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Are These 8 “Small Self” Mistakes Killing Your Productivity?

Achieve greater productivity through self-growth now

A photo of a man at a desk, hands folded behind his head. Text to the side reads: Are you procrastinating? Lacking discipline? Lacking achievement goals? Lacking habits? Succumbing to perfectionism? Not fully understanding yourself? Not using a great planner? Limiting yourself?
Photo by Keenan Beasley on Unsplash

This post was first published on my Medium blog—follow me there for the most up-to-date entries!

Do you ever notice you’re in constant motion with your to-do list, but at the end of the day, you haven’t accomplished a thing? Believe me, I’ve been there! At some point, I realized that I was mistaking “motion” for “action.” It’s like riding a stationary bike: being in constant motion — perhaps very fast and vigorous motion — but not going forward.

Why does this happen, and what can we do about it?

I felt certain that my productivity would improve if I could just create a better to-do list. I could delegate more tasks to more people. I could get new apps or better apps. I could find another productivity trick or hack or start working before sunrise. But none of those ideas worked until I identified a central key to becoming more productive: Self-growth.

Here, I describe some “small self” reasons that impede productivity and pose some questions that might help to spark self-growth.

1. Procrastinating

The small self procrastinates. As you may have discovered, delaying your action steps can kill productivity. Three main theories speak to the possible reasons for procrastination.

Lack of emotional regulation

Are you down in the dumps? Maybe you can’t get motivated to do a task, so you don’t take it on. You curl up on the couch. Soon, you feel behind, or you’ve encountered some penalty for not doing the task, and then you feel worse.

Are you an anxious worrier? Do you feel constantly consumed by other junk happening in your life that you feel compelled to address? And do you truly need to address those issues, or are they just good excuses for not doing the task you’re putting off?

Emotions are energy in motion. That energy gets messed up when we focus on real losses from our past, or on imagined disasters for our future. Living in the present helps us to be productive in the moment.

Ask yourself: Does my mood affect my ability to stay focused on my work and avoid distractions? Am I ruminating about the past or catastrophizing about the future? How motivated am I? Have I tried visualization or activating my imagination for positive experiences? Am I open to getting some psychotherapy to overcome these emotional issues that result in distractions and limiting beliefs?

Weak executive function

When I first learned about this, I thought, oh, I’m just a business owner, I don’t think of myself as an executive. But as I read Pat Dawson’s book Smart but Scattered I realized that “executive function” does not refer to an executive in a company. Executive function is the process that allows us to execute plans. In a word, doing, not just thinking. And “doing” is what productivity is all about.

I learned so much about myself by scoring myself on Dawson and Guare’s free Executive Skills Questionnaire. They point out 15 skills that comprise executive function, and then classify them as “thinking” or “doing”:

An infographic of Dawson and Guare’s Executive Skills, which are also listed in the text below.
Infographic by author


  • Memory Control
  • Planning and Prioritization
  • Organization
  • Time Management
  • Metacognition


  • Response Inhibition
  • Emotional Control
  • Task Initiation
  • Sustained Attention
  • Flexibility
  • Goal Persistence
  • Stress Tolerance

When I found myself stronger on the “thinking” skills and weaker on the “doing” skills, I realized I needed to do some serious personal growth. (I used the exercises in Dawson’s book.) Sure, I’ve always known that I live in my head. But since the rest of the world doesn’t live there — and clients don’t pay me to live there — I knew I needed to improve my ability to get tasks done. That’s productivity.

Ask yourself: Have I been mostly a “thinker” or a “doer”? What are my strongest and weakest points related to the “doing” skills? What have I done to improve those skills? Did I try the exercises in Dawson’s book?

Low levels of dopamine

Dopamine is a neurotransmitter: a chemical in your brain related to rewards. It might make you feel pleasure, experience heightened arousal, or achieve greater learning. Interestingly, research studies have shown that it’s not so much the actual reward as the anticipation of the reward. For example, if I’m working on a crossword puzzle, I’m more motivated to keep going in anticipation of the message at the end of the puzzle saying, “You finished in x number of minutes!” I feel good, so I seek more of the feel-good task. Dopamine is related to concentration/focus, memory, sleep, mood, as well as motivation.

In the case of the crossword, the dopamine reward propels me to keep going. But all too often, dopamine-seeking behaviors cause distractions rather than forward motion. I’ve heard that word machine in my head saying: Oh, I’m stuck writing this post; I’ll just check my text messages. Or, oh, I’ll just munch on those nice grapes. As a human, I’m hard-wired to seek pleasure, and these distractions give me a small hit of dopamine which will make me feel better.

Continual pleasure-seeking can interfere with productivity. A study by Volkow and Baler showed that the “overactivation of the dopamine system downregulates the dopamine receptors, leaving the subject less interested in other activities.”

