7 reasons you’re feeling needlessly unproductive

It’s hard enough dealing with the pressure of having to be productive as a PhD student or knowledge worker, without a zillion blogs trying to convince you how easy it is to be super productive. So this post is just my way of saying, take it easy… you’re doing more than you think. Hopefully this post will help to give you a little perspective, and make you feel a little better.

There is an enormous amount of information out there on how to be more productive. Not all of it good. Personally (even if I don’t always practise what I preach) I lean more toward an old-fashioned sit-down-shut-up-and-get-some-work-done productivity philosophy. By that I mean anyone promising you a productivity shortcut, or hack, is probably over promising.

The fact is 90% of being productive is persistence. Start with the doing, and then optimise later, once you’ve got the ‘doing things’ part down pat, then you can focus on doing things, just a little bit faster. Slow and steady wins the race.

However it’s also true (especially for PhD students) that you can go day-to-day feeling a lot of pressure to be productive, and no matter how hard you try you always feel behind the eight ball. But it may not always be true.

Here’s seven reasons why you’re feeling needlessly unproductive.

1. You may be doing a lot that doesn’t directly contribute to what you think you should be doing

If you’re like me, and have a lot of valuable important things that you want to do (like blogging, learning code, etc.), and a lot that you kind of have to do (like writing research outlines), you might spend a lot of time doing the things you want to do, instead of the things you have to do. But just because they’re not on your have-to-do list, doesn’t mean they’re not productive or valuable.

These tasks are important and valuable, so don’t undervalue them because they’re things you enjoy, or because you have something else you feel like you should be doing.

Far more important is that you’re doing something, and sticking with it for a period of time rather than floating between unimportant tasks quickly and unproductively.

Just remember that you do need to get onto the have to do list eventually, especially if you have a deadline (deadlines are great motivators, consider setting ones for yourself, before the actual deadline), and dream of the day when the stuff you want to do, and the stuff you really have to do, are the same (if that’s at all possible).

2. You’ve done a lot, but haven’t ‘finished’ a lot

Chances are there’s a lot on your to-do list which has very fuzzy beginnings and ends. Sure sending of a draft for journal submission, or finishing a presentation feels nice, but these are big infrequent moments. The average day is spend doing some writing, or some research, running some lab tests, tinkering, getting stuck, failing experiments etc.

There’s not always a clear finish line, which can mean you’re accomplishing a lot, but you’re not getting the feeling of satisfaction that you expect to come with it.

As someone who frequents productivity blogs far more than he should, I can tell you that far and away the most popular advice for being productive is

Set clear/actionable goals

Oh yeah… thanks for that totally new information.

It sounds so simple right?

Of course! It just has to be (frigging) clear and actionable… Why didn’t I think of that!?

Of course in practise this clarity is surprisingly elusive.

I’ll just write 500 words…

I’ll do exactly 2 hrs on this thing…

Both of these are listed as common soundbites of productivity advice, but after two hours of writing, or after 500 words, if you haven’t ‘finished’ something, then you have nothing to check off your to-do list… which can be very unsatisfying. That doesn’t mean you didn’t get anything done.

Take a step back and ask yourself, what have you actually done this week, take ten minutes and make a list… you might surprise yourself.

3. Because your list of “need to do’s” is always bigger than your list of “have done’s”

Let’s face it, to do lists are never ever empty… ever. No matter how productive you are on any given day, there’s always one more thing not quite done (and it’s usually one of the have to do’s, miright?).

Chasing a completed to-do list is like chasing a rainbow. You can see where the end is, but  it’s always a few steps in front of you. Just when you think you’re getting there, a few more tasks sprout up and keep you at arm’s length.

This can leave you feeling like you’ve never done enough…

You have.

4. You have unrealistically high expectations for yourself

We always hear these stories of productivity ninja’s. These people just manage to get enormous amounts of work done all the time, or seem like they never stop, and we wonder why we can’t be more like them.

Don’t be too jealous.

  • These people are few and far between
  • They often make enormous sacrifices in other areas of their life in order to accomplish what they do
  • You might be seeing them during a rare flow state right before they are about to burnout
  • Alternatively, they’re not super human at all but are just good at making it look like they are, and their achievements may just be massively overstated

Sometimes it can feel like everyone is a productivity ninja, except for you… it’s not true.

That’s just imposter syndrome rearing its ugly head.

The grass is not necessarily greener on the other side of the fence either. Many of the people who are massively productive and zoned in all the time can often be driven by something deeply biological (neurological). Or they’ve been raised in a high pressure environment that has given them a productivity complex. You may even be one of these people without realising it!

No matter how much work you do, if you’re always feeling unproductive, it’s likely that it’s just in your head and, frankly, you just have unrealistically high expectations for your self…

Take a step back and realise that you’re not super human, and life is for living.

It’s a kid on a skateboard! Man that’s cute!!

5. You’re approaching a key deadline

Deadlines are very powerful motivators, but also great sources of anxiety.

Deadlines can make it feel like the walls are closing in on you. Yet somehow for the majority of us the work, somehow, still manages to get done (although, I’ve had my fair share of close calls).

Worse still is that as the deadline gets closer, you feel more and more anxious whenever you’re not contributing to the deadline. When a deadline is looming we can feel like nothing we’re doing is productive. Until we hit that submit button, or push a paper through a submission slot, we can just sit a constant state of anxiety anytime we’re not writing actual words.

Do not undervalue the time you spend thinking.

Do not undervalue the time you spend away (when you come back to it, your mistakes will be easier to spot, and the solutions much clearer).

Relax, you’re doing more than you think.

6. You’re overly critical of your leisure time

I have a confession to make. I can’t believe I’m going to admit to this but…

The other day, I played a video game (for the first time in months) for 45 minutes!

Oh man… I’m glad I got that off my chest, I have been feeling so guilty about it, but…

Feeling guilty about leisure time is a big mistake.

Leisure time is not the same as procrastination.

Procrastination adds no value to the time your using. Like, scrolling through social media, constantly checking and re-checking your to-do list (yes that’s a form of procrastination), spending all your time answering emails, etc.

Doing these things frequently, but not for great lengths of time, can really affect your turn-around time (the time it takes to get in the zone and focused on an important task) and that’s not good.

Taking specific, decent chunks of time to unwind however, is not unproductive, and it has value.

Don’t feel like you’re procrastinating, if what you’re really doing is taking a much-needed break. My only advice here is avoiding social media for that break. Social media will not make you feel more relaxed… Just, it just won’t OK.

7. You’re not using vim

Last but not least… Learn how to use vim, and you’ll never feel unproductive again.

Couldn’t resist. Just look at him.



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