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Work Smart

Five Productivity Lies We Tell Ourselves

No, you don't actually work better under pressure. This and more myths we tell ourselves about how we work best.

[Photo: Flickr user Tim Regan]

We all want to work smarter—that’s why productivity is such a hot topic—but are we getting ahead or just spinning our wheels? Tracey Foulkes, CEO of Get Organised South Africa, says too many of us are in the "busy business of busyness."

"We’re always rushing from meeting to meeting and drowning in work," she says. "It’s not about doing more; it’s about making wiser choices."

As a productivity consultant, Foulkes speaks to employees about managing their workload: "I always ask the group how many think they’re valuable to their organization, and hands shoot up," she says. "Then I ask them to leave their hands up if they’re adding value, and most of the hands stay up. Then I ask how many do everything they need to do on time, and this is when hands come down.

"People think they’re adding value, but if they aren’t doing what they need to do, in reality they’re not. You’re only valuable to your organization when you are doing what you’re hired to do."

Productivity lies get in the way, says Foulkes. She shares five common beliefs that hold us back from being as efficient as we could be:

1. I work best under pressure

This is a common lie procrastinators tell themselves as justification for waiting, but Foulkes says they’re confusing stress with adrenalin.

"When someone is a last-minute racer, they think they work best when the pressure is on," she says. "The truth is that there is no more time and no more options, therefore they have to kick themselves in the butt or the shit will hit the fan."

Instead, Foulkes recommends breaking the task into smaller pieces, giving yourself an earlier deadline, and tripling the time you estimate the project will take.

"It’s OK to leave one last section to last to bring closure, but don’t leave a whole project to last minute," she says.

2. I need to take work home

We’ve been taught that great business leaders work hard, and working hard means working late, but Foulkes says studies show that rest boosts creativity and increases work speed.

"People who take work home aren’t getting any time off," she says. "Work isn’t from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., work is much longer."

The saying "If you want something done, give it to a busy person" is true because a busy person crunches all of their work into a "time container," a set amount of time allotted for work, and they’re more productive with their hours, says Foulkes.

"The person who brings work home is less productive throughout day," she says. "Instead of being efficient while they’re working, they rely on the fact that they’re going to finish at home. As a result, they do everything slower."

While there are certain times people will need to work overtime, Foulkes says you should not make it your daily expectation.

3. I need to do everything on my to-do list

It’s not about doing everything on your list; it’s about doing the right things at the right time. Foulkes says people often leave high focus and high reward tasks for later in afternoon when they feel they’ll be less interrupted, and they do the quick, fast and easy tasks in the morning because they like power of crossing things off their list. It’s the opposite, however, that makes us more efficient.

Foulkes suggests dumping all of the tasks you feel you need to do onto a single paper or electronic to-do list. "When people keep things in their head, it’s like having brain spaghetti—a big tangled mess," she says. "When we fill our brains with action items, we slow down our ability to take action. It’s like working on a slow computer."

Then make an informed decision about what on the list will generate revenue or accomplish core job responsibilities—those are the things you need to do. Quick, fast and easy tasks can wait or be delegated.

4. Meetings should be in the morning

In most cases, meetings are low-value tasks, and Foulkes says low-value tasks should always be left for afternoon hours.

"If you dive into a meeting first thing in morning, you will use up the time on an activity that doesn’t require peak focus and thinking," she says.

Instead, she suggests scheduling meetings in the afternoon. "Our clients who switch around their schedules report that they gain one workday of productivity a week," she says. "Plus they don’t need to take work home with them. This is the nature of being productive and efficient versus working hard."

5. If it’s not broke don’t fix it

Most companies leave their standard practices alone and the logic is simple: save your time and energy for fixing what’s not working. But this approach can lead to complacency.

A good example is team communications. Foulkes says many companies stick with email because they’ve been using the tool for a long time, but some of the platforms, such as Basecamp or TeamworkPM, make communication more efficient.

To identify an area that could be improved, leadership should ask all team members for input on processes that aren’t optimal. Then identify things that are high priority, high reward tasks and investigate options.

"With the speed of change or some newfound wisdom, what you know to be currently working, might be able to work better," says Foulkes.

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