8 productivity traps to avoid

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What is productivity, really? It’s not just clearing off your desk or ploughing through your email inbox. Stop, take a breath and make sure you’re getting the important stuff done.

Obviously, productivity involves producing. Producing widgets, events, reports, sales. The more producing you do, the more money you have and the greater success your company has. Right?

It’s not that simple. It doesn’t matter how many widgets you produce if no one buys them. It doesn’t matter how many reports you produce if they’re irrelevant. So, productivity must be tied to a worthwhile goal.

This is a simple concept, but one that is easy to forget in the hustle and bustle of the day. It’s easy to be fooled into thinking you’re productive when you answer emails and phone calls and get paper off your desk.

They clamor for your attention. The trick is to handle them or keep them at bay while you spend time on the things that actually are important, that are quietly waiting for you to get to them.

So, here are the eight productivity traps you need to avoid:

  • The “I can do it all” Trap.
    Newsflash: you can’t do it all, and you’ll never be able to do enough. There will always be more you could have done. This is the perfectionism trap.

    Solution: decide when enough is enough. What is the ROI on your time for a particular project?

    If you’re talking about getting a contract that will be half your profits for the year, spend a lot of time on it. If you’re talking about figuring out how to save $40 a month on supplies, spend an hour or less on that.

  • Picking a system and then not using it consistently.
    Stick with certain ways of doing things. Keep your to do list in the same spot and create items for it with similar language all the time.

    This allows your mind to concentrate on the content rather than being distracted by the form. Let the form be the holder for the content; something to bring it to you efficiently and invisibly.

    Each form has its own good qualities, so you just need to pick one. What if phone book entries were all written differently? Some with the first name first, some the last name, some the address first, some the phone number first? Can you see how much harder it would be to look through a book like that and find what you need?

  • The “But we’ve always done it that way” Trap.
    Take time to look at what you’ve been taking for granted and see if its efficiency or productivity can be improved. This can be anything from regular meetings to how your desk is set up to how you get to work in the morning.

    Anytime you hear yourself saying “we always (fill in the blank),” question that statement. Do you “always” for a good reason? A good reason two years ago may not be applicable anymore. Is it necessary?

    Could it be done faster or piggybacked onto another task? Sometimes just thinking carefully of the steps involved in a particular project can spur a brainstorm to improve it.

  • The “I don’t know what to do next” Trap.
    Be your own boss, and your own employee. When you’re the boss, you formulate and set goals and figure out ways to get there. When you’re the employee, you get down to work on those tasks.

    By separating these functions, you don’t second guess yourself as much. Your boss has already decided, for example, that a new brochure needs to be created and it should have certain elements and be ready in 3 weeks. As the employee, you start writing the new copy; you don’t waste time worrying about whether the old copy really needs changing, or if 3 weeks is a realistic deadline.

    If new information comes up while the project is in progress, the plan may change. But, again, trust that the decisions you make as the “boss” are the best you can make with the information available, and then let your “employee” act on them.

  • The “I just can’t focus on what I have to do” Trap.
    Most of us thrive on novelty. We crave variety. The latest thing almost always can get our attention.

    So you need to figure out some tricks to make your existing project seem new again. Tackle it from a different angle. Ask a colleague for advice and see it from his or her point of view.

    Break it down into components and then work a little on each one so you don’t get burned out on any one element. Pack up your materials and do some work elsewhere; a conference room, your kitchen, a café.

  • The “I need more information first” Trap.
    This is a variation of #1. You must control your options. People generally confuse having lots of options and choices with getting the best possible result. Fewer choices might mean that the best one was left out.

    But, lots of choice can induce paralysis. There’s an infinite number of questions to ask and conditions to satisfy to determine which choice is the best. And as long as you’re stuck on that task, you aren’t getting to the doing of the project.

    Have some simple criteria to judge options, gather them quickly and move forward. What really matters is getting the house built, not making sure you had the world’s best hammer to do it with.

  • The “Everything seems equally important” Trap.
    There’s no way you’ll get everything done. If you ever did, you can be sure more things would crowd in the door behind them.

    You must set up criteria for what the important things to do are. In addition, identify things that don’t meet that criteria and consciously decide not to do them. Be clear about what you’re not

    Why? Because if you don’t, those items will remain on a phantom to do list, forever undone and forever bugging you. Even though you’re not doing them, they suck energy away from the important things.

  • The “Everything seems equally important” Trap, part 2.
    If you can’t get everything done, and you don’t set your own criteria for what’s important, that means that someone else is setting it. Your boss, your mother, whoever.

    Think of this not as having to give things up, but regaining power over how you spend your time.

