The single biggest obstacle to personal productivity 

November 17, 2021 | Peter Cronin


Guest article by Mirta Fagundes dos Santos

Have you ever been stuck on a really nagging task that you just can’t seem to finish?  

You make excuses to yourself, and to others, as to why you haven’t finished your work – you just needed more time, or something urgent came up?  

The truth is you end up doing everything else under the sun, BUT that one task that you actually needed to do! You’ve even given your goldfish a bath!? 

Any of these thoughts crossing your mind? 

  • If I was just a bit more like *Mike [swap the name with someone in your life that is an epitome of determination]. 
  • If I could just sit down and focus for a good chunk of time, then I could get this done. 
  • I really need a good telling off because I’m such a procrastinator. 
  • I feel so guilty when I’m indulging in Reddit/Netflix/other distractions.

Or maybe you are thinking you’re just ‘too lazy’?  

What do all these thoughts have in common? 

They are direct blows to your character; self-critical digs aimed to push the right buttons and bully you into action. 

Quick question; how’s that working for you? Is it working so well that you employ this ‘motivational’ strategy with the people around you? 

No, I didn’t think so.  

The single biggest obstacle to personal productivity is thinking that you are lazy or a procrastinator!  

Now, as right as you may feel you are about that statement, it certainly isn’t useful in getting you over the line on a difficult task. So, you’ll have to choose; do you want to be right or productive? Because in this instance you can’t be both! 

We’re at the choose-your-own-adventure part of the article.  

If you choose to ‘be right’; proceed to the end of the article, we are done… You are free to go and check if your goldfish needs another bath.  

If you choose to ‘be productive’, read on… 

Here is one quick-and-dirty way to snap yourself out of the negative thinking loop and give yourself a more effective way forward. 

Next time you are sitting in front of your laptop, hopelessly staring at the flickering arrow on an otherwise blank document, ask yourself this: 

If you knew you were gonna get $1,000,000 upon completing this one task, would you hunker down and get it done?” 

If the answer is ‘yes’, all you’re missing is a worthy incentive.  

Let me explain. 

I am currently doing a course that is very time consuming. I am also working full-time and, courtesy of the Auckland lockdown, working from home with my husband, three kids and a cat in tow. Life is a bit overwhelming and I may have bitten off more than I ccan chew. A few weeks back the instructor gave us an assignment to do overnight. That evening I sat down to write the 250 words expected of me.  It was totally doable. After about 30 minutes of starting sentences and then deleting them I decided to go to bed. I was tired, and was not going to be any good to anyone the next day, unless I got some rest.  

The following afternoon I explained to the instructor the ‘predicament’ I was in, and how tired I was, and all I remember was an unimpressed look on his face, followed by: If you knew you were gonna get $1,000,000 upon completing this one task, would you have completed it?” 

A resounding ‘yes’ in my head, even though I could see where he was going and didn’t particularly want to go there with him! I committed to hand in the assignment the next day. 

The self-motivational talk (if you can call it that) that I outlined at the start of the article is what we refer to as an Antecedent in the ABC model of behaviour analysis. It is a trigger that is supposed to get the right behaviour to occur. But before you go on triggering yourself (no pun intended), let’s consider some other antecedents that could be more effective, work quicker, and be ‘healthier’ for your self-esteem

*Remind yourself why you are doing this task.

What is the big picture and how this task fits into it? Sometimes the motivation can come from simply understanding we are working towards something big and worthwhile.

Going back to my assignment example; when I sat back down to write the 2 paragraphs required for the course, I still found myself procrastinating. It was boring, I was uninspired, and a new season of You dropped on Netflix that night. I then got an email from the instructor explaining how we will be using the content from the assignment to build an overarching blueprint in the upcoming module (something I had been looking forward to the whole course).

*Remind yourself of all the positive consequences you’ll experience if you get the task done.

Hey, it may not be $1,000,000 – but a feeling of accomplishment could come in as a close 2nd?

Seeing how I committed to submitting the assignment the next day, I was actually looking forward to the acknowledgment from the instructor. He is big on picking very specific behaviours to reinforce, which makes the acknowledgment seem way more genuine, and hits all the right spots. On one occasion he thanked me for giving constructive feedback to a fellow delegate during a Zoom call and I have since found myself rushing to be the first to give feedback on occasions that call for it. The moral of the story, don’t underestimate the power of good positive reinforcement.

*Remind yourself of all the negative consequences of not completing the task.

Will you get into any sort of trouble at work? Or let your team down?

In my example I did feel like I would really let the instructor down, having already failed to submit the assignment, and having promised to get it done the next day.

If none of the above prompts work for you, go down the true-and-tested route… bribe/reward yourself! Maybe a trip to the local shop for an ice cream treat if you complete the task? Or 30 minutes’ worth of social-media browsing as a reward? 

If the answer to the $1,000,000 question is ‘no’, you wouldn’t get the task done even with the $1,000,000 reward, you are actually missing something more tangible, like a capability. This is a showstopper, and no amount of incentive will help. You literally can’t or don’t know how to complete the task.  

Instead of setting yourself up to fail by committing to this task, try this instead: 

*Figure out what is blocking you from finishing the task.

Are you missing a skill set that is essential?

For example, you could be a marketing administrator and the task is to upload a new set of names into your CRM. But in order to do that you need to first de-dupe the new list of names against your current database, to ensure no duplicate records are created. There is one problem though, you are not fluent in Excel and are struggling with the VLOOKUP functionality. You are really stuck, and keep putting the task off in favour of other tasks that you do know how to get done.

*Figure out what to do about it. 

Do you have a different skill (a transferrable skill) that could come in handy?

Continuing with the example from above; Excel may not be a strong suit, but you may be good at writing code and can knock up a simple instruction that de-dupes’ files? This way you can cause the same effect, just using a different tactic.

Do you have the time to upskill and finish the task before it is due?  Or should you delegate the task to someone else, this time around?

Nothing is 100%, especially not when it comes to quick-and-dirty ways, but hey, it works for me most of the time. How do you think I got this article written?