Identify those habits that are killing your productivity and eliminate them.
Being productive means that you get more of the right things done in the least amount of time. We all want this.
Nonetheless, sometimes we do things in the name of productivity which are actually making us less productive. And to make matters worse, a lot of these things are done on automatic. That is, they’re habits. To be more specific, they’re productivity killing habits.
In this post I’m going to share with you five of the most insidious and harmful of these productivity killing habits, as well as a strategy for breaking each of them.
1. Checking Your Email Constantly
Checking your email constantly throughout the day, which is something that a lot of us are guilty of, is a productivity killing habit for several reasons.
First, checking your email while you’re working on something else is commonly referred to as multitasking, However, Earl Miller, a neuroscientist at MIT and one of the world experts on divided attention, explains that our brains are simply not wired to multitask well. He says the following:
“When people think they’re multitasking, they’re actually just switching from one task to another very rapidly. And every time they do, there’s a cognitive cost in doing so.”
In addition, multitasking increases the stress hormone cortisol, as well as the fight-or-flight hormone adrenaline. This overstimulates your brain and causes mental fog and cloudy thinking.
And there are even more negative effects to interrupting your work in order to check your email. Once you’ve checked your email, you have to make all sorts of decisions, such as the following:
- Should you answer that email from a client? Or should you mark it as “unread” and answer it later?
- If you decide to answer, what should you say?
- Are there a few emails you should just delete?
- Since you’ve opened your inbox, should you send out a few emails of your own?
Making decisions, even small ones, decreases the amount of glucose that’s available for your brain. As a result of this, your ability to focus diminishes, which makes you more susceptible to other distractions.
To make matters worse, every time that you check your email you get a little hit of the feel-good hormone dopamine. This means that you’re rewarding your brain for losing focus and seeking novelty. And the more you reward something, the more likely it is to continue to happen.
And let’s not even go into what happens if you get an email that irritates or annoys you. That will undoubtedly have a negative impact on your ability to concentrate on the report you were supposed to be working on in the first place.
How to Fix It
The way to stop checking your email nonstop throughout the day–like a mouse hitting a lever that releases food pellets– is by scheduling your email time. There are a few ways to do this:
- First, have time blocks throughout the day for focused work when you absolutely will not check your email.
- Second, go cold turkey and decide on one or two times during the day when you’ll check your email. For example, you could check your email at 10:00 am and at 5:00 pm. Then, check your email only at those times.
- Third, gradually decrease how often you check your email. As an illustration, if you currently check your email once every fifteen minutes, start checking it once every half-an-hour. Then, once every hour. After that, once every two hours. Continue in this way until you’ve reached a frequency that works well for you.
2. Creating Long To-Do Lists
The next habit on this list of productivity killing habits is creating never ending to do lists.
Humans tend to think that their future selves will be very different from their present selves. This is so even if that future self is just twelve hours into the future. Maybe today you only managed to get seven things done in the entire day, but tomorrow. . . tomorrow will be different. Tomorrow you’ll be able to cross 20 items off your to do list.
That wishful thinking is what has us constantly creating extremely long to-do lists. But the same thing happens day after day: we never manage to get through that overly optimistic to-do list. This makes us feel stressed and overwhelmed, which are feelings that are not conducive to remaining productive.
My nephew has a t-shirt that says: “Always be yourself. Unless you can be Batman. In that case, be Batman.” We all need to come to terms with the fact that we will never be Batman, Superman, Wonder Woman, or any other superhero for that matter. Which means we need to stop creating superhuman to-do lists.
How to Fix It
The solution that I’ve come up with for finally eliminating the mile-long to-do lists I used to create for myself is something called calendar blocking. That is, instead of creating a to-do list, I take out my calendar, create time blocks, and write down what I’ll be doing during each time block.
Once I run out of time blocks, that’s it. Nothing else gets scheduled for that day. Why? Because there are no more time blocks left over. See how that works?
