What are the myths and mistaken beliefs that are preventing you from being more productive in both your work life and your personal life? How are you actively undermining your efforts to pull it all together?
Yeah, I mean you.
The sad fact is that the beliefs that we hold about productivity and organization often prevent us from doing and being everything we want to do and be in our lives. While we cannot control the circumstances around us, the things that we think about work, life, effectiveness, success, and innovation affect the way we respond to those circumstances, and often for the worst.
Here, then, are ten common beliefs about productivity that keep people from enjoying the success they desire. How many of these are keeping you from being more productive, effective, and balanced as a person?
Myth 1: Organized equals clean
Too many people equate “organization” with the cold, sterile, un-lived-in spaces they see in glossy magazines. That’s not organization – the cleanest-looking space might still take forever to find anything in.
An organized space is simply one in which the things you need the most are close at hand, the things you need often are easily found, and the things you need rarely are out of the way but easily retrieved when needed. That means that organization has to meet your needs, not some imposed notion of cleanliness.
If you never spend more than a minute trying to find anything in that mountain of clutter you call your office (or room or cubicle or kitchen), then leave it alone. At the same time, be honest with yourself – most people claim they can find anything they need, but when put to the test, they’re left scratching their heads. If your clutter isn’t working for you, put some time into figuring out how to make sure it does work for you.
Myth 2: I don’t have time for a system
This is a popular complaint about systems like David Allen’s GTD. The thinking goes something like this: “If I spend all my time maintaining my list and doing weekly reviews, I’ll never get anything done.”
The reality is that while most systems take some time to get set up, once you start using your system, the time you use in “maintenance” is more than made up for by the time you save not having to think about what to do – or making up for the things you didn’t remember to do.
Myth 3: Systems are rigid and unflexible
This is another common complaint about productivity systems. The fear seems to be that, unlike everyone else’s life, my life is so chaotic and unpredictable that no system can possibly accommodate it all.
I’ve read a lot of productivity literature in my life – it is, after all, part of my job! – and I’ve never come across a productivity system that didn’t make room for differences in personality, work requirements, or personal situation. In the end, the important thing is to have a system so that you can respond effectively to unforeseen events without losing your grip on your whole life!
More to the point, though, if your life is really that chaotic and unpredictable, it’s likely that its because you’ve resisted adopting some kind of system rather than because no system is good enough for your life. Which tells me that you haven’t spent the time you need to figure out what your own life is all about – instead, you’ve just responded to everything the world has thrown at you as it’s come. Adopting a system means spending some time figuring out what’s important to you, what isn’t important, and how to get rid of the less important stuff so you can start making ground on the important stuff.
Myth 4: Productivity means more work
Once you start down this rabbit hole, it can be really hard to turn yourself around. The idea is that if it takes me half as long to do all the things in my life as it takes me now, then getting productive means I’ll be doing twice as much.
If you’re not smart about things, that can sometimes be true, at work at least. Supervisors hate to see people lounging around while they’re still on the clock, so finishing up your day’s work at 2:00 pm means you’ll be expected to find more stuff to do to fill in the remaining hours. So if you’re that productive, you need to either leverage that extra work into a promotion or raise – or convince your boss to adopt a telecommuting plan so you can work from home.
But productivity isn’t just about work, either. Being more productive in your life means you should have more time to do things like spend time with your family, take a vacation, read a book, visit a museum, or write your plan for world domination. Getting your work done in half the time just so you can do twice as much work isn’t productive – it’s dumb.
Myth 5: Creativity can’t be fit into a system
Maybe you believe that productivity stuff is for business people, not creative people like yourself. This is wrong for two reasons. First of all, creative work is still work, and just as susceptible to procrastination, poor planning, and shoddy work practices as bookkeeping, house painting, and world domination.
The second reason is that while you may have a great grasp of the demands of your creative work, unless you’re comfortable with the whole “starving artist” thing, chances are you have a lot more to do than just the creative stuff. Records need to be kept, clients need to be contacted, taxes need to be filed, projects need to be invoiced, and so on. And here’s the rub: creative people generally don’t much like doing all that routine, everyday stuff. Having a system to make that stuff as painless and speedy as possible means you can spend more time being creative.
Myth 6: I work best under pressure
There are people who believe they thrive under the pressure of an impending deadline. Nine times out of ten, they don’t. They just enjoy the excuse because it means they don’t have to take responsibility for the messes they end up in.
Keeping yourself in a high-stress, always-urgent mode isn’t good for your health, and it’s not good for your business. Health-wise, it means you’re very likely to keel over on day, decades before your time. Business-wise, it means you aren’t much of a pleasure to work with, which means that even when your work is good you’ll be turning off employers, colleagues, or clients – and sooner or later you’ll miss some important detail that you were too frantic to recognize, damaging your job, your reputation, and your career.
If you’re lucky, you’ll have your heart attack before that happens, though.
Myth 7: My lack of a system is my system
This one’s actually true, though not in the way most people intend when they say it. The mess of habits, practices, and beliefs you have right now are, in fact, a system – and you’re working it every day. Hard.
But what most people mean is that by not having a system, they’re actually being more productive than if they had a system. For some, this is just a variation on Myth #2, but others really think that the mish-mash of habits they’ve cobbled together out of life experience is working for them. They don’t see any room for improvement.
Which is what I imagine being dead is like. For living things, there’s always room for growth.
Myth 8: I need inspiration to work
No, you don’t. Inspiration is wonderful, but rarely compatible with getting stuff done. What you need is a system to capture those flashes of inspiration so that, when inspiration is
on holiday, you’ve got plenty to work with.
We have a word for people who only work when they’re inspired. That word is “unemployed”. (The reverse isn’t true, of course – not all unemployed people only work when they feel like it.)
Myth 9: Being organized is boring
This is a variation of Myth #1, flavored with a dash of Myth #6: some people crave the excitement that always being about to screw up brings them. This may reflect deep psychological trauma, but it may also just reflect a lifetime of bad working experiences – pulling a success out of imminent failure can feel great, and if your “everyday” successes aren’t rewarded, it can be tempting to push for the imminent failure so you can pull the success out of the jaws of defeat all heroic-like.
Whatever the root, this myth is misguided because it places attention in the wrong place. Being organized isn’t boring – being boring is boring. Make your own excitement and you’ll stop being boring – and then you can stop using your disorganization as a crutch for a life not fully realized.
Myth 10: There’s something wrong with me no system can fix
This one’s probably true. Systems, no matter how good, can’t fix the fundamental problems in your life. They won’t make you smarter or more likable or better looking or more experienced.
What they can do is help you make time to figure out how to solve those problems. They can help you make a space in your life for real personal growth. And they can help you highlight the sources of those failures, by eliminating the “noise” that normally masks them.
In the end, your growth as a person, your success – however you define it — is up to you. Straightening out the things in your life that keep you from being effective and productive can be an important step towards that success, but it’s a means, not an end.
But if you’re holding tight to any of the myths above, you’re not giving yourself a fair chance – you’re standing in the way of your own life. And that’s not doing you, or anyone else, any good.
How have you been holding yourself back? Have you overcome any of these misconceptions, and what happened when you did? Share your stories in the comments – I, for one, would like to hear about it!
Dustin M. Wax is a contributing editor and project manager at lifehack.org. He is also the creator of The Writer’s Technology Companion, a site devoted to the tools of the writing trade. When he’s not writing, he teaches anthropology and women’s studies in Las Vegas, NV. His personal site can be found at dwax.org.