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?”


Getting things done, in a nutshell

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I came across a great, succinct description of David Allen’s Getting Things Done process on the ToDoist blog. Here it is:

  1. Capture – collect what has your attention. From little to big, personal to professional, record every single to-do, project or task that’s on your plate. Use a to-do list app like Todoist or even a simple pen and notebook, but get everything recorded as it pops into your head.

  2. Clarify – process what it means. Make the decision: are these items actionable? If not, remove it from your list. If it’s actionable, decide what action you need to take next. Delegate if you can. If it’s a big project, like Marketing Plan for 2014, break it down into a hierarchical order with subprojects and subtasks.

  3. Organize – put it where it belongs. Place actionable items in determined lists, like people to call, emails to send, or papers to write. Adding priorities to these tasks is ideal.

  4. Reflect – review frequently. “This is where the clarifying step pays off, because you should be able to pick something you have the time and the energy to do right away,” says Alan Henry of LifeHacker. Consistently revise your lists to decide what to do next. Schedule a weekly overview to see where you can streamline and update your lists.

  5. Engage – simply do. “Use your system to take appropriate actions with confidence,” says David Allen.

I’m a big fan of the Getting Things Done system. All the steps are important. Capture and clarify have to go together. It’s great to have all your to do’s and ideas scribbled on Post-Its, but if you don’t figure out what to actually DO with each one, they’re useless.

After you figure that out, it’s usually clear where to put each item, the organizing step. When you haven’t taken time to clarify, your pile of captured ideas remains an undifferentiated and intimidating mess.

Reflect is a big step. It’s partly figuring out when you’ll do each task and also figuring out how each one fits in with your bigger picture. That is, all the other tasks, and all the other life stuff you have going on. You also consider what Allen calls context; what do you have time, energy, resources and the right environment for? For example, you can have a conversation while driving, but not compile your Post Its.

Finally, just do. Trust your system and know that the task you’ve chosen is the best thing to do right now.

This blog post also describes the Pomodoro method (using a mechanical timer for work periods and breaks) and the Seinfeld method (doing something each day on a particular project and not breaking that chain of actions). Check those out too!

The seductive organizing system

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Sometimes just making a to-do list makes you feel so productive that you give yourself a break from doing anything on the list. I’m a big fan of to do lists and I encourage people to acknowledge their progress in order to stay on track.

But that’s not always fruitful.

Sometimes looking at the progress we’ve make seduces us into believing we’re done. We look at all the tasks crossed off the to-do list and feel good about ourselves. That’s not a problem usually, but in this case it is because we then let ourselves off the hook, even in pursuing a goal we’ve already identified that we want.

This kind of thinking shows up when people get excited about a new organizing system or a new app. Well, new anything, really. Something bright and shiny.

But there’s a difference when this new organizing system requires putting together and setting up. We get lost in the details of what part goes where and what the sequence is and how it all fits together.

Once it is put together, there’s the further seduction of tweaking. It’s sort of like poking the fire. There’s always more prodding and shifting you can do to a fire to get it perfect.

Then there’s more. And it’s so satisfying! Tweaking a fire is harmless though. The fire is just there for you to enjoy.

When you get stuck in tweaking mode for a productivity app, well, you can see the irony. You aren’t actually using the app. You’re not getting to the productivity part of it.

So, be wary when you get excited about a brand new thingamajig that’s going to streamline your work and skyrocket your efficiency. Read the reviews. Read the good and the bad ones!

Pay attention to what the people who like it are using it for. Maybe it’s great for Task A, but makes little difference for Task B, which is your task. In that case, who cares how great it is? It’s not going to help you enough to be worthwhile.

Be mindful of how much time you need to take away from other tasks to get this puppy up and running. What’s going to languish in the meantime? Is that worth it?

If you are looking at a substitute for something (or various things) you currently do, you need a transition plan. How will things not fall through the cracks? Sometimes people take on a new system just partially.

It’s great, but they still do one part of their work the old way, because it’s familiar and they can do it quickly and easily. Is that going to impair the system as a whole, having this one outlier being done the old way?

New and shiny isn’t necessarily better. Caveat emptor.

Almost free productivity coaching!

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I’m going to write about the different perks you can get when you support my business on Patreon. First up is the Level 3 perk.

My members-only Twitter chat is probably the most valuable perk I’m offering. Group chats are great because you can get your personal questions answered and you can benefit from reading the advice I give to others. It often happens that someone asks a question that you forgot to ask, or that you were having trouble putting into few enough words to squeeze into Twitter :).

