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3 Harsh Truths About Your Productivity — and What to Do About Them

3 Harsh Truths About Your Productivity — and What to Do About Them

As the father of a four-year-old, I often find myself in conversations with other parents complaining they no longer have time to get anything done. They have to get the little ones dressed and fed in the morning, drive them to school, then bolt out of work to pick them up, shuttle them off to an activity and back home, prepare dinner, and finally get them bathed and into bed. Lights out. Day over. No time left to be productive. All right, all right — it’s usually me complaining. And I’m dead wrong.

Ready for some harsh truths?

How to Overcome 3 of the Real Reasons You’re Not as Productive as You’d Like to Be

1. You’re not a “victim” of “distractions” — you’re choosing to avoid the work

There’s a new narrative spreading so far and fast that it’s becoming a full-blown cultural meme. It goes like this: In the digital age, information is “coming at us” all the time, and we’re all but powerless to stop it.

You hear it in our language: With smart phones, tablets, and social media, we’re “bombarded” with information. It’s “everywhere.” Most of us can barely “keep up.” How are we supposed to “deal with it all?”

Sorry, but that’s called… [censored for publication].

Being productive is a choice. So is being unproductive.

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You want to constantly stop working (or not start at all) so you can check email, read headlines, or browse your friends’ Facebook status updates? Or maybe read a blog post, or 10? Okay. But please understand that these things are not “distractions,” nor are they “coming at you.” You’re selecting them — and you’re doing so, often, as a way of procrastinating.

What to do about it:

Two suggestions, both of them easier than you’d think:

First: Fight back! Reclaim your productive time. Yes, today you have constant and immediate access to every conceivable entertainment and distraction you can think of on any number of electronic devices on your desk or in your pocket. Leave them there. Set aside enough time for the real task at hand — whether that’s your job or a creative project or whatever you want to accomplish — and “single task” the hell out of it.

Second suggestion: Trick yourself. Sometimes you put off starting a new project because it seems overwhelming. Don’t think about tackling the whole thing at once. Simply promise yourself you’ll put in 15 minutes before you take a break. Can you guess what will happen?

In most cases, the very act of digging into the project, getting started, putting some energy into it, will get your creative and productive juices flowing — and you’ll keep right on producing well beyond that 15-minute goal you set. (And all the incoming emails or tweets won’t distract you at all.)

The late Roger Ebert wrote, “The muse visits during the act of creation, not before.” That’s Ebert’s ingenious way of saying that the great ideas and productive energy don’t fall out of the sky. You have to earn them — by starting.

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2. You’re avoiding the work… because you’re depressed

By this I don’t mean you’re experiencing clinical depression; I mean that you are in a negative emotional state. But when it comes to your productivity, feeling even slightly depressed can have the stopping power of a cannon.

In the brilliant book Finding Flow, a follow-up to his groundbreaking psychological work Flow, author and professor Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, notes that when you think about yourself, you tend to drift into negative emotions.

Indeed, the main concept of “flow” is that when you engage in certain complex, all-consuming activities (playing the piano, rock climbing), you lose all sense of yourself — and as you become fully engrossed in the flow activity, you experience more joy and productivity.

What to do about it:

Get out of your head.

A well-established principal in psychology states that you can’t experience two opposite emotional states at the same time. What a great thing to know!

If you’re feeling down, chances are you’re focusing on some aspect of yourself — your problems, your shortcomings, your frustrations. Luckily, there’s a simple, but not easy, way to climb out of this trap. Find something else, something positive, to focus on. As long as you can hold on to that positive feeling, you can’t — literally, cannot — fall back into a depression.

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Sounds difficult, right? It will be. But keep in mind that you need to switch your focus from whatever is bothering you only long enough to get started on your project. Maybe you can think about how great it will feel to finally be done with the task. Or maybe you need to put on some uplifting music. (Movie scores are a great choice here; as you work the background tunes will make it seem like you’re conquering an army!)

A few minutes into the task, and your natural positive energy will start to take over (see tip 1), and you’ll leave those feelings of depression behind.

3. You’re afraid to start the work… because you might make a mistake

Why when deer see car headlights coming at them — or a human being, for that matter — will they freeze instead of running off the road to safety? Because often in a terrifying situation, they’re so afraid of doing the wrong thing that they instead do nothing. Running this way might be a mistake. Running that way might be a mistake. Splat. Humans sometimes make the same choice.

One reason you might not be as productive as you’d like is that you’re feeling anxiety. The fear of going in the wrong direction, making a bad choice about the project you’re tackling, stops you from moving forward at all.

