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How to know when your obsession with productivity might be hurting your career

This never-ending quest to get more done, could be coming at a great cost.

How to know when your obsession with productivity might be hurting your career
[Photo: StockSnap/Pixabay]
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Whether it’s to fit more into a day or to carve out some extra free time, many of us are interested in boosting our productivity. This never-ending quest to get more done, however, could be coming at a great cost. While completing a high volume of tasks can feel good in the moment, you’re probably sacrificing creativity, says Bruce Daisley, author of the new book Eat Sleep Work Repeat: 30 Hacks for Bringing Joy to Your Job.

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“Every week we have hours of meetings, hundreds of emails, and open offices with interruptions,” he says. “As a result, most of our best intentions go out the window. We try to eke out every last drop of productivity, but knowledge workers often find it difficult to pinpoint what they’ve created that day.”

When we celebrate productivity, we imagine that a focused brain comes up with better ideas that can bring you closer to big-picture goals. But that’s not the case, says Daisley, who recently left his post as Twitter’s vice president of Europe, Middle East, and Africa. Instead, creativity often comes by using methods that look and feel very unproductive.

Daisley likes to use the example of screenwriter Aaron Sorkin, creator of The West Wing and The Social Network: “He told the Hollywood Reporter that his best ideas came to him in the shower,” says Daisley. “So he had a shower installed in the corner of his office and claims that he took six to eight showers a day. In a world obsessed with productivity, it’s important to realize that flashes of inspiration, realization, and epiphany happen when our brains are relaxed.”

The Maker’s Mindset

If your job requires creativity, you need a maker’s mindset that embraces deep thinking, which takes time. The productivity mindset encourages us to break down schedules into 15-minute chunks to execute tasks easily. But you can’t schedule in ideating, especially if you’re subject to constant interruptions or distractions, says Daisley.

To understand the difference between having a productivity mindset and a maker’s mindset, Daisley points to Cal Newport’s body of research on shallow and deep work.

“Shallow work feels productive, because we’re getting lots done and checking things off the list,” he says. “But it’s not concentrated, and we don’t usually have breakthroughs. Four-hour blocks for deep work are incredibly powerful. But a block interrupted with a 30-minute meeting is not just a block interrupted; it’s a block destroyed.”

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To adopt a maker’s mindset, you’ve got to carve out and protect big blocks of time, and consider them as productive as you would a calendar broken down into shorter increments and loaded with individual tasks. Meaningful work is more likely to be done in solitude, so seek out a place that is quiet and offers an environment that invites concentration.

The Power of Breaks

Creative moments can include points of frustration, such as an inability to find an answer or a new puzzle to solve. When this happens, you’ve often reached a summit that can lead to a breakthrough, says Daisley.

The best solution is to take a break, which improves divergent thinking. “The power of breaks is remarkable,” he says. “We know we are usually a worse version of ourselves right before a break. After a break, studies have found that we are more accepting, collaborative, and willing to reach out and extend to others.”

Take lunch breaks and go for a walk. “We should stop thinking that we’re going to get more done by not taking a break,” says Daisley. “Breaks provide us with external stimulus. We come back with a feeling of being more creative.”

Necessary Downtime

Big ideas don’t always conveniently fall into the windows we’ve created. Instead, we often reach breakthroughs by putting into our brains a stimulus or provocation and then allowing it to ferment, says Daisley.

“We can all end up obsessed with productivity and even feel superhuman when we try to do it all,” he says. “But while we may be reluctant to admit it, the best ideas come when we aren’t trying too hard. When we’re in the shower or on vacation. When we’re more relaxed and not thinking, and we need to make more time for that.”

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Instead of focusing on relentless productivity, make time for exhalation. “In the spirit of Aaron Sorkin, we should all be engaging with our jobs, but inviting space to remove ourselves from it too,” says Daisley.