The Psychology of Productivity and Procrastination

As long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by productivity & efficiency. How can I maximise output, take advantage of the hours I set aside for work, and not burn myself out?

I realised that in the past I have spent a huge amount of energy on making myself organised. I’d spend hours trying to work out the best way to keep track of everything that I needed to do; creating bullet journals or deciding on a set of rules for how my diary or inbox had to be organised. This was all expending energy, but it wasn’t actually helping me to get the job done. I would wonder in dismay as less ‘organised’ colleagues, that had inboxes that looked out of control, were getting better results than me.

Last year, Charlotte Lieberman wrote this article for the New York Times. I was fascinated by so much of what she explored, and realised that what I have often done to try and make myself more productive is actually highly inefficient. I could have often finished the task by the time I’ve finished writing out the list of all the things I need to get the job done.

I wondered, do all of those things on the list actually get me towards my ultimate goal? Or is this more crossing things off my list to feel productive: is this in fact performative productivity? Should my objective be effectiveness, not efficiency?

I’ve noticed that when I’m working remotely, I have nobody to perform to. My time is my own, so if I have finished the things I need to, then I can focus on something else. I can fit the tasks that I need to do for my own wellbeing into my working day, if I need to. Maybe it makes more sense to workout at 10am one day, and 3pm the next. I can fit in a 25 minute workout when I would otherwise look at drivel on the internet. I can have a 20 minute power nap and then come back to work, rather than re-reading the same article 20 times and wasting an hour getting nothing done.

How can we all harness this?

  • First and foremost, try to work out what it is that makes you (or someone who works for you and is having issues) procrastinate. The thesis of the NYT article I linked above is that procrastination is an emotional problem, not a time management problem. To try and get over whatever it is that is holding you back, read the full article, and particularly the section: OK, How do we get to the root cause of procrastination?.

  • Do the biggest task, the one that looms over you, right at the start of the day. You will feel proud of yourself (I believe doing those difficult things is one of the best ways to boost your professional self-esteem) and build momentum to get other things done. Read or listen to Brian Tracy’s “Eat that Frog” (and if you want to get the message in only 90 seconds, watch this video)

  • If you run a team or manage an individual, encourage them to prioritise results and output over hours online. If you trust your employees, they will work harder for you (and if they don’t, there’s a separate conversation to be had)

I’d love to hear your thoughts – what do you put off? Are you guilty of performative productivity?

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