We live in a culture that’s obsessed with productivity. A quick online search for ‘productivity’ online turns up over 215 million results.
There are all kinds of articles, full of advice and self-assured statements designed to help us become more productive. And yet, we are struggling more than ever to control our time and focus on what truly matters. Clearly, there are some productivity myths going around.
There is a fundamental flaw in the traditional thinking on productivity. Much of the material out there assumes that we have plenty of attention for lots of important things and will therefore get everything done if we just work at it.
But that’s not even close to the truth, and that one misconception has spawned not one, but six major productivity myths.
If you’ve been treading water, struggling to get things done and feeling frustrated and helpless with an apparent ‘lack of discipline’, then you may have been stumped by one of these productivity myths.
Don’t worry, it happens to all of us, and since the first step to defeating a lie is to unmask it, let’s jump in and debunk those myths.
Productivity Myths: The 6 Lies That Mislead and Derail Us
Myth #1: Everything Matters Equally
This myth is about the intersection of what is important and what is urgent. As Gary Keller and Jay Papasan discuss in The ONE Thing:
“When everything feels urgent and important, everything seems equal. We become active and busy, but this doesn’t actually move us any closer to success. Activity is often unrelated to productivity, and busyness rarely takes care of business.”
The fact is that all the tasks we have to get done — replying to emails, delivering a report to a client, taking a phone call, planning your next sales campaign — all feel important, but they’re not equal.
Planning your next sales campaign, for example, will have a major impact on your revenue and profits for the year. Taking unscheduled calls is a distraction, pure and simple — even if those calls may bring in future opportunities. Rest assured, the callers will leave a message and you can get back to them once you’ve achieved the things that are important right now.
So how do we define the things that truly matter?
Go through your to-do list. Give each task a score between 1 and 5 for importance and urgency (1 being not important or urgent at all, and 5 being mission critical right now).
Important tasks are the ones that will have a significant impact on our lives or businesses, and will actively move us toward our stated goals. Urgent tasks are the ones that need to be resolved on a short timeline to keep everything moving smoothly.
Build out your priorities based on balancing out what is urgent and important. If something is not urgent and not important, then drop it. Don’t work on stuff that doesn’t matter, just for the sake of checking an item off a to-do list. Instead, focus only on the things that truly matter — the things that will make a difference in your life.
Begin by going small.
What is the ONE thing that needs to happen today and will make everything else easier or irrelevant?
Thinking this way forces us to regularly prioritize the ‘big rocks’ that, once moved, will help us make real progress toward our goals.
Once you’ve identified your ONE Thing, say no to everything else. Don’t let other people dictate your day through emails, calls, impromptu meetings or water cooler chit-chat.
Our time is precious, and we won’t get this day back, so don’t treat every task as equal.
Myth #2: Multitasking
Maybe the most insidious of the productivity myths, multitasking has permeated our culture so extensively that people think of it as an attractive skill.
The truth is, no one can multitask at all.
What’s actually happening in the brain is what scientists call ‘task switching’. Our attention is rapidly switching back and forth from one task to another, without spending enough time between switches to get either of them done. We discussed the mechanics of multitasking here — it’s such a common problem that it got a post all of its own!
Multitasking has become the norm in every part of life, and it’s why people are so stressed and burnt out all the time.
Listening to podcasts while working out at the gym. Taking phone calls while driving. Replying to emails while cooking. Let’s not even start on the office situation — the workplace is usually, to quote The ONE Thing, a ‘carnival of distracting multitasking demands.’
Research has found that multitasking can increase the time it takes to perform tasks from 25 percent for simple tasks, to over 100 percent for more complex tasks. If you’re working hard on your ONE Thing, make sure you’re not dragging it out and taking twice the time needed by multitasking!
Here’s how you do it:
- Prioritize. You must make sure you’re clear about what’s most important right now — see the Myth above!
- Time block. Schedule specific windows of time to work on specific tasks, and nothing else. Here is a free training on how to start time blocking.
- Schedule time alone. Other people can be a major source of distraction and multitasking (as happens when someone comes over with a question, and you keep half-working, half-talking).
- Kill your distractions. Shut all your browser tabs, turn off your wifi, put your phone on airplane mode, put up a do-not-disturb sign.
- Help others understand. Explain to the people around you what you’re doing, and why it’s going to be beneficial to everyone. Ask them to help you achieve this new level of focus, and invite them to do the same.
Implementing these five elements helps us control our focus, our environment and our time, so it’s a big win once you get it underway.
Myth #3: A Disciplined Life
One of the productivity myths that can kill motivation and joy faster than anything else is that we must be disciplined at all times, in all parts of our life, in order to achieve success.
While discipline is required sometimes, what’s more important in the long run is building habits, so that we don’t have to rely on discipline all the time (and we’ll see why that’s so important when we tackle the next myth).
Unfortunately, a lot of the material out there uses the terms discipline and habit interchangeably — like they’re the same thing — but the truth is that they are different beasts altogether.
Most of the people interested in productivity and time management already have a good amount of discipline. It’s usually just stretched too thin, for too long. In order to build a habit that will take over, apply discipline in short sprints.
Success is built on the back of habits.
Successful people are those who train a handful of high-impact habits into their life and ignore everything else.
