The Silent Productivity Killer Nobody Talks About
The solution is not a hack
Prolific writers and successful salespeople share one thing in common. They avoid a problem that plagues the masses of dreamers who promise, plan and prepare but never produce.
Curbing this behavior will elevate your productivity. Breaking this habit is difficult, but I’ll share an exercise later that will ease the transformation.
The “Getting Ready” plague
In my first sales job, my manager tasked me with cold calling one-hundred leads each morning. The fastest guys finished in an hour. It took me three to four hours.
Before my first call, I went through a getting ready ritual. I categorized the stack of leads by industry and then alphabetized them by name. This effort resulted in no added benefit. The sole purpose was to put off an uncomfortable task. Of course, back then I had convinced myself this was a necessary step to complete before jumping into the real work.
A month into my sales job, my manager sent me to a seminar. The speaker said something that caught my attention. It was a lesson I’ve carried with me sixteen years later. I’ll admit, I forget it or push it aside at times. But it’s one of those lessons you cannot unlearn, and it nags at you if you ignore it.
“Salespeople spend too much time getting ready. The act of getting ready is nothing more than a subconscious attempt to put off doing something that pains us.”
At that moment I had thought about my lead organizing ritual and realized the truth. He was right. My getting ready activities only served to distract me from my real responsibility. I feared and despised cold-calling, so I invented warmup tasks to delay the inevitable pain for as long as possible.
I scrapped my card categorization system the next day. I couldn’t continue with it now that I had recognized my warmup ritual was nothing more than a distraction. I didn’t last long at that job, but the lesson has stuck with me.
What’s really important?
Some of the extraneous tasks we do to distract ourselves are relatively harmless. I hate washing dishes by hand, so I jam and configure my dishwasher to fit every last item in the sink. I end up wasting more time rearranging than I would if I had just washed the damn bowl.
When your distractionary tasks keep you from doing work that matters, it becomes a problem. I call it a hidden problem because you’re probably unaware of the time you waste each day. I don’t know what your situation is, but I bet you have more time for meaningful work than you think.
Fear, rejection and failure make it easy for us to justify why we need to get ready and prepare instead of taking action.
We all know a writer or two who suffers from this. My antenna perks up when I hear the phrase pre-writing routine. They talk about meditation, reading, pushups and affirmations to prepare themselves to write. Most of these people have little output to show for their lengthy routines.
I’m not criticizing. Facing a blank screen feels like another form of rejection, similar to what salespeople experience. Most of these well-meaning folks don’t see their prep work for what it is — distractions from doing work that matters.
The SPUNC Log
Here’s an exercise I want you to try. I do this once every three months. It keeps me honest and aware of how I use my time.
Spend one day logging everything you do. I prefer to carry around a notebook since using my phone is another distraction. Record every task, action, drive, chore, argument, hug, presentation, discussion, meal, meeting, and anything else you do during the day. Get a report of your screen time too. You can leave out personal hygiene tasks since those are non-negotiable.
Type up your list of activities in a spreadsheet. In the next column label each action as “critical,” “preferable,” “necessary,” and “unnecessary.”
Critical activities consist of the work that matters most to you. It could be your daily writing, art, or critical tasks at your day job like sales calls. You shouldn’t have more than two or three of these activities. If everything you do is critical, then nothing is critical. If you have too many, re-examine your priorities.
Preferable tasks are things you want to do but are not critical. I prefer to spend a half hour a day reading fiction, but it is not critical. I’ll skip the preferable tasks if they interfere with something more important.
Necessary tasks are activities that enable your critical functions. Most of us need to commute to our day job. Commuting isn’t an essential activity, but it’s necessary.
I do a thirty-minute walk every day. It’s a sacred activity. I don’t feel whole when I skip it. These are non-negotiables you do for your health and well-being. Allow yourself two or three sacred activities.
Everything left on your list is unnecessary. This bucket includes things such as: browsing social media, checking the news, email, texts, organizing your desk for efficiency, and most getting ready tasks. If you’re unsure, ask yourself what useful benefit you get out of the activity and then label it appropriately.
Now it’s time to tally up. How much time did you spend on each of the categories? Pay careful attention to mindless time fillers like browsing social media. Also, examine your getting ready work. What activities do you engage in to put off doing essential but uncomfortable work?
Time management is not the answer
If you ask someone why they don’t spend time on meaningful work, they’ll throw out the time management excuse.
“I’m just not good at managing my time.”
There’s a problem with that excuse. It ignores the reason why we avoid meaningful work. It’s not a lack of time; it’s a lack of will.
I’ve written over a thousand blog posts. I always begin the same way. It starts with a blank document and a blinking cursor. It’s easy to open up a new tab and lose yourself in angst and outrage.
Time management won’t help you overcome fear, the reason you put off meaningful work.
Take the first step
The second call feels easier than the first. The second sentence feels more natural than the first. These first steps are hard because it seems like we have such a long road ahead of us.
“1000 words to go and I haven’t even written one yet.”
“100 sales calls and I haven’t even started yet.”
Taking the first step is as simple as adjusting your self-talk. Think of a single act instead of the overall objective.
“I’m going to make one call.”
“I’m going to write one sentence.”
You then build momentum and move onto the next call, sentence or whatever it is you do. That’s how I’ve been able to control the getting ready scourge. When I begin a writing session, I start with a sentence. Each consecutive sentence becomes a little easier.