By now, you’ve internalized the basics of time management in an effort to maximize your productivity. You know you must be self-disciplined, shut down distractions, eliminate time-wasters, improve information handling, and make every effort to smooth out your workflow.
The problem is, you can do everything right and still end up with poor results if you’re not careful. After following the straight and narrow path for a while, you may discover that you’ve worn yourself into a constrictive rut, where speedy reaction to the evolving business environment becomes difficult. In the end, your efforts to save time might result in a willingness to do no more than necessary to meet minimal standards.
It’s happened to us all at one time or another, sneaking up on us due to lack of time, poor motivation, overwork/overwhelm, family issues, stress, and other emotional pressure. You may not be burned out, but you’re just going through the motions, no longer thinking much about the bottom line, responding to emails, and generally just keeping up. To put it in a way we’re all familiar with, you’re doing work that would get you a “C” back in your grade school days: good enough to pass, but far from honor-roll material. You’re maintaining the status quo.
Jumping Out of the Groove
Fortunately, you can escape most productivity ruts with the application of a little strategy and elbow grease. Pause long enough to find something to tow you up out of that ditch—a winch at least, or if necessary a crane. Start by redefining your goals, looking for the motivational triggers that set you on your path toward success in the first place. Trip those triggers to jumpstart your productivity engine again. Alternately, discuss your problems with someone who may be able to help—a mentor, a friend, or a spiritual advisor, ideally someone who’s overcome something similar in the past. Brush up on rusty old skills, and look for alternate methods of doing your work that produce significantly better results, even if they do require a little more effort. There’s always a better way of doing something, and you won’t find them if you don’t look.
You’ll inevitably stumble along the way, but don’t let that stop you. Stay flexible, so you can bounce back quickly; whatever you’re doing, you can do it, even if the new way is unfamiliar. Don’t let yourself be paralyzed by confusion, especially just because something might go wrong. Of course it might, but you don’t know that it will. Face problems head on and overcome them with your sheer talent and force of personality. Just stay moving; don’t let things drag you down. And whatever you do, don’t slip back into that groove just because it’s easy.
Taking Baby Steps
Speaking of easy: you don’t have to reinvent yourself all at once to get out of your rut. Even a little change can move you on your way, boosting you toward a new and untrammeled path. Mix it up, beginning with a minor item you’ve wanted to try but haven’t taken the time to. If that means you have to drop something else, so be it—as long as it’s not something critical. As you try new things, you may overcome the stress, boredom, or other emotional issues that have pushed you down into that rut, for no other reason than because you’ve made the change.
If insufficient time is the issue, then once you’ve become more confident, restructure your schedule to shuck all the least important things that you do, especially if they take up an inordinate amount of your time. Delegate them if you can, but drop them if you must. Then take on your critical few tasks from different angles until you’re back to ground level, purposeful productive again.
Two of the worst causes of productivity ruts are what I think of as “the P-Traps”: Perfectionism and Procrastination. Both are self-imposed: Either you drag yourself down because you want everything to be perfect before you even take your first step, or you drag your heels for some reason: fear, worry, boredom, etc. Either way, let go of the stone, so you can float back to the top of the productivity game.
Don’t be so concerned about doing it just right that you paralyze yourself. Get moving. Don’t obsess over details; handle them as they come up, and do the best you can in the time you have. We all want to dazzle people with our accomplishments, but sometimes good enough really is good enough—and it’s infinitely better than doing nothing at all because of mental vaporlock or pure Motivational Deficit Disorder. If you find a task or project too daunting, smack it with a metaphorical sledgehammer and break it into pieces that aren’t. Then do those pieces one at a time till you’re done with the whole nine yards.
In a sense, Perfectionism and Procrastination represent the extremes of the productivity spectrum. Both can lock you down unless you find a workable equilibrium between the two—whatever that means to you and the project.
Consider your current work environment. Is it boring, over-cluttered, perfectly neat, or a huge mess? What works best for you depends largely on your work style and personality, but it could be that your environment is so under- or over-stimulating that it contributes to your rut right along with your personal habits. There’s an old saying that goes, “A change is as good as a rest,” and this is one of the situations where it may apply. If your workspace is boring, jazz it up. If it’s too cluttered, clean it up; too jazzy for your liking, tone it down. You may find that a change will also have useful side-effects, like making things easier to find.
What about your physical constraints—is it too warm or cold? Is your chair uncomfortable, or simply the wrong height? Do other ergonomic issues determine how long you’re willing to stay at your workstation, and how you feel after a full day trapped there? (If you do feel trapped, that should be a dead giveaway.) Does your work actually cause you physical pain? That may explain why you’re just going through the motions: you want to get out and get comfortable ASAP. How’s your distractibility quotient? If your office is too noisy, it’s difficult to concentrate.
There are fixes for all these issues, from wearing the proper clothing to getting a better chair and wearing noise-canceling earphones. Think about the environments in which you work best, consider what you need to do to emulate those environments in your workspace, and make the necessary changes. You’ll never break out of your rut if you hate your workspace.
So determine what’s slowing you down, some new goals, jump-start a change in your life, and get moving!