Staring into the abyss of my computer, eyes unblinking against the wash of blue light, I’ve been known to fall into a writing hole only to look up, realize the time, and mumble the exasperated cry of productivity-chasers the world over: "There just aren’t enough hours in the day." Often, in an attempt to wring each of those hours for everything it's worth, many folks (myself included) fall prey to productivity myths about how to work efficiently.
Perhaps the most infamous of these ill-conceived productivity myths is to prioritize multitasking, which is now a pretty well-known slippery slope toward chronic distraction and stress. But even so, much productivity discourse often still remains tethered to “more is more” superlatives: Work the fastest, do the most, optimize every moment.
“Slogging away when you’re mentally fatigued can make your projects take longer and make you more prone to mistakes.” —Anna Dearmon Kornick, head of community at time-management app Clockwise
“Research has shown that we can only be effective for deep or creative work for four hours a day, so actually, recharging your batteries to make the most of those key work hours is helpful,” says psychiatrist Mimi Winsberg, MD, cofounder and chief medical officer at mental health telemedicine service Brightside. And when you don’t allow yourself that crucial downtime, you risk causing more issues than you’re purportedly solving. “Slogging away when you’re mentally fatigued can make your projects take longer and make you more prone to mistakes,” says Anna Dearmon Kornick, head of community at time-management app Clockwise.
Below, experts break down the most pervasive “more-more-more” productivity myths they see and offer far more helpful alternatives.
5 productivity myths that it’s time we all forget—plus, effective approaches to pick up in their place
Myth 1: Working longer hours means getting more done
Up first is the infamous cram. If you’ve ever studied incessantly for a test the full night beforehand, you might already know the reality behind this one: The more you work past a certain point of exhaustion, the less effective you’ll be. “Inevitably, the law of diminishing returns kicks in,” says Kornick. “We each have a threshold of hours for work, typically around 40 to 45 per week, and continuing to work past that is simply no longer productive.”
What to do instead: Start by setting clear boundaries around work hours—not only because you’re just being paid to work those hours (a good reminder), but again, because your productivity will drop off beyond that limit. Once you have that time blocked off, you’ll be pushed to prioritize the things that can effectively fit within it, says Kornick.
As you’re prioritizing, it may be helpful to keep in mind the Pareto principle, says productivity coach Donna McGeorge, author of The 1 Day Refund: Take Back Time, Spend It Wisely: “20 percent of your tasks will ultimately garner 80 percent of your results.” So, it’s not so much about chugging ahead full-steam as it is identifying what you really need to accomplish in daily windows of time, and doing that. “Make sure you also actively schedule in rest time so that you can maintain your energy and focus for the longer haul,” she says.
And yes, that certainly means getting enough sleep each night, too—ideally, the doctor-recommended seven to eight hours. “As tempting as it may be to idolize this or that CEO’s purported lack of need for sleep, don’t fall into that trap,” says Dr. Winsberg. After all, being well-rested is as important for cognition (which translates to your ability to be productive) as it is for basic bodily functions.
Myth 2: Sharp focus on the task at hand is the key to productivity
Drilling down into any task or project can often seem like the smartest way to get it done efficiently. But according to psychologist Alice Boyes, PhD, author of the forthcoming Stress-Free Productivity, going at something with laser-like focus can actually prevent you from seeing a better (and perhaps, easier and faster) solution. “The unfocused mind is an amazing productivity tool,” she says. “It can make creative connections and solve problems for you when you allow it to wander.”
“The unfocused mind can make creative connections and solve problems for you when you allow it to wander.” —Alice Boyes, PhD, author of Stress-Free Productivity
What to do instead: Since many workplaces already emphasize focus, discipline, and diligence so readily, Dr. Boyes suggests actively devoting your attention to the other side of the brain—the creativity side. “Creativity is easier to ignite than you might expect,” she says. “Even thinking about words related to creativity can do it—say, inventiveness, novel, new, innovation, imagination, and the like.”
It’s also wise to step away from your computer or workspace for a five-to-10 minute break every one to two hours, says Kornick. And that also applies whenever you’ve been working on something challenging and are beginning to feel stuck. “Try doing an activity that allows your mind to wander, like going for a walk or driving to run an errand or even taking a shower,” says Dr. Boyes. Not only can this help you resolve issues or come up with new ideas, but also, it’s a helpful balm for burnout and work-related anxiety, says Dr. Winsberg. (And both of those can quickly sideline productivity if left unchecked.)
Myth 3: Productivity requires sticking to a regular routine
Sure, there’s something to be said about a healthy habit or ritual that keeps you on track—say, waking up early on certain days to go for a walk, or punctuating each day with a meditation. But trying to push yourself into a routine solely for productivity’s sake is often more harmful than helpful, according to Dr. Boyes.
What to do instead: Deliberately change your routine every once in a while to steer clear of a productivity rut. “Changes in routines often force creativity,” says Dr. Boyes. That's mostly because breaks from the status quo tend to reduce barriers to innovation and allow us to use our skills in unconventional ways—so, switch it up. “Personal projects can be great for this,” says Dr. Boyes, “like trying out a zero-waste period or ‘no-buy’ days, for instance, or picking up a creative art, craft, or design hobby.”
Myth 4: You have to be happy or think positively to be productive
While ticking items off your list can certainly make you feel good, it doesn’t always work the other way around: You don’t have to feel positively about a project every step of the way in order to get it done well. “Productive people don’t avoid goals that are inherently stressful,” says Dr. Boyes. “Instead, they accept that stress and challenge are part of the goal pursuit, and they use those ‘negative’ emotions as fuel for their dedication to the task.”
What to do instead: Invest time to learn coping mechanisms for feelings of stress or overwhelm so that you can use them to your advantage when they emerge. “One very important skill in this realm is reducing rumination, which is when you overthink something negative or ambiguous that has already happened,” Dr. Boyes says. To weed out this behavior, she suggests practicing self-compassion by acknowledging the specific emotion you’re feeling, seeing common humanity in your struggle (e.g., we all feel disappointed in our performance sometimes), talking to yourself kindly, and turning your attention toward the path forward.
Myth 5: You have to do the ‘important’ things before anything else on your list
This concept might seem fine and even sensible at first blush. But it becomes a problem when everything is urgent and important, which is generally the default setting for work these days, says McGeorge. When every ping or email feels important enough to get your immediate attention, productivity quickly flies out the window.
What to do instead: Organize by intensity and impact, McGeorge suggests: “Intensity is how much brain power something requires, and impact is the return on effort or investment of time.” By evaluating tasks based on how much effort they should require (both because of how intense they inherently are and the kind of impact they’ll have), you’ll get a better idea of what makes sense to do when. “Typically, I find it’s best to do your most intense, impactful work before noon, and your routine work in the afternoon,” says McGeorge. But at the end of the day, being the most productive version of yourself will require listening to the clock within your body and brain for signals of focus or creativity, and not worrying as much about the clock on the wall.
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