Chances are you’re trying to do a LOT in as little time as possible. But did you know there are several common pitfalls that steal our time and destroy our productivity? Below, I break down the biggest productivity mistakes most of us might even know we’re making and, more importantly, how to avoid them. You’ll definitely want to know what these things are so you can be proactive and prevent their negative impact. 😉
MISTAKE #1: LETTING THINGS TAKE AS LONG AS THEY TAKE.
If we don’t intentionally set a time limit to how long we’re going to spend on something, we run the risk of spending way too long on it and running out of time for other (often more important) things. This means we won’t get done nearly as much as we could, and that we’ll waste time on things that really don’t matter.
The Solution: Set a timer and challenge yourself to complete whatever needs doing within that window.
MISTAKE #2: UNDERESTIMATING HOW LONG SOMETHING WILL TAKE. We are notoriously bad at predicting time. Kahneman and Tversky’s (1979) infamous “planning fallacy” (as it’s called) has been documented by scientists over and over. We inherently expect to complete something much, much, MUCH faster than we actually can, which becomes extremely problematic because we then A) tend to naively take on waaaaaay too much and B) cause ourselves great stress from not finishing things on time.
The Solution: It might sound like overkill, but it’s essential to TRIPLE (or more) the amount of time we think something should take. That way, we’ve built in a natural cushion wherein we don’t get disappointed and stressed when things run over the time we initially allotted for them. And, if we happen to finish that thing in less time, our brains get that positive boost of accomplishment because we exceeded (rather than failed to meet) our expectations.
MISTAKE #3: NOT CUTTING THE CORD AND SAYING “DONE!” IS GOOD ENOUGH. For many people (myself for sure!), perfectionism runs deep. We know there’s ALWAYS a way to make things better, and we’re never satisfied with something until it’s just right.” Obviously this has many downsides that limit our productivity. First, we fall prey to spending far too much time on any one thing (see Mistake #1). Second, we’re afraid to share our work UNLESS it’s “perfect” because we fear it being perceived as a failure. Many times, that then thirdly leads us to abandon a project or a goal altogether because we think it has to be perfect from the get-go.
The Solution: It’s absolutely imperative to get comfortable with “good” being good enough. It feels uncomfortable at first, but turning something in or sending something off when it’s at its “minimum viable completion” state is sooooo much better than agonizing over perfecting it. Chances are, we’ll have plenty of opportunity to improve and revise it later on, especially in light of the real-world feedback we receive. Most importantly, we’ll get that much more done and, over time, we’ll progress that much faster because perfection comes from quantity, not quality! (See evidence from a ceramics teacher’s infamous study.)
MISTAKE #4: TRYING TO DO TOO MUCH AT ONCE. It’s all too easy to fall prey to this mistake. We’ve all (consciously or not) attempted to multitask. And sure, we can do it for some minor things. But for anything that really matters, it’s been repeatedly shown that our brains process things sequentially (not simultaneously!) so we’re doing ourselves a huge disservice by pretending we can do more than one thing at a time well.
The Solution: It’s crucial to focus solely on doing one thing at a time until that thing is done. Then we move on to something else. This strategy has been shown to be far more effective, productive, and beneficial.
MISTAKE #5: NOT HAVING A CONSISTENT BEDTIME AND WAKETIME. We all have a natural circadian rhythm that governs our daily bodily functions. If we don’t keep our body in line with this schedule, then the chemical and hormonal messages our body is sending to our brain will be out of sync with what we’re trying to do. Having irregular bedtimes and skimping on sleep lead to the equivalent of jet lag and majorly detract from our ability to focus and complete necessary tasks.
The Solution: It’s not always easy to do, but the best way to avoid this problem is to try and go to bed and get up at the same times every day so you get the same number of hours of sleep each night. When you sleep is dependent on your own preferences (i.e., are you naturally a morning person or a night owl?) and, of course, your current schedule/responsibilities (young kids, shift work, etc.). But again, the important thing is to be consistent. One of the worst things we can do for our productivity is stay up late and then oversleep on the weekends only to face a rude awakening when it’s “back to normal” bright and early Monday morning.
MISTAKE #6: NOT UTILIZING OUR “PEAK PERFORMANCE WINDOW” FOR THE MOST IMPORTANT WORK. Did you know our body naturally has times of the day when it releases key hormones facilitating our ability to focus and produce? And surely you’ve experience the opposite sensation: that after-lunch lethargy or some other time of day where you feel groggy, fuzzy-headed, and craving a pillow?
The Solution: Again, everyone’s circadian rhythm is slightly different and unique. But what’s important is to identify that time window where you’re AUTOMATICALLY more alert and energized so you can then focus your cognitive attention on doing your most essential tasks. Then save the smaller, less important, and more mundane or automatic tasks for times of the day when you’re not as fresh. It’s really not that hard! I’ve compiled a special, step-by-step resource to help you figure out YOUR “peak performance window” so you can then know what to plan and when. Be sure and check it out using one of the links throughout this page!
MISTAKE #7: BEING AVAILABLE TO EVERYONE 24/7/365. Technology is a blessing in so many ways, but one of its challenges is that nowadays people expect to (and actually CAN) get ahold of us anytime. The temptation is for us to then RESPOND to those interruptions, dropping whatever important thing(s) we should be doing for the latest “fire” someone else’s situation thrusts upon us.
The Solution: Remember, it’s not only okay to have boundaries—it’s super important as well. No one’s going to take your time as seriously as you do, so protect it!!! Let people know when they can/can’t expect to get ahold of you and then stand firm and keep working on what YOU need to do (minus, of course, those situations where a real emergency comes up).