Ask yourself: When I’m seeking that small hit of dopamine, what do I do that interferes with my productivity? Eat? Scroll through social media. Something else? Now that I’m aware of those habits, what can I do to reduce them? And do I provide some reward for myself for finishing the task, or finishing on time?

2. Weak discipline

The small self has weak discipline.

I’d venture to say that weak discipline is at the root of many or most non-productive behaviors. You’ve heard me say it before: “Discipline” comes from a Latin word with the ultimate root of “learning” or “training,” same as “disciple” — self-discipline is the art of training yourself, of becoming your own master.

Most of our thinking is done in our subconscious mind. Our conscious mind can issue a command to our subconscious, but then it might check out for a while. If left to its own devices, our always-on subconscious mind will make itself comfortable, not productive. Hence, anytime we don’t hold ourselves accountable to our own plan, we’re liable to become unproductive, because we’re giving our subconscious mind the ability to control our behaviors.

Ask yourself: What command did I give myself this morning for getting things done? Did I give myself any commands at all, or did I perhaps give myself so many commands that it would be tough to master any of them? Did I write that command on in my planner?

3. No achievement goal

The small self doesn’t establish goals.

“A man without a goal is like a ship without a rudder.”

— Thomas Carlyle

If you don’t know where you’re going, how do you know what activities will get you there? You end up doing the wrong activities and feeling unproductive.

Productivity comes from the Latin roots pro, “forward,” and ducere, “to lead” — to produce is to lead forward. Productivity requires leadership, whether that’s leadership over others or just over ourselves. And it requires forward motion.

Ask yourself: Can I verbalize three goals I have for myself this calendar year? Are those goals clear and measurable? And just as importantly, are they exciting? And will I use my inborn talents to achieve them?

4. Few regular habits

The small self doesn’t use the power of the subconscious to automate actions that support achievements.

We can self-automate a productive day by establishing habit goals. That means, promising yourself that you’ll do a certain activity on a regular basis.

We already have habits. For example, we brush our teeth upon rising, and again before we go to bed. We wipe our feet before we enter our homes. We close the door after we pull the car out of the garage. We do these activities without thinking about them, right? In other words, that activity is only hard until it becomes a habit.

Ask yourself: Do I have habits to support my achievement goals? Do I track my daily intake to lose weight, or set aside x number of dollars for retirement each month? To be more productive, have I tried establishing a morning routine or a routine for another part of the day?

5. Perfectionism

The small self worries that nothing is good enough until it’s perfect. Remember what the French writer Voltaire said:

“The best is the enemy of the good.”

I can fiddle with something all day long and not get it done. Productivity is related to the word “product.” I won’t be able to make or sell my product if I keep tinkering with it forever.

I often remind myself that not every blog post needs to be epic. Not every product needs to be flawless. Not every service needs to be stellar. At least for the first time out of the gate, the product (or service) just needs to perform well. Tell yourself you can under-promise and over-deliver. You’ll be astonished at how many people love it and heap on the accolades!

It’s worth figuring out exactly why you feel the need to make your work perfect. I’m not an expert on the Enneagram, but I once asked Ion Morgan Cron, author of The Road Back to You, “If both the Ennea #1 and the Ennea #3 strive for perfection, what’s the difference between them?” I’m paraphrasing here since our conversation was a while ago, but he basically explained, “The motivation. The #1 is more driven by having standards, improving something to an ideal state through certain methods and procedures. The #3 is more focused on the outcome — not the how-to — and is motivated by the possibility of disapproval from others if it’s not perfect.”

In his book Seven Primal Questions, Mike Foster posits that we all have one primary fear based on one unanswered question. And we will spend our lives trying to get the answer to that one question. For me, the question was, “Am I good enough?” Once I realized that I was repeatedly asking that question and seeking an answer, I was able to give myself some affirmations and move on. I could put aside some of my perfectionism and achieve greater productivity. No kidding.

Ask yourself: What is driving my perfectionism? Is it a devotion to a certain process? Is it a fear — and in that case, of what? Or is it something else entirely?

6. Not fully understanding yourself

The small self lives an unexamined life.

“The unexamined life is not worth living.”


Have you taken any of these so-called “personality” tests or inventories? I’ve done several and have improved my productivity by better understanding myself. Here are a few I’ve used:

I’ve been certified in the Myers Briggs Type Inventory for over 30 years, so yes, I’m partial to that one. However completing any or all of these inventories or assessments is helpful. I have a coaching client who loves the DISC. I haven’t done the Predictive Index, but I’ve recently heard about it, and plan to undertake that one, too. Any or all of these or others can be enlightening.

