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Inside the Psychology of Productivity


You wake up with it in the morning and go to bed thinking about it at night: an ever-crushing load of emails, meetings, conference calls, and tasks that needed to get done yesterday. Family time means reading sales reports in the room where your kids are playing video games. For entrepreneurs, there’s soooo much to get done–85 percent of fast-growth-company CEOs work 10 or more hours a day, according to a recent survey of the Inc. 500. Under such circumstances, personal productivity isn’t just a metric. It’s also a mandate, reported Inc.

Recently, a glut of tools and systems has emerged to help you measure, manage, and maximize what you accomplish. But not all impediments to productivity result from poor organization. Many are psychological. Behavioral economics reveals the wacky ways people think about financial costs and rewards. Similarly, psychologists, business researchers, and even philosophers are illuminating people’s idiosyncratic approaches to getting stuff done.

Productivity, or at least how productive you consider yourself, is surprisingly subjective. As a leader, your most important work–mulling strategy, blue-skying for innovation, imagining the future–may not feel all that productive because it is open-ended and the outcome is uncertain. At the same time, more (subjectively) unimportant work, like clearing out your inbox, can leave you quite satisfied.

Often, there’s an irrational component to whether you think you’ve gotten much done. “If I have 10 things I want to finish in a day and I finish five, I get frustrated because I am not productive,” says Gregory J. Redington, president of Redcom, an engineering and construction company in Westfield, New Jersey. “If I have five tasks and I finish all of them, I feel productive, even if it’s the exact same five. My instinct as an entrepreneur is to plan to do all these things. But I want to believe I’ve won at the end of the day, so I try to put fewer things down.”

Clayton Mobley, co-founder and CEO of Spartan Value Investors, a real-estate investment business in Birmingham, Alabama, admits that the state of his desk has a lot to do with whether he thinks he has accomplished enough on a given day. “There are two piles on the sides of my desk,” he says. “If one of those piles is gone by the end of the day, I feel productive. Even if I just put it in a drawer.”

No matter how you try to trick yourself into feeling more productive, there are just 24 hours in a day, and you almost certainly are not making the most of them. Here’s what you can do about that.

Get to the Root of Your Procrastination

Procrastination is a particular problem for entrepreneurs, who often must tackle work in which they have no experience and no familiar starting point. And of course, when you are responsible for everything, there’s always something else you could be doing. Many consider procrastination a moral failing, a weakness of will. But Timothy Pychyl, a professor of psychology at Carleton University in Ottawa, Ontario, calls procrastination an “emotion-centered coping strategy.” He suggests that if you understand what’s motivating (or–more accurately–demotivating) you, you can begin to address it. “Many of these emotions are not conscious,” says Pychyl. “So the first step is to have some awareness of how you are feeling. ‘Why do I keep not wanting to do this?’ ”

The reasons people shrink from particular tasks typically vary with the stage of a project, Pychyl explains. In the inception and planning stages, you procrastinate because you don’t find the work interesting or meaningful. In the action stage, you procrastinate because the project isn’t well structured, which creates uncertainty about how to proceed. Fear of making a poor decision can also be immobilizing. “With uncertainty comes fearfulness,” says Pychyl. “You have to acknowledge that fear.”

Another culprit is perfectionism: People envision outcomes so outstanding that their expectations become more intimidating than inspirational. “It’s like you’re practicing the high jump, and when you set the bar too high, you look at it, and you walk away,” says John Perry, an emeritus professor of philosophy at Stanford. “Perfectionists aren’t people who do something perfectly. Perfectionists are people who fantasize about doing something perfectly.”

At its core, procrastination represents shoddy treatment of the one person who should matter most to you: the future you. Hal Hershfield, a marketing professor at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management, used MRIs to demonstrate that people view their future selves much as they view a stranger. (This is why we smoke, fail to save, and order the red velvet cheesecake at the Cheesecake Factory.) Resolving not to do some odious task today makes procrastinators feel good, says Pychyl. Then they predict they’ll feel just as good tomorrow, which will make the task easier. Of course, the next day they feel worse, which makes the task harder and the stress greater. Homer Simpson summed it up neatly: “That’s a problem for future Homer. Man, I don’t envy that guy.”

That same disregard for their future selves often leads people to cram their calendars with appointments. This allows them to take the neurochemical hit of pleasure that comes from scheduling something today–and to suffer the consequences of five back-to-back meetings next month.

