Years ago I was happy with my productivity. I was just starting out in web development and easily handled several projects at a time. In hindsight I probably wasn’t productive all the time. I remember that I did sit around for hours in front of my screen as well, doing nothing useful or just researching something on the web. It just felt great despite having times of no productivity.
Then, at some point in my career, about two or three years later, I recognized the feeling of not being productive. I still have it today, but it feels very different and thankfully by now I have mostly realized that while the feeling is there, it might indicate something completely different.
When talking with other people about such feelings, you suddenly realize that you’re by far not alone here. In fact, everyone sees times of non-productivity in their lives, but rarely do people talk about it.
But back to the point when I first felt this feeling. Like so many other people do, I started reading articles on productivity. Some of them I enjoyed, some of them not. And very quickly I realized that it’s quite hard to find articles that make a difference. Most articles just copy from each other and repeat the most basic ideas of productivity all over again. Today I would even doubt if the authors believe in their articles themselves, since nearly all of the tricks they share are not effective, hard to achieve permanently or haven’t even been proven to work at all.
But there are good resources. Once you do some in-depth reading on human beings, their brains and how different people have been working successfully for years, you not only realize that the problem is different, but that you also need to look for something different to read when you want to fix the uncomfortable feeling of uncertainty.
I tried a lot of things over the past years: I started getting up early despite the fact that I already never got up very late. I tried drinking lemon water. I tried so many ways of writing To Do lists and still haven’t found the best way. I tried reducing meetings, I tried to have a fixed, well planned week-schedule, tried to avoid email over the day, started eating breakfast, saying no.
Basically, I think I’ve tried nearly all of the techniques that every “10 Things You Need To Do To Be Productive” article lists, and yet the feeling of not being productive didn’t go away. In contrast, at times when I was reading a lot of such articles, I felt even worse since all the ‘people’ I read about seemed to be so much more productive than me.
I force myself to reflect regularly. I have been doing this for years, and it’s a reason why the end of the year doesn’t cause a bad feeling. As done in a (Scrum, Kanban) retrospective, I think about all the good and the bad things that happened to me during this year.
It’s easy to prioritize the bad things, which is why it’s a good idea to limit the items you can list to a certain number and then need to come up with the same amount of good things.
Usually, this kind of reflection is already enough to wipe away all thoughts of non-productivity. Once you put your achieved tasks into the perspective of a longer timeframe, the hours and maybe even days that you felt so lazy and ‘did no real work’ fade away and don’t matter much anymore.
There is a reason why some people talk about 4-hour work-days. And there is a reason why some people are hooked on such ideas and others are not. The key is that people are different. Some people like laziness during work and embrace non-productive hours, while other people hate it so much that it’s better for them to stop work if this occurs.
I myself vary a bit here — sometimes I really enjoy sitting in my home office doing nothing useful the whole day but reading a few articles and maybe trying to write a few lines of code. At the end of the day there’s nothing I could show to anyone. Other times I hate myself for not doing anything useful and can’t stand doing this for hours.
What matters is that you realize what situation you’re currently in. When you feel okay with the situation, fine. But if you don’t feel okay with being lazy, you should fix it. Not that you should be productive now, this is the wrong way.
Find out why you are currently being lazy and find a way to fix the root cause. If it’s because you’re tired, go away from your screen, go outside for a walk. If you feel like you want to talk with someone else, go for a walk with a colleague and “work” outside. Work discussions are work, no matter if you are on a walk or sitting in the office for half an hour. If you feel unmotivated and lazy but have a weird gut feeling, it might help to do some sports (this helps me since this is mostly my symptoms when my body wants a work-out but I don’t realize it; it can be something else for you).
Overall, there are two main principles that we should understand as humans: First, we need to acknowledge that not being productive all the time is natural and vital for your health and productivity. A person who claims to be productive all the time isn’t using their full potential. Secondly, we need to understand that everyone on the planet needs to find their personal way to feel good and effective at work, in other words to be “productive”. Regular reflection on what one has achieved in the past is a good way to support finding your personal understanding of productivity.
Lastly, don’t fall into the trap of New Year’s resolutions and similar “strategies”. Instead, focussing on smaller cycles and goals is a much healthier idea for your mind and happiness. None of the people I know were able to reach their resolutions for the year entirely and they all felt bad about not reaching them. Instead, just starting to improve things whenever you come up with a resolution is way better. It’s easier because you start right away and it’s a smaller task that you could actually achieve for real.
Feeling more productive often only requires continuity and splitting things into smaller, easier tasks. It’s a lot of psychology, and I want to leave you with the articles of Brainpickings here if you’re more interested in the reasoning why what I tried to explain works.