We’re all busy. But sometimes it feels like we’re crazy busy with nothing to show for it. How can we be working so hard yet not getting anything done?
Most of the time, we’re not. We feel like we are, but the truth is, we’re slipping into habits we don’t even notice that pull us away from our work. We sabotage ourselves without even realizing it and then don’t know why we’re unproductive.
See if one of these distracting habits might be familiar. If it is, find a simple fix so you can start getting more done.
Checking your phone
You knew this would be the first one, didn’t you? I think we all did because we’re all guilty of this one. The phone pings, bings, dings, chirps, or squeals and our hand instinctively reaches out for it. Sometimes it doesn’t even make a sound, we just think we hear it or feel a vibration and we go for it. Any time we’re bored, lonely, or just don’t want to do what we’re doing, we reach for it.
The phone is an incredible device, but it’s also an incredible crutch. Readily available no matter the circumstances, it’s an easy fallback to avoid literally anything else. But just because it’s an easy habit doesn’t mean you’re stuck with it forever.
How to change it: Turn your phone off or put it out of reach (or in another room) when you need to focus on something. Turn off notifications so you can check your phone on your own schedule rather than feeling compelled by a notification. Set a schedule for yourself of specific times you’ll check your phone when you’re trying to get other things done.
No set schedule
A nice benefit of working for yourself is you can set your own schedule. The drawback to that is all too often, that looks like no schedule at all. We schedule meetings, maybe toss a few deadlines on the calendar to make sure we don’t miss them, but we have no real schedule to get us working on that project instead of watching that House rerun or waiting for the morning news to come back and tell us what innocent thing in our kitchen is about to kill us.
Being able to set your own schedule is a beautiful thing, but you need to actually set a schedule. Working for yourself isn’t like a traditional 9–5, so it might take some tweaking to figure out what works for you.
How to change it: Create a schedule, even if you make each day’s schedule the day before or morning of. Determine how much time you need to complete each task and put them on your calendar. Use a digital calendar that you can access across devices so you have no excuse for not using it. You might even reward yourself for completing tasks — or for following your schedule for an entire day.
Living or working in clutter
Piles of paper, stacks of mail, books for research, coffee cups that need to go to the kitchen… there are lots of things that we intend to put in their rightful place and then forget about. They build up and become part of the landscape of our living or working space. While we might not notice them anymore and have gotten good at working around them, they still inhibit our ability to work productively. The clutter still distracts us.
How to change it: Clear the clutter! Take 5–10 minutes a day to go through some clutter. Put it away, throw it away, complete the task. Whatever needs to be done to clear a piece of clutter, do it. Create new storage if you need to for the stuff you need to keep. Start making it a habit to deal with things immediately going forward — handle the mail as it comes in, take your coffee cup to the kitchen as soon as you finish it, etc.
Taking on too much work
Whether it’s running your own business and taking on too many projects, or taking on too much volunteer work at your kid’s school, or trying to do too much at home without help, taking on more than you can handle is a great way to destroy your productivity. With too much to do, you have no idea where to start.
Sometimes we do it because we need the money of one more project. Sometimes we’re too much of a people-pleaser and find it difficult to say no. Sometimes we truly just don’t realize we’re overextending ourselves until we’ve done it. Whatever the case, the end result is the same: too much to do, and no motivation to do it.
How to change it: Create a schedule, pair it with a to-do list, and check both before accepting anything new. Be realistic about what you’re able to take on. If it feels like too much, say no and do it without guilt. If you’ll need to sacrifice time for yourself, time with your family, or something else important to you, don’t take on the task.
What you eat and drink
Pay attention to the next few meals you eat and how you feel after you eat them. Do the same for your drinks. A juicy burger or a couple slices of pizza may sound delicious, but after you eat them, you probably feel a bit sluggish, like you’re ready for a nap. Your brain may not be as clear.
Eat a salad or some yogurt, and you might feel energized, ready to get things done, and thinking a lot more clearly.
You might notice this difference in drinking water compared to drinking soda or energy drinks too. The foods you eat and the beverages you drink can have a significant impact on your energy levels. And you need energy to get things done. So it makes sense that if you’re eating and drinking foods that make you feel tired and unproductive, you’re not going to get anything done — or not as much, anyway.
How to change it: Start tracking what you eat and drink and how it makes you feel. Find the foods and drinks that make you feel energized and good and build a meal plan around those things. Drink plenty of water. Skip the less healthy snacks like cookies and chips and try to indulge in healthier options like nuts and fruits.
Comparing yourself to others
This nasty habit is one that pervades every part of our lives. It makes us hate our bodies, our intelligence, our skills, our work, and more. When it comes to getting things done, the comparison trap is an insanely effective way of shutting down productivity. We compare, find ourselves lacking, decide there’s no point in even trying because we’ll never compete with the person or people we’ve compared ourselves too, and give up.
Theodore Roosevelt said comparison is the thief of joy, but he forgot to mention it’s also the thief of productivity. You need to let go of comparison to find both your productivity and your joy in life.
How to change it: Stop comparing. Period. You’re not in competition with anyone else. There is enough to go around, and you are going to get your share when it’s your time. There’s no race, no need to be better or faster or anything else. Just put your head down and focus on your own journey.
Too many naps that are too long
As I’m writing this article, I’m recovering from illness. I’ve had some sleepless or nearly sleepless nights that have left me napping pretty frequently during the day. But this is temporary. By tomorrow or the next day, I’ll have gotten a good night’s sleep again and be back on track. Many of us, though, especially if we work from home, take too many naps — and they’re way too long.
Sleeping feels good. We wake up refreshed and energized. And a nap seems like the perfect solution when we’re feeling tired and sluggish. But when we go beyond a short, 20-minute nap and start taking 3–4 hour naps, we torpedo our productivity. There’s less time to get things done, plus we spend a lot of time feeling groggy as we wake up from those naps.
How to change it: Change your sleep routine to allow you to get enough sleep each night, and to sleep better. This will eliminate the need for so many naps. Then limit nap duration and frequency. One nap per day, 20 minutes long, and set an alarm. If you’ve done all that and you still feel overly tired, it might be time to talk to your doctor and make sure there aren’t underlying health issues that are interfering with your sleep.
These are just some of the distractions that can inhibit productivity. There are probably dozens, hundreds or even thousands more. You might think about a new mantra: if it feels like a distraction, it probably is one. If your mind wanders to other things that need to get done, schedule a time to tackle them and then refocus on the task at hand. Your completed to-do list will thank you.