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The Three Myths Keeping You from True Productivity

We need to change the way we think about being productive.

We believe that we need to be efficient, to try to get as many tasks done in as little time as possible. We cram our day full with one task after the other in a mad dash to win the day.

You know what I’m talking about.

We’ve all seen the clickbait articles promising you can write a year’s worth of blog content in three days or fooling you into believing you can write a book in a week. Hurry, hurry, rush, rush. No time for lunch. No time to stop.

Quickly moving from one task to the next with the goal of checking off as many tasks from our list as we can in as little time as possible. Being efficient.

Are we stopping to ask ourselves, though, if those tasks need to be done at all? Are those things we are hurrying to do really important? Or are we just mindlessly rushing through our to-do list, pinballing from one item to the next, exhausting ourselves?

This is why we slip into bed and feel as though we didn’t do enough or get enough done, that we weren’t good enough even when we skipped lunch and did five tasks at the same time. Enough.

We are so busy working to be efficient that we don’t have the time to catch our breath and ask ourselves the most important question of all: Why? Why are these tasks on our list? Why do they need to be done? Why are we killing ourselves to do it all?

Drop Efficiency for Effectiveness

Productivity isn’t about being efficient—it’s not about filling our day with tasks to quickly check off. It’s about being effective and asking yourself if those tasks need to be done at all. I want to remind you: productivity is not getting more done—it’s focusing on what matters most.

Dishwashers are efficient; refrigerators are efficient. They are working hard with the least amount of resources and effort. And that is possible because they are machines—machines designed to do one thing over and over again: dishwashers clean plates, and refrigerators keep things cool. Unfortunately, when people focus on being efficient, the resource we target is time. We fail to realize that being efficient is about getting things done; being effective is getting what’s important done. There’s a big difference.

Sometimes we are so caught up in deadlines, we don’t realize that the processes we believe make us faster are working against us.

I call these the three myths of productivity.

PRODUCTIVITY MYTH 1: I’M AN EXCELLENT MULTITASKER

We take a lot of pride in our multitasking abilities, don’t we? We mention it casually in job interviews, dropping it in the conversation like a beautiful shiny star. We mention it because it’s a badge of honor, evidence of our ninja-like productivity prowess.

I used to feel that way, too, until I took the time to understand why multitasking was actually working against me.

A lot of what we call multitasking is really switch-tasking: simultaneously performing two tasks at the same time, switching from one task to another and performing two or more tasks in rapid succession. The problem is, our brains are not designed to work that way; each section is designed to do one task at a time—like a lightbulb turning on and off.

The executive system of your brain sits above your eyes and works like a conductor of an orchestra, switching the sections on and off. For example, if you are watching TV and someone is having a conversation in the room, the conductor may direct the brain to prioritize the pictures on the screen and turn down the conversation.

This switching quickly from one task to the next is causing our brains to work harder than necessary, and this cognitive cost adds up. Scientists have discovered that when we multitask, our productivity actually decreases by as much as 40 percent. Yes, decreases. That’s about sixteen hours we lose every week when we multitask.

It’s not just the time that suffers either. In a University of London study, researchers found that while people multitasked, their IQs dropped to levels similar to what we might find in someone who skipped a night of sleep or smoked marijuana. Yes, you read that right. When we multitask, we are not working smarter, we are working—well, you get the idea.

I know what you are thinking. You are thinking it might be true for some people but not for you. And, yes, a very small number of people excel at doing two or more things at once—but it’s only a mere 2 percent of the population. These people are referred to as “supertaskers.”

The irony is that when people learn these rare exceptions exist, they run with that fact as evidence that they, too, are the exception. But “they are not,” David Strayer, the head researcher at the University of Utah, bluntly stated. “The ninety-eight percent of us, we deceive ourselves. And we tend to overrate our ability to multitask.” In fact, when Strayer took his research a step further, he uncovered another strong relationship—an inverse one. The better someone believed she was at multitasking, the worse her abilities were.

Why do we feel obligated to multitask? We think it makes us faster, but we know from those studies I just shared that not only is multitasking taking us longer, but it’s also causing the quality of our work to suffer. We are doing our work half as well and taking twice as long—all while stressing ourselves out. That doesn’t seem effective, does it? When I posed this question to some of the students in my course, one woman admitted:

If I am being honest, I think I multitask and get things done for a few reasons. I am very committed to seeing things through. . . . I don’t want people to question my work, so maybe part of it is a need to prove I can do it all (and well) . . . proving my worth. Also, if I am focusing on “all the things,” I don’t have to dig deeper and get to the messy, vulnerable stuff.

I love the honesty she shared. I want to ask you if you think this is true for you. Do you pile more onto yourself, stressing yourself out, because you feel you have to prove your worth? Is it to keep yourself busy? We want people to think we are good enough—that we deserve the praise, the job, all the good. Why do we feel the need to prove it?

PRODUCTIVITY MYTH 2: I DON’T HAVE TIME TO TAKE A BREAK 

One common technique we use is to muscle through projects even when we feel tired or sluggish. We are so busy racing the clock that we don’t realize our brains need time to rest.

The entire universe is dictated by rhythms: the rising and setting of the sun, the ebb and flow of the tides, the movement between seasons. All organisms, including humans, follow rhythms whether we realize it or not.

