On some level, we all want to be more productive:
- Maybe you want to work more efficiently in your job so you can get that promotion you’ve been after.
- But it could also mean you want to stop procrastinating on your creative writing hobby and start putting your work out into the world.
- Or maybe you want to be more productive bootstrapping that business on the side.
Whatever productivity means to you, if you want more of it, you have to understand what really gets in the way. And more often than not…
Struggles with productivity come from a misunderstanding of the nature of productivity itself.
In the rest of this article, I’m going to describe three of the biggest productivity myths that tend to sabotage our work.
“I’m a high-achiever so being stressed out is inevitable.”
Many of the people I work with who want to be more productive describe themselves as high-achievers…
- Often it’s someone who is very success-oriented, driven, and ambitious with a classic Type-A personality.
- But high-achievers can also be quiet introverts who look laid-back on the outside, but internally, possess a deep drive to achieve or create in some particular area of life.
But regardless of the type, a common misconception almost all high-achievers have is that being stressed out is simply inevitable if you want to do great things.
For example, I was recently working with a client (Let’s call him Jeff) who wanted to start being more productive with his music hobby…
- In college, Jeff and his buddies had a band and would play weddings and events on the weekends. In addition to being fun, they also started making a decent amount of money.
- Now as a mid-30s professional, playing in a band wasn’t really in the cards. But Jeff still liked the idea of getting back into music and maybe generating some extra income from it.
- He even had a cool idea to start a YouTube channel teaching people how to quickly play the ukulele.
- But the thing holding him back was the following belief he expressed to me: “I’d love to do all this, but I’ve got a young family right now and I can’t handle all the extra stress that would come from starting up a new project—especially one that I wanted to make some money from.”
In Jeff’s mind, being more productive with his music project inevitably meant being more stressed out. And with a demanding job and 2 little kids, Jeff understandably just didn’t think he could handle much more stress.
But here’s what Jeff (and so many high-achievers like him) don’t understand:
It’s possible to experience stress without getting stressed out.
Stress is the natural result of doing difficult things. So of course, Jeff was right in the sense that starting a YouTube channel teaching ukulele and potentially turning it into a business would involve stress.
But over the course of a couple months working together, what I helped Jeff realize was that he could do ambitious and stressful things without getting stressed out if he approached it creatively.
Here’s the key insight Jeff learned:
Stress is manageable if you put boundaries on your stressors.
Most people get overwhelmed by stress because they aren’t very creative about organizing and planning their work. In particular, most high-achievers tend to just dive into hard work head-first and “power through.” And while this can work in the sense that the work gets done, the side effect is tremendous amounts of unnecessary stress.
The problem here is that while you’re doing a good job attacking the problem, you’re failing miserably to defend yourself against stress.
Luckily, these two things aren’t mutually exclusive… Like a good athlete, you can learn to play offense and defense well.
For Jeff, what this looked like was taking the time to really research and plan out his new music project in such a way that he was never exposed to too many stressors at once.
For example, rather than thinking he had to just start recording videos and uploading them, we made a content calendar where he spaced out his planned lessons over the course of months in a way that felt doable and not overwhelming.
But even more importantly, we create several rules for putting boundaries on possible stressors to make sure that Jeff never got stressed out and overwhelmed.
Here are a handful of them:
- No working past 11:00 pm. We talked about the importance of maintaining this time boundary and protecting his sleep because he was much more likely to get stressed out and feel overwhelmed if he wasn’t sleeping well.
- Outsourcing stressful work. While Jeff loved creating videos and teaching, he hated the tediousness of editing videos and uploading them. So we made the conscious decision that he would set boundaries on what he called “busywork stress” by not even starting the project until he found someone he could pay a small amount to do the editing and publishing of the videos.
- Collaborating with friends. One of the things Jeff realized about himself was that he was much less likely to get stressed out if he was collaborating and not just working alone. So we formalized a process to set boundaries on “creator loneliness.” We made a rule that 1 out of every 4 lessons he recorded had to be a collaboration with a friend.
If I had to sum up what that experience with Jeff shows it would be this:
Most high-achievers think being stressed out is inevitable because they’ve only learned to work hard, not smart.
And a huge part of learning to work smarter is getting creative about playing defense with your stress—creating and enforcing healthy boundaries on your stressors so that you maintain good margin in your life and never get too overwhelmed.
If you can learn to set healthy boundaries on your stressors, you’ll be amazed at how much high-quality work you can do with far less stress than you imagined.
The best offense is a good defense.
“Being hard on myself keeps me motivated.”
Many of us grow up developing what I call the Drill Sergeant Theory of Motivation. This is the belief that in order to succeed in life we need to be hard on ourselves.
I always think of classic war movies…
- A bunch of weak, lazy recruits show up to basic training.
- The hard-ass drill sergeant (probably played by John Wayne) spends 30 days yelling at them and criticizing them for being weak.
- There’s an uplifting montage where all the recruits finally get with the program.
- And by the end of it, the drill sergeant has beaten them into shape and made men out of them.
You see a similar idea played out in movies about sports, education, and all sorts of other areas. The point is:
The idea that we need to be tough on ourselves in order to succeed is baked deep into our cultural psyche.
To be clear, I think there is some truth to this idea. A degree of discipline and accountability is certainly necessary for growth and success in any domain from playing a musical instrument to starting a business.
But here’s the distinction a lot of people miss:
There’s a big difference between being disciplined and being hard on yourself:
- Telling yourself that you’re not going to watch any TV until you finish your homework is a form of discipline and probably growth-promoting. Telling yourself that you’re weak and lazy because you want to watch TV instead of studying is just mean.
- Creating a schedule for getting that report for work done by the end of the week is discipline. Telling yourself that you’re a slacker and procrastinator and how you should be more like Ellen who’s always so productive is just cruel.
