You cannot fake productivity. And don’t come back at me with stories of how good you are at looking busy, because that’s not the same thing. Under no circumstances can you make up for results that have not been achieved.
And yet, we still try to explain away unproductive work and poor effort. We make up excuses for missing quarterly goals and projects that go uncompleted. Whether caused by human nature or laziness, or some combination of the two, people try to fake or gloss over actual productivity all the time. It’s instinctual to find excuses for problems and shortcomings, and that instinct tends to perpetuate underperformance.
I’ll try to make this point early and often: productivity isn’t the same as working longer hours. It’s okay, necessary even, to take days off. The myth that successful people work around the clock, drinking pureed meals to save time and sleeping three hours a day, is wildly false. Also, if output comes at the expense of all the things you enjoy about life, what’s the point? Please dismiss the idea that results require longer days at the office.
Instead, we ought to investigate the root causes of our productivity problems. Without trying to explain these issues away, think about the small changes that could lead to better results. If you’ve accepted the status quo because you feel burnt out and don’t think you can work harder, it’s time to employ the old adage - work smarter, not harder.
When you can identify and admit your faults, self-improvement becomes a whole lot easier. Take an honest look at the following productivity killers and start thinking about steps you can take to combat them.
We plot out directions to get from point A to point B. We go to the gym or for a jog with a plan for the results we want to see. And then we go to work and hope that success will find us and tell us what to do.
The broad goal of “make money” doesn’t work, at least not until you break it down until smaller objectives that actually help you to make money. If you find yourself spinning your wheels for a large part of the day and feeling overwhelmed by giant, conceptual tasks, chances are you have very general directives that are hard to tackle without a little more guidance.
Lofty goals can provide motivation, but you need to break them down into small missions you can accomplish. If your goal is to make money, that’s something you may have trouble doing on any old Thursday. However, when you break it down into a few smaller components:
● Generate three new leads
● Follow up on invoices
● Negotiate billing fees
● Create customer incentive program
Any or all of those jobs can be started and potentially finished before lunch. And, as you get working on one of them, a brilliant idea for another money maker might pop up.
Don’t limit your goals, but understand the importance of viewing them on a micro level. Smaller objectives could be your first step toward a more productive day.
I mentioned this before and I’m going to double down on it. Have you ever seen someone, either a colleague at work a family member at home, keep trying and failing at the same thing without stepping away for a second? They become increasingly tired and frustrated and you just know things won’t end well. Any chance you’ve ever been the person in this example?
While some people prefer monotony and routine, those conditions don’t help our brains thrive. We need to shake things up and we definitely need to recharge our batteries from time to time. What you do with your break is up to you; take a nap, look at your phone, go for a walk, do a crossword puzzle, whatever helps you get back on track.
Studies show we also suffer from decision fatigue. After a long day of calling the shorts, our deductive reasoning abilities start to suffer. If you refuse to take breaks because you want to prove you’re a machine, you might start making decisions that adversely affect your work. So go get a coffee, go make a snack, go listen to some music. Don’t just sit there demanding that your brain think harder and do better.
When something important happens, we often assume we’ll remember it. If you’ve just had a great idea or been reminded of a pressing issue that needs attention, you log it away as something you’ll definitely remember to take care of. And then, of course, you forget.
For a busy professional, too many things happen through the course of the day. To track all the conversations and developments without some system for cataloging your thoughts will undoubtedly lead to some things falling through the cracks. Then time gets wasted as you retrace your steps and try to figure out where the ball got dropped.
Get a notepad, talk to Siri more, or institute an intuitive post-it system. Anything you can do to cut back on time spent wondering what it was you wanted to do will surely increase productivity. You don’t have to get a 4,000-page planner and write down every thought you have, but don’t let me hold you back if you want to try that approach.
Another benefit of writing things down comes when you get to check those things off. We thrive on sensing accomplishment, and checking items off a list really scratches that itch. Try making a long list of small tasks some morning, then cross items off as you get them done. You can fill your list with things like “check messages” or “sharpen pencils,” simple, menial tasks that you can finish quickly and easily. Once the ball gets rolling, you could get addicted to striking your pen through those duties and become more productive while you’re at it.
Failure to track your finances doesn’t just hurt your retirement prospects. If you waste money, you almost always end up wasting time trying to counter your poor spending and saving habits. If you budget appropriately and keep your ducks in a row, far less time and money gets lost.
If you’re going from no budget to a detailed spending plan, it won’t feel very productive at first. You may get the sense you’re using far too much time plotting out spending and you aren’t getting other things done, and that can be annoying for anyone looking to increase productivity. You’ll have to trust that the ends justify the means, and spending some serious time cleaning up your books will save you far more hours down the road.
A good grasp of your financial situation also makes it easier to call the shots when it comes time to buy new equipment, spend on marketing, hire more employees, etc. Imagine how much time could be spent on more productive undertakings if you didn’t have to worry about money for a few hours each day?
