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4 Productivity Thieves and How I’ve Learned to Overcome Them

If you find yourself working too hard for too little result, these factors may be to blame

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

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

I’ve searched for a lot of answers in my quest for greater productivity. Maybe some of these will be familiar to you: Enneagram, Myers Briggs, Clifton Strengths, Kolbe, becoming a Full Focus Certified Pro. But do you ever feel like no matter what else you do, you’re always being robbed of your time? I sure do! So I set out to figure out what these productivity thieves were and how to overcome them.

In chapter 17 of his book The One Thing, Gary Keller tells us that there are four lying, cheating thieves of productivity. How can we catch them and eliminate (or at least reduce) them?

1. The inability to say “no”

I saw the detriment of saying “yes” to everything when I was on the executive board for a big nonprofit organization. Other board members generated some great ideas. I liked those ideas. Yet, I heard myself asking, “Is this project (or program) aligned with our mission? Will this help us to achieve our stated purpose, core values and foundational aims?” More often than not, with a little pushing, we agreed that no, it wasn’t. To me, staying at the mission level (personal or professional) is a central question, and a huge time-saver.

I’ve said “yes” when I didn’t want to sound negative, or I didn’t want to hurt someone’s feelings by shooting down their idea. I’ve found myself more able to say “no” to this thief when I do three things.

First, when I remember Steve Jobs’s quote:

“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. I’m actually as proud of the things we haven’t done as the things I have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.”

Second, when I ask myself, “Is this aligned with my mission? In life or in my business?” Simply pausing and raising the question has helped me, many times, to elude the productivity thief of hesitating to say “no.”

Finally, when I remind myself of the benefits that Max Phillips lists. Saying “no” helps me to:

  1. get direction,
  2. acquire resolve,
  3. value my time, and
  4. create a better mindset.

2. Fearing and avoiding change

We know that our ancestors had fears. They could not have survived the sabretooth tiger without the protective mechanism of fear. Fear is mentioned in the Bible hundreds of times — it was prominent in our ancestors’ minds.

We have four possible responses to fear — fight, flight, freeze, fawn. Fear starts in the amygdala, the part of the brain that processes emotions, including (but not limited to) fears. When our brain is operating on the “fear” program, our “creative” program is disabled. In other words, too much fear is a productivity thief.

I admit, fear is still ever-present in my head. But I’ve been increasingly more able to dodge it with some increased self-awareness. I became aware of my primal fear after taking Dr. Mike Foster’s 7 primal questions assessment.

Afterward, I read Foster’s book, Seven Primal Questions, where he posits that we all spend our lives asking one of these primal questions:

  1. Am I safe?
  2. Am I secure?
  3. Am I loved?
  4. Am I wanted?
  5. Am I successful?
  6. Am I good enough?
  7. Do I have a purpose?

(Foster’s book is about a 90-minute read, but it made a huge impact on my ability to identify my primal and secondary fears.)

After the awareness part, the next step is facing this productivity thief, eye-to-eye. Reading Jeffers’s book Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway is a good start.

Fear is often about change. We all want things to change and other people to change, but until we change, nothing is going to happen. It isn’t easy.

Robin Sharma on change:

Really hard at first, messy in the middle, gorgeous in the end.

It will get messy in the middle. If you’ve ever started a business, written a 400-page book, or baked a cake from scratch, you know that’s true. (Shucks, starting a blog on Medium wasn’t easy, and I haven’t yet arrived at the messy middle!) Setting your expectations when you start will help you get over your fear reaction and embrace the mess that comes with meaningful change.

3. Poor health habits

We’ve all heard about poor health habits: eating junk food, lying around as a coach potato, burning the midnight oil, etc. If you think you can get away with confining these bad habits to your personal life and not have them affect your work, think again.

A study by Merrill and colleagues showed that that “employees with an unhealthy diet were 66 percent more likely to report having a loss in productivity as opposed to healthy eaters.” Similarly, little or no exercise is also related to poor productivity: “employees who only exercised occasionally were 50 percent more likely to report lower levels of productivity versus their exercising colleagues.” Poor health habits can be a productivity thief.

Luckily, there’s plenty of help out there for improving our habits. James Clear’s outstanding book explains not only the power of habit, but the way to develop habits, and the incredible “dividends” that habits pay.

A while ago, I’ve talked about how to get 1% better every day, and that’s how you must approach the transformative power of habits: not that they will revolutionize your life overnight, but that they will lead to slow, steady growth.

Starting a new habit is tough. And for the record, no, that old “66 days to form a habit” thing is not true. It’s an average of 66 days. And how many days it takes to solidify that habit depends on how difficult it is. Drinking one glass of water a day will take fewer days than something like doing 100 pushups every day.

As Justin Grima said, “It’s only hard until it’s a habit.” That’s because most of our day is run by our subconscious mind. I will be brushing my teeth every night before I go to bed because it would feel weird not to. I’ve been doing it for decades.

This is why it’s so important to do the “thing” for many consecutive days; this is known as a “streak.” There are several apps out there to help us form repetitive acts that become habits. I’ve used Streaks and HabitBull, but there are other free apps you might like better.

4. Environment that doesn’t support your goals

You need to own your environment and align it in a way that best supports your one thing. Without that intentional control, your environment can become a productivity thief. So that begs the question, what is in your environment?

Sara Lindberg says that there are five environmental factors in your home, your office, or your school that can affect your mental state:

  1. Aesthetics (including cluttered spaces, which are killers for me personally)
  2. Sensory (including heat, lighting, and more)
  3. People (friends, drop-ins, competitors and more)
  4. Culture and values
  5. Familiarity (which can trigger good or bad memories)

I honestly don’t know if there’s any solid research to show that these factors affect your productivity. But since there’s a common understanding that mental state does affect productivity, it not a big leap to recognize that these environmental factors can affect our productivity.

Here are some questions I might ask myself, and now ask you:

  • Is the room you’re working in cluttered? Is your desk cluttered? What can you do to clear it?
  • Is the room just plain dreary? (I feel drained by dark earth shades.) Would a vase of flowers or a nice plant on your desk help?
  • Is the amount of “light and bright” lifting you up, or dragging you down? (It might be lamps, natural light, or even bright or dark paint.)
  • Do you have unwanted interruptions? Can you close your door and put a “genius at work” sign on it? Or put your Slack messages on pause?
  • Would being in a place with a trusted other help you to become more productive?
  • How about using one of those apps that block out unwanted distractions?

Use these questions or others along similar lines to see how you can defeat the productivity thief of your environment.

Overcome your productivity thieves

Together, these four factors — your ability to say “no,” your fear, your health habits, and your environment — can steal your productivity or help you push it to new heights. So take a look at which of these productivity thieves might be stealing from you most, and figure out how to fight against it today!

What is the one thing stealing your productivity the most?

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

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