Counterintuitively, even work can be a form of procrastination. Scientists in the Netherlands coined the phrase bedtime procrastination to describe the tendency to keep doing things, including work, long after you intended to go to sleep. Entrepreneurs may succumb to this sort of procrastination when it comes to reading to the kids or taking vacations–activities you know are good for you but that, on some subconscious level, seem self-indulgent when compared with work. Here too the present self cheats the future self, as insufficient sleep and leisure affects performance.

Despite its bad rep, procrastination has its apologists. Two years ago, Stanford’s Perry published The Art of Procrastination: A Guide to Effective Dawdling, Lollygagging and Postponing, which posits that procrastination–like cholesterol–is not all bad. He coined the phrase structured procrastination to describe the act of doing things that–while not top priorities–still have value. “I think that’s a pattern of work a lot of very creative people have,” says Perry. “If you went through history and eliminated all the plays that have been written and inventions that have been created by people who were supposed to be doing something else, you might not have much left of your civilization.”

Focus on Progress, Not on To-Dos

To-do lists are daily reminders that you’re not cutting it. Just half of all to-do-list items are completed within a day, and 41 percent are never completed at all, according to data compiled by one productivity-tracking company. That’s a problem, because energized, motivated people are more productive than depressed ones. And what is more demotivating than seeing uncompleted tasks hanging on and on and on like outdated inventory?

To-do lists are problematic for other reasons. For one, they can be mentally gamed. When it comes to the pleasure of getting things done, people are like rats repeatedly pressing a bar because it stimulates their reward centers. Many people who have finished tasks not already on their to-do lists will add those tasks retroactively for the satis­faction of crossing them off. They may even slot previously unscheduled events–after they’ve happened–into their calendars. There’s also a temptation to mentally redefine everything you do as valuable and credit yourself accordingly. Stanford’s Perry describes his own to-do list: “It says: Wake up. That’s worth a check. Get out of bed. That’s worth a check. Make the coffee. That’s a check. Drink the coffee. That’s a check. By the time I’ve had my coffee I’ve done four things and I feel like a real effective human being.”

More practically, the rigid, reductive format of to-do lists is not optimal for the kinds of work done by leaders, says Teresa Amabile, a professor and director of research at Harvard Business School. “The really important things that don’t generally have a specific deadline may be what you should be spending most of your time on,” she says. “I think many of us who have a strong work ethic feel like we are indulging ourselves when we do that more exploratory work, that deep-level learning that may not have an immediate application but, in the grand scheme of things, may be more important than anything else.”

In her book The Progress Principle, Amabile emphasizes progress (moving forward with one’s work) over productivity (getting things done well and efficiently, irrespective of their importance). A sense of making meaningful progress, she found, has much greater positive impact on engagement and motivation. Her latest research–not yet complete–suggests that the simple act of looking back on progress also positively affects your sense of accomplishment and how competent and effective you feel at work. For the new study, Amabile signed up people to work for two weeks. Some kept diaries in which they recorded at least three sentences a day about how much they had done. Those subjects who were able to review their entries were more satisfied with the progress they had made and in their own abilities.

The positive feelings derived from reflecting on accomplishments, in turn, improve productivity. Francesca Gino, also an HBS professor, asked some employees at an Indian company to spend 15 minutes at the end of each day writing about what had gone well. The group that took time to reflect had a performance level 23 percent higher than that of employees who spent those last 15 minutes simply working. If reviewing incomplete to-do lists brings us down, it appears compiling have-done lists bestows a sense of satisfaction and enhances performance.

The power of reflection is the premise behind iDoneThis, a startup that inspires people to accomplish more every day by providing a mechanism to report what they have done. (Zappos, Uber, Reddit, and other companies have used the product, chiefly to improve the performance of teams.) “If you are working on one thing all day, it is very easy to remember what you did and give yourself credit for it,” says CEO and co-founder Walter Chen. “But if you did 20 things and one is have a conversation with your kid and one is put out a fire, it’s often hard to remember those things.” Pausing to reflect is an opportunity to remember those accomplishments and to recognize their value. “Giving yourself credit helps you feel productive,” says Chen, affirming, “That actually makes you more productive.”

Bottom line: To-do lists are useful for organizing and prioritizing work. But you should also maintain a “have done” list–or at least reflect on your accomplishments for a few minutes at the end of each day–to keep yourself motivated.

Beware of Time Thieves

Ownership is a management buzzword that, sadly, is rarely applied to people’s time. Workplace culture often requires that you sacrifice time for others, whether that means acting as a mentor or maintaining an open-door policy. The benefit to others’ productivity often comes at a cost to your own.

