3 Ways You’re Fooling Yourself About Productivity

Many of us keep our days chock full from sunup to sundown, but in the end we still feel swamped by our to do lists. It’s such a common feeling in our society that productivity gurus have made millions selling us books, apps, and systems designed to boost our work output.

The problem with even the most well-designed system is that it often comes head to head against some deeply entrenched untruths we tell ourselves about our work habits.

Being busy feels good. It’s a status symbol, a way of distracting ourselves from the uncomfortable parts of life, and an indication to our employers of how dedicated we are to our jobs.

But if you’ve been collapsing into bed each night wondering why you can’t seem to “get it all done,” maybe it’s not that you don’t have the right system. Maybe it’s just time to look honestly at your work habits to see if you’re subscribing to these three problematic ideas.

1. Your focus is on being productive

Wait – isn’t productivity what this article is about? Sure, but while learning to get “things” done faster and more efficiently is great, it won’t make a difference in your life unless you pin down exactly what you’re trying to accomplish.

What’s your joy? Are you trying get more efficient with work tasks so that you can cut back on overtime and spend those hours with your family? Or maybe your boss has agreed to let you work on a side project you’re passionate about, but you have to fit it in around your regular duties. Maybe you’re taking a night class to improve your skill set and take your career to the next level.

Rather than trying to find ways to get your current workload done faster so you can impress your boss – or even just crash in front of the TV – focus on making time for the things that nourish you. Identify what matters most in your life, and then put that at the forefront of your quest to be more productive.

2. I’m busy therefore I’m working

Anyone who’s spent time waiting tables has heard the phrase “If you have time to lean, you have time to clean.” The idea is to fill every second with a useful, productive task. That culture of filling our minutes with busywork extends to the office, too – especially in offices where you’re expected to put in a certain number of hours at a desk, whether or not you’ve finished your work for the day.

We’ve perfected the art of multitasking, because it makes us feel like we’re accomplishing a lot, and looks busier than working on one task at a time. You may feel speedy and efficient, but constantly switching between tasks actually slows you down. Research shows that multitasking creates mental blocks that can slow productivity by as much as 40 percent.

Worse than multitasking is the fact that we often fill our days with things we don’t actually need to be doing. Take a hard look at your schedule. Are there any busywork items that could be safely eliminated? This can be especially hard if you’re near the bottom of the office food chain, but if you consistently feel as though your time is being poorly used, try approaching your boss with a solution.

3. I always need to be available

This is a hard myth to break, because in this day and age of constant connectivity, we can feel like we’re letting our coworkers down by disconnecting even for a half an hour. But constantly interrupting workflow to check your email and field minor questions keeps you from accomplishing the work at hand.

In one office I worked at, my desk was at the crossroads. I was constantly interrupted by people coming and going, stopping by to ask me questions, or needing me to switch tasks for a minute. As a copywriter, I needed a fair amount of concentration to finish projects in a timely manner – and the constant interruptions dragged my work out for far longer than it should have taken.

Eventually I learned that if I really needed to finish my work, I would go into the kitchen and write freehand. I’d leave a note on my desk so that anyone who needed to find me knew where I was, and then I would blast out copy at a fantastic pace.

Set aside a time throughout your day for work that needs increased concentration, and treat it like you would any other meeting or appointment. Put it on the office calendar, leave a note on your desk, turn on your email auto responder, and let people know how to get ahold of you if it’s really important.

What are your tips for combatting an overwhelming to do list? Tell us in the comments.

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Susan Burgess

I’m a very busy administrative assistant and am constantly being interrupted with questions and minor emergencies. I’ve learned to pick up a pen and note paper as soon as I see someone approaching my desk. I can quickly jot down the new request with enough general info to help remind me of what needs to be accomplished. If it’s something I can do immediately, I handle it and throw the note away. If not, I provide a timeline to the requestor and add the task to my ‘to do’ list. This has kept me from forgetting these little tasks and gives me the opportunity to prioritize all of the various requests.

Another thing I have recently employed at the suggestion of a co-worker is a folder system for my many tasks, whether a regular duty or the daily additions to the workflow. I have a red folder for the ‘hot’ items that need my attention immediately or within the current day. A green folder keeps the tasks that are next on the priority list and must be addressed within a day or two. A yellow folder is for the tasks that need my attention but are not critical within the current week. A blue folder is for those items that are of interest to me, but can stay on the back burner indefinitely if needed. I take time each morning or at the end of the day to review the items in each folder to make sure they are still categorized correctly. Items move from folder to folder as priorities change or tasks are accomplished. This method has greatly improved my productivity and lowered my stress level as well as keeping my workspace more organized. No more piles of paperwork spread out all over my desk in an attempt to keep from forgetting a task. Everything is in a folder and readily accessible when needed.

Jessie Kwak

That’s great, Susan! I know a lot of people use folder systems to keep track of priority items, and it sounds like you’ve got one nailed. I’ve been trying to sort one out to help me keep track of various projects and tasks related to various separate clients – but with half of my paperwork being digital I can’t rely fully on physical file folders to keep me organized.

I’m still working out a system that’s really effective for me. Thanks for chiming in with yours!