The Truth About Productivity Advice and Toxic Productivity
When we step on to a success ladder, it’s normal to keep moving toward the top. When we get to the top or before we get there, we might find a bigger or different ladder to climb. There’s always something more to experience, do and accomplish.
You might love the process, enjoy the journey, and move at a slower pace than the neurotic overachiever. But in modern society, no matter your personality type, values or beliefs, you will need to get things done – usually within a certain time frame.
High craving for productivity advice has spawned popular books like Essentialism, Atomic Habits and Deep Work.
There are thousands of podcasts and YouTube channels on productivity, with the biggest including Thomas Frank, Matt D Avella, and Ali Abdaal’s.
Some of the productivity advice are hacks, tricks and tips that won’t work for you. They just don’t match with your mindset, preferences and season of life.
The truth is there are no easy fixes to move from being unproductive to productive. You have to keep doing the inner work to build self-awareness and situational awareness. You can’t just copy someone else’s habits and routines and get the same results.
In any productivity practice, it helps to apply 5 universal principles:
Welcome to the Incrementalist. My name is Dyan Williams and I’m your productivity coach who will help you make big changes in small steps.
Principle #1 is to prioritize your most important thing.
We cannot do all things at once without fail. We can have many passions, interests, things to learn and projects to finish.
But to make progress on any of them, we need to choose one thing that gets our focus now.
You could use the Priority Matrix or the Eisenhower Principle. This is to invest time in important things, not just urgent things.
The Matrix is made up of four quadrants: 1. Important and urgent, 2. Important but not urgent, 3. Urgent but not important, and 4. Not urgent and not important.
A common mistake is failing to consider where the item really fits.
Responding to emails and telephone calls and engaging in social media could fit into any one of these quadrants, depending on the context and circumstances.
An email from a very important client on a very urgent matter fits into quadrant 1, important and urgent. An e-newsletter from the same client that has nothing to do with your core works falls in quadrant 4, not important and not urgent.
What’s most important depends on your job requirements, needs, values, goals and situation.
Sometimes your intrinsic motivation and external demands are aligned and sometimes they are not.
But regardless of your circumstances, you still need to figure out what’s most important to you. Otherwise, you can’t hone your focus, set boundaries, spot time wasters and negotiate real priorities.
The basic rule is you must define your top priority for any given moment. This prompts you to attend to your big three, your one thing, or your daily highlight.
Principle #2 is to chunk your big project into smaller action steps.
A big, complex and important project is hard to start, much less finish. So, we do easier tasks to check things off our to-do list. But they don’t really move the needle on what really matters.
To get unstuck, gain traction, and reduce self-sabotage, you break down the big project into manageable, action steps.
A common mistake is to plan too far ahead. We want to go from A to Z in a year, so we try to create a roadmap for the whole journey. But it can be hard to see clearly beyond one to three steps or beyond one to 3 months. We’re learning new skills, gathering resources, building confidence, and developing insight as we take each step.
You can have a general direction for where you want to be ultimately. But when you’re chunking down the big project, you just need to clearly define the next 1 to 3 action steps. Having too many action steps can lead to an overwhelming to-do list.
What are the 1 to 3 things you can do each day, week or month to gain momentum and move you closer to your target? Overthinking about the next 7 things is counterproductive.
Another common mistake is to make the action step too small. In his book, Atomic Habits, James Clear talks about the 2-minute rule. If you want to create a new behavior, break it into a two-minute version. This makes the starting line more approachable. It’s easier to commit to a task when you can stop in 2 minutes. But it doesn’t literally mean you stop there. You could keep the momentum going and continue through to the finish line.
The basic rule is you set the right challenge to fit your skill level. This maximizes your focus and gets you into the flow state.
Principle #3 is to time block for your action steps.
When you time block, you allocate time for your priority. If you don’t make or protect time for important things, they get neglected or stay on your someday list.
You make an appointment with yourself to do one big task or a batch of smaller tasks. You minimize distractions and interruptions, and design or choose the ideal place to do the task.
A common mistake is to be too rigid in time blocking. We get bogged down with specific time increments, color-coded calendars, and all the new and shiny time blocking apps. Complex, digital systems might work for some, but I prefer simple analog.
I time block only for the day on a whiteboard. On any given day, I could have time blocks for a variety of tasks, like communication, deep work, lunch break, idea generation work and admin work. Or I could have time blocks for different elements of a single project, like making a new episode for this show.
Although some people combine time blocking, calendaring and planning, I consider them to be separate.
I use the digital calendar on my phone and computer for date-specific appointments, meetings, and events.
I do weekly planning and time tracking in my journal.
I do 30-60-90 day planning on a dry-erase, 25 x 36 wall calendar from a company called NeuYear. The calendar shows the whole year from January through December and breaks the year into four quarters. I don’t plan too far out in advance. I’m in August now, so the last quarter on the calendar shows only two strict deadlines and is otherwise blank.
The Pomodoro Technique, invented by Italian Francesco Cirillo (Cheeleeloh), involves using a kitchen timer shaped like a pomodoro (Italian for tomato). Traditionally, you divide the time period for a project into 25-minute segments with 5-minute breaks in between. In each 25-minute block, you focus on one thing. For every 4 pomodoros (or after ever hour), you take a longer 15 to 30-minute break.