Using those assessments, here’s a snapshot of the most important insights I gained about my productivity or lack thereof:

  • The MBTI helped me to realize that I’m less productive when tasks seem to be unrelated or disconnected in some way. I need a framework or some way to make connections to data and/or tasks.
  • The Kolbe B helped me to see that I’m less productive if I lack structure, uninterrupted time to concentrate, or a non-verbal way to communicate. This helped me to recognize how I could alter some of those factors in selected situations.
  • The Enneagram, as I said earlier, helped me to see that perfectionism can result in procrastination. I like this one because it has ancient roots; that tells me it has value over time.
  • The Gallup Strengths helped me to realize that my inclination to be thorough and conscientious often results in making me just plain slow. I like this one because of the high-quality, ongoing, solid research that supports it.
  • The Executive Skills assessment helped me to realize that overthinking, and under-doing, kill my productivity. I like this one because of its simplicity (thinking versus doing) and because it acknowledges that almost everyone struggles with procrastination.

From all of them, I have taken away one simple fact: Being aware of what makes me tick is the key to growing into a bigger, better version of myself that gets bigger, better stuff done.

Ask yourself: Which of these self-assessments will I try first? And afterward: What insights about myself can I take away from this assessment? How can I build on my strengths?

7. Not using a great planner

The small self assumes there’s no need to write anything down because important things are automatically memorable. But hopefully, you have enough experience to know that that’s a recipe for disaster.

I’ve been using a planner of one sort or another since I was in the third grade. I loved getting that small hit of dopamine when I checked the box of having done my homework. But in those days, the teacher assigned the daily homework. I had only a few supervised household chores at home. There was little need for me to reshuffle priorities or tackle months-long projects. Therefore, a planner that was a glorified checklist for tasks became completely adequate.

Finally, I realized that I needed a planner that was goal-oriented, not just task-oriented; one that would take me from month to month or year to year; one that would accommodate my complicated tasks and projects; one that would keep me focused on what mattered; one that would work as an adjunct to my electronic apps. I needed a great planner.

My productivity changed dramatically after I started using the Full Focus Planner because it met my criteria for a great planner. Yes, it may look a little daunting, but I started with the daily pages and then eased into using the more advanced pages. In short, it was one tool that helped me to grow into a bigger, better version of myself.

Now, I’m a Full Focus Certified Pro, and I help others learn the simpler features, or use the more advanced features to the max. Check out my Full Focus Planner Course to learn more!

A “great” planner is a planner that works great for you. And what works for me won’t necessarily work for you. So, if you’ve got the Tony Robbins planner or the Steven Covey planner or something else, and if it works great for you, by all means, stick with it!

Ask yourself: Do I have undone tasks that aren’t written down anywhere? Am I doing some tasks, but not the tasks that help me to reach my big goals? Do I finish the week feeling confident that I’ve made real progress? Could a new planner and/or a short course help me to get things done? Could a course help me to get a better system for productivity?

8. Having limiting beliefs

The small self blows difficulty out of proportion.

If you think your task is hard, it will be. If you think it will take a long time to finish, it will. If you think you can’t do it, you won’t be able to do it.

“Whether you think you can or think you can’t, you’re right.”

— Henry Ford

It’s just perception. In my rookie year of teaching at a university, a colleague told me something I’ve passed on to others. She said, “In the fall, I find myself dreading the winter. I imagine it to be a daily blast of cold and snow, shoveling every morning and cleaning up the tracked-in snow every night. But once winter arrives, I realize it isn’t a daily occurrence, and it isn’t nearly as bad as I had thought it would be.”

The same is true with our tasks. we dread the cold tasks and all that goes with them. But most of the time, they’re not nearly as bad as we have imagined them to be.

Limiting beliefs are propelled by our internal dialogue, i.e., the words floating around in our heads or coming out of our mouths. Beware of, and alter your daily self-talk. Instead of:

“I can’t…” say, “I haven’t yet figured out how to…”

“It won’t work…” say, “Last time I thought of another way to…”

“I shouldn’t…” say, “[This] isn’t aligned with my bigger goal”

Infographic about limiting self talk containing the examples from the previous paragraph in word bubbles
Infographic by author

Ask yourself: What items on my to-do list am I dreading? What can I tackle today that might show me they aren’t so bad?

Your productivity starts with you

Productivity is a do-it-yourself thing. Yes, you can find hacks and shortcuts, try different techniques, delegate to someone else, and more. But at the end of the day, it’s all about you leading yourself forward from being a smaller self to being a greater self. That’s why I say that your productivity starts with you. If you’re not improving yourself, you’ll never improve your business or anything else.

So if you find yourself wondering how to grow your profits or your productivity, start by looking in the mirror.

This post was first published on my Medium blog—follow me there for the most up-to-date entries!

I am a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.

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