Mar 6, 2020 2:55 pm ET
“If only I could get more done….” said my miserable patient.
Tessa (not her real name) was disappointed in herself for not making more headway on a work project. Only half the items in an online checklist were ticked off. She used one task-tracking app to streamline efficiency and to set priorities, and another to boost focus. A delivery service dropped off a preordered lunch, which she ate at her desk. She wore headphones to tune out co-workers and never wasted time making needless chitchat at the water cooler. Minimizing distraction and maximizing productivity were paramount in her personal life too. She counted steps, monitored calories, optimized her morning routine, and scheduled downtime to go to the gym and clean her house.
Tessa didn’t have time for activities that didn’t yield tangible outcomes. “I’m results-oriented,” she explained.
But no matter how much Tessa managed to get done, she was not satisfied. Constantly monitoring progress, streamlining strategy, and updating goals filled her days but left her chronically unfulfilled. Whatever she did, it was never enough. She had what I call “ goal post-itis .” As soon as she completed a big task, instead of feeling satisfied by the accomplishment, she responded by adding a new project, moving the goal posts further down the field.
We live in a world that worships productivity and celebrates focus. Getting more done in less time is the battle cry of ambitious people everywhere. Seeming “time wasters”—like a walk around the block, a conversation with a co-worker, calling a friend, or taking a moment to look out the window—threaten to undermine the imperative to optimize each hour of the day. There is an ever-growing supply of apps, books, wearable devices and advice to help us optimize efficiency. Author and productivity expert Chris Bailey describes these tools as “productivity porn,” which promise to simplify and de-stress your life by helping you squeeze more in.
But what if the pursuit of productivity is paradoxically making us less productive, not to mention unhappy? Imagine the workday is winding down and you have completed the tasks you set for the day. It’s 5:45 p.m. and you leave at 6 p.m… How would you use those last 15 minutes? (Pretend watching cat videos is not an option.) Would you get a head start on tomorrow’s workload or would you spend the time reflecting on what you learned that day? A Harvard study found that most people will choose to get more work done. The assumption is that doing is a better use of time than sitting around thinking . But the findings suggest the opposite: People who took the opportunity to pause and reflect demonstrated marked improvement in job performance after just 10 days. Instead of jumping pell-mell into a new task in an effort to get more done, taking time to step back and engage in a deliberate effort to learn from experience is a far better use of your time.
And it’s not just the need to feel productive that can undermine productivity. So can the fixation on focus. In fact, too much focus prevents expansive thinking and narrows perspective. A study from the University of California, Santa Barbara, confirmed what most of us already suspected from lightbulb moments we’ve had in the shower: that people get some of their best work-related ideas when they’re not doing work. From elite scientists to professional writers, the research found that creativity routinely struck during moments when not focused on the task at hand. In other words, if you’re having trouble solving a problem, slowly step away from your desk and embark on some serious mind wandering.
We hear a great deal about Attention Hyperactivity Disorder but, as Susan Sontag pointed out, perhaps it is Attention Surplus Disorder, that is taking away from the quality of our everyday lives. Singular focus has a telescoping effect—it closes us off from ideas, from creativity, and from one another.
Wasted time turns out to be time well spent, according to other recent research. Customers who took a moment to have a friendly interaction with a barista (smiled, made eye contact and had a brief conversation) went on to have a better day than those who rushed through the interaction. Taking a 10-minute break to chat with a friend sharpened students’ problem-solving skills, whereas students who stayed focused on their studies and kept their noses buried in books didn’t experience the boost. Put simply, less focus and more social interaction yielded better results.
Not making data the measure of her days enabled Tessa to untangle her identity from her to-do list. After several weeks in treatment she observed, “I always worked so hard to get to the point. The irony is that I was missing it entirely.” In the end, it was giving herself permission to get off track that helped her find her way.
You can email the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
ETA- noticed that full article is behind paywall, so I C/P the full piece.