You’ve probably heard of your circadian rhythm, which is the 24-hour internal clock all living beings use to regulate eating and sleeping. That’s what tells us to be awake for 16 hours and then asleep for 8 hours. Within the circadian rhythm, though, lives our ultradian rhythm, a shorter biological cycle of 90 to 120 minutes that repeats throughout the day.

During the first part of the ultradian rhythm, our alertness and brainwave activity increase, making us feel energized and focused. After about 90 minutes, though, our brains begin to crave rest and renewal. Our brain requires about 20 minutes between each cycle to recover. In other words, the time we use to unplug is a key part of our day—not a frivolous break. We need to understand that periods of rest are not a reward for great work but are a requirement for great work to happen.

As Zen priest and Buddhist teacher Joan Halifax shared, “There is the in-breath and there is the out-breath, and it’s easy to believe that we must exhale all the time without ever inhaling. But the inhale is absolutely essential if you want to continue to exhale.”

We cannot work solidly for long blocks of time—our bodies simply don’t work that way. And if we are insisting on blocking off a solid three or four-hour power session, we really aren’t doing more work; we are just wearing our brains out.

We don’t typically think of work like this—as “on” or “off”—because we feel the need to push ourselves to work harder and longer. But that actually doesn’t add to our productivity. In most cases, working more hours is detrimental to the work we create.

Stanford researchers discovered that your productivity actually drops dramatically once you hit the 50-hour mark in your workweek. Workers who put in 70 hours produce nothing more with those extra 20 hours. They are simply spinning their wheels, working longer but accomplishing less. It’s not about the time you put in; it’s the quality of that time.

While the studies I shared are new, the concept isn’t. In 1914 Henry Ford took the industry-shaking steps of doubling his workers’ wages and cutting shifts from nine hours to eight. He had dozens of years of research to back up his radical steps, but he still received criticism from the industry—until they all saw how this increased Ford’s output (and then began implementing the steps themselves).

Even people who love to work (and I count myself among them) are not performing at high levels once they get to a certain point. Once we understand and begin to work within our natural rhythms, we’ll find we work more effectively, creating higher quality with less effort.

Patty, a member of my Facebook group, shared this breakthrough:

I am a night owl and always feel more productive at night. (Definitely NOT a morning person.) I try to fall asleep at 10, and I just keep tossing and turning and checking my phone. But lately, instead of fighting it completely, I’ve started taking advantage of my natural rhythm, while also attempting to get my 7 hours of sleep. I started a night cleaning routine and get much more done in 2 hours at night than I get done all day.

My son is an early riser, so I placed breakfast in an accessible spot in the fridge so he can dress and feed himself when he’s hungry in the morning, and I get to wake up refreshed and not rushed. . . . I feel that going with my rhythm and not fighting it has been eye-opening!

Using some Squirrel Strategy and working within our natural rhythms helps us be more effective.

PRODUCTIVITY MYTH 3: TECHNOLOGY IS ALWAYS BETTER

One common misconception is the belief that technology is necessary to do everything better, but it’s simply not true. Technology is faster and sleeker, but it may surprise you to learn that writing down your ideas and plans on paper is more effective.

Bear with me as we don our lab coats for a minute and take a look at how our brains work. When we pick up a pen, our brain reacts differently than when we are tapping away on a keyboard. Writing triggers the reticular activating system (RAS), which signals our brain to pay attention.

Our brains are constantly bombarded with data. Our RAS is the filter that evaluates what information comes through. It’s what wakes us up in the middle of a deep sleep when our babies cry or allows us to hear our own name in a crowded room. It tells our brains where to focus.

Writing triggers your RAS to tell the brain to stay alert—the information is important and needs to be saved where it can be accessed in the future. Typing, on the other hand, does not engage your RAS, so notes and plans tapped into a keyboard are more easily forgotten.

A joint study between Princeton and UCLA discovered that people who took notes with pens performed twice as well on tests as those using laptops. Knowing the laptop users had taken twice as many notes as those who had taken notes by hand, researchers had assumed computer users would be the clear victors. Taking notes on a computer is much more efficient, but it’s not as effective. And that’s the difference.

Don’t get me wrong. Technology does need to play a key role in our days. I know it does in mine—even though I’m an advocate of paper planning. Technology is integral for team projects and communication, but we often feel obligated to use it for all of our work. We worry that using paper may make us look antiquated, but unplugging can really help our brains see problems in a different light.

Not only does paper engage your brain differently, but because it is more open-ended and flexible, it allows you to reframe thoughts and mold ideas in a way that ingrains the information. This flexibility pushes your brain to actually process and reframe data, deepening the brain’s understanding

The Relationship Between Effectiveness and Priorities

Effectiveness comes down to priorities. Instead of focusing on trying to do everything, which leaves you feeling like you are herding cats, laser in on the important.

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Tanya Dalton

Tanya Dalton is a nationally recognized productivity expert, bestselling author, and speaker who serves as a growth strategist for female leaders in the corporate and entrepreneurial sectors. She is also the founder and CEO of inkWELL Press Productivity Co., a business focused on helping women create fulfilling lives on purpose.

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