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5 Deceptive Habits that are Actually Making You Less Productive

5 Deceptive Habits that are Actually Making You Less Productive

Habits make up 40% of what we do every day. We regularly go through certain processes, actions, even thoughts and phrases without thinking about it. Part of being a ‘productive’ person is developing productive habits–the more productive your habits are, the more naturally productive a person you can be.

But sometimes we think we have a productive habit that’s actually hurting us. Here are 5 of the most common deceptive habits that are holding you back.

1. Email

The Trap

We tend to think we’re ‘getting work done’ when we’re responding to emails. We’re communicating with team members, responding to important requests, adding new things we need to do, it’s a vital part of work life. But productive? No way.

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The Reality

Email requires you, usually, to put someone else’s priorities above your own. Send them a document, respond to a request, think about some new info, and it turns into quicksand very quickly. You get sucked into it, responding at length to everything, and if you’re lucky enough to get through it all, you may have lost an hour of time. And did you produce anything? Probably not, and something’s hardly ‘productive’ if it doesn’t lead to any production.

How to Fix It

There are a few very easy ways to avoid death by email. The first is one you’ve probably heard a hundred times now: only check email a few times a day. I generally only check it 3 times, rarely before noon, and the world has never ended. In addition, it’s useful to use an offline client (like Gmail offline) to check it. This way if you reply to someone and they respond immediately it doesn’t turn into a long chain of emails–it does require though that you are complete enough in your responses to not necessitate a long exchange. Finally, keep your emails below 5 sentences. Anything longer than that warrants a phone call.

2. Notifications

The Trap

Technology is really cool. We can communicate with anyone instantly, and anyone can communicate with us. In order to use that to its greatest advantage, we need to know as soon as someone contacts us. That means notifications for texts, emails, facebook, twitter, and anything else you’re a part of… right?

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The Reality

Notifications are destroying your productivity. They demand your immediate attention, which means whatever important work you were doing before is now interrupted. A state of ‘flow’ where you’re at your utmost productivity requires at least 15 minutes of uninterrupted focus to get into, and if you’re being interrupted by pings every 2 minutes you never get there. It leaves you stuck in an endless string of task-switching and you never really get anything done, even though you feel exceptionally “busy.” Also, responding to every notification tells everyone else that you’re always available to be bothered by them–not something you want when you need to focus on more important things.

How to Fix It

Turn them all off. Seriously, every single one. The world won’t end, I promise. The only sound your phone should make is to ring when someone calls you, because that’s the only communication that truly demands immediate attention. As we’ve developed all of this communications tech, we’ve forgotten something important: tech is for your convenience, not for everyone else. So don’t let other people use it to ruin your productivity

3. Soda/Coffee/Caffeine in General

The Trap

Caffeine gives you energy clearly, since you’re hyped up after taking it. More energy equals more productivity, so if I imbibe coffee on a daily basis I’m bound to be the next Bill Gates.

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The Reality

There are no free lunches. Milton Friedman applied it to economics, but really it applies to everything, including your mind. Anything you do that results in a sudden surge of energy comes with a cost later, and that cost usually has interest. This is why there’s a strong correlation between the effects of a drug and the side effects, it can only give you so much by taking other things away. In the case of caffeine, you’re taking an energy surge now for a deficit later, and that deficit will come with sluggish productivity and significantly decreased willpower.

How to Fix It

This isn’t hard to figure out–just quit the caffeine. I used to drink 6-8 cups of coffee a day and quit cold turkey and everything was fine. Sure I had a headache for a day but it was worth it. Instead you might try decaf coffee, tea, or even just water… It’s actually quite good.

4. The News

The Trap

Someone probably told you at one point “you should read the news.” It’s what any good informed citizen does, right? When you imagine a “business-person,” they’re someone who sits at home in the morning, has a cup of coffee and reads the news, so if you want to be successful like them, you should read it too.

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The Reality

It’s pretty much a huge waste of your time; only slightly better than television or video games. Taking the time to sit and read through a full news story is akin to reading an entire book instead of the summary on Wikipedia–you’re doing it for the experience. And that’s fine! If you enjoy reading the news, by all means go for it, but if you’re doing it as a means to the end of being informed, being conversational, having some idea what’s going on, there are better ways that take up much less of your time.

The Solution

You have a couple of options here. If you want to keep doing the curation yourself, you can use a news aggregator and summarizer to help you. This would be an online source that provides you with daily snippets of what’s going on to give you just enough to be conversational (a very easy solution is the top ~20 stories in ‘World News’ on reddit, or the headers and excerpts on Feedly.) You can also just ask people. Others will feel smart when they tell you about what’s going on in the world, and you’re getting a quick digest instead of having to do the research yourself.

5. Eating at Your Desk

The Trap

Being seen is really important. The boss won’t promote you if they can’t tell that you’re dedicated to your work, and what better way to show that than to be in your office all of the time. Taking a lunch break is a sign of weakness–you’d do better to take bites between email responses.

The Reality

We all suck at multitasking, but we all rock at lying to ourselves about it. The fact of the matter is that no one can multitask, they can only task-switch, and the same problem with notifications applies to eating and working. Trying to get work done while eating slows down the amount of time the lunch ends up taking, and only results in getting a minimal amount of work done. The only reason we think it helps is because it makes us feel busy.

The Solution

Simply take the break. As it turns out, breaks are really important, and if we don’t take them on at least a semi-regular basis we burn out much quicker and start being a lot less efficient. If you take the 20-30 minutes to go outside the office to eat (even if it’s just in a lounge) you’ll come back much more refreshed and ready to get back to business.

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Nat Eliason

Writer and Host of Nat Chat

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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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