The payoff is having clarity about what you are doing, which makes you more productive and efficient. The way to avoid these traps can be as simple as maintaining a regularly reviewed to do list and remember to ask yourself, “why am I doing this?”

 

The “just do it” habit

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I aim to get on the treadmill 3 times a week. Do I do it?

Well, there are some days when my schedule tramples that plan, and other days when I just can’t force myself into it. I do go most days, though, and that’s partly because I give myself permission to quit.

Once I get my workout clothes on, I’m likely to get out the door. Once I’m out the door, I’m likely to get to the gym. Once I’m at the gym, whatever I do is a win.

Even if I give myself permission to stop after just 10 minutes, I did 10 minutes. That’s far better than not going at all because I can’t put in the full 25 minutes.

How often do you put off exercise, or anything, because you can’t do it “right”? This is perfectionism, my friends. Avoid it at all costs!

Remember that done is better than perfect. Also, striving to stick to my 3 times a week routine, even if I don’t do the entire routine, helps reinforce that habit.

Organizing as a Practice

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I've been trying to start two new practices recently (I know I shouldn't say "trying;" am I afraid to commit?). One is meditating and the other is writing. Since I used to write fiction I know a practice is important but somehow I didn't think that also applied to non-fiction writing. My friend Deborah assures me that it does (and she gave me some great tips!). So I'm using an online timer and putting in 10 minutes (for now) a day. What I come up with is drivel, of course, but that's not the point.

Zafu My meditation practice is also often embarrassingly bad. Wow, is that really me thinking all those incredibly banal thoughts? Then I remind myself that I'm just practicing. I am not very patient and have never understood delayed gratification, so it's a big thing for me to let my practice be a practice and not a path to perfection.

Being organized, clutter-free and in control of your time is also a practice. You're not going to finally get it right one day and be home free. Some days will be better than others. You'll go through busy periods when your system gets a little frayed around the edges and then you'll take the time to get back on track.

I do emphasize having a vision for your organized life, a goal to work towards. However, if that goal is making you feel disappointed in what's happening today, just think of what you're doing as a practice. Instead of thinking, 'my office has to look like that one I saw on Apartment Therapy,' try 'today I'll clear off the top of the file cabinet.' Focus on action today rather than possible futures.

A practice has its own rhythm and is its own rewards. Try it and see.

Kitty with meditation cushion from jakemohan's photostream.

Conquering Perfectionism

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I wrote about perfectionism back in December, but it’s a topic that comes up a lot, with clients and in everyday conversation, so I’m addressing it again.

This time I’m going to quote from a great book about procrastination called It’s About Time by Dr. Linda Sapadin. Perfectionism is one of six ways that she identifies as procrastination styles. The others are dreaming, worrying, defying, crisis making and overdoing.

I won’t go into what makes a perfectionist procrastinate because you probably already know! Instead, I’ll paraphrase what Dr. Sapadin suggests to get over it.

  • Do some creative visualization. Perfectionists are often tense. Use the visualization to show yourself that everything is fine, including you.
  • Realize that the rest of the world can’t live up to your high standards. Then realize that you can’t either, because they’re impossibly high
  • “Strive for excellence rather than perfection.” Focus on excellence and you’ll focus on results. Focus on perfection and you’ll get lost in all the tiny details before you can get to the results.
  • Stay with what’s realistic, not what’s ideal. There are many ways to achieve any result and your choice may be informed by time and resources available. If you’re realistic about that, you can still achieve excellence.
  • Don’t think in terms of “all or nothing.” Life is not a pass/fail course. Give up rigid ways of thinking for more creative possibilities.

See if any of these techniques work for you.

The Seven Deadly Organizing Sins: Wrath

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Mad as hell This is Sin #5 on the list, which also includes lust, gluttony, greed and sloth. Wrath, or anger, is sinful because it’s destructive. It can harm others and it can harm you as well.

Here’s a scenario: Overwhelmed Olivia decides to beat clutter once and for all. She buys an organizing book and sets aside a weekend. By Sunday night, she’s only on the third cabinet and she feels frustrated. Then she gets mad; mad at the book, which she throws behind the bed, and mad at herself for not being able to get this project done.

Her anger really comes from trying to achieve a goal with an impossible timeline. Even if you’ve got a team of people dragging all your stuff into the driveway for you to make rapid fire decisions on, you’re still not going to finish in a weekend.

Olivia’s goal also may not be realistic because of other time and energy commitments. She’s bound to feel angry if she never has a spare hour to go through that back closet.

To avoid sin: Be kind to yourself. Know that you are doing your best and that perfectionism is your enemy. Do no compare yourself to others, especially people on TV shows! You have your own unique talents, energy levels, working styles and preferences.