Here’s an unpopular opinion: Most of our problems with productivity have very little to do with tools, techniques, or even ideas.
If you think about it, we have more access to good ideas and techniques for being productive than ever before. And yet, we seem to be struggling just as much as ever to get things done.
This is certainly the case in my own life, anyway:
- I have at least 4 different full-fledged task management apps on my phone, but I still procrastinate nearly every day.
- I know there’s almost zero chance that an important email has found its way to my inbox since I last checked two minutes ago, but I check my email anyway.
- I’ve read dozens of books on personal productivity and organization, but I still waste time on unimportant tasks and ignore the most important ones (Yup, I’m a Pre-Crastinator. Are you?)
- I’ve purchased an embarrassingly large number of fancy notebooks, organizers, planners, and other hand-crafted, artisanal productivity supplies, none of which seem to make my work get done any faster or better.
What’s going on here?
I think part of the problem is digital distraction: Over the last 15 years or so, the frequency and intensity of distractions in our lives have exploded, mostly thanks to the always-connected smartphone with its endless supply of cheap infotainment. But I don’t think that’s the only source of poor productivity, or even the most important.
After a lot of introspection and years as a therapist helping people work through their struggles with procrastination and poor productivity, I’ve come to one big conclusion about productivity: The single biggest obstacle to productivity is poor emotion management.
What is emotion management, exactly?
Emotion management is how you react when you get hit with strong emotions.
- How do you handle a sudden spike in anxiety?
- What’s your go-to strategy when you’re feeling down and depressed?
- Which automatic thoughts pop into mind when you get criticized?
If these questions are making you uncomfortable, you’re not alone.
Even though most of us are trained from a young age to cultivate effective tactics for managing intellectual ideas, physical health, finances, or even other people, almost no one learns formally how to manage their emotions. In fact, most of us don’t learn much about emotion, period.
What we do learn tends to be unconscious imitation of what we see as kids. In other words, we do what our parents did when they got stressed, anxious, mad, etc.
All that’s to say, what emotion management skills we do have are likely pretty crude and unsophisticated, probably some version of just ignore it or there’s a pill for that. Again, this is not surprising given the impoverished state of emotional education and training in our society. But it is a problem.
Across domains as diverse as healthcare, parenting, and investing, difficult emotions are bound to show up. Our long-term success in any major area of life depends upon our ability to effectively manage our emotions, especially the big scary ones. Personal productivity is no exception.
How poor emotion management sabotages our productivity
As an example of how poor emotion management derails our productivity, let’s use the example of procrastination.
If we’re honest with ourselves, we all struggle with procrastination in our work from time to time. What’s less obvious is why this happens (and keeps happening despite all those great books we keep reading).
For example, I procrastinated yesterday on writing this article. I sat down at my desk and opened up my computer. I banged out a few sentences but didn’t like them, so I erased them and tried again. After another string of intro paragraphs that didn’t feel right, I wasn’t feeling so hot anymore about writing. So I opened up my email, most distracted, and didn’t end up coming back to the article until today.
Now, even though I write about emotional barriers to productivity all the time—and I was literally writing an article on that very topic!—it didn’t cross my mind until later that evening that something psychological was the cause of my procrastination.
There’s my first big mistake: sitting down to work on something important without being aware of the fact that I might feel the urge to procrastinate. Even though I know my mind often tricks me into procrastinating when I write (especially when I first start on a piece), because I didn’t remind myself of it, I got duped by my monkey mind.
So this morning as I started writing again, I made a point to be mindful of what my mind was up to. Here’s how it looked:
- As I cranked out a few sentences and read them over, my automatic self-talk was, “that doesn’t quite work” followed by a tinge of disappointment.
- I tried again with a different approach, and after a brief pause, I could hear my self-talk again pipe up again with “this just isn’t a good idea for an article…” followed by more disappointment as well as a sizable dollop of anxiety.
- I went back to typing but the self-talk immediately reared its ugly head again with “stop wasting time and just do something different” followed even more anxiety and now some frustration.
- At this point, there was quite a bit of uncomfortable, negative emotion happening. And interestingly, the greater my level of emotional discomfort, the more I started to notice and think about distractions: I found myself glancing at my phone, thinking about what my buddies were talking about on Slack, feeling the urge to hop over to ESPN and check last night’s scores, etc. It was as if my mind was trying to get me to leave the current situation because it was too uncomfortable.
- But I didn’t leave. And I didn’t check my phone. I was able to employ a technique that I recommend to my clients all the time: I acknowledged that I didn’t feel good about where I was with the article, reminded myself that it was okay and normal to feel anxious and discouraged when writing, and then put my fingers back on the keyboard and kept at it.
