Productivity is often used as a catchall for being superhumanly efficient. And that’s dangerous.
It isn’t about getting as many things crammed into your day as possible or tackling everything that falls into your plate. After all, we’re human. We get derailed. We burn out.
“The misconception about productivity is that being productive is about being crazy out-of-your-mind busy,” says Julie Morgenstern, productivity consultant and author of the book Time Management From the Inside Out. “Productivity is spending your time on the right things and getting them done.”
What are our main roadblocks to productivity? And perhaps more importantly–how can we get them out of our way?
Roadblock #1: Constantly being in triage mode
One of the biggest challenges to productivity, says Morgenstern, is letting your day dictate itself, rather that mapping it out in advance. “We’ve gotten into a really bad habit as a working society. We are triaging constantly,” says Morgenstern. “Every minute we are deciding. You decide and do at the same moment.”
The problem with deciding and doing at the same time is that it often leads to poor time management and impulsivity. Different parts of the brain are used when making a decision and actually acting on it. Often, you can’t simply decide to have a difficult conversation or spend time on a challenging project, for example, and jump right into it. You’re activating different parts of the brain with each of these activities, and if your mind isn’t prepared to take them on in advance, you’re probably going to avoid the tough tasks in lieu of the easy ones.
Solution: Block out your days
There’s a simple way to help keep you on track. At the end of each workday, spend 15 minutes planning what tomorrow and the two days after it will look like. Write a schedule for each day, so that you’re able to block out chunks of time for important work, says Morgenstern. Planning three days out will allow you to rewrite and adjust your schedule each day to better reflect your priorities.
This advanced planning allows you to think more strategically about how you block out your time. “If you do it at the end of the day, you have enough time to get things that don’t matter as much that you had on there off your schedule, so it’s really filled with what matters,” says Morgenstern.
Roadblock #2:Getting derailed
The constant interruptions and distractions, and the unexpected things that come up in the day and take you off course are bound to happen. Derailments are a massive waste of time, yet it turns out, we’re often to blame for our own distraction. Roughly half of interruptions are self-imposed, and it takes about 23 minutes to get back on task, according to Gloria Mark, professor of informatics at the University of California, Irvine. That’s why creating a schedule in advance and having it at hand can help avoid distraction.
Solution: Prep for distractions
At the end of each day, don’t just plan how you’ll spend the following day, ask yourself what potential distractions might come up. This could be anything from the colleague who always seems to be in crisis mode and needing your help to that call from your mom each afternoon.
Anticipating distractions can help you both figure out ways to avoid them and build them into your schedule. Most distractions, says Morgenstern, are predictable. “If you really stop and anticipate, you can usually tell in advance where you run the risk of getting derailed,” she says.
Roadblock #3: Not giving yourself enough time
Creating a schedule is worthless if you haven’t been honest with yourself about how much time each task will take. When it feels impossible to stick to a schedule, it’s easy to feel helpless or defeated. You think, “There’s no way I’ll get this done in half an hour, so why even try?”
That’s where distraction comes in. But distraction is usually the first sign that you’re overwhelmed. “We are motivated as human beings by getting stuff done,” says Morgenstern. “If you are finding yourself getting derailed it’s usually a concrete sign that you are overwhelmed by something.”
Solution: Use distraction as a red flag
Be realistic about how much time is needed to get stuff done when creating your schedule so that you don’t feel overwhelmed. Think through what materials you need to prep in advance. “Think through: ‘What am I trying to achieve and what preparation do I need to get in place?'” says Morgenstern.
And if you see yourself getting distracted, use that as a concrete sign that you’re overwhelmed. If you find yourself noodling around the Internet or avoiding what you need to get done, that probably means you need to take a different approach. This might mean breaking a project into smaller more manageable tasks, calling someone who can help get you back on track, or taking a walk to clear your head. Let the distraction be a chance to acknowledge that you’re overwhelmed, says Morgenstern, rather than a way to simply self-sabotage.
Roadblock #4: Always being accessible
Being constantly available is a major time-suck. Answering emails in the moment is an easy way to feel useful and valued. “We very often use accessibility as a substitute for real impact and real work,” says Morgenstern.
“When your days are really crazy and you’re in pure reactive mode, you feel like, ‘I have to answer every email that comes to me. I have to be accessible at any time and now my value is in my accessibility.'” But that accessibility is just a substitute for where your real value is–finishing that important project, writing that report, designing that product. Those are the kinds of tasks that require significant chunks of uninterrupted time.
Solution: Invest time in being off the grid
That’s why it’s critical to block out chunks of time in which you don’t let in distraction. Morgenstern, who has also written a book called Never Check Email In the Morning, warns against that impulse to respond to every email as it arrives. “We are all crazed in wanting to feel valued,” she says. “Just make sure that your value is not in your accessibility but in your ability to unplug, concentrate, and produce really quality work.”
Roadblock #5: Not taking quality breaks
Time away from work is as important to productivity as time spent working. We often get into the mind-set that we can’t take a break until whatever we are working on is finished. But that only results in burnout and a lot of wasted time doing mindless stuff rather than taking quality breaks.
Solution: Make your time off restorative
You’re better off taking the night off to spend time with family or go for a long walk than trying to work on a report late into the night while checking Facebook and email every two minutes. “I call it a work-life continuum,” says Morgenstern. “Work and time off–they feed each other.”