommendations, all are useful ways of getting a foothold in a new field.

    Networking also allows you to test your newly-acquired knowledge against others’ understandings, giving you a chance to grow and further develop.

    Here find out How to Network So You’ll Get Way Ahead in Your Professional Life.

    Advertising

    4. Schedule

    For anything more complex than a simple overview, it pays to schedule time to commit to learning. Having the books on the shelf, the top websites bookmarked, and a string of contacts does no good if you don’t give yourself time to focus on reading, digesting, and implementing your knowledge.

    Give yourself a deadline, even if there is no externally imposed time limit, and work out a schedule to reach that deadline.

    Final Thoughts

    In a sense, even formal education is a form of self-guided learning — in the end, a teacher can only suggest and encourage a path to learning, at best cutting out some of the work of finding reliable sources to learn from.

    If you’re already working, or have a range of interests beside the purely academic, formal instruction may be too inconvenient or too expensive to undertake. That doesn’t mean you have to set aside the possibility of learning, though; history is full of self-taught successes.

    At its best, even a formal education is meant to prepare you for a life of self-guided learning; with the power of the Internet and the mass media at our disposal, there’s really no reason not to follow your muse wherever it may lead.

    More About Self-Learning

    Featured photo credit: Priscilla Du Preez via unsplash.com

    Read Next