Five Productivity Mistakes to Avoid

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Apr 3, 2019

“If you spend too much time thinking about a thing, you’ll never get it done.” – Bruce Lee, Chinese actor and martial artist

Mistakes are the inevitable fruit of trying new things, and sometimes they even produce something useful. A biological mistake may prove life-saving to an organism if the environment changes suddenly, and you can even frame some business mistakes as solutions. Silly Putty started life as a failed attempt at synthetic rubber but became a ubiquitous child’s toy, which is still sold today.

We all must make mistakes to refine our work processes, if only to discover what doesn’t work. That doesn’t mean you have to waste time when hordes of other people have already made certain mistakes for you. Here’s a brief list of productivity mistakes to avoid:

  1. Under-planning. Unless you’re already an expert on what you’re doing, don’t start before you’ve lined up your ducks. Even if you are an expert, have at least an outline or standard procedure in mind. If nothing else, go through the expected project point-by-point and decide how you’ll handle each stage. Once you’ve done your due diligence and put some care into it, dive in.
  2. Overthinking/Perfectionism. There’s a line between under- and overthinking. It’s neither a fine line nor a plateau, but there’s definitely a sweet spot between the two extremes — and if you stray over the edge of too much planning or thinking, you may never get started. Planning is necessary, but you must know when to cut it off and get moving. Perfectionism and overthinking can both stall you in the paralysis of analysis. You also get the added bonus of anxiety, stress, and depression as you fall farther and farther behind.
  3. Overemphasizing morning efficiency.  Most productivity literature assumes we all have greater energy early in our shifts, a few hours after we wake up. That’s when you’re supposed to work on the hard stuff and “eat your frogs” (the ugliest first, if you have two). Well… maybe not. Think about how slowly many offices are to get started; some don’t get into full swing for a couple of hours. And consider this: the stress chemical cortisol spikes early in the morning (assuming the classic 9-5 shift). This may be why one infographic recommends avoiding coffee until after 10 a.m., when cortisol levels drop. Furthermore, not everyone has an energy peak early in their workday. Some people do best later in the day, even toward the end of the afternoon. Learn your peak energy times and use them to your advantage.
  4. Poor prioritization. Instead of piling everything together and treating all tasks as equal, triage them ruthlessly, eliminating everything unimportant or that you can get (or hire) someone else to do. Prioritize the rest in rigid order. Comparatively minor tasks go at the bottom of your list, where they can fall off if needed. Items due very soon go to the top of your list, with important but non-crucial tasks in the middle. Work the top-priority tasks during your energy peaks, and any other times you can manage them. Try to limit top-priority tasks to no more than three (very difficult at first).
  5. Lack of natural light. Avoid working in a windowless space if possible; humans weren’t meant to work in artificially-lit boxes. A study published in the Journal of Sleep Medicine in 2014 indicates exposure to natural light significantly boosts your alertness and mood. If you can’t sit near a window, buy a SAD lamp for your workspace—that is, a lamp designed to treat Seasonal Affective Disorder.

Avoiding the mistakes listed here will give you a head start on productivity, but it doesn’t mean you won’t make other mistakes. They’ll just be different ones. Time management methods that work great for others may not work for you, but at least this head start gives you time to make your own mistakes without piling on the others, too.

This was originally published on Laura Stack’s The Productivity Pro blog.