As creatures of habit, we resist changes to the protocol we find comforting. On more than one occasion, I’ve been guilty of resisting a good idea because it would undo the spreadsheets I’d spent so many years mastering. That, of course, is no way to run a modern business.
While you have to avoid oversimplifying everything, it’s just as important to keep yourself in check when it comes to the old habits you won’t let go. Don’t be afraid of the apps that could streamline your services. Don’t hesitate to hire a bookkeeper who might do things a little different but will make your accounting 10 times more efficient. Don’t use a typewriter when the keyboard on your laptop works perfectly well.
In addition to the bigger automations like payroll and scheduling, you can get a lot of mileage by simply making sure your programs and calendars are connected and optimized. Have emails filtered into the right categories and get automatic reminders for quarterly meetings and the like. Stop wasting bandwidth thinking about whether or not you did something that your computer should handle for you.
One worker has six things to do in a day. Another worker has to accomplish the same six jobs. They both work hard, take an hour lunch, and clock out at the same time. One does everything, the other barely gets through item number three, and it all comes down to how the day was scheduled.
You know when your phones are more likely to ring. You know which conference calls could run long and which tasks will cause you the most strife. If you schedule accordingly, you’ll take care of the bruising chores first when you’re firing on all cylinders. Should you decide to push off the work you hate, there’s a good chance you’ll run out of steam when it comes time to handle that job.
Scheduling is a lot like goal setting. Breaking tasks down into manageable steps makes a big difference when you have a lot to get through in a day. Organizing those to-dos to fit your work patterns will make you far more productive than the person in the next cubicle who dives in without giving any thought to the day’s itinerary.
While you map out your schedule, don’t forget to plan for the unforeseeable. If you have a tentative call or meeting in the afternoon, assume it will happen and plan around it. Should it get canceled, thank your lucky stars and find a way to fill the time. Don’t leave yourself any wiggle room for excuses by subconsciously sabotaging your own schedule.
Communication living constantly at our fingertips is helpful to a degree, but it quickly becomes more trouble than its worth if you lack self-control. If you aren’t waiting on pins and needles for an extremely consequential email, don’t get distracted by every ping and ding that comes from your phone or computer.
Aside from wasting time on less-than-important communication, repeatedly checking your phone breaks up your train of thought and makes each task take longer than it should. It seems like a harmless few seconds when you respond to a text or look at a notification, but those seconds add up, as do the seconds it takes for your brain to switch gears and get back into work mode.
Instead of having your phone at the ready, set it aside until one of the breaks you have to take for your mental health. Then you can get caught up on the day and wrap up any conversations that would otherwise distract you from work. It’s impossible to stay focused 100% of the time, but we can all take steps to limit the things stealing our attention.
Listening to a podcast on the way to work is multitasking. Signing checks while on the phone is multitasking. Editing a report while discussing changes to the business plan isn’t multitasking - it’s giving half your attention to two important things and probably messing at least one of them up.
You will get more done by staying focused on one project than you will trying to juggle too many things at the same time. I’ve seen a few thousand resumes with multitasking listed in the special skills section, and while I don’t think those people were trying to lie, I also don’t believe multitasking is an actual skill. Unless you can hold two conversations in unison and not get confused, I’d encourage you to avoid attacking multiple tasks as much as possible.
Again, it’s okay to do two things at once when those jobs require more physical coordination than brain power. When it comes to thoughtful procedures, try to give your full brain to what you’re doing.
We’re taught to say yes to everything, as though our success depends on making anyone with any kind of influence happy no matter what. While it’s important to keep a positive outlook, you need to have the wherewithal to say no from time to time.
Even if you aren’t trying to do two things at once, taking on too much has the same mental effect as multitasking. While you should be focused on one project, you have another due date creeping into your mind and making you feel overwhelmed. Had you just said no to the project that tipped the scales, you’d be fine. Now you might let down two clients instead of just the one you could have denied.
It takes some time to really learn your own professional limits. Most of us start off over-eager and eventually realize we can only fill our plates with so much stuff. Know that you have every right to pass on work if it will jeopardize jobs you’ve already committed to.
And then, sometimes, your lack of productivity has nothing to do with work ethic or scheduling; no relationship to the breaks you take or the automating you’ve done. For some, productivity is zapped simply by working in a field they don’t enjoy or for a company they don’t like.
You can only consider this option after you’ve weighed the other nine, but you might need a change of scenery in order to reach your true potential. I was working for an impressive firm and feeling stifled, and have accomplished more than I ever dreamed since opening my own company. Whether it’s a business you run or a new line of work entirely, there could be greener pastures where your productivity can thrive.
Don’t be rash or impulsive, but don’t let your dreams fade just because the change seems a bit scary.
With the right setting and the right tools, we all have the ability to be productive and have fulfilling jobs that still leave time for us to enjoy the finer things in life. Hopefully solving one of the problems above can trigger something that makes your workday more manageable and maybe even gets you out of the office a few minutes early.