On top of that, you’ll see that others have the same issues you do and you can help each other. Still one more benefit: you don’t have to take notes because you can save a transcript of each chat.

Get in on this perk early! Why? The fewer people on the chat, the more time YOU get! This is personalized coaching, guys! Even if only one person shows up for the chat, I’ll be there and you’ll get my undivided attention. So, click that button and become a patron. Here’s the link.

I would be thrilled with your support at any level. Come on over and see what else I’ve got.

Workplace productivity

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Productivity, and increasing it, is a perennially popular topic and it won’t go away anytime soon. New technology changes the issues a bit, as do new work habits, such as telecommuting. But as an issue to be dealt with, it remains.

This fun infographic has some interesting statistics. Two thirds of office workers complain that chatty coworkers disrupt their work! That’s a lot. It’s probably not a new problem. I would bet that if Bob Cratchit had had coworkers, they would have distracted him from his abysmal work.

I’m intrigued that 75% of respondents have gotten more productive with age. To me, that indicates good work habits rather than usage of the latest and greatest productivity app. The don’t believe working longer will help and I’m happy to see that.

An article about this survey said that office workers view their millennial coworkers as the least productive. Ouch! Millennials do have a reputation for chattiness and group activities. Could that be it?

This infographic is from the Fellowes company and promotes using shredders freely. I am on board with that!

Why focus for productivity?

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Did you know that sticking to your task makes you happier? When you let your mind wander, even to a pleasant memory, studies show you’ll be unhappy.

I remember reading about this in Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi’s terrific book Flow. In it, he writes about being in the flow, where you are totally engaged with your task, whatever it is. Being in the flow feels great. You’re completely present and time is suspended.

It seemed less intuitive to me that when your mind wanders, you’re less happy, but that’s what a 2010 Harvard study found.

“Mind-wandering is an excellent predictor of people’s happiness,” Killingsworth says. “In fact, how often our minds leave the present and where they tend to go is a better predictor of our happiness than the activities in which we are engaged.” *

What does that mean for productivity? I say it means that staying focused on your present task will make you happy! That’s a pretty compelling reason to work on focus and say no to multi-tasking.

It’s also a good reason to limit your work time to the length of time you can successfully stay focused. You’ll be on task, and happier, working in half hour stretches and taking breaks than grinding away for hours.

Most of that grinding time will be spent either thinking of something else or trying to stop your mind from wandering.

See if you notice this in your life. Track your own happiness when you’re involved in doing something, versus idly wondering about something else.

* http://news.harvard.edu/gazette/story/2010/11/wandering-mind-not-a-happy-mind/

Real world productivity

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Sometimes I come across a description of what productive people are like and I think, that’s not me. It’s probably not even most people.

If productivity seems effortless, it’s because you’re not seeing what’s behind the scenes. Here’s what you’re missing.

How do productive people get things done?

  1. The tasks are on their to do lists.
    They didn’t come out of a vacuum or from thin air. They’re based on current projects and prioritizing
  2. They commit time to doing things.
    This time is reserved on their calendars and they honor it. They aren’t using “free time” or spontaneously deciding to knock off a few hours of work.
  3. They structure accountability.
    People who can work with only internal accountability are rare. You are probably not one of them, but it doesn’t matter because you can create your own accountability, and you should.

Basically, productive people use tools and strategies to help them. They don’t wait until they’re in the mood to get things done.

It’s all in your mind

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social-1206612_640Even if you keep your desk nice and organized and you process your incoming paper promptly, you may still have clutter lurking where you can’t see it.

That kind of clutter is harder to attack than the physical clutter that’s right in front of you, getting in the way. You have to find it first.

It’s the clutter that’s in your head.

How do you know if you have mental clutter?

You wake up in the middle of the night remembering something important you forgot to do.

You find it hard to focus on one project at a time long enough to get effective work done.

Your desk is full of reminders to do tasks, all of which pester you for your attention all day.

You find yourself in a cold sweat not being able to remember if the big meeting is today or next week.

The problem is that the strategies you’re using to manage your time and tasks only work when you’ve got very little going on. And we know that’s not you.

If you have just a few things to attend to each day, you generally won’t forget to do them.

If you’ve only got one project, you work on it.

If you have a handful of tasks, you can easily prioritize them and get them done.

If there’s only one meeting coming up, you’ll remember what day it is.

