Article on 4 productivity thinking traps

Some believe that ‘busyness’ is highly correlated with success – that the busier they are, the greater their impact. Now, with technologies and the work from home (WFH) movement, we can stay busy 24/7/365. I would argue that what is really needed is for us to reflect on certain concepts around time-management and productivity to understand why simply being busy often has no correlation with productivity or success. In this blog have provided 4 productivity thinking traps that may be holding you back.


As C. Northcote Parkinson wrote in 1955, which eventually become known as Parkinson’s Law, “Work expands to fill the time available for its completion.” In terms of productivity, this means that as you become more productive, you will have more work to complete.

The other part of this trap, and perhaps the more insidious one, is that you will be getting better at clearing the decks of those urgent/insignificant tasks that are demanding your attention every day. They are easy to check off your list which helps you feel more productive. The larger and truly important tasks, however, will be pushed off into the realm of ‘tomorrow’ or ‘next week’ since the decks will be refilling nightly with those minor tasks.

As best-selling author of Four Thousand Weeks: Time Management for Mortals Oliver Burkeman states, the skill that is actually needed is the ability to embrace the feelings of overwhelm and resist the temptation to fit more in. Realize that you will never get everything done, so instead focus on what is most important. This should be your default mode. Eventually, you will find peace


Many of us would like to eliminate procrastination from our lives. However, Burkeman believes that we can never completely eliminate procrastination, so we must be selective and choose what you will procrastinate on. Time management techniques can help you to focus on the right things, which, by default, tells you which things to neglect. It is those items to neglect which should be your sources of procrastination.

This approach is also in alignment with Warren Buffett’s 5/25 productivity rule. This rule states you should list your top 25 career goals and then circle your top 5 career goals. The twenty you did not circle should not be done when time permits — areas of potential procrastination. Buffet states these are the ones that you should avoid at all costs. By circling only five, you are only splitting your time between a smaller number of choices, increasing your chances of achieving them. Resist the urge to think you can make meaningful progress on more than a few items at a time.


You are often blaming the wrong causes for your distraction. For example, the phone that you believe to be the source of distraction is really not the root cause of your distraction. According to Nir Eyal, bestselling author of Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life, the root cause is the unsettling truth that distraction is always an unhealthy escape from reality. It is motivated by a desire to escape discomfort.

Look for the discomfort that precedes the distraction. Try to write down the conditions that were present during the discomfort, such as time of day, who you were with, your emotional states, thoughts, etc. The first step is an in-the-moment awareness. Get curious about these sensations and stay with them until they pass. Don’t resist them but also don’t give in to them by acting them out. Psychologists call this ‘surfing the urge’ and help to stop reacting without thinking about distractions. If you can stay working a little longer with this technique, you may find the ‘distraction urge’ passes and you can continue making progress on your task. Even if it doesn’t pass and you succumb to the distraction, you now have made a little more progress on your work and strengthened your anti-distraction muscles.


The well-known quote attributed to Dorothy Parker, “The cure for boredom is curiosity. There is no cure for curiosity.” But how do you become curious about something you are not interested in and find boring? In his book Play Anything: The Pleasure of Limits, the Uses of Boredom, and the Secret of Games, Ian Bogost makes the bold claim that we should reexamine what fun should feel like. Play can be a part of any task and free us from discomfort. So become curious and turn ordinary, boring tasks into something that feels like play.

For example, let’s say you have a monthly financial report that is boring and you dread doing every month. Just as technological distractions, like slot machines and video games, use variable rewards to keep us interested in a constant stream of novelty, we can use the same techniques to make mundane, boring tasks more interesting. You make a race out of completing the report in record time, while not compromising accuracy. You can also research ways to further automate it. Perhaps look at deconstructing the report and rebuilding it in a new way, which makes it easier to identify meaningful insights.


You are never going to get everything done. Instead, get off of the productivity hamster wheel and try some of these techniques: identify what is most important so you can choose what to procrastinate on, ‘surf the urge’ with temptations and distractions in order to be less impulsive and reactionary, and find novelty and fun in the mundane.

Once you stop convincing yourself that everything needs to get done, you can start focusing on making progress on the few things that really matter and move beyond the 4 productivity thinking traps that may be holding you back.


If you would like to explore other ideas that can help you with time management and productivity I would encourage you to explore some of our previous articles like, Becoming 2.5X More Productive or How to Work Smarter, Not Longer.


Charles Good is the president of The Institute for Management Studies, which provides transformational learning experiences that drive behavioral change and develop exceptional leaders. Charles is an innovative and resourceful leader who specializes in bringing people together to develop creative organizational and talent strategies that enable business results. His areas of expertise include assessing organizational skill gaps and leading the design, creation and delivery of high impact, innovative learning solutions that achieve business goals.


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