Greater productivity is a workplace holy grail. We study how to better manage our time to get more done. We evaluate what to delegate, as well as the tasks we should skip entirely. We read books and listen to podcasts about how to be more efficient and effective.
But what if some of our common beliefs about productivity are a waste of time?
When working with clients, productivity and management consultant Anita Sanchez, author of The Four Sacred Gifts: Indigenous Wisdom for Modern Times, says she sees a lot of people holding on to false productivity beliefs. But thinking that it “takes too much time” to train someone so you can delegate tasks or that they’re getting more done by multitasking on an important project actually just leads to frustration and undesirable results, she says.
Sometimes, the advice is wrong, and sometimes, it has to be put in context, says Jeff Skipper, Calgary-based leadership and change management consultant. Here are six common beliefs that could be undermining your ability to get things done in the most timely and effective way:
Stop: Doing the easy things first
Instead: Delegate or eliminate the non-essential tasks
It’s common advice: front-load your to-do list with a few tasks you can quickly knock off. You’ll feel a sense of accomplishment and build momentum. And if they’re tasks that can only be done by you, it may not be bad advice, Skipper says. However, don’t create busywork for yourself or take on tasks you should be delegating for the sake of scratching off a few to-dos. “Just because you’re checking something off the list doesn’t mean it was worthwhile doing,” he says.
And the productivity loss is greater if you’re focusing on these non-essential tasks during one of your peak energy times, he says. Before anything goes on your task list or calendar, make sure that it’s really something you should be doing in the first place, he says.
Stop: Forcing yourself to get up super-early
Instead: Work with your natural body clock to work at the best time
“Morning people” don’t, in fact, rule the world. If you’re a night owl, forcing yourself to get up earlier and earlier could have a detrimental effect. “I have a background in sleep research, and I can assure you that each of us has a natural circadian rhythm that we’d be hard-pressed to change in any major way–and happily, it’s not even necessary,” says trainer and consultant Denise Dudley, former CEO of Mission, Kansas-based training giant SkillPath Seminars and author of the book Work It! Get In, Get Noticed, Get Promoted.
A better solution: Learn to work with your natural “body clock” to optimize our productivity and take advantage of your energy peaks throughout the day, whenever they are.
Stop: Letting irritations slide
Instead: Deal with issues before they become a big deal
“Don’t sweat the small stuff” is a common mantra used to dismiss negative feelings about everything from sources of worry to professional slights. The implication is that, by letting the “little things” bother us, we’re losing our focus or productive edge. Just let it go.
“This is where we get into crucial conversations. Before it gets too big, deal with it,” Sanchez says. If you’re holding onto a resentment, it may be draining energy and focus, both of which can affect your productivity. Whether it’s something your boss is doing that hurts your ability to do your job or a workplace condition that could be modified, constructive confrontation may be a better way to deal with it than just trying to ignore the issue until it becomes a big problem, she says.
Stop: Planning arbitrary breaks
Instead: Pay attention to your energy levels
Building in breaks during your day–perhaps, as some productive people do, break 17 minutes for every 52 minutes of work–can be a productivity booster. But, if you’re focused and “on a good run,” don’t interrupt it, Skipper says. Instead of planning arbitrary breaks, monitor your energy levels and schedule them when you really need them. You’ll find patterns throughout your day that will give you clues about when you need a break.
Also, think about how you’re going to spend that break time. If you squander it or spend it doing something that drains your energy and focus, you could be undermining yourself, Skipper says. Instead of chatting with someone who exhausts you, find the activities that truly allow your brain to rest or which energize you.
Stop: Working under pressure
Instead: Give yourself time to do your best work
How many times have you heard people say, “I work better under pressure”? While bumping up against rigid deadlines and “crisis-prompted completion schedules” may motivate you to finish tasks, that doesn’t mean you’re doing your best work, Dudley says. “In fact, many people respond very poorly, and experience a decrease in cognitive functioning and specifically, creativity, when placed under pressure,” she says. In addition, you’re adding unnecessarily to your work stress.
Stop: Thinking procrastination is just a bad habit
Instead: Look into what it may be a sign of
Related to the “working better under pressure” myth is that procrastination is just a bad habit. If you’re a chronic procrastinator, it may be a sign that something deeper is going on, Sanchez says. Procrastination may indicate that you’re fearful of the project, so you put it off. “Fear that they’re ‘doing it wrong,’ fear of looking bad, fear of not being good enough, or imposter syndrome,” she says. It gets in the way of using your time most productively and doing your best work, she says.
Chronic procrastination has even been linked to higher rates of depression, substance abuse, phobias. and other issues, as Joseph Ferrari, professor of psychology at DePaul University and author of Still Procrastinating: The No-Regrets Guide to Getting It Done, told Stephanie Vozza in a previous Fast Company piece. If you’re in the habit of putting off important tasks until the last minute, you may be able to overcome procrastination by looking at–and dealing with–the root causes.