Productivity’s Worst Enemy — And How to Conquer It

By: Jason Womack, special to Overdrive

You have a busy schedule. You are under pressure to perform. You justify the (many) hours you work and the (few) hours you sleep by saying, “I have so much to do.” But do you know why you feel so stressed? And, do you know how that impacts your overall productivity?

The factor that negatively affects your productivity most is that sense of incompletion — the anxiety that you have too many unfinished tasks on your plate. It wakes you in the middle of the night and gives your heart a start while you’re checking email during the day. It’s that moment when you’re out to lunch or on a quick break and realize you blew someone off by forgetting your meeting.

Psychologists seem to disagree when it comes to telling us how many thoughts we have each day. A Google search results in dozens of links, with estimates that we have between 12,000 to 80,000 thoughts daily. Even on the conservative end of that spectrum, that’s a lot of thoughts to juggle in one day.

So, let me ask you a question: What do most of your thoughts focus on throughout the day? Are you thinking only about what needs to be done? Often personal and professional obligations as well as incomplete projects are constantly competing for your attention. And, this is where the trouble starts.

My clients often believe thinking too much about their near future — the next three to six months — will stress them out even more than they are already. My hypothesis is that if you don’t go through a complete process of thinking, debriefing and decompressing these future plans, you’ll actually prolong that anxiety. It’s better to endure a bout of acute stress than to keep that stress going over weeks, months or even years.

What is the result of this anxiety? It compromises your ability to concentrate and gets in your way of being present. If you don’t think this happens to you, think again. Have you ever checked email while on a conference call? Chances are you were focusing on something else and thought you could bounce to your email, then come back to the call. Trust me, you compromised your performance. But how to avoid this situation in the first place?

Control the stressors. There are two steps you can take today to take control of what I call the “stress of incompletion.” Each of these activities will take you approximately 90 minutes, but the time you take to do this will pay for itself within a week as you regain energy, focus and the ability to prioritize your most important tasks.

Make an inventory. Big and small, personal and professional, long and short-term — make a list of every task for which you hold yourself accountable. Push yourself hard to get all of these items on paper or into a spreadsheet — whatever works best for you.

This is the first activity I do when I meet with clients, before we discuss their goals for business growth. First, we need to determine what’s getting in the way.

Meet with up to three advisors. These can be mentors, business coaches, close friends or co founders. Schedule a 90-minute meeting to go through every item on your list and put it in one of two piles:

  • Pile A: Let go of completely, renegotiate the terms of the responsibility or ask for an extension.
  • Pile B: Work on immediately or delegate it to someone else.

By identifying what you have to do, and deciding what — if anything — you’re going to do about it, you minimize your anxiety and get more done.

What activities do you do to reduce anxiety and increase your daily productivity? Leave a comment below and let us know.
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