Why We Suck at Productivity and How to Fix It

May 14, 2018

By Jess Hopkins 

Everyone I know wants to be more productive— including myself. Even though I consider myself to be a highly productive person, I still find myself saying things like:

  • There just aren’t enough hours in the day!
  • How is it already the end of the week?! I still have so much to do!
  • I wish I hadn’t wasted so much time _______ (surfing the internet, stalking Instagram accounts of puppies, etc.)

Sound familiar? We tend to blame external factors like limited time and frequent distractions for our poor productivity. But the reality is that this is precisely our reality: we live in a fast-paced, high distractibility world that makes being productive a challenge. When we convert this context into excuses, we relinquish accountability and set ourselves up to fail.

Interestingly, high performers operate within this exact same reality, but still manage to achieve next level productivity. What is it that they do they do differently? They create internal necessity first, then strategize second.

Here’s why we suck at productivity: we’ve reduced it down to task management, and task management alone.

There’s no shortage of hacks and best practices for maximizing our productivity, and yet, most people still aren’t as productive as they’d like to be. Despite a plethora of effective tools and strategies at our disposal, our productivity suffers because we tend to skip a crucial preliminary step:

Identifying a compelling reason WHY following through is important.

It sounds obvious, but most people never take the time to identify the deeper meaning and purpose behind their mile-long to-do list. In the absence of a compelling “why,” we tend to drag our feet, procrastinate and avoid responsibilities. Conversely, developing a high level of clarity around the impact each action will have on your life today, tomorrow and beyond is the fuel you need to drive yourself into energized, efficient action.

NOTE: compelling is a key word here. If your “why” is simply some version of, “because I have to” or “because my boss/spouse/coach told me to,” the chances of you taking swift, massive action towards your goals are slim to none. So, it’s crucial that your “why” is detailed, personal and significant.

Another way to think about creating a compelling “why” is to identify your intrinsic motivation: the motivation to engage in a behavior that arises from within because it’s naturally meaningful, significant or satisfying.

Motivation is inextricably linked to productivity and necessitates more than just short-term incentives (like a bonus) or shallow rewards (like fitting into an old pair of jeans). In his bestselling book, Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, Daniel Pink identifies that having intrinsic motivation is the key to staying productive over the long term. Specifically, a sense of purpose and working towards something that is personally or professionally meaningful is significantly more motivating than external incentives.

In order to increase motivation, and subsequently productivity, Pink suggests turning “how” conversations into “why” conversations. As you map out your action plans, instead of solely drilling down into the logistics of how to accomplish your goal, describe the reasons why your goal is important to you and other stakeholders in your life like family members, business partners and employees.

Sometimes creating a compelling “why” begins with owning your role, and subsequently, the responsibilities that come with it. People often take an extremely casual approach to their various roles in life whether it be as parent, spouse, employer or otherwise. In the short term, this casual approach feels safe and comfortable because it doesn’t demand much in the way of growth towards personal excellence. But eventually, we start to feel unfulfilled when we aren’t hitting our desired levels of productivity or performance.

For example, consider my role as a Certified High Performance Coach. When I think of “coach” as just a job title, my motivation to follow through on a variety of personal and professional tasks (like bookkeeping, continuing education, organization, even exercise!) is fairly low. Each of these tasks feels like a relatively unexciting chore. When I’m disconnected from the positive impact that following through on these items might have on me and my clients, I tend to put them off and procrastinate instead.

However, when I take a few minutes to consider what my role as a coach means to me on a deeper level, I quickly remember that being a role model for my clients is at the heart of being a great coach. Practicing integrity by walking my talk, and modeling things like self-care, discipline and personal development are essential to supporting my clients in achieving their goals. When I focus on the positive impact that I can have on my clients as a result of taking action on my own to-do list, I’m filled with a sense of necessity that drives me towards greater productivity.

Finding the meaning and significance in the roles we play helps us to connect more deeply with the tasks associated with those roles, and ultimately helps amplify productive action-taking.

In order to identify your “why”, begin by asking yourself some foundational questions:

  • Why is this task/role important to me?
  • What does accomplishing this task afford me?
  • Who else will benefit from my follow through?
  • How will I grow as a person?
  • What personal values will I honor by following through?
  • What strengths can I engage?
  • What will happen if I don’t follow through?
  • Who/what will suffer if I don’t follow through?
  • What’s at stake
  • How will this task impact me today? Next week? Next month? Next year?

Creating a compelling “why” is the necessary precursor to capitalizing on all other task management strategies, and the key to taking your productivity to the next level.

About the Author

Jess Hopkins is a Positive Psychology coach, speaker and trainer, working to maximize workplace well-being and performance. As a twice-certified Life Purpose and Career Coach, with dual masters degrees in Counseling and Applied Positive Psychology, Jess is committed to affecting positive change within organizations that are driven by passion and purpose. For more information, please visit www.ThrivingWorkforce.com

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