Updated: Dec 11, 2020
A couple of weeks ago, I realized something interesting (well, interesting to me anyway). To provide a little context, I love to spend time walking outside and I try to get out to walk as often as possible. During the winter months, “as often as possible” seems to mean "almost never" given the way the short days and frigid temps fuel my uncontrollable desire to huddle by the fireplace under 17 blankets. Still, I do get out occasionally, and as I was walking home from a meeting recently, I realized for the first time that (while I tend to walk quickly under any circumstances) I walk much faster when I’m actually going some place in particular.
It struck me that there were probably all kinds of lessons hidden in this observation, like if walking is a metaphor for life, this illustrates that we can progress more quickly when we have a clear goal in mind… Stuff like that. But metaphors and life lessons aren’t what's grabbing my attention about this story, at least not at the moment. Instead, what’s nagging at me is the suspicion that my swiftfootedness is tied less to some deep sense of clarity and more to my status as a card-carrying member of the productivity-junkie (aka pro-junk) club. Pro-junks like me know all too well what a kick productivity is. We experience an intense rush of energy when we check things off our to-do lists, so we want to do it more and more. (In my experience, it can be kind of a gateway drug, much like tortilla chips.) It’s easy to see that the faster you get to your destination, the faster you can start getting other stuff done, so it seems that my suspicions about this underlying connection are well founded.
Clearly there are some great things about being uber productive. First, to state the obvious, you can get a ton accomplished. Many pro-junks also tend to be highly reliable and know how to make things happen. Most of us are pretty organized, too. We have to be to manage those massive to-do lists.
On the flip side (and continuing the gateway-drug analogy), there are downsides to always looking for the next to-do list hit. In my experience, the three biggies are:
An inability to prioritize Sometimes we get so much joy from being productive, that we don’t care what we’re producing. We just indiscriminately get things done and blissfully check them off the list with little conscious thought. If that scenario sounds too extreme, I’d invite you to consider how often you fall pray to the milder version: doing what’s most urgent (i.e., has the nearest deadline) rather than what’s most important. I suspect that this is familiar to most of us.
A rusty inner compass An overly strong focus on getting things accomplished can keep us in our heads, leading us to ignore important signals from other sources, like our bodies. We stay up “just another 20 minutes” and then “just another 10 minutes,” followed by “just one more minute,” as we finish up one thing after another, completely ignoring (or often unaware of) how exhausted we are. Or we cram one more thing in before leaving for that meeting and then end up frantic with worry that we’ll be late, which ends up killing most of the elation we felt over getting that extra thing done in the first place. We fail to check our energy levels, we lose touch with our intuition, and we push ourselves beyond our limits. If we’re not careful, we end up walking through life like jacked-up zombies.
The risk of complete paralysis Perhaps the biggest downside to being a productivity-junkie is the increased risk of totally stalling out when we finally hit the wall. I’ve seen people (including myself) go from running at top speed to feeling like they can’t get up off the couch in a matter of minutes. Sometimes this is brought on by sheer mental, physical, or emotional exhaustion (see the bullet point above). At other times, it happens because everything on the all-powerful to-do list seems unappealing at best and impossible at worst.
So what can we do? I’ve shared some strategies below that can help reduce the sting of pro-junk pain. Some of them may not resonate with you, and that’s fine. Maybe you can view this as an opportunity to practice using your body compass. For example, if you feel your jaw clench and stomach tighten when you consider clarifying your values, then that’s probably not the best approach for you right now. If, on the other hand, you feel a little spark of energy or hope at the thought, you might want to give it a try.
Make time to clarify what’s fundamentally important to you and take at least a little time each week to check your alignment with these values, both personally and professionally. If you're interested, we’ll be doing some values-clarification work in the free STANDOUT Professor online group preview session on Friday January 25th at 9 a.m. PT/noon ET. Please sign up by January 18th to join us!
Follow your energy as much as possible. In my experience, this is the key to effective and healthy productivity. When we focus our attention on a task that we’re feeling drawn to and excited about, we typically end up with more energy when we’re finished. In contrast, forcing ourselves to do something that feels like a terrible chore not only sucks our energy when we’re doing it, but can eat up hours (or days) afterwards while we’re trying to recover.
Make sure that your to-do list consists of specific next actions rather than broad themes. For example, entries like “book” or “class” offer no guidance as to what you’re actually supposed to do next. Instead, try breaking these bigger projects down into specific tasks like “jot down ideas for chapter 4 of book” or “finish preparing in-class exercise.” Or rather than being a slave to your to-do list, simply take a few minutes at the end of the day to write down the things you’ve done and then enjoy checking them off. Yay!
Be as ruthless as you possibly can when it comes to setting priorities. Write them out and then slash half of them. Then repeat. This is especially painful for us productivity-junkies. I certainly have not mastered it. My coach once told me that the word “priority” existed only in the singular form until fairly recently and was therefore used purely to indicate the one (and only one) most important thing. We’ve clearly strayed from that. If you’re having a hard time letting some things go, you can try thought experiments like “Would this get done if I were in the hospital?” Also remember that not doing it today or tomorrow isn’t the same as never doing it. And saying yes to each thing on your list means saying no to so many others.
Check in with yourself periodically. How are you feeling mentally, physically, and emotionally? When was the last time you made a conscious decision about how to spend your time? Have you been on total autopilot for days, weeks, or even months, just a-check-check-checking things off your list? Then maybe it’s time to devote a little more attention to your being amid all this doing.
I’d love to hear how these strategies work for you, so please reach out to let me know... and share other ideas if you have them!
Finally, I’d like to offer a disclaimer. If anything in this post seems strange or nonsensical, it’s probably because I wrote much of it really late at night… when I was trying to get just one more thing done.