It might be exercising three times a week, getting up each day an hour before the family to work on our most important task in peace, or reaching out to key people on a scheduled basis to build important relationships. Whatever they did for a short time, relying on discipline, has passed over into habit.
Based on research from the University College of London and our own observations, this transition normally takes around 66 days. After just two months of focused effort, the task at hand no longer requires the effort and grind we normally associate with discipline.
Maintaining the habit becomes a normal part of life. The accumulated benefit leads to success, so we can let go of needing to be disciplined all the time, and instead focus on our keystone habits.
Myth #4: Willpower is Always On Call
When structure is applied to our energy and tasks, it’s called discipline. When raw force is applied, it’s called willpower. Where discipline is systematic and strategic, willpower is sheer overwhelming force.
The problem is that willpower is not a reliable source of progress. In fact, it’s extremely unreliable, showing up when we don’t need it. It’s a fickle friend.
And crazy as it sounds, it all comes down to what we eat.
Willpower has this aura around it, that it is surely a mark of character, an indication of personal strength, fortitude and focus…
But really, it’s just an indication of how much glucose (readily available energy) our brain has at any given moment.
Did you know that the brain, while just 1/50th of our body mass, uses 1/5th of our energy? You read that right — 20 percent of all the calories we eat go directly to brain function.
That’s why, on the days when we’re focused on a really complex problem, or we produce a huge amount of work, we feel starving at regular intervals. Our brain is burning through our stores of energy just as fast as we are replacing them.
Other things that deplete our willpower include…
- Building new behaviors
- Tuning out distractions
- Overcoming temptations
- Controlling emotions, fear, aggression and impulses
- Responding to tests or threats
- Delaying gratification
Nutrition research published in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology found that study participants who had to exercise willpower during a test experienced a significant drop in blood sugar directly afterward, and subsequently struggled to perform on the next test.
This is why foods that elevate blood sugar evenly are so common among the diets of high-achievers — proteins, unsaturated fats and complex carbohydrates help spread our willpower out smoothly over the course of the day.
Of course, no one gets it right all the time. Sometimes willpower fails, and in those situations, we usually fall back on our default modes.
This is where habit kicks in — if our habits are aligned with our goals, we’re golden. If our habits don’t support our goals, then it’s time to apply some discipline for the next 66 days so that we have a safety net when our willpower runs out.
Myth #5: A Balanced Life
We can have anything we want, but we can’t have everything we want.
Spending time on one thing means that, intentionally or not, we cannot spend the time on something else. This is maybe the most uncomfortable of the productivity myths for most people to overcome.
After all, we’ve heard for so long that we can have it all and do it all, that we can have a successful, fulfilling career, while having…
- A loving, supportive marriage
- Happy, well-adjusted children
- A great body and vibrant health
- Exciting, regular travel
- Close, interesting friends
- Time for personal development
The fact is that most of us can handle three, maybe four, of these things at any one time.
There’s a concept in psychology called primacy and recency: having heard something early and often, we remember the information more easily and assign it (sometimes undue) importance.
This is why the idea work-life balance is so ingrained in our cultural psyche. People talk about it all the time. Because we hear about it so much, we believe it must be true and important.
But instead of balance, aim for counterbalance — switching at appropriate intervals between your priorities.
For example, if you’re working long hours for a few months to get a project off the ground, make sure you schedule in lots of time to catch up with your family after it launches.
This is a critical shift on the road to success.
When we’re clear about what really matters to us, we can pour all of our attention and energy into our most important task at the appropriate time. Magic happens at the extremes.
Unrelenting focus on a specific set of goals is what makes great things happen, not a moderate amount of attention to an unlimited array. Counterbalance will keep us sane, and with all the priorities in our life accounted for, while we keep moving purposefully toward our goals.
Myth #6: Big Is Bad
This last one’s a doozy. Of all the productivity myths, this one can limit us the most. The belief that ‘big is bad’ can kill our goals before they even make it out of our brain.
Big goals have big implications.
People scare themselves out of even thinking about big goals, because all they associate with something big is hard work, long timelines and personal sacrifice, which raises self-doubt, fear and resistance.
We’ve long been told that ‘big business’ is evil, that big projects are costly and failure-prone, that big goals are nothing more than conceited dreams.
Many of us are conditioned to stay small.
But without big goals, we’ll never achieve big things. Allowing fear and resistance to dictate our goals limits our lives. We don’t know our limits, though — it’s impossible to know until we try.
What if we were capable of far more than we realized when we were setting our goals? What if we settled on a small goal, making a small improvement in one part of our lives, when we could have picked a big goal and changed the whole world?
To bring that kind of growth into our lives, we have to think big. Big thinking leads to big action, and big action is what breeds success.
No matter what your goals are right now, think bigger.
Plan for bigger and act for bigger, and you’ll blow past your original goal, achieving more than you previously thought possible.
Be bold, don’t fear failure, always look for the lesson. Don’t let other people’s small perception of big things get in your way. This is your life, and you can make it as big as you want.
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As you can see, the productivity myths are extensive and ever-present. We need to be on the look-out for them all the time — they’re sneaky and they’ll weasel their way back in if we let them!
Keep your goals front of mind, recruit people to help you and give yourself permission to stop believing these productivity myths. You only have today, so use it productively in service of what you want for your life. And if you want to keep the solution to these myths in your attention, download the Printable here! You can print this and stick it up at your desk to keep you focused on what truly matters each day.