Unfortunately, most people grow up believing these two things are the same—that discipline is being hard on yourself. And because they manage to do well in school, work, etc., it reinforces the belief that they succeeded because they were hard on themselves.
In reality, most successful people succeed despite their self-criticism, not because of it.
Your discipline and work ethic will indeed help you succeed. But your habit of beating yourself up with self-criticism and self-judgment is just making everything unnecessarily hard.
In fact, in my experience working with a lot of very high-achievers, I’ve seen that when people let go of their habit of self-criticism, not only do they feel better, but their performance increases too!
Think about it like this:
- You’ve always dreamed of being the fastest sprinter in the world.
- But growing up, your coach convinced you from a young age that you needed to wear a set of special shoes full of lead weights because they would help you run faster.
- Because you worked SO hard, you’ve managed to become a pretty fast sprinter despite the fact that you’re running with lead in your shoes all the time.
- What do you think is going to happen when you take the lead weights out of your shoes…?
- Yeah, you’re gonna run a lot faster—and probably have more fun doing it!
Self-criticism is not a sustainable strategy for staying motivated—but it will make you miserable.
On the other hand, if you can learn to let go of the habit of beating yourself up all the time, and instead practice some self-compassion, you’ll find that you can be at least as motivated as you’ve always been and far, far happier too.
“I need to control my feelings in order to get things done.”
A common misconception about highly productive people is that they’re unflappable cyborgs who either never feel emotions or have such tight control over them that they never get in the way of work:
- That cool-headed coworker who just lets criticism roll off their back without skipping a beat
- Your best friend who prolifically writes short stories and bits of small fiction and seems to have zero insecurities about hitting publish and sharing with the world
- Your boss who’s constantly working and seems like he’s never procrastinated a minute in his life
When we see examples of highly productive people who don’t seem to have much emotional struggle in their lives, it’s easy to assume that they’re really good at controlling their emotions and not letting them get in the way of their work.
But for several reasons, that’s not really the case…
- Just because other people don’t appear to struggle with their emotions, doesn’t mean that’s actually the case. Many people—especially people who are historically very high-achieving—are just really good at hiding their emotional struggles and coming across as cool and collected.
- Trying to control difficult emotions always backfires in the end. You don’t have direct control over your emotions—you can’t just turn down the anxiety dial or raise the happiness lever! And when you try to control them, you often end up feeling bad about feeling bad, which of course only makes things worse.
So what’s actually going on with people who manage to stay productive in the face of difficult emotions?
- Why are some people able to stay focused and get things done despite feeling anxious and insecure?
- How do others not get caught up in anger and resentment over criticism and channel that energy creatively rather than destructively?
- What allows someone to continue working on the things they care about despite their grief or sadness?
Here’s the secret:
You don’t need to avoid or control your emotions to stay productive; you need a different relationship with them.
Even very painful emotions aren’t incompatible with doing great work if you have a healthy relationship with them and know how to coexist alongside them…
In her creative memoir Big Magic, author Liz Gilbert shares a great metaphor about how she manages to continue to write and publish despite her fears and insecurities…
- She says her creative work is like going on a long road trip in a car.
- As the creator, she’s the driver responsible for getting to the destination safely and in a reasonable amount of time—while hopefully enjoying the journey too!
- But stowed away in the back seat is the Fear Monster…
- The Fear Monster is always shouting at her about how dumb her ideas are and how she’s doomed to fail. And quite often, the Fear Monster is jumping over the seats trying to take control of the car and turn it around.
- Her natural reaction to the Fear Monster is to either give up and give it control over the car (which leads to not getting the work done) or to try and get rid of the Fear Monster by throwing it out the window (which leads to letting go of the steering wheel and crashing the car).
- So, rather than giving in to the Fear Monster or trying to get rid of it, she treats it like an unruly child: She tells it that it can cry and scream all it wants and that it’s welcome to come along for the ride, but it needs to stay in the backseat.
This is a perfect illustration of what it means to change our relationship with difficult emotions: Rather than trying to avoid or control how we feel—both of which lead to bad outcomes—the secret is to change the way we interact with them.
Specifically, there are three key ingredients in cultivating a healthier relationship with difficult emotions:
- Acknowledge your emotions. No one ever successfully managed painful emotions with denial. The first step is to acknowledge how you are really feeling and label it: Yes, I’m feeling anxious and insecure right now. It’s true, I’m really angry at the moment.
- Validate your emotions. Remind yourself that it’s understandable and okay to feel however you feel: I don’t like feeling anxious, but it’s pretty normal to feel this way after being criticized so harshly. I wish I wasn’t in a situation where I got so angry, but anger is a perfectly normal emotion and it doesn’t have to dictate my behavior.
- Redirect your attention toward your values. When you take the time to genuinely acknowledge and validate your difficult emotions, it’s much, much easier to refocus your attention on something else. The key here is to ask yourself: Despite how I feel, what do I really want to do in this situation? Based on my own personal values, how do I aspire to act?
Painful emotions are hard—no doubt about it. And they do make sticking to our work challenging. But here’s the thing…
If you spend all your time trying to avoid or control difficult feelings, you’ll be so exhausted that you have no energy left to actually get anything done.
Instead, try to change how you respond to those difficult emotions. And like Liz Gilbert, tell them they’re welcome to come along for the ride but they need to stay in the back seat.
All You Need to Know
If you want to be more consistently productive with your work, you need to rethink what productivity really means.
Here are 3 common myths about productivity that cause us to struggle more than we should:
- “I’m a high-achiever so being stressed out is inevitable.”
- “Being hard on myself keeps me motivated.”
- “I need to control my feelings in order to get things done.”