What to do about it:

Embrace mistakes. They mean you’re making progress.

Take writing as an example. Do you think any novelist or playwright has ever sat down to a blank sheet of paper, began writing, and just kept on going in one shot to a complete final draft? No deletions? No edits? No way!

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Don’t let anxiety win. Accept that you will make mistakes… start anyway.

Bottom line: The reason you’re not as productive as you’d like to be is not that you’re too busy. And it’s not my kid’s fault (oops — I mean it’s not your kid’s fault). We all make a choice in every minute of every day, either to push forward on the projects and goals that matter to us, or not.

So set aside the distractions (even the really fun ones); tell yourself you’ll give the big task just a few minutes at first (you’ll keep going, I promise); and then get out of your own head so you can focus on the work. And don’t waste time worrying about making mistakes. Of course you’ll make them, and then you’ll fix them.

To your productivity!

Featured photo credit: Unproductive man at work/Robbie Hyman via Shutterstock

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robbie hyman

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Last Updated on April 22, 2021

How to Work Hard the Smart Way: 4 Daily Rituals to Follow

How to Work Hard the Smart Way: 4 Daily Rituals to Follow

Habits are what sets an average leader apart from a great leader. We can argue that talent is the biggest factor; we may debate how the amount of charisma sets the two apart. Yet, if you were to show me what you believed to be a great leader, I can show you the habits that made her/him great. Great leaders have great habits and know how to work hard the smart way.

Developing Great Habits Is Hard Work

In my early college days, I had spent a lot of time learning how to play the trumpet. Playing the trumpet took time and discipline. I had some natural talent, but not enough to hide my lack of ability. My trumpet teacher was a man of discipline, and there was no doubt he had talent. What stood to me was his work ethic. He had to be one of the hardest working mentors that I had the privilege of working with.

One afternoon, I was in his office getting ready for my weekly trumpet lesson. As I was preparing, my eyes scanned the room and saw that there were quotes all over his office. My eyes rested on one quote that forever changed my thinking about my playing. It was a quote from my high school basketball coach Tim Notke that would become popular through professional athletes Kevin Durant and Tim Tebow:

“Hard work beats talent when talent fails to work hard.”

Hard work trumps talent. The key to success is not found in your talent or ability. Talent and ability are necessary, but they are not the primary factors. They are supporting roles in the story you are writing.

Ultimately, hard work is the key to your success. A good work ethic creates the momentum that propels you forward towards your goals.

Motivation Is Not the Answer

How many times have you seen someone go to a conference, get inspired, and then come home and do nothing?

If motivation were the answer, the world would have transformed hundreds of times over. Yet, when we look out our doors or turn on the news, we do not see a utopian society.

We have thousands of people who become inspired but lack the work ethic to apply anything they have learned. Time and time again frustration creeps in. We are so motivated and inspired by what we see but fail to put in place the things that would change our lives.

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Frustration happens when the gap between what you expect to be true and what is true gets bigger. Motivation tends to create an expectation that is not rooted in reality. We want to take on the world but cannot get off Netflix long enough to do so.

Motivation is not the answer, but working hard is. Good habits and routines that produce success are the byproducts of a strong work ethic. The habits and routines we create and follow are the foundation on which we build a winning life.

How to Work Hard by Working Smarter

Here are 4 routines that will help you learn how to work hard and achieve your short term and long term goals.

1. Define What a Win Looks Like

In football, a player that crosses into the end zone gain points. In soccer, a player kicks the ball into the net to score. Hockey, lacrosse, and basketball are all the same. The player takes the object and moves it into the designated area to gain points. The team with the most points wins the game.

Why is it that we can define what a win looks like in sports, but we fail to do so in our leadership, our businesses, or our homes?

Learning how to work hard without setting a target is futile. It is insanity to work hard without having a clear direction to place your energy. I would argue that defining a win is one of the most important routines that a leader can have. Defining a win separates superficial activity from meaningful activity.

When I define a win, I know the goal line I have to cross[1]. Knowing where the goal line is informs me of the activity I have to engage in to cross it. Without a clear direction, I am spinning my wheels hoping that I will get to a destination I haven’t defined. It is like asking a GPS for directions but failing to input the destination.

4 Steps to Define a Win
  • Know the outcome you desire.
  • Declare the outcome in specific, meaningful terms.
  • Write the outcome down.
  • Set your activity list to only do that which will complete your goals.

