When I first discovered the world of productivity in 2011, I was a frazzled graduate student and freelance musician. I thought I was crazy busy, but looking back, I really wasn’t. I had relatively few commitments, but I was so disorganized that it took everything I could muster just to keep my head above water.
Fed up with mediocrity, I picked up a copy of Getting Things Done and read it cover to cover. Adopting David Allen’s simple principles, I became addicted to productivity (and a little obsessed, truthfully).
Like anything else, becoming highly productive involves plenty of mistakes and failure. Failure is a good thing, of course, since it’s such a great teacher. But there’s one thing better than learning from your own failures, and that’s learning from other people’s failures.
I present, therefore, five mistakes we productivity nerds tend to make!
Mistake #1: Focusing on quantity over quality
Whether you use a Next Actions list (part of GTD), a Bullet Journal, a simple daily to-do list, or something else, you can’t escape this concept:
Track your commitments outside your head.
Our brains are designed for thinking, not acting as filing cabinets. It’s incredibly freeing to get your obligations out of your head and into an external system (and here’s an article I wrote on how to do that).
Once you’ve got a to-do list, though, you’ve got a decision to make. What to do first? If you’re anything like me (and I’m betting you are), the easy tasks jump out at you.
- do a load of laundry
- give the dog her flea medication
- air up bike tires
- process today’s email
It’s easier to knock out a bunch of easy tasks than to do your taxes (and it feels super productive, too), but your taxes are far more important. If we’re not careful, we can end up using productivity to hide from the important, the lengthy, and the messy.
To remedy this, start doing the most important things first. It’s a daily battle, but it is so worth fighting.
Mistake #2: Clinging to our to-do lists
This is really hard for me. Once I decide which tasks I want to complete for the day, I kinda get married to the idea of completing those exact tasks. This is usually not a problem—my life is built around routine—but spontaneity is an essential part of life (at least according to Sarah, the person I’m actually married to).
As with most things in life, the key here is moderation. It’s not fulfilling to float aimlessly through life like a canoe with no paddles, never taking command of your own destiny. But neither is it healthy to cling obsessively to your daily to-do list, ignoring opportunities like a last-minute dinner invitation with friends or the chance to go for a long walk on the first warm day of the year.
Mistake #3: Basing our self-worth on our productivity
We highly productive folks have a hard time with this one. Being productive feels good, right? It’s downright addictive, frankly. And not being productive feels bad. Bad!
So it’s an easy leap to start believing that being productive makes us good, while not being productive makes us bad. It ain’t so, though.
If this is something you struggle with (as I do, mightily), I recommend Brené Brown’s book Daring Greatly. I’m re-reading it right now, and it’s sensible and useful advice by a top-shelf social scientist. If you’re curious about self-worth and vulnerability but allergic to hippy-dippy palaver, this is the book for you.
Mistake #4: Using productivity tools to save time, then filling that time with more work
Think back to when you first became interested in productivity. Did the process look something like this?
- Feel stressed. Realize you’re working all the time.
- Discover the world of productivity, and realize that you’re working all the time because you’re disorganized. Dip your toe in the water of efficiency. Realize the water is warm. Dive in.
- Gradually become more and more productive, polishing off your old workload in far less time than it used to take. Save hours each week.
- Fill this newfound time with more work.
- Find yourself back at Step 1.
If we embrace productivity because we’re working all the time, only to spend our newfound time working just as many hours (but more efficiently), we risk burnout. When we free up time by becoming more productive, we need to use some of that time for leisure.
Leisure can be constructive, and developing a creative hobby is a fantastic way to recharge, contribute beyond yourself, and use your saved time well.
Mistake #5: Being self-righteous about our productivity
As a productivity enthusiast, it’s easy to judge the “normal” people around us.
“My poor coworkers/friends/family,” we think, sadly shaking our heads. “What unfulfilling lives they must lead. If only they understood what true happiness is, like I do. Perhaps one day they will see the light.”
(Okay, I spread it on a little thick with that quote, but you get the idea.)
There are countless ways to approach life. Productivity isn’t a matter of right and wrong, so don’t shun the nonbeliever and don’t proselytize too much. The best way to champion the cause is simply to model efficient habits.
Put simply: There’s no better advertisement for productivity than a well-lived life.
By doing important things first, releasing our death grip on our to-do lists, separating productivity from self-worth, using some of our saved time for leisure, and remaining humble about our productivity skills, we can lead productive, balanced and happy lives.