Have you ever experienced that feeling of dread in the late afternoon when you look over the work you’ve completed so far, and think, “Why is this taking me so much longer than it should?” Then, when the day’s over just an hour or two later, you’re bummed you didn’t spend it more productively. I’ve been there. Some days I felt like I’d been working so hard, but had gotten very little done.
Then, one day it hit me: There's a big difference between being busy and being productive. Yes, yes, we’ve all heard this before. But have you really thought it through and contemplated those times you’re sitting at your computer all day, but don’t end up with a lot to show for it?
Yes? Here are the most common reasons this happens to you (again and again):
Problem 1: You Set Too Many Priorities
Who hasn’t replied to “How are you?” with “Busy!” It’s not so much a lack of priorities (which more often leads to idleness), but having too many of them. When you put the same emphasis on work, family life, lunch, exercising, hanging out with friends, volunteering, updating your social media profiles, reading three newspapers each morning—you end up starting a lot of projects, and finishing very few.
Solution: Cut Your List
The very word “priority” implies that you’ve decided something is more important than everything else. Translation: You can’t have 20 “priorities.” Having just three or four important items on your list will help you accomplish much more. You’ll begin to see that productivity is measured by how much real work you do on a couple of projects rather than how much superficial progress is made on many. Having trouble identifying what you should put first? This article is a great starting point.
Problem 2: You Try to Fit in All the Meetings
Are you always running late and changing meeting times (or cancelling them altogether!) at the last minute? It’s probably because you’re over-committing and trying to balance it out by squeezing engagements into realistic time slots. You know what I mean: Booking three back-to-back status meetings with only five minutes in between each one, even though conversations can run over and you’re going from one end of the office to the other. It seems like you’re making the most of your time, but in the end, you’re so busy being busy that you’re missing out on valuable opportunities to actually move a project forward.
Solution: Say “No” More
The first step here is to recognize that “no” isn’t the worst thing you can say. In fact, “Yes, I’ll be there” followed by “Sorry, I’m running 20 minutes late!” actually makes a worse impression. If you spend your whole day shuffling from one meeting to the next, and then wasting time apologizing and explaining, you’ll end the afternoon exhausted and feeling like you didn’t accomplish everything you set out to do.
Be honest with yourself about deadlines, the time commitment required, how your skill set fits in, and similar details to determine what you should devote your time to. You’ll learn to say yes strategically rather than saying yes to everything.
Problem 3: You’re Constantly Distracted by the Internet
How long has it been since you checked your email or Facebook? Be honest: Are those sites open in another tab this very second? In fact, the average person has five social media accounts and spends almost two hours on these networks every day. Considering the fact that most people work eight-hour days, that’s nearly a quarter of your day!
Solution: Practice Self-Control (or, More Realistically Install Apps to Curb Usage)
The ultimate way to protect yourself from online distractions is practicing self-control. If your job doesn’t require you to be constantly accessible via email, set a designated time to check them, preferably not during your “golden hours.” For me, that’s in the afternoon when I start to feel tired of writing and struggle to stay motivated. That’s when I spend about 30 minutes answering non-essential emails that I ignored earlier, brushing up on my social newsfeeds, and reading a couple blog posts.
Of course, some days I just want to sit on email and check Facebook and do nothing else. At that point, I’ll use a blocking system that prevents me from accessing certain websites during designated times of the day. I like the browser plugin Focus, but there are countless other blocking systems, both free and paid, that’ll do the trick.
Problem 4: You’re Multi-tasking
Jumping between tasks, staring at long lists of to-dos, and trying to accomplish multiple tasks at a time all lead to a busy life. It’s difficult to get anything done when you’re trying to do everything at once. When you have so much going on around you, it’s no wonder that you feel like you’re drowning.
Solution: Try Another Strategy
While it takes a few extra minutes on the front end, approaching each task with focus and clarity will result in a better end product. Whenever you feel tempted to move on to another task, ask yourself: Is it a good idea to switch modes right now? Do I need to take a break? Or, am I in the zone right now and just letting myself get distracted by my ever-growing to-do list?
Considering what we know about multi-tasking time loss, it’s probably better to test out a productivity method like the Pomodoro Technique or The Action Method if you feel like you need to accomplish a lot of different things in just a few hours.
Problem 5: You’re Expecting Productivity to Just Happen
Sorry, but it’s not that simple. Going to work and being productive seem to be falsely identified as synonyms. People assume that when they walk through the door, they’ll feel magically motivated to get things done.
Solution: Find a System That Works For You
There’s more than one way to organize a to-do list. Even different scheduling apps have different purposes (a.k.a., no just using Wunderlist to write down every single thing on your mind is not the most efficient way to handle all projects).
To figure out if a new system’s working, keep a productivity journal where you track what time of the day you worked best, what helped you get your various tasks done, and how you felt when you left the office. As time goes on, you can look back, find patterns, and identify where improvements are needed. There are so many systems and apps out there, that there just has to be one for you. Whether it’s as basic as playing ambient noise on noise-blocking headphones, or as complex as multiple browser add-ons.
Productivity is only as good as the effort you’re willing to put into it. But as basketball coach John Wooden says, “Don’t mistake activity for achievement.” As you put in the work to become a more productive individual, keep the end goal in mind: You have to put the time and effort into making all the tips and tricks you hear work for you.