Let me give you an example. 15 years ago, I started speaking professionally. As a young and naïve speaker, I thought winning meant that I had to get a reaction from the audience. If they cheered, smiled, or cried, I considered myself a winner. The problem was my lack of understanding of what a win looked like. As a seasoned speaker, my wins look different.

As of today, when I speak, I am not looking for any emotional reactions from the audience. I win if, and only if, I clearly communicated my point so that anyone hearing the talk can take it and apply it to their lives that day. That is how I define a win when I speak now.

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Create a habit of declaring a win. When you do, you will see your productivity soar and your encouragement increase. Pairing a hard work ethic with wise decisions creates victory. Stop being a mouse on a wheel that goes nowhere, and start being the captain of your fleet.

2. Evaluate Your Activity

Not all activity is equal. There are things you must do, things you need to do, and things we can either give away or delete. The greatest challenge of a leader is understanding the difference. Understanding what activity is busywork and what activity is mission work is pivotal.

Not only do we need to learn how to evaluate our activity, but we must make this a core routine in our arsenal of success. Stop working so hard on everything and start learning how to work hard on the right things.

Not every activity will move the needle forward for you. In fact, you were never meant to do everything yourself! Once we stop trying to be a martyr in our leadership, we can start looking at how to take things off our plates through delegation.

Based on the Eisenhower box, there are 4 things that we look at when deciding on which activities are important:

  • Do now
  • Plan to do it later
  • Delegate to someone else
  • Delete it

Powerful questions are the way you discover if the activity is right or not:

  • Does this activity move me towards or away from my goals?
  • Do I have to do this activity or can I give this activity away to someone else?
  • Does this activity have to be now right now or can it be scheduled for later dates?
  • Does this activity have to be done at all?

Evaluating the type of activity you engage in should be a routine that you do daily. Learning how to work hard should create progress. Having a system of evaluation and a routine to do it will help.

3. Prioritize Your Calendar

If you were to show me your calendar, I could show you why you are not further along. When you lack the routine of placing things on your calendar, two things happen.

First, what does not make it on your calendar does not get done.

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It is a simple truth that is often overlooked. Your calendar contains the power to change your life. Yet, we don’t use our calendars to their fullest potential.

“You will never change your life until you change something you do daily. The secret of your success is found in your daily routine.” -John C. Maxwell

Also, if you don’t mark you activities on your calendar, you are leaving it open to other’s priorities.

“The key is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.” -Stephen Covey

Having a routine in your life where you place things on your calendar is pivotal to your success. This is not a routine one should overlook.

It’s time to take your leadership and business to the next level. It’s time to start putting your daily routines on your calendar, along with your priorities.

4. Reflect on Your Day and Plan the Next

We are all about the morning routine. Whatever that looks like for you, there should be a routine in the morning that sets you up for success.

Hard work starts when your feet hit the ground in the morning. Creating the habit of winning starts with the first thing you accomplish that morning. If you win your morning, you will win your day.

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Best Morning Routine to Prepare to Work Hard

    But how often have you heard people talk about an evening routine? Tomorrow is won the day before it happens. When you fail to plan your day, you may put your effort toward in the wrong things. Route replaces routine. Indecision replaces decisiveness. Losses replace wins. The discouragement will deflate your momentum and increases the chances of procrastination. That is why we set our schedule the night before.

    “Every battle is won or lost before it is ever fought.” -Sun Tzu

    Working hard doesn’t have to be hard work. It shouldn’t take much out of you learn how to work hard as long as you work smart. Having a time where you reflect on the day and set your priorities is the difference-maker.

    Use these questions to reflect on your day:

    • What went well?
    • What didn’t go well?
    • What can I change?
    • What do I need to start doing?
    • What do I need to stop doing?

    The Bottom Line

    Navigating through life is hard work. Yet, the work doesn’t have to be hard when you work smarter. When you create routines that support your mission, you create wins. Working hard, the smart way will tip the balance in our favor.

    Boxing legend Joe Frazier said:

    “Champions aren’t made in the ring; they are merely recognized there.”

    Champions put in the hard work behind the scenes. The world recognized them as a champion when they saw the results of the hard work. Right now, you are doing the work of creating a champion in yourself.

    That work is setting your routines in order because you now know that success flows from your daily routines. If you are not experiencing the success you desire, then it is time to change things up.

    More on Creating Healthy Routines

    Featured photo credit: Zan via unsplash.com

    Reference

    [1] The Balance Careers: Interview Question: “How Do You Define Success?”

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