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  • Writer's pictureMike Kavanagh

The Productivity Trap

Was it a good day? Were you productive? Did you get everything done that you intended to?

DON’T LOOK AT IT THAT WAY! Unless you want to go through life as one unhappy, stressed out cat.

But it’s too late. That’s how most of us judge our days whether we realize it or not. And it might be a big part of the pressure you feel in your life right now.

It goes like this:

We kick off our day with some explicit or unspoken goals for what we hope to get done: My goal is to get through these tasks… work out… do these couple errands… and then at some point during our day we reflect on our progress.

If we’re on track, we feel accomplished. If we’re off track, we feel discouraged and stressed.

Guess which one happens most of the time?

We’re off track.

Is it because we weren’t as productive as we should have been? That’s what our brain tells us. And sometimes that may be true. But usually the miss is due to something much more pernicious. Usually we’re victims of the planning fallacy—our innate human tendency to have unrealistic expectations about how much we can get done in a specific time period.

We assume an idealized day. We don’t account for the barriers, obstacles, and variability that are nearly inevitable. So, we come up short. The same principle is at play with projects that end late and over budget.

Throughout our lives, it’s been drilled into us over and over that concrete goals are the key to success. We’re taught that being goal-oriented is a virtue.

But the shadow side of this conditioning is that most of us have developed the habit of applying a goal-oriented lens to our daily lives. We go into our days with high hopes and expectations that, by definition, we usually don’t meet because of the planning fallacy.

What do you think it does to your mental well-being if most days you feel like you didn’t do as much as you should have?

What do you think it does to your stress levels if most of the time you’re focused on everything you have NOT yet accomplished that’s piling up on your to-do list?

There is a cure for this. And it will make you happier and less stressed. But it goes against the grain of your conditioning, especially if you have the mentality of an achiever.

Stop measuring the success of a given day based on what you hoped to achieve. Stop focusing on what you didn’t accomplish.

Every time you catch yourself doing it, stop immediately and answer a better set of questions:

Did you make any progress? Are you further along today than you were yesterday?

Perhaps you got stuck on a task and you have no tangible output to show for…

But did you learn something? Did you rule certain things out that you don’t need to revisit? Do you know more today than you did yesterday?

If you reframe your sense of productivity and success for the day based on progress and learning rather than measuring yourself based on what you hoped you would get done, you’ll be a much less stressed, happier cat.

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