I’ve been talking with other productivity experts about the worst advice on productivity and how they would evolve it to be more valuable. I’ve put together a collection of outdated “tips” and broken down the points of failure and finished it up with a recommendation for a modern update.
If you don’t say “Yes”, you’re not a team player
Everyone knows this probably isn’t true, but we often feel guilty about saying “no”. (saying “no” will be a recurring theme across this entire post). In reality, focus is not about what you choose to do, it’s about what you choose NOT to. If you always take on too much, you run the risk of over-promising and under-delivering. That is certain to kill your reputation as a reliable teammate. Also, people are horrible at estimating. There are numerous discussions on this topic too. You may think you can handle a small amount of extra work, but it might really be bad estimating and guilt taking over.
Choose whether or not you can say “no”. Sometimes you can’t. An alternative to rejecting the ‘ask’ altogether is delegation. Offer to work with the requester to find an alternative person to get the work done. If you have the capacity, offer to supervise the work. It will show your boss that you are a leader and can juggle multiple things at once, without adding a significant amount of extra work to your day.
To get everything done, you have to multi-task
I hope it’s safe to say most people at least question whether or not this really works. It’s been well proven scientifically (here’s just one example citing sources) that you cannot successfully focus on multiple tasks at the same time. (ok, other than things like walking and chewing gum or listening to music and breathing). In reality, work “tasks” require most of your conscious attention. Think about these activities: email, note taking, blogging, building a presentation, etc. How could you actually work on two at the same time? Constant switching between tasks takes time and mental strain. It’s similar to shifting between reverse and forward gears in a car. You need to slow down to a near stop before you change gears.
Pick an activity and work on it for a set amount of time with no distractions. Take a break. Then, go back to work on that activity or, better yet, a different activity. It’s ok to have multiple projects in flight at the same time, but it’s not realistic to move them all forward at the same rate.
Always finish the things you start
I start a lot of blog posts that I never finish or publish. However, the content in those posts and the time I spent is not wasted. The content usually feeds the source for one or two different blog posts. And the time writing usually sparks additional ideas. If I were to finish the original version, it would likely not land the message(s) I want as effectively as splitting the work in half.
Most large work tasks are longer than the mind’s endurance to do them. Good advice for this is to work on smaller chunks and take frequent breaks. Taking breaks is an essential practice and gives the mind time to reflect on the work done so far. Also, look for opportunities to get better return on your smaller investments. If you can split a blog post into two, likely the message in each of those is more concise and the additional work to “double” your output is minimal.
Brainstorming helps you predict problems and avoid them
Ok, this is somewhat true. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t plan or be prepared. Always be prepared. However, don’t get stuck in analysis paralysis about things that are theoretical. I love the quote, “The best way to stay in business is to be in business” Meaning that, you learn so much by being in business vs. just planning to be in business. The same goes for productivity. You learn a lot more by doing things than you do by planning for them.
Never let perfect get in the way of good enough. Do minimal (but necessary) preparation and start your work right away. Don’t get discouraged by a change of course. Embrace iterative design. It is much easier to adapt your work as you go than try to plan for perfection.
You Do Your Best Work Under Pressure
While some people have produced more quantity of work while under pressure, it is likely not their best quality. Research shows, most people actually choke under pressure. Some of the best examples of this are in sports. Just read about “The Comeback”. Too much stress causes you to think about other aspects around what you are doing, less on what you are actually doing.
Nothing will beat proper planning, preparation and prioritization of your tasks (see Time Management). Planning the right things to do, giving yourself enough time to do them and taking frequent breaks to review your work will always produce your best quality output.