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Why productivity needs to be much more than a “how do I?” question

4 Jul 2016 | Clarity & Focus

When it comes to productivity, we’re so used to asking the ‘How’ question.

How do I improve my productivity? How do I switch off when the work never ends? How do I work better, faster or smarter? How do I get my inbox to zero? How do I master my to-do list? How do I stop procrastinating?

The problem is, even when we have the answer to the ‘how’ question, we don’t always use it. Too often, those brilliant productivity tips we pick up stay as ideas, rather than actions, as common sense rather than common practice. Worse still, they become yet another thing to do on our to-do list – another thing to add to our sense of guilt.

If we’re not careful, the tools, tactics and strategies we invest time, energy and attention into learning can become the very thing that adds to our sense of overwhelm.

A coaching client admitted the other day that in trying to make sure he took a lunch break, he noticed he was getting annoyed at this lunch break he was trying to cram into the day. It had become something that was taking time away from him, rather than giving him time.

Last year, in my 10 days of rest experiment, I found that getting to bed earlier, which was supposed to help me be more rested and relaxed was becoming a source of stress! When opportunity becomes obligation, it creates overwhelm. It goes from something that enables us to something that burdens us.

I’ve met people before who have said to me that their previous attempts at inbox zero had become an obsession that bound them even more to their emails. Or that they haven’t gotten round to writing their book yet because they haven’t found the right tool, format or process.

That’s because ‘how’ is only part of the equation. ‘How’ tells us the process, but if we’re not clear about the ‘what’ and the ‘why’, the ‘how’ becomes pretty redundant.

What are you working towards?

What’s your productivity goal? What are you procrastinating on that you want to finally get nailed? What specifically do you want to be different? What does better look like?

Is it about feeling calmer, or fired up? Is it about getting home on time, or being able to take up dancing again? Is it about eating your dinner in peace without emails nagging at you? Or replacing last minute panic with smug satisfaction?

If your answer is ‘yes, all of the above’ then that could be where you’re getting stuck. When you set one clear direction, you can find you hit other goals along the way, but if you don’t set one at all, you can easily find yourself ping-ponging in different directions and never actually getting anywhere.

More importantly, why does that matter?

The question we don’t ask anywhere near often enough is Why.

Why do I want to improve my productivity? Why do I want to leave work on time? Why do I want to get my inbox to zero? Why do I want to get more done?

Here’s an experiment. Take that ‘how’ question you’re asking at the moment, and turn it into a ‘why’ question. What’s your ‘why’ question?

‘Why do I want to stop procrastinating?’ seems like a bit of a ‘duh’ question, but stay with it for a minute. In fact, the more obvious it seems, the less you’ve probably actually thought about it.

Why do you want to stop procrastinating? Why does that matter to you? What difference does it actually make? And why does that matter to you?

For the client who was getting annoyed with his lunch breaks, it turns out he’s not all that bothered about food. He saw eating as an inconvenient necessity, and probably got a slight kick out of rebelling and proving that he could go without. The why that resonated more truly with him was about the break rather than that lunch – giving his brain a chance to reset and recharge.

Another workshop delegate recently discovered that her why wasn’t about her own productivity at all – it was about her team. She was quite happy with the number of hours she put in, and she revelled in the challenge of her work, but she was worried about some members of her team, that the cracks were starting to show in their resilience, health and family life. Her why was about leading by example, so that she could show her team it was possible to do great work at work, without sacrificing life outside of work.

Productivity is so much more than asking “How do I work better?”

That’s just the process.

If we want to make sure we actually put all those great productivity tips and ideas to good use, we need to be really clear, not just pretty clear, about our why (purpose) and our what (goal). Only then does the how become useful.

Otherwise it will just be another thing to do – and we have enough of those.

PS. I’d love to know your why and your what. Write a comment or drop me a line and let me know.


Image if author Grace Marshall

About Grace

I coach, train, write and speak on productivity. I help people adopt new ways of working and thinking about their work to replace stress, overwhelm and frustration with success, sanity and satisfaction.

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