When the Productivity Problem Is You

Only 26% of workers achieve what they set out to accomplish in any given day, and external forces aren’t always the problem.

Published: Jan 9, 2020


If you’ve ever had a day when the clock strikes five and you’ve crossed nothing off your to-do list, you’ve probably blamed some distraction around you—the endless flurry of urgent emails, the cold air pumping through the vents in the middle of winter, your cubicle buddy’s loud chewing.

And you wouldn’t be wrong. In these hectic times, where disruption is the only constant, being distracted can be hugely damaging to productivity. It’s one of the main reasons only 26% of workers achieve what they set out to accomplish in any given day.

We spend more than 12 minutes each week simply trying to enter or reset passwords.

But productivity problems aren’t always someone else’s fault. Often, they’re a product of your own creation. Here are four of the most common productivity problems and how to fix them.

You’re too “all or nothing.”

Many of us feel that if we don't have the time to do something to completion, or if the conditions around doing a certain task aren’t ideal, it's not worth starting at all—and so we end up doing nothing. The solution: Take smaller bites. “You have to break your work down into pieces,” says productivity coach Maura Thomas. Instead of searching for two hours of time to get started on your project, start with 15 minutes. Make each project task small and digestible enough that you’ll complete it, but large enough to create momentum. Research shows that the average employee is productive for just two hours and 53 minutes a day, so take ample breaks and avoid marathon work sessions.

You’re too optimistic about your free time.

You may say things like, “I have a big chunk of free time to get that done on Friday,” and then find you don’t. Sometimes this is because we don’t factor in last-minute changes to our work priorities (all too common in this age of disruption), but more often it’s because we automatically spend whatever time we have checking email (three hours a day, on average). Thomas suggests putting specific time on the calendar for a given task, during which you bar yourself from email completely.

You’re stuck in Groundhog Day.

We spend more than 12 minutes each week simply trying to enter or reset passwords. We spend more than four hours a week scheduling and preparing for meetings. You’re going to face time-sucks in the office, there’s no way around it. But you can use tools to cut down the controllable part of that time. For instance, if you’re stuck resetting a password every day, put them all onto printed sheet so you can access it quickly. Or use a scheduling tool, if you find it saves time. But note: if managing the systems takes up more of your time, don’t hesitate to dump them, says Korn Ferry Advance career coach Gabby Lennox.

You’re spending time fighting battles you won’t win.

For anyone rising up the ranks, it’s important to show that you’re passionate about your work and want to push new ideas and initiatives. But it’s also important to know when you’re wasting time on a lost cause. Lennox suggests checking in with your managers regularly so that you can hear directly from them where you should be exerting your energy.

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