Productivity power: the psychology of personal effectiveness

June 7, 2016

I don’t need to be a mind reader to know that, like most professionals, you find yourself constantly chasing to-do lists, trying to keep up-to-date with emails and are never quite certain how productive your day has really been.  You’re not alone. A recent survey of 500 top international companies reveals “85 percent of fast-growth-company CEOs work 10 or more hours a day.” Work drips into family time, social time and leisure time and still that to-do list keeps growing and productivity – or what we view as productivity – gets squeezed out.

What makes us feel productive however – as an entrepreneur, a manager, a CEO and so on – is really rather subjective. That is to say – when it comes to productivity in the workplace or anywhere else, how effective we think we’ve been is all in our mind. It’s different for everyone and with entrepreneurs being a particularly visionary group of people, productivity doesn’t necessarily have to equate to completion of paperwork and projects.

Planning for the future, envisioning new ideas for your business and reflecting on what’s working and what’s not are all important work for the entrepreneur. Sitting on a chair and thinking however, can be easily dismissed as ‘time wasted’ and isn’t often identified as work. As a result, we feel unproductive and ineffective despite the fact that during this time, we may have conjured up a really great business strategy or reached an important decision.


There’s an app for that…

With more and more technical productivity tools emerging for business owners, the productivity that comes from dedicated thinking time isn’t easily measured and quantified, thus reinforcing the idea that some activities are unproductive. Apps like Wunderlist might consolidate that to-do list, and TopTracker may help you track your work, but these organisation tools can make the entrepreneur feel even more unproductive, when what they’re doing isn’t always measurable.

So, how do we increase our productivity and feel as if we’ve achieved everything we need to achieve in a day? Well, psychologists and researchers believe that it all ties into how we think and how we approach the work we have to do. Your working day might be structured and yet you still feel as if you aren’t getting things done. Sound familiar?

Researchers recently spoke to business owners who admitted how they trick themselves into feeling they’ve had a productive day – even if they believe the opposite to be true. Clearing piles of papers from their desk at the end of the day for example, gives some a feeling of satisfaction, despite the fact the work’s still waiting for them in the drawer. Alternatively, shortening that to-do list so it has fewer items to tick off, means there’s a better chance of having accomplished the jobs by the day’s end, thereby eliciting a feeling of productivity.

These are just a couple of examples of basic psychological techniques used, in many instances, unconsciously, by people to make them feel productive. In truth though, what they’re actually doing is procrastinating.


Know why you’re procrastinating

Procrastination is something that affects many business owners, as they have so many things to keep on top of that it’s easy to get distracted. When there’s always something to be done, less appealing work is often put off to another time, or multiple tasks are started but none completed. You might feel a sense of accomplishment at having done a particular job, but you’ll only feel worse about tackling that undesirable work the next time you’re faced with it.

Understanding why you’re procrastinating however will help you to avoid falling down the procrastination rabbit hole. Timothy Pychyl, a professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, says knowing this will assist you in addressing why you procrastinate over certain tasks. Procrastination is, he says, an unconscious “emotion-centered coping strategy” and the reasons why we procrastinate will vary according to the stage of the project at hand. For example, the work at the outset may not be interesting to us, or it might be unclear as to what is required further into the project, or what the outcome might be at the end. If it’s something we fear, then we put it off.

In doing this however, we ultimately create more problems for our future self further down the line, as we still have to deal with the work eventually. Research from Hal Hershfield, a marketing professor at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, says we do this because we view our future selves as strangers.

This eases our guilt in putting unrealistic expectations on what our future selves will be able to do and so, we postpone those undesirable tasks. We fill up our diaries to overload for our future self to deal with, then struggle to cope with it all when the future becomes the present and we’re faced with back-to-back meetings. The sense of accomplishment and productivity at having organised our work is short-lived.


Creative procrastination

There is some new research however, which suggests that sometimes, procrastination can actually make people more creative. Going back to what we mentioned earlier, spending a morning thinking up ideas could be viewed by some as procrastination. The alternative to that is to look at this as a useful creative activity which is actually helping to move your business forward.

A new book, published in February 2016 by Adam Grant, a professor at the Wharton Business School, supports this theory of ‘creative procrastination’. Procrastination, he says, allows the mind to wander and when this happens, innovative thinking usually also occurs. In January, Grant told the New York Times: “If you’re a procrastinator, next time you’re wallowing in the dark playground of guilt and self-hatred over your failure to start a task, remember that the right kind of procrastination might make you more creative.”


Take a ‘time-out’

When you’re trying to avoid procrastination (the watching cat videos on YouTube rather than the creative thinking kind…), taking time to reflect might seem like the wrong thing to do. Research published in 2014 however, shows that reflective practice boosts work productivity.

The working paper from Francesca Gino and Gary Pisano of Harvard Business School, Giada Di Stefano of HEC Paris, and Bradley Staats of the University of North Carolina is based on a series of studies. The results from these show that conscious reflection teaches people to do something better next time, thereby boosting performance in that task.

So, by reflecting and focusing on the progress we’ve made, rather than getting hung up on endless to-do lists, we can learn from what we’ve just done and enhance our future productivity. This means we’re less likely to feel unproductive at not having completed our list of objectives for the day, creating a more positive feeling of satisfaction.

It’s worth noting as well that most of us won’t put thinking time onto a to-do list, so we can have productive aspects of our days which will never get checked off or acknowledged. Also – just because something’s on a list, doesn’t mean it’s a productive thing to do…


Be mindful

Mindfulness has become a buzz word in the past few years – something trendy to talk about which a lot of people still don’t really understand. In psychological terms, it’s about being aware of your thoughts and feelings and accepting them without judgement, plus being aware of what’s going on around you. Coupled with intent, research shows that productivity will ultimately improve when mindfulness is practiced.

As The Harvard Business Review (HBR 2014) states: “By paying attention to what’s going on around us, instead of operating on auto-pilot, we can reduce stress, unlock creativity, and boost performance.”

Indeed, mindfulness expert and researcher, Ellen Langer, told HBR: “The idea of procrastination and regret can go away, because if you know why you’re doing something, you don’t take yourself to task for not doing something else.”


Back at the office

When it comes to putting all of this into practice, how then, can we be more productive in our everyday working lives? Firstly, we need to recognise that productivity is subjective – everyone is productive in different ways and it can’t all be easily measured. So, stop trying to compare yourself to everyone else. Secondly, understand why you try to avoid certain work and think about how you can stop procrastinating and tackle the job at hand in a way which is appealing to you. It may help, for example, to schedule certain meetings/work for particular days, or times of the day when you feel most alert. Also, be mindful of what you’re doing at any given time in the day – focus on the task at hand and don’t get distracted by anything else. This will help you finish said task more quickly, and thus make you feel more accomplished/productive.

And finally – don’t fall into the trap of trying to endlessly work. Stop at a reasonable time in the evening and take a few minutes to reflect on what you did that day. Focus on the progress you make.

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