5 Ways Your Best Intentions Are Undermining Your Productivity


We live in a world bursting at the seams with MORE—more information, more tasks, more requirements, more pressures. “Do More with Less” is the mantra of our time. The trouble is, in our quest for More, we often end up with Less—less productivity, less engagement, and in some cases even less of a brain. Here are five common things we do to get ahead, which are actually holding us back.

1. Working continuously without breaks. You’ve got a mountain of work and a tight deadline, so you chain yourself to your desk not moving for hours at a time. Through sheer willpower and discipline, you keep going long past your optimal attention and effort. The problem is, we are not wired to work this way. Tony Schwartz of the Energy Project explains that human beings are designed to “Pulse”—that is, to alternate between periods of intense work and rest. In his book, Be Excellent at Anything, Schwartz explains that great performers work more intensely than most of us, but also recover more deeply.

To increase productivity: Schedule regular breaks into your day. Use methods like the Pomodoro technique to set up cycles of focused work followed by restorative breaks.

2. Being “responsive.” There’s an expectation of responsiveness in our organizations today. If someone needs something, we’re expected to drop everything to respond now. We continually monitor email and answer every call, text, and tweet as it arrives. We spend our days scrambling from one thing to the next, wondering why we never really get anything done. In Overload!, How Too Much Information is Hazardous to Your Organization, Johnathan Spira explains that it can take 10 – 20 times the amount of interruption time to return to a task. So when you take a minute to check that email, it can take you 10 to 20 minutes to get back on task. That’s a lot of wasted time, with a high cost to your organization.

To increase productivity: Start your day by making a list of tasks to complete. Turn off all your devices and do just one task for a set timeperiod (25 – 60 minutes). Check email and messages at designated times only.

3. Multi-tasking. A former coworker always multi-tasked during teleconferences. I could hear her keyboard clicking away throughout the meeting. No doubt, she thought she was getting so much done, but she always missed some important decision or action item. Like her, we all believe that we can multi-task, but one British study showed that multi-tasking was as debilitating as smoking marijuana.

To increase productivity:  Commit to focusing on one thing at a time. That can be hard to do, but remind yourself that you’ll be faster in the long run. When someone is talking, put down your phone, push away from your desk, look at the person and listen. You’ll build good relationships. In a recent GovLoop post, Kathleen Vaught provides some good advice for overcoming multi-tasking.

4. All work and no play. In the workplace, play is seen as frivolous—especially in the government environment, where any sign of frivolity is equated with wasting taxpayer dollars. However, the research shows that play is what allows us to create, improvise, imagine, innovate, learn, and solve problems. Stuart Brown of the National Institute for Play has found that lack of play can result in joylessness, rigidity, addiction, workaholism, diminished curiosity, and depression.

To increase productivity: Give yourself time at least once a week to do something just for the fun of it. Encourage your coworkers to join you. You’ll end up feeling refreshed, reconnected, and ready to do good work—hardly a waste of taxpayer dollars.

 5. Not getting enough rest. “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” is the motto of the modern work warrior—a bold statement of commitment to getting the job done at all costs. The trouble is, there is a cost. Lack of sleep has been shown to cause difficulties in concentrating, solving problems, and reasoning. Current research shows that sleep is an important part of our learning. While we sleep, our brains consolidate and integrate what we’ve learned during the day. As author Benedict Carey says in How We Learn and Why It Happens, “I think of sleep as learning with my eyes closed.”

To increase productivity: Think of sleep not as a luxury but as an event just as important as any other meeting or project on your To Do List. Schedule enough time to sleep so you feel rested and alert.

Today’s work environment demands a lot from us all. We work hard because we’re conscientious and we care. We want to be the heroes and save the day. The truth is, though, that sometimes to be the hero, we need to say “No” to protect our energy and our time.

For more information on how to be more productive in a culture of More, see the book Overwhelmed: How to Work, Love, and Play When No One Has the Time by Brigid Schulte, which was the inspiration and original source for this post.

Claudia Escribano is part of the GovLoop Featured Blogger program, where we feature blog posts by government voices from all across the country (and world!). To see more Featured Blogger posts, click here.

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Bill McFadden

Another item to think about, some individuals are just trying too hard. Someone who tries to make the constantly perfect impression and or be all things to all people all the time is going to come up short. One needs to be conscientious but at the same time be realistic about both themselves and their organization.

Claudia Escribano

That’s a great point, Bill. One thing I’ve realized a lot lately is how often I am the source of my Overwhelm–by trying to hard to be all things to all people. And by having a really cluttered desk. 🙂

Bob Richard

Nice article, Claudia. I like the practical tips you offer.
I think it’s also worth considering how relentless busyness detracts from our creativity. There’s lots of evidence linking creativity to daydreaming (or, more technically, “mind-wandering” ) such as here http://bit.ly/2oVzJUe

Alamelu Dev

Hi Claudia,
Thanks for sharing – enjoyed the practical tips and the resources. Will look up the books!
I suggest another book – Overworked & Overwhelmed – the mindfulness alternative by Scott Eblin, which has suggestions on what are the “killer apps” in physical routines, mental routines, relation routine and spiritual routines that will have the most impact to help us deal with being overwhelmed . On his website he has a nice planning worksheet called Life GPS which is free resource and really helps prioritize what’s important in the different aspects of our life.

Peter Bonner

Thanks, Claudia – Especially the concept that we are better when we “pulse” instead of the idea that we can work endlessly. Thought of this when I read how the author Phillip Meyer tracks his cognitive energy in the Times book review last weekend. “You have to be very careful about to what (and to whom) you’re giving the best part of your day. You have to treat your mind the way an athlete treats her body; I’m always taking stock of my mental fitness, my creative battery, and my psychological state; you have to always be pushing yourself, always taking risks, but the recovery time is equally important.”