Most of us have a general idea of what we should be doing (logging off social media) and what we shouldn’t be doing (scheduling another unnecessary meeting) to get more done. As someone who spends more time talking about productivity than could possibly be productive, I can tell you it’s less about knowing what you need to do and more about finding the motivation to do it. In today’s digital society, and thanks to the ever-changing landscape of business (like the gig economy and the rise of remote work), the struggle to keep yourself focused is very real.
Instead of downloading another app to help optimize your work, I’m a big believer in taking a look at what’s really slowing you down, including these unexpected—and habitual—productivity killers. If you really want to learn how to smash your to-do list, here are a few culprits to consider:
Despite enormous amounts of evidence pointing to the fact that multitasking is bad, we still do it. Constantly. It makes us feel like we’re getting more done, which is exactly why we keep coming back to a habit that is doing more harm than good.
“Most people are incredibly vulnerable to doing what feels good in the moment, and we operate within a system that truly tries to hijack our time and attention biologically,” says Dr. Julie Gurner, a clinical psychologist and executive performance coach. “We’re getting dopamine hits for our digital engagements, and it’s hard to deny the motivation to repeat them unless we actively work against those systems.”
Most people don’t realize that task switching (or context switching) is a negative, probably because it’s a natural part of our workflow. After all, we have multiple tasks to accomplish throughout the day, so switching between them should happen, right?
Yes and no. While there’s nothing wrong with switching from one task to another, there’s a slight gap that happens in your workflow when you take time to switch tasks—especially from one (responding to emails) to another (finishing a report).
“It isn’t just the interruption,” explains Gurner. “It’s the cognitive lag in reorienting to the task in the same headspace you once were.”
It takes us a few minutes to get into the groove of working on something, and that’s okay. However, every task switch that occurs—whether it’s work-related or refilling your coffee—repeats that process over and over again.
While this might not seem like a huge burden to your productivity, if it happens constantly throughout the day, then the five minutes it takes to get into the zone can add up to an hour (or more) of lost productivity time.
Our devices can be wonderful things, but they’re also doing some major damage to productivity levels. Even things that are designed to help us—such as notifications—can be a blessing and a curse, especially when we’re being bombarded with texts, calls, app reminders, social media alerts, and more.
“Habitually checking our phones and engaging with them is so natural that most people don’t even think to put it on the list of what interrupts them in their workday,” says Gurner. “In 2019, the average American checked their phone every 10 minutes . . . that’s 96 times a day . . . and that’s just an average—many people will far exceed this. It’s become so commonplace in our habits, we forget how disruptive it is.”
We’re used to seeing our devices as an optimization of our lives (which they absolutely can be), and we forget to look at the human element of the productivity equation.
“While technology can be incredibly useful in helping us accomplish more in less time, understanding how humans operate best can lead us to adjust how we interface with that technology, fulfill what we need as people to perform optimally, and lead to the best outcomes overall,” says Dr. Gurner.
If you want to identify your own hidden productivity killers, it’s time to be honest with yourself—brutally so—and look at what’s happening with your own habits. Instead of adding something (a new app, methodology, or mindset), I always recommend that people look for a way to simplify things instead. Our society’s hustle-obsessed culture tells us that we always need to be optimizing so we can do more things faster, but sometimes productivity is about doing the right things better.
Small changes might not seem like much, but many times the biggest impact isn’t time saved or a dramatic increase in work output. For many of us, learning how to implement better habits can also help reduce our stress levels, which is always a win.