Before we start talking about what productivity looks like, let’s spend a moment discussing what it isn’t. There are a lot of misconceptions out there, and they muddy the waters for people like us who are honestly trying to get some work done.
Myth #1 – “The same productivity system will work for everyone.”
This is the one-size-fits-all mindset that some experts push on us. For some, David Allen’s Getting Things Done method (known as GTD) is the epitome of all things productive. For others it is the Action Method. Some sing the praises of the Pomodoro Technique while others swear by the Don’t Break the Chain method (also known as the Seinfeld Method). Everyone thinks their system is the best, and they are quick to tell us why we need to dump our own methods in favor of theirs.
Here’s the deal: productivity is like using tools on a home improvement project. When people need to screw two pieces of wood together, they have a basic need: to turn a screw until it embeds itself into the wood. They have choices, though, about how they meet that basic need. Some prefer a manual screwdriver, while others need a powered tool.
There is no perfect system that works for everyone. We are as unique as our fingerprints, and therefore we each need to use whatever works best for us.
Myth #2 – “You just need the new killer app.”
The world of productivity software makes the rabbit hole that Alice fell into on her way to Wonderland look like a shallow pothole. It’s more than a little ironic that I could waste more time browsing, buying and testing productivity apps than any single app could save for me.
If you care about getting a lot of things done, as well and as fast as you can, then you need some kind of tool. But hear me out: there is no perfect app. Yes, there are great programs out there for managing your todo list. Yes, I prefer a specific application and recommend it to many people. But no, there isn’t a single app can meet all the needs of all the people.
Why is testing out dozens of productivity apps bad for productivity? Really, you’re wondering that? Well, for starters, it takes a lot of time to do that. The experimentation phase also has a high level of friction in it, because it takes effort to move an entire task list from one application to another, over and over.
We’ll talk more about how to find the right tool later, but for now just remember that this myth is the downfall of so many well-intentioned freelancers.
Myth #3 – “It’s all about checking off those boxes.”
I’m obsessive-compulsive and freely admit it to anyone I meet. And this means that I have a fetish for small boxes next to items on a list. I love (read: LOVE) putting checkmarks in those boxes. It makes me feel like I‘ve accomplished something. That feeling can be deceptive, though.
Checkboxes are tricky. They tend to level the playing field and remove priority and difficulty from the equation. When you focus on checkboxes, it’s all about getting the whole list done, or as much of it as you can. On Monday, you might complete 100% of your tasks. Awesome job! Tuesday, though, you only checked off 50% of them. Tuesday might feel like a failure if all you care about is checkboxes.
But what if I told you that Monday was a big list full of tiny, insignificant projects. Getting them done was helpful, but they were the productivity equivalent of scooting the couch a few inches to the left. And what if I told you that Tuesday was only six items, but the three you finished took you eight hours of hard work, and they wrapped up two really high- paying projects. Now that 50% looks a lot better than the 100%.
Checkboxes give us the feeling of movement. Sometimes that feeling is a truth, and sometimes it’s fiction.
Myth #4 – “Multitasking is the key to getting things done.”
Somewhere along the way this notion crept into our culture that if we could just do more than one thing at a time we could get more done in general. We’ve all tried it. While you’re on that conference call with a client, you might try responding to a couple of emails. Or maybe you’ve occasionally had two separate projects open at the same time, thinking you could trim a bit off by jumping back and forth.
Again, reality delivers a rude wake-up call. We have a finite amount of time, attention and energy. These are our three limited resources, things that we can’t make more of each day. If we do two tasks at the same time, each task is getting half the attention and energy that it would have received if it had been tackled alone.
Splitting the limited attention you have to offer between two projects instead of one also means that the quality of each project goes down. I’m already prone to make stupid mistakes, so why in the world would I actively hinder myself in doing the best I can? I just makes no sense.
Multitasking doesn’t supercharge our productivity, it handicaps it.
Myth #5 – “Busy equals productive.”
The world wants you to think that if you stayed busy from the moment you sat down at your desk until the moment you stood up and went home, that you have accomplished something. This, too, is a lie, because it fails to distinguish between the truly important tasks and those which would be nice to complete, but not necessary.
I had a conversation recently with a few freelancers who were convinced that their jobs didn’t stop at 5:00 PM. One even suggested that if you’re “done” by 5:00 (meaning, I assume, that you’ve completed your todo list for the day), it means that your business is struggling. Yes, according to these people, unless you leave the office each day frustrated that you didn’t do more (whatever “more” means), you should be working extra each evening for a sense of relief.
I couldn’t disagree more.
Freelancing is a constant exercise in catching tasks (projects, small requests, business minutia, etc) as they’re thrown at you, placing those tasks onto a weekly or monthly schedule, and then tackling each day on its own. If you feel compelled to work insane hours just to stay caught up, then you need a serious lesson in time management and project scheduling.
Urgency is a feeling. Planning about measured commitment. Don’t respond to feelings; follow through with your plans and finish your day.