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Is How You are Working Working for You?

Why productivity-boosting regimes may be bad for us

Psychology Today | Anna Katharina Schaffner


Many of my coaching clientscome to me because they believe there is something wrong with how they work. They think they are not productive or efficient enough, and far too easily distracted. They believe themselves to be incurable procrastinators, terrible time managers or reckless time wasters. Some are unhappy because they only ever start working on important projects very close to hard deadlines. Others feel they are slaves to their displacement activities, losing hours each day on social media and gloomy news feeds. Perhaps some of these dilemmas sound familiar?


The curious thing is that when we dive deeper into my clients’ working habits and preferences in our sessions, we almost always discover the same thing: how my clients work actually works for them. Not only do they meet all their deadlines, but they produce what they have to and more. The quality of their work is excellent. They are frequently high achievers who are highly respected at their jobs. But, regardless of these facts, they unfailingly beat themselves up about their working habits, and believe that they have to make radical changes. They feel guilt and shame about their working patterns, and think that they could do so much better if only they had more discipline and willpower. Worst of all, they are often unable to enjoy their periods of rest because they think they don’t deserve them. Losing our ability properly to rest is dangerous, for it can lead to burnout. What is going on?


Collectively, we worry greatly about time these days, and especially about wasting, squandering and losing time. We feel under constant pressure to optimize how we use our time, and seek to squeeze the maximum amount of productivity out of our activities. We are most likely familiar with news stories that tell us that the average worker spends only three hours of their day working, and that the rest of our days are made up of distractions and disruptions. Regardless of our actual performance, we think that our work is suboptimal.


Many of us have internalized broader cultural concerns about lost productivity and have become victims of unachievable ideals. We are tyrannized by hugely damaging ideas about how we should work, rather than accepting that we all have very different and unique patterns, rhythms and habits. We feel we fall foul of an impossibly high standard of how to work. This standard usually entails periods of intense and uninterrupted concentration and engagement, ideally in a state of flow, punctuated by well-timed moments of recuperative rest in which we do something good for our bodies or minds. Unsurprisingly, very few of us are able to work that way on a regular basis, for the reality of work is nothing like this idealized vision. Consequently, we are tormented by the many work-related ‘shoulds’ in our minds, and feel like failures when we don’t manage to stick to whatever productivity regime we have subscribed to.


When we look more deeply at our working habits, what usually transpires is not that there is a problem with how we actually work, but that there is a massive gap between our idea of how we should work and our working reality. In other words, the issue is not our lack of productivity, but guilt and a sense of not being good enough. Our guilt is generated by failing to comply with somebody else’s model of how ideal working behaviours should look like. That could be the Pomodoro method, Cal Newport’s deep work principles, time blocking, the two minutes rule, the rule of three, productivity journaling, the 80/20 rule, or even using productivity tracking software – whatever your poison is.


However, when how we work is actually working for us, the aim should not be to change our working behaviours, but rather to free us of this sense of culturally inculcated guilt and failure. Imagine how we would feel, and work, without the guilt. If the guilt were to go, we would be able to enjoy and truly benefit from our periods of rest, as well as our necessary and perfectly human moments of distraction and procrastination. Those moments would then become restorative again, which is of course their original function. Ironically, they would probably also make us more creative and productive.


What is more, what we think of as procrastination and distraction is often simply part of our unique creative process. What if what we think of as wasted time is actually simply part of our working patterns? Some of us need to sail perilously close to deadlines before we can put pen to paper. Likewise, work does not stop when we leave the desk. It often continues in our minds even if we do other things. When we move our body to go for a walk, make ourselves yet another cup of tea, chat to a friend, fold laundry or rearrange our bookshelves, we might also move and rearrange something in our minds. Something might become unstuck; where there was paralysis, an opening might emerge. The idea that we must remain glued to our desks and screens at all times, for as long as possible, is another harmful thought. We may digest or continue to think about a specific idea or a challenge even if our fingers are not on our keyboards. Likewise, checking Twitter or Instagram might not always be as catastrophic for our creativity and concentration as we think. It can give us new impulses and provide us with mental stimuli. Distraction is not always the devil. It can provide some levity and relief, a moment of pause.


There are of course real and serious reasons for why we worry about distraction. Our ability to concentrate and to contemplate matters uninterruptedly has indeed come under threat, for we are all constantly being targeted by the machinations of the attention industry. Highly skilled experts are working non-stop on schemes to catch and hold our attention, and they use the latest technology as well as the latest insights from behavioral sciences to manipulate us. There is, then, a very real danger of our attention being hijacked, and of us becoming addicted to our devices and to algorithmically tailored content that appeals to our base emotions.


But I seriously wonder whether, in the light of this threat, we have now gone too far the other way. It seems to me that many of us are aspiring to a kind of attentional puritanism, and to a quasi-contemplative mode of being that most of us are simply not cut out for. We are setting our attentional standards so high that we are all collectively failing to meet them. Who do you know who really manages to be a digital minimalist or a deep worker most of the time? Most of us, moreover, are probably not quite as addicted and at the mercy of algorithms as we might fear. Most of us are probably doing OK. Finally, most of us are not born contemplatives, and most of us will never spend most of our workdays in a state of flow. Both are highly romantic notions that are detached from the majority of working realities.


What would happen, I wonder, if we tried to relearn to be 'good enough' workers - to paraphrase Donald Winnicott? What might transpire if we simply accepted our unique working patterns – and the fact that we will very likely continue to intersperse our work with distractions and pauses, and that we sometimes need time before we get started on a task on paper? I have the following suggestion. Let's start with tackling work-related 'should-ing.' Whenever you catch yourself thinking 'I should be doing x, y and z', pause and genuinely ask yourself: 'should I really?' Is this working behaviour genuinely a problem, or have you simply been told it is? Have you internalized unachievable productivity and efficiency enhancement dictates? All things considered, what are the outcomes of your patterns? If they are good enough, we really might wish to begin to take this collective pressure off our shoulders, and simply work in whatever way works for us.


Image: Luis Villasmil @Unsplash.


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