You don’t have to stick with 25-minute or 90-minute chunks, or block 4 hours in your day to be productive. Start where you are. Do what fits with your work flow and the nature of the task.
While a break after every 25 minutes or 90 minutes might be ideal for some, it can be counterproductive to have timed breaks. They can stop your flow state. Just take breaks when your focus and energy start to take a nose dive.
If you’re not making progress on a high-focus, high-cognitive project, or feel exhausted by it, track how you use your time.
Do you start your day off with administrative tasks -- meetings, telephone calls, more meetings, and more telephone calls – before lunch time? Then after lunch, you attend another meeting, surf the Web, and make more telephone calls? An hour before your work day ends is when you finally start the big project.
Or do you start your day off with four hours straight of deep work? Then you finally have a lunch break. And in the afternoon, you’re so tired that all you can do is space out in meetings and telephone calls.
You could instead start with warm-up tasks like checking your messages or reviewing your daily plan. Then you spend 2 hours on high-focus work, followed by a meeting and then lunch. In the afternoon, you do simple tasks like respond to emails and telephone calls. Then when you’re over the afternoon slump, you end the day with 2 hours of creative work, like brainstorming ideas for your big project.
The basic rule is you set time blocks to focus on high priorities at a sustainable pace. This allows you to make time for deep work and creative work without exhausting yourself.
Principle #4 is to synch with and not fight your natural rhythm.
Your circadian rhythm is an internal timing device that affects when you are most alert and when you are least alert.
You might be a lark (a morning person), an owl (an evening person) or a third bird (an intermediate person), says Daniel Pink, author of When: The Scientific Secrets of Perfect Timing. He recommends we perform head-down, analytic tasks when we are most focused; easier, administrative tasks when we’re in the afternoon energy dip; and insight, creative work when our energy rebounds. I structure my day like this whenever possible and find it to be very effective.
A common mistake is to change your schedule without considering your natural rhythm. You might try to wake up earlier at 5 am because you hear super productive, mega successful people do this. But not all of them do. And some early risers are not productive or successful.
If your energy naturally peaks in the late afternoon and early evening, you won’t be high functioning in the early morning.
We can do things to shift our chronotype, somewhat. If you’re a night owl, you could gradually start going to bed earlier at 12 am instead of at 4 am to wake up at 7 am, and not 11 am. That way, you get some quiet time in the morning, and still make the best use of your peak hours in the late afternoon and early evening.
The basic rule is you match the type of task, time of day and your energy level. This helps you to synch with your natural rhythm and perform at your peak.
Principle #5 is to get active rest to build your energy level.
Plan and organize your day to have time for active rest, not just high-quality sleep. Work and rest are equal partners in being productive.
While we all have the same 24 hours in a day, we each have different levels of resources, drive, motivation and energy.
A common mistake is always aiming to do the hardest, most important task at the start of the day. This productivity method is called Eat the Frog.
I will sometimes begin with deep work, especially when I have a strict deadline to meet. But I’ve also eased into the day with self-care or light work.
My mornings often include playtime with my kids. We build things, knock stuff down, and observe cause and effect.
Depending on my mood or the season, I’ll have coffee, tea, water or a fruit smoothie. I sit, reflect and read a book. Or I do yoga for 20 minutes.
The slower start to my day boosts my energy. After I do some deep work, I’ll have a late breakfast or brunch, which typically includes eggs and avocado. If I’m less hungry, a slice of tasty bread from the local bakery will do.
Another common mistake is to stick with a practice that is not the best thing for you. Maybe you keep hearing about the benefits of journaling or sitting meditation. You’ve tried them for some time and they just don’t click. You could nix the long form writing in a journal and just scribble notes on paper that you tear up and throw away. Or do walking meditation and mindfully feel your feet touch the earth.
Do what energizes you the most. If you love the adrenaline rush that comes from riding roller coasters, an early morning run could be great for you. If you prefer the merry-go-round or gentler forms of amusement, a stroll through a garden in the mid-morning could be what you need.
Playing sports, playing a musical instrument or playing board games might be the thing that energizes you.
The basic rule is you listen to your own body and consider your own needs when deciding how to rest and recharge. This helps you to have tailormade, restorative practices that deeply energize you.
The truth is some productivity advice can be very bad for you. Don’t blindly accept what’s prescribed without knowing the side effects and your own history, objectives, tendencies and season of life.
A productivity culture that tells us we must work harder and longer, or in a certain way, to achieve success is toxic. But productivity itself is a very useful skill.
You’re human, not a machine. You will have productive days and unproductive days.
While it’s perfectly natural to wander off, sometimes you have to get back on track and cross the finish line.
For more on how to apply the 5 tried and true productivity principles, check out my book, The Incrementalist, available at leanpub.com/incrementalist. The link is in the show notes.
You may reach out to me for coaching or speaking events.
If you have feedback or topic ideas, drop them in the comments section of the YouTube channel or send me an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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