There is no shortage of advice that is meant to help you get more done in less time. But is it all helpful?
“The biggest problem with productivity advice is the word ‘productivity,’” says Jocelyn Giel, editor of Manage Your Day-to-Day: Build Your Routine, Find Your Focus and Sharpen Your Creative Mind. “It implies a one-stop solution for everyone, like we’re all just churning out the same widgets.”
Being productive while building a startup business, for example, looks significantly different than being productive while writing a novel.
“There’s a Nietzsche quote I love: ‘The most basic form of human stupidity is forgetting what we are trying to accomplish,’” Giel says. “When we get too focused on productivity as a concept, we often forget what we were trying to accomplish in the first place.”
In addition to believing productivity is one size fits all, here are seven more myths experts say we should avoid and why:
Not so, says Peggy Duncan, author of The Time Management Memory Jogger: Create Time for the Life You Want. “It’s never a good idea to have no rhyme or reason to how you store files or emails,” she says. “If you have no system of keeping like items together, you’ll have to run a search on all of your files and waste time wading through the results looking for the right one.”
Duncan groups everything using broad categories with related subcategories. “I can go right to what I want because my entire system is logical,” she says. “If I choose to do a computer search, I can limit the folders searched.”
You don’t set priorities, you have them, says David Allen, author of Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. “Clear the air so you can recognize them,” he says.
Allen suggests doing regular brain dumps, letting priorities emerge in a natural form: “If you empty your head of everything that has your attention, you can decide what your next actions should be,” he says. “If you wind up with seven phone calls to make, you know what to do.”
Be open to your own intuition and its directions–then take the risk to move on your best guess, pay attention to the results, and course-correct as you keep moving along, he says.
This is terrible timing, says Julie Morgenstern, author of Never Check Email in the Morning. “If you’re waiting until the morning of to organize your day, it’s too late; the day is already crashing down upon you,” she says.
Instead, end your day by looking at tomorrow’s to-do list and schedule. If there’s anything that is no longer relevant or possible, you’ll have time to cancel or reschedule it.
“You will make a huge difference in your productivity and sense of accomplishment without getting thrown for a loop,” Morgenstern says. “Things change, and you’ll give yourself the benefit of distance if you’re always planning for next day instead of the one you’re in.”
Working for a specific amount of time, such as an hour or 90 minutes, and taking regular scheduled breaks is advice you should ignore, says Peter Bregman, author of Four Seconds: All the Time You Need to Stop Counter-Productive Habits and Get the Results You Want.
“For me, it varies,” he says. “I may work productively for four to five hours on a piece of writing before I feel like it’s time to stop. Or I might get stuck after 30 minutes and need a break.”
Don’t force or delay a break if it doesn’t feel natural. Gauge the amount of work you do on your focus and drive.
Just because you can handle a task right away, doesn’t mean you always should, says Carson Tate, author of Work Simply: Embracing the Power of Your Personal Productivity Style.
“If you are always just executing on the task in front of you right then, you are never able to focus on the tasks and projects that truly align to your goals and priorities,” she says. “You end up reacting instead of responding.”
You don’t manage time, you manage attention, says Graham Allcott, founder of Think Productive, a productivity consulting firm based in the United Kingdom. “In particular, it’s about managing what I call ‘proactive attention,’ those two to three hours a day when you’re really at your best,” he says. “The timing of this is different, so the trick is to notice in yourself when you regularly feel most productive.”
Allcott says his proactive attention is at its strongest in the mornings, and he spends that time working from home. “I call that my ‘create time,’” he says.
In the afternoon, he goes into his office to focus on “collaborate time.” “I save emails, conversations, meetings and all the other distractions until the afternoon,” he says. “You’d be amazed how much you can get done in a morning when you truly create and protect the space for your proactive attention.”
Organizers often say you should never touch a piece of a paper more than once, but this is impossible, says Lisa Zaslow, founder of Gotham Organizers, a New York City-based professional organizing firm. Instead of reading, tossing, or filing mail, for example, let it stack up until you have appropriate time and energy.
“If unexpected things come up and I can’t follow up with someone I met at a networking event, I’ll toss their business card into another day’s file in my tickler system,” she says.