With the amount of information, distractions, and change surrounding us today, staying productive and focused is harder than it’s ever been. But for the people and organizations that have been able to figure it out, it has quickly become a competitive advantage.
For the rest of us, it seems like a never-ending cycle of success and setbacks. There are days when I can conquer my to-do list with purpose and passion and days when I find myself in a constant state of reaction and overwhelm.
So, like many people, I’m always on the lookout for new tips, tricks, and hacks to help me be more productive. And while I’ve found some success in this area (turning off all my notifications has been huge for me), many of us still struggle to find long-term consistency because we believe some common myths about productivity—and they hold us back.
At Building Champions, we say beliefs always come before behaviors. So, rather than sharing a quick tip, let’s look at five false beliefs around productivity we’ve seen people struggle with (myself included).
When many leaders begin to work with us, they often mention time management as one of their biggest struggles, and it is usually accompanied by a sense of overwhelm and always being behind. This belief is often rooted in the idea that the things they are doing are good—there just isn’t enough time to get all of them done.
When thinking about time management, we often want to focus on efficiency: How do I get better at what I’m doing? If you want to improve your productivity, we need to shift our focus to effectiveness: Am I even doing the right things?
We all have the same number of minutes in a year (525,600 to be exact). Rather than focusing on managing our time, we need to focus on managing our priorities, making sure we make room for our most important activities.
After all, productivity isn’t about getting more things done—it’s about consistently getting the right things done.
If you ask a co-worker or friend how they are doing, you’ll often get a response that involves some level of busyness. In fact, many people today seem to wear the word busy as a badge of honor. This belief is often rooted in a sense of value. If I’m doing lots of things, constantly in motion, then my work must matter. And often the opposite holds true, If I don’t look busy, then people may begin to think I’m not working hard.
But too often we mistake motion (being busy) for action (behaviors that drive outcomes). Author James Clear refers to this as “the mistake smart people make.” Motion allows us to feel like we’re making progress—but often it’s busyness that keeps us from tackling the scary hard actions we need to take to achieve anything great. Legendary coach John Wooden once said, “Never mistake activity for achievement.” Yet when we buy this lie, we often do.
This myth is so pervasive that I fear many of us have come to believe it is true. It’s often rooted in a feeling that with so much going on the only way to get it all done is to do a couple of things at once. Plus, everyone else is doing it (and most proud of it) so it can’t be that bad, right?
But the truth is that researchers believe that only about two percent of humans are actually capable of multitasking. The rest of us are experiencing contextual switching—picking up and putting down different tasks at lightning speed so it almost feels seamless. But it’s not seamless—in fact, it requires a lot of resources.
In addition to making you less happy, researchers estimate that it reduces productivity by 40 percent and can lower your IQ by 10 points (the same effect as losing a night of sleep; two times the effect of smoking marijuana).
This myth is often rooted in a place of good intention—wanting to be a good teammate and serve others well. In a 24/7, digital, uber-connected world, sometimes we have the expectation that constant accessibility is a requirement. For some of us working more remotely, this burden can be exasperated and forces us to blend the boundaries between work and life in unhealthy ways.
But a side effect of always being accessible is that we often spend more time reacting to what’s going on around us, often serving at the whim of every interruption and email that comes our way. And these constant distractions come with a real cost.
According to a study by Microsoft, on average employees lose 25 minutes every time they immediately respond to an email notification—and never return to their original task more than 25 percent of the time.
Always reacting to someone else’s needs and priorities can also foster a pattern of passiveness—always waiting for the next interruption rather than being intentional with how you prioritize and invest your time.
I have a long history of struggling with this one. For me, it is rooted in a feeling that I have too much to do in the time I have, so I’ll just find more time. We covered the first problem above—there is only so much time available. This leads us to the second and bigger problem—we often “find” time by investing more hours in our jobs at the expense of the other areas of our life.
This causes two main side effects. The first is in our personal well-being. The extra investment in our work usually comes with costs: skipping a workout, missing a family meal, allowing relationships to suffer. Self-leadership must always be a priority—we must be at our best in order to give our best to those around us, including our work.
The second side effect often goes unnoticed but carries an equally high cost—our creativity and productivity. We don’t often think of intellectual work as being as demanding as physical labor, but it requires a huge amount of resources and energy to maintain focus and produce quality ideas and insights. We’ve all experienced the effect of this: we can only work so long without a break before the quality of our work begins to suffer.
In a quest to get more done, the extra investment of time can actually harm our productivity and well-being. The old adage is true here: the key is to work smarter not harder.
I’ll share it again: beliefs always come before behaviors. I know those behaviors matter—ultimately, they will decide whether you succeed or fail, find new levels of productivity or fall further behind.
But if you don’t align your beliefs first, then consistently executing on those behaviors will be nearly impossible. So, before you hop in and try to adopt some new techniques, take some time to reflect on the myths above and figure out which ones are holding you back. If you change your beliefs first, then adopting long-term effective behaviors will be easier—and necessary if you want to see lasting change and results.