3. Scheduling the Trivial Things First
Many of us look at what we need to do for the day and see one big, hairy, difficult (and important) task, and four or five smaller ones. Then we tell ourselves that if we do the small stuff first, we get to knock four or five items off our to-do list. That’s more efficient than just finishing the one important task, right? Wrong!
Scheduling the trivial things first is one of the productivity killing habits on this list for two reasons. First, because you have limited willpower. And, second, because you have limited time.
In order to concentrate and avoid distractions, you need willpower. But willpower is like a muscle: it gets fatigued from overuse. Every time you use a little bit of willpower—to stop yourself from going on YouTube to watch animal videos or pop onto twitter to see what your friends are up to—your ability to subdue your impulses lessens.
Here’s willpower expert Roy Baumeister:
“The longer people have been awake, the more self-control problems happen. Most things go bad in the evening. Diets are broken at the evening snack, not at breakfast or in the middle of the morning. Impulsive crimes are mostly committed after midnight.”
This is one of the main reasons why you should do the most important thing you need to get done each day first. That is, when you have the most willpower and are most likely to be able to focus on the task at hand.
Also, if you do the most important thing first, you’ll be able to say that you had a successful day. This is so even if you don’t have enough time to finish the other tasks that you wanted to get done that day.
How to Fix It
When you’re creating your schedule for the day, ask yourself what your number one priority for the day is. Then, schedule that first. That way, you’ll tackle it when your willpower is at its peak.
In addition, even if the rest of your day doesn’t go as planned, at least you’ll have gotten your most important task for the day out of the way.
4. Working Nonstop Until You’re Done
It would appear to make sense that the longer you work, the more you can get done. Using this logic, if you start working at 8:00 am and work nonstop until noon, you’ll have an incredibly productive morning. But this isn’t the case.
The way to retain the highest level of productivity throughout the day is not working longer but working smarter with well-timed breaks. It’s much more effective to work for a short period of time—many argue 52 minutes is the sweet spot—with one hundred percent focus, and then take a ten to fifteen minute break, than it is to work for four unfocused hours nonstop.
How to Fix It
To stop the habit of working nonstop to exhaustion, set a timer for 52 minutes and focus completely on the task at hand during that time. When the timer goes off, stop and take a short break.
During your breaks you can go outside and take a short walk; close your eyes and meditate; or even do something playful like coloring or doing some origami.
5. The News Habit (Insert Your Own Productivity Killing Habit Here)
We all have that one habit that’s killing our productivity, that perhaps other people don’t share. For me it’s checking the news constantly throughout the day. There’s so much going on in the world, and I can talk myself into believing that I’m not being unproductive, because it’s important to know what’s happening.
Right now, I can tell you—with an embarrassing amount of detail–what’s going on in the US, Panama, Venezuela, Peru, Hong Kong, and Britain. And how does that help me achieve my goals? It doesn’t.
There’s nothing wrong with checking the news a couple of times throughout the day, but doing so constantly—like I do—is a terrible productivity killing habit. What’s the one thing that you find yourself doing constantly that’s killing your productivity? How are you talking yourself into believing that what you’re doing is actually productive?
Here are some possibilities:
- Maybe you’re constantly logging on to social media, and you’ve convinced yourself that you’re building your brand.
- Perhaps you’re playing video games more than you should, but you tell yourself that it’s important to have some downtime.
- It could be that you’re constantly chatting with your coworkers, and you justify this to yourself by arguing that you’re creating good rapport and camaraderie with your colleagues.
All of the above is true: it’s a good idea to build your brand, have some downtime, and have a good relationship with the people you work with. However, none of these things should come at the expense of your productivity.
How to Fix It
My plan for controlling my news habit is to schedule when I can check the news, as well as limit the amount of time that I spend reading, watching, and listening to the news.
You can do the same. Create specific time slots throughout your day for going on social media, playing video games, and/or chatting with co-workers. Make sure that the amount of time that you give yourself for each of these activities doesn’t interfere with your ability to get the really important stuff done.
Break the habits that I’ve listed above and watch how your productivity skyrockets. Live your best life by getting your productivity killing habits under control.