Science-backed ways of not falling into the trap of needing to be productive all the time.
If you feel the need to be productive all the time, you’re not alone. But is it necessary to be productive 100% of the time to be successful? Working too hard for too long can lead to burnout, which, as researchers have established, can erode your values, dignity, spirit and will. According to studies, burnout impairs both personal and social functioning, thus contributing to a decline in the quality of work and interpersonal relationships. It’s characterised by three elements:
- Exhaustion: When you feel like you can no longer keep working, no matter how hard you try.
- Cynicism: When you experience a state of fatigue or frustration because your way of life or relationship failed to produce the expected reward.
- Inefficacy: When you start feeling increasingly ineffective on the job.
So, how can you go about being productive, while at the same time, not forcing yourself to work so hard you burn out? This article aims to look at the science behind the productivity trap and what you can do to avoid letting it enslave you.
It’s basic human nature to crave success, and then get addicted to it.
What is the Productivity Trap?
Have you ever crushed all the goals on your to-do list, and then strived to work harder and accomplish more in the same day? That must have been a hell of a satisfying day, am I right?
However, once you exceed your expectations, you worry if you’ll be able to replicate it the next day, or the day after. Because of the raised bar, you tend to be harsher and not give yourself the credit you deserve for completing all the tasks you’d planned for the day. It’s basic human nature to crave success, and then get addicted to it. As entrepreneur and business coach, Grant Cardone puts in his book, The 10X Rule,
“An interesting thing about success is that it’s like a breath of air. Although your last breath of air is important, it’s not nearly as important as the next one.”
This compulsive need to always keep working and get even more work done than the previous day is the “productivity trap”. It’s almost as if you ensnare yourself by putting in consistent efforts for a period of time, and then start hating yourself when you can’t replicate that level of output or efforts after a while.
This is dangerous because you’re already working so hard and achieving results, and, if you keep pushing harder, you would most likely never even realise you’re not being compassionate to yourself. Subconsciously, you might have started equating happiness with the amount of work done — a trait that won’t let you relax even for a bit. Science has proven that taking breaks helps a person perform better, get better ideas, and feel good about themselves. This makes it even more important that you learn to identify when you’re in the productivity trap and know how to escape it before you burn out.
Because of the raised bar, you tend to be harsher and not give yourself the credit you deserve.
How to Identify if You’re Trapped
When you push yourself harder, you tend to put in long work hours. However, even with the increased time, if your results aren’t increasing proportionately, you’re probably impairing your ability to concentrate. A Stanford University research paper found that people who worked 70 hours a week didn’t actually get more work done than their peers who worked 56 hours. As Randy Simon, a licensed clinical psychologist based in New Jersey, confirms, “We’re not wired to be productive every minute of every day.”
Another red flag that you’re working too hard could be that you deny yourself the luxury of 7 hours of sleep each night. While you might jump straight to reasoning like “5 hours is enough for me” or “I can’t afford to sleep longer than 6 hours”, studies have shown that less sleep not only hampers your productivity, but also results in a bad mood, and forces you to seek out activities such as social media use that require less attentional resources.
You might feel more drained and be in a grumpy mood all day long. Research has shown that people who work for eleven hours per day are more likely to battle depression than those who worked seven to eight hours. In addition, your body might show signs of fatigue like back and neck ache. According to a study published in the Occupational & Environmental Medicine journal, this is a common sign of stress caused by muscle tension.
Apart from these, here are some signs you’re approaching mental exhaustion, according to Healthline: cynicism or pessimism, apathy (feeling of not caring), detachment, anger, feelings of hopelessness, feeling of dread, and lack of motivation.
If you keep pushing harder, you would most likely never even realise you’re not being compassionate to yourself.
Getting Out of the Productivity Trap
Reading this article might make you feel stressed, especially if you recognise you’re already in the “productivity trap”. However, since this is something you’ve ensnared yourself into, the only person who can get you out of the “productivity trap” is yourself. Here are some suggestions on how you can go about pulling yourself out of the trap and maintaining a healthy work-life balance.
Make a to-do list
If you tend to go overboard with your pursuit for productivity, make a to-do list and stick to it. You can use an app on your phone or computer to do this, but I prefer the old-fashioned pen and paper way to be more effective.
Also, time-blocking your day on the previous night helps. Allot a specific time slot for each task on your agenda and stick to it. Remember, the items on your list shouldn’t just be work-related. Add time for fun stuff on your schedule too.
Define your maximum, not your minimum
If you struggle with not setting healthy boundaries for yourself, defining your maximum can work like magic. This means setting a maximum target for each week and making this target absolutely non-negotiable.
I was having a conversation with my friend Dipanshu Rawal about how I couldn’t stop after writing one article each day and ended up writing more. I’d have days when I wrote 3+ articles, which made me happy, but then on days when I couldn’t write even one, I used to feel like the whole day was wasted. My friend suggested defining the maximum number of articles each week. I tried that for a few days and the relief it brought me was immense.
I congratulated myself each time I stuck to my goal (and, of course, made allowances for the times I couldn’t). Not overshooting the maximum goal freed up a lot of space on my schedule and I ended up watching a lot of movies and meeting up with friends — activities that enriched my mind and gave me better ideas.
Breaks can help prevent decision fatigue, restore your motivation for long-term goals, and boost your productivity and creativity. While different researchers have suggested different break-durations, you should decide how often to take a break depending on the type of work you need to do. Keep the momentum for as long as you can and take a break after 90 or so minutes. However, if your thoughts start to wander more frequently, a short break every few minutes might be helpful.
The only person who can get you out of the “productivity trap” is yourself.
In the hustle culture of today, it’s easy to think that the only way to achieve success is by working every day, around the clock. It’s considered ideal to constantly achieve more than what you planned and strive to keep up that momentum. Thankfully, science proves that’s not necessary, and you can get all that you work for even if you’re kinder to yourself.
To prevent falling into the “productivity trap” and getting the best out of the limited time you have, you need to make to-do lists that time-block your day and stick to them. You also should define your maximum and make it non-negotiable. Lastly, remember to take enough breaks as they prevent burnout and can be a boost to your creativity, productivity and mental health.
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