Life might have been like that early in your career. Everyone’s life used to be simpler, if only because we’d lived fewer years and had accumulated fewer experiences and obligations (and less stuff).

Now you’re busy, and that’s not going to settle down anytime soon, at least, not in terms of how the world works. What can change, and what must change, is the way you handle it.

Use the tools

It’s simple. You have to write things down. Whether you do it digitally or with a pen, you need to get information out of your head and onto your to do list and calendar.

Use your to do list to record every task you need to accomplish. Be as complete as you can.

Make another list of all the projects you’re working on. These are not the same thing as to do’s. Projects are bigger and contain multiple to do’s.

Pick up each reminder you’re keeping around and briefly define the task it represents. Put that task on your to do list. File or toss the paper.

Add all your meetings, appointments and events to your calendar. It’s better to add them as potential events (code them as such) than to omit them if they’re not confirmed and then forget to add them. Refer to your calendar often during the day and remember to look at the days and weeks ahead, not just today.

Capturing information in locations you can find it again is key. Relying on memory is for amateurs.

There are other benefits to getting information out of your head. Writing about a project forces you to be specific and detailed. A project may seem clear in your head, but once you go to describe it, you see elements you’ve overlooked, inconsistencies and vagueness.

Those are obstacles that you won’t overcome until you express the ideas in writing. Explaining a project to a colleague can bring this clarity as well.

Another great tool? A coach. A good coach can accelerate your progress in getting mentally decluttered and regaining control of your time and your productivity.

Home office clutter management

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home office in the living roomIf you’re not lucky enough to have a separate room for your home office, you’ll make do on the dining table, or setting up a desk in a corner of the living room.

This poses a special challenge because any clutter you leave on your desk is also now in the common living area for all to see. If you live with others this can be, well, a problem.

A former client of mine had her desk in what would’ve been the kitchen dining nook. She needed lots of stuff out and around her when she worked, but her partner was less than thrilled to come home and make dinner in a cluttered office.

Like many creative types, my client balked at being orderly and cleaning up.

It went against her desire for inspiration and freedom and felt confining. Yet she wanted to keep harmony in the household so was open to looking at it a new way.

I came up with the idea of expanding and contracting. When she started her work day, she expanded. Stacks of paper came out and the extra leaf of her desk went up to allow her to spread out. Everything she might need was at hand for her to be productive.

At the end of her workday, she contracted the home office.

The leaf went down, making the desktop smaller. Piles went back into drawers and cabinets. The keyboard tray slid back under the desk. The taboret rolled under the desk. The home office disappeared.

The image of contraction was an effective metaphor. It didn’t have to do with tidying. It felt like an organic response to her shift in focus from work to personal time. The work area contracted so that the kitchen could expand and she and her partner could enjoy preparing food together.

If you avoid cleaning up, can you think of a metaphor that would inspire you?

In the photo above, the shelves are open and could look cluttered if anything was on them. A simple solution would be to install bamboo roll up shades. That was, all the shelves could be opened at once for easy home office productivity, instead of having a set of doors on each one. And the rolled down shade would create a streamlined look after hours.

Fighting a Hidden Distraction at Work

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Assembly line Many a blog post has been written about turning off your phone and closing your email program and browser so you can get some work done. Tips about deflecting office visitors and avoiding meetings can combat those in-person distractions. But there's another subtle way that you get off track, and that's by doing other people's work.

The thing is, it's usually easier to solve someone else's problems than your own. When you give advice to a friend, you have no difficulty thinking up ideas to get her out of her predicament. And we all appreciate the more objective point of view of our friends in addressing our own challenges. 

If you do this at work, though, you're usually short changing your own projects. Every time you get sucked into an office crisis or even just volunteer to look up information to respond to a casual request, you're doing a task that someone else should be doing.

I'm not saying you should become a hermit and never offer to help. Just be mindful about whether you are also honoring your own commitments. Here are a few ways to do this:

  • Schedule work appointments with yourself and keep them. Putting them on a shared calendar is helpful to let others know you're busy
  • Create an email auto-responder that you can easily activate for the times that you need to be distraction-free. Let correspondents know when you'll be back on line
  • Have office hours. Put a sign on your door that says you're open from 1-4 pm
  • Don't respond to casual requests that are sent to a group. Let someone else respond
  • If necessary, set an hourly timer so you can check in with yourself and make sure you're on track
Cream puff assembly line from misocrazy's photostream