ARTICLE: “Productivity and The Victim Mentality”

Pairs of dogs were placed one at a time in a room with a shock-grid floor. One dog from the pair could do something to turn off the shock; the other could do nothing. When first shocked, both dogs jumped, yelped, and ran around frantically. In an effort to escape, the dog in the “controllable” situation knocked a level, turning off the shock. This dog learned quickly. Every time the dog was put in the room, it quickly ran to the level to turn off the shock.

In the “uncontrollable” situation, there was nothing the second dog could do to turn off the shock. Just like the first dog, it tried to figure out how to turn off the shock, until the dog learned it was helpless. Then the dog gave up, lay down on the floor and took it. The dog no longer even tried to escape.

Later, the dog that had learned it was helpless was put into the room with the level for turning off the shock. But the dog still just lay on the floor and took the shock. Even when the door was left wide open, the dog did not attempt to escape—it just lay there. Even though the situation had changed, the dog had learned that it was helpless and continued to act as a victim. It stopped trying and its motivation to escape was gone.

That is such a sad story, and a similar thing happens to humans. When things happen to us often enough, they take on a life of their own and become excuses. We convince ourselves that this is the existing condition; this is just the way it is; I am a victim of the situation; there is nothing I can do about it. 

I often hear people bemoan something like the following:
• I can’t take lunch, because I don’t have time to eat
• I can’t go to sleep just yet, because I need to catch up on the house
• I need to work late each night, because that’s the only time people don’t interrupt me
• I can’t plan tomorrow, because I don’t have time today
• I can’t keep up with my email, so I’m going to stop figuring out how to do it

We blame our companies, the world, and other people for our condition and lack of productivity. But in the end, I’ve discovered there is nothing else to blame for your condition but yourself. 

I’ve gone into companies to do training and discovered that it’s the norm to work until 7:00 p.m. or so. After digging deeper, I soon discovered that there wasn’t a lot of work going on until about 10:00 a.m. People would think, “Oh well, I’m going to be here until 7:00 anyway,” so they were unproductive most of the morning. The corporate culture at these companies were actually encouraging people to be unproductive, instead of getting to business first thing and leaving at 5:00 p.m. So you buy into it, “accept” it, and train yourself to be unproductive. Or you complain about the people interrupting you, but do nothing to try and prevent it. You just sit there, steam, seethe inside, and take it on the pretense that “I don’t want to be rude.”

How about the “lack of time”? Is that really a problem? I hear that so often that I’ve given it some serious thought. Let’s say that I could magically give you more time and create a 30-hour day? Would that solve the productivity problem? No, because soon your 30-hour day would become just as full. You would still have a pile of projects to start or finish, books to read, places to go, and things to do. By definition, there will always be more things to do than there is time to do it. YOU WILL NEVER GET IT ALL DONE! And acknowledging that fact, for many people, is a relief. It forces us to concentrate on the critical few, less urgent things on the proverbial “to-do” list and figure out how to simplify, streamline, delegate, eliminate, or reduce our standards on the trivial, less important activities.

You don’t have to accept your situation, your craziness, and your lack of productivity. You can change it! Commit to changing your mindset, setting limits and taking personal responsibility for your own productivity. If you need coaching or training, get it!

© 2001 Laura Stack. All rights reserved. You are free to use portions of this publication in your company newsletter, provided the following credit is listed at the bottom:

Laura M. Stack, MBA, CSP, is “The Productivity PRO,”® helping people leave the office earlier, with less stress, and more to show for it. She presents keynotes and seminars on time management, information overload, and personal productivity. Contact her at 303-471-7401 or visit her website at