MISTAKE #8: ALLOWING OURSELVES TO BE DISRUPTED BY EVERY NEW NOTIFICATION. Wish I wasn’t so guilty of this, but aren’t we all? Again, it’s one of the major downsides of technology. Our devices always tempt us down a time-wasting rabbit-hole whenever we allow our attention to be diverted from whatever we are (or should!) be doing) to whatever the latest ding tells us is going on. These “switching costs” (where our attention gets stolen from one thing to another and then we have to try and recall where we left off) are extremely detrimental to our productivity.
The Solution: This is common knowledge but definitely NOT common practice: we have to prevent ourselves from the temptation in the first place! We have to be super, super specific about the times of day when we allow ourselves to “check in” with our devices, and intentionally turn off notifications and sounds during the times when we need to focus on our work. Importantly, experts also strongly recommend against checking email and social media first thing in the day (or even before lunchtime), because then we’re so easily tempted to drop what we originally had planned to do that day for whatever else has just come up.
MISTAKE #9: NOT CONSOLIDATING ERRANDS, APPOINTMENTS, ACTIVITIES, ETC. I’m sure I don’t have to tell you this but driving around town or sitting in traffic is one of the surest-fire ways to lose time (and thus decrease our productivity). Even if it’s not a high-traffic time, little chunks of drive time can really add up without us noticing.
The Solution: To the best of your ability, try to have a single day (or, even better, half-day) where you run all your errands and go to appointments. At a minimum, try and schedule things in the same proximity for similar times so you’re only going there and back once. You’ll be amazed at how much time you’ll get back into your week this way!
MISTAKE #10: NOT HAVING A REALISTIC PLAN THAT ANTICIPATES LIFE. It always seems simple enough, right? You take your to-do list and make a grand plan for when you’ll get each thing done. But then inevitably something comes up and derails your plans. What’s to be done?!?! The truth is, a plan that doesn’t EXPECT that challenges and emergencies are going to come up is a plan that’s inevitably going to fail.
The Solution: We have to anticipate days when we’ll need a break, days we might not be at our top mental game, times of the month or year when things are going to be especially crazy (e.g., prepping for holidays, recovering from guests or vacations, the chance we or a loved one might be sick, etc.), and so forth. Then, we need to build-in cushions to our plan—days that allow us to catch up on whatever we may be behind with if these various scenarios occur. I have a whole special resource where I walk you step-by-step through how best to do this (and more). Be sure and check out my “Ultimate Guide to Planning So That Everything Goes ‘According to Plan‘”!
MISTAKE #11: LETTING PLANNING INTERFERE WITH ACTUALLY WORKING. There’s always the temptation to spend hours making “the perfect plan.” And then, if/when new things come up or our old plan gets thrown off, it’s so easy to think we just need a NEW plan to get back on track. But it’s far too easy to then let planning become its own form of procrastination.
The Solution: Set a specific day and time TO plan, and then set a timer and limit how long you allow yourself to spend making one. The rest of the time, just do the work you know you should be doing!
MISTAKE #12: NOT TAKING BREAKS. Whenever we do get in that “flow state,” it’s easy to lose ourselves in whatever we’re doing. Before we know it, hours have gone by. It’s often a great feeling, but the downside is that if we push too long and too hard, we’ll wind up feeling burnt out and have no motivation to come back and pick up the next day/time.
The Solution: Counterintuitive as it sounds, we are MOST productive when we set small, easily-achievable goals (e.g., going on a 10-minute walk or writing 250 words a day), meet those expectations, and then move on to something else. That way, our brain gets the dopamine-hit of good-feeling for having accomplished what it need to, and we’re subconsciously excited to do it again and again and again. Conversely, when we set big goals (e.g., run 5 miles every day or writing an entire book in a month) and somehow fail to meet them, we feel just awful about ourselves, get overwhelmed, and give up. Thus, we have to FORCE ourselves to take breaks—ideally every hour even. Get up, walk around, go outside, drink tons of water, shift your gaze, stretch, engage in conversation, and so on. Then, consider moving on to something else or—if you really must—sit back down to work again once you’ve given yourself a chance to refresh.
MISTAKE #13: HAVING TOO MANY OPTIONS. This is nearly impossible to avoid in the modern era, and we’re lucky to even have so many choices that prior generations or lesser-privileged populations do not. But every choice entails a cost. At a minimum, we use mental energy making a decision. At a maximum, we fall into “analysis paralysis” and are afraid to make a decision until we’ve thoroughly researched all the options so we can be sure we’re making the “right” one. And then, worst of all, the “paradox of choice” is that no matter how well-informed our initial decision, the more choices we have, the greater likelihood we will second-guess or even REGRET our decision because we worry some other choice may have led to a different or better outcome.
The Solution: It’s up to us to RESTRICT the number of choices we must make so that we can conserve our mental energy for making the most important ones. And, to the extent we can, we should limit the number of alternatives from which we have to choose so that we can reach a decision faster and have more certainty with the choice we make.
Learn anything new from this?!?! Comment below and let me know. Also tell me which of these mistakes YOU might have been making or if there are any others that I missed.
Here’s to being more productive so we have more time for what matters most to us!
***Sidenote: this page contains affiliate links to products I have personally used and enjoyed. If you choose to purchase one of them, I may receive a small compensation at no additional cost to you. Thanks so much for your support!***
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