- This time, things started flowing. I found an approach that worked and was able to keep working for another 45 minutes or so and finished a draft of the article without any more significant interruptions from my mind.
So, what does this tell us about productivity, procrastination, and emotion management?
A few observations:
- Mindlessness or a lack of self-awareness is always Enemy Number 1. If you’re not vigilant—especially during difficult tasks—it’s likely that your emotions will get the best of you. On the other hand, if you can stay mindful of your own mind and emotions during challenging tasks, you’ll have a much better chance of managing whatever gets thrown at you and staying on track with your work.
- The mind will always resist challenging work. It doesn’t mean something’s wrong. In fact, because of our evolutionary heritage, your mind deliberately tries to conserve energy, mental and physical. So when you feel negative self-talk pushing you toward quitting, or procrastinating comes up, don’t pathologize yourself for it. The urge to procrastinate is normal.
- The thing that ultimately drove my procrastination in the first example was negative, uncomfortable emotion. That is, by procrastinating, I was getting quick relief from the uncomfortable emotion generated by my rather critical and skeptical self-talk.
- Especially with creative, analytically demanding work like writing, solutions aren’t going to be readily available all the time. It’s normal for it to take a while for a way forward to present itself. In this sense, procrastination is a form of impatience that says if you’re not succeeding right away that means it’s hopeless. Which is nonsense, obviously. But only if we have the presence of mind to see what our mind and emotions are trying to do and be willing to ride them out.
- Finally, the above example should illustrate that procrastination isn’t a disease or character flaw. The urge to escape uncomfortable emotion as a result of doing challenging, meaningful work is perfectly normal. By being more aware of our mind and emotions we can see procrastination for what it is—a fairly straightforward set of mental-emotional mechanics—and become far less vulnerable to it.
To sum all this up: I tend to procrastinate and struggle to do my work when I’m not paying attention to my own mind and mindlessly reactive to the thoughts and emotions it generates. On the other hand, when I remind myself to stay aware of my own mind and manage my emotions well, productivity struggles like procrastination still come up, but they are far less potent and easier to navigate successfully.
This is certainly true for procrastination, but it’s equally important with other challenges to work and productivity like perfectionism, digital distraction, worry, rumination, and many others. If you’re consistently struggling to work well, there’s a good chance poor emotion management is at the center of it.
How to improve your emotion management skills and boost your productivity along the way
Emotion management is an enormous topic. And doing it well is always subject to differences within people (personality, history), their unique struggles (procrastination, perfectionism), and the type of work (writing, public speaking, parenting).
That being said, there are some general principles of emotion management that are beneficial no matter what the details of your situation.
Pay attention to your self-talk
Cognition always precedes emotion. Practically speaking, this means that if your productivity is getting derailed by negative emotion, that means there’s some subtle but powerful self-talk operating behind the scenes. Learning to identify your self-talk and then change your unhelpful habits of thinking is a hugely important part of effective emotion management.
Improve your emotional vocabulary
Most of us have relatively poor emotional awareness for the simple fact that we lack a sophisticated vocabulary and framework for even thinking about our emotional states. By expanding and refining your emotional vocabulary, you can become more emotionally self-aware and improve your ability to tolerate and manage difficult emotions:
Learn More: A Few Principles for Better Emotional Clarity
I know, I know… The term mindfulness is thrown around all over the place these days. So much so that it’s at risk of losing any meaning whatsoever. That being said, rightly considered and practiced, few things are as beneficial for building your emotion management skills and overall mental health than a consistent mindfulness practice. Mindfulness is simply the art of training your attention, and the stronger your capacity to regulate your attention, the better you will be at navigating difficult thoughts and feelings which put your productivity (and wellbeing) at risk.
Work with a therapist or coach
It’s not 1953 anymore, which means—among other things—that you don’t need to be ashamed of seeing a therapist, counselor, or coach. While these types of professionals are typically associated with mental illness and significant mental health problems, they can be just as helpful to someone who doesn’t have any major struggles but simply wants to improve their performance from a psychological standpoint.
Summary & Key Points
Most productivity struggles have very little to do with tools, techniques, or even ideas and everything to do with emotions. Specifically, because most of us are not trained to identify and effectively manage our difficult emotions, we often get sidetracked by them and our work—not to mention our wellbeing—can suffer.
The key to improving our work and productivity in the long run is to develop better emotion management skills such as realistic self-talk, improved emotional vocabulary, and attention training via mindfulness.