Most people have just two really productive hours a day, says Dan Ariely, a professor of psychology and behavioral economics at Duke and co-founder of Timeful, a time management app. (See “Four Great Productivity Apps,” page 45.) Those two hours might be sufficient if they belonged entirely to you. But even the boss can’t schedule every meeting so that it falls outside his or her optimal nose-to-grindstone stretch. And in flatter organizations, more people have roughly the same claims on the company’s collective time resource. “The biggest change in the calendar from paper days to computer days is that, because we now have shared calendars, people can kidnap our time,” says Ariely. “It’s really kind of a shocking idea.”

Still, most people would rather work alongside others than not, because humans are social creatures. When others ask for your time, saying yes feels good and is easy. Saying no feels bad and is hard. “All of us want to be nice, and all of us want to be team players,” says Kory Kogon, global productivity practice leader at Franklin Covey and co-author of The 5 Choices: The Path to Extraordinary Productivity. At one typical company that Kogon advised, “the COO said to me, ‘We are a nice organization, so nobody knows how to say no,’ ” she recalls. “Of course he does say no. But he doesn’t feel like he is saying no enough.”

Greg McKeown, author of Essentialism: The Disciplined Pursuit of Less, recommends extreme selectivity as a check on your desire to always be accommodating. McKeown likes to ask people to imagine they have no to-do list, no inbox, no schedule of appointments. “If you didn’t have any of that, and you could do one thing right now that would help get you to the next level of contribution, what would you do?” he asks. “Maybe all the stuff you’re doing should be questioned. Start from zero every day. What would be essential?” People require space and clarity to identify what matters, McKeown explains, and what matters should dictate what you say yes to. “You can say, ‘I would love to do that, but I am already doing this,’ ” he says. “And that is completely true and understandable, because you are.”

On the face of it, McKeown’s advice seems at odds with that of Adam Grant, the Wharton professor whose best-selling book Give and Take has made generosity a hot topic in corporate corridors. Grant argues that helping others with no expectation of return can increase energy and well-being and, consequently, productivity. But, like McKeown, Grant advocates selectivity: saying yes only in instances when distraction is minimal and the benefit to others outweighs the cost to self. McKeown calls this practice disciplined generosity.

Bottom line: Although it feels good to say yes, be disciplined about the time you give to others. Employees and partners need your help, but mostly they need you to concentrate on what matters.

Be In-the-Moment With Everything You Do

Every businessperson knows that you have to distinguish, in the words of Dwight Eisenhower, between the “important” and the “urgent.” But demands on your time don’t come with labels indicating their level of priority. The important, the urgent, and the trivial rush past in a blur. When Franklin Covey recently surveyed 350,000 people worldwide, respondents confessed to spending 40 percent of their time on things that are unimportant or downright irrelevant. But many don’t know exactly how they are wasting their time, says Franklin Covey’s Kogon.

Perhaps it’s not surprising people are so confused. McKeown observes that when the word priority entered the English language in the 1400s, there was no plural form. Today, you moan about being distracted by everything you could be doing. But there are also more things you arguably should be doing, such as developing your talent pipeline or studying the competition. Those things cry out to you, like voracious baby birds. Your mind is not quiet. The noise hurts.

Mindfulness–which sounds new age-y but doesn’t have to be–is increasingly held up as a way to improve both performance and decision making. Scott Eblin, author of Overworked and Overwhelmed: The Mindfulness Alternative, defines mindfulness as awareness plus intention. “If you are aware of what you are thinking and feeling and what is going on around you, then you can manage the gap between that and your actions,” he says. Mindful people don’t ignore noise and distractions–that’s impossible. But they exert discipline to control what Buddhists call their restless and unsettled “monkey minds.” “You have to be aware of all the mental chatter,” says Eblin. “That’s the first step toward quieting it.”

Mindfulness is particularly effective at thwarting that bane of productivity, the fallacy of sunk costs. The more time, thought, and energy you expend going down a road, the harder it is to change course when the destination looks dicey. New research from Insead and the Wharton School shows that subjects who meditated were much more likely to abandon a lost-cause project than those who did not. Cutting bait fast is critical, because lost causes waste time and, Eblin says, “because regret kills productivity.” He recommends avoiding regret by having individuals and teams subject their failures to after-action reviews, like those conducted by the military. “That way it becomes, what did I learn from this?” says Eblin. “You reframe it as retraining. And retraining, of course, is productive.”

Another advantage of mindfulness is that it concentrates attention on the qualitative, rather than quantitative, aspects of work–why am I doing this? instead of how much of this am I doing? “To me, productivity is the wrong focus,” says Wharton’s Grant. What you want is to be maximizing quality or usefulness. “I think a lot of people accept the goal of being productive,” says Grant. “And that’s counterproductive.”

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