Increasing Productivity

Getting More Done:  Tips On Becoming More Productive


Janet S. Klosko, Ph.D.

Cognitive Therapy Center of Long Island

    Zak is one of my patients.  He writes for a travel magazine.  Zak is fine when he is traveling and doing research, but when it is time to write an article he has a problem being productive.  He procrastinates.  He puts off starting to write until it is almost too late.  And then, as the deadline looms, he does a mad rush at the end, staying up till all hours, and, drained and exhausted, gets it done just in time.  Zak explains to me that he needs a deadline hanging over his head to get himself to work.

    What are the work habits that allow us to be most productive?  Whatever your work, you may have trouble getting things done.  You may not produce the amount and quality of work that others expect, or that you dream of wanting from yourself.  Zak’s dream is to write a book on travel, but he is afraid he may never do it.

    There are two major reasons people procrastinate.  The first is anxiety; the second is anger.  

    Zak belongs to the first type.  His procrastination is due primarily to anxiety.  Zak feels overwhelmed. Each article he has to write seems so big.  He has performance anxiety -- his mind is filled with negative thoughts about how people will judge his work.  The voice of his “inner critic” chatters away.  He feels that he has to do the task perfectly.  Anything less than perfection represents complete failure.  Each time he thinks about working he feels anxious and prefers to avoid it.

    Of course, the problem with avoidance as a coping strategy is that it just makes things worse. The longer Zak puts off starting, the more overwhelmed he feels. As the deadline hurls closer his agitation intensifies.  This is the “neurotic paradox” of avoidance:  In the moment you avoid you feel relief, but in the long run you feel even more anxious.

    Elaine belongs to the second type.  She procrastinates because she is resentful.  It is a way for her to express her anger.  Elaine and her husband Brian own and manage a clothing store.  Even though they are partners, she feels that he treats her as though he is the boss.   Whenever he asks her to do something she resents it.  But rather than expressing her anger openly to her husband, she expresses it “passive-aggressively,” by silently resisting.  When Brian asks her for the work, she makes excuses.  Hence, she is chronically behind in her work, and the success of the store suffers as a result.

    “Passive-aggressive” behaviors such as agreeing to do something and not following through are indirect ways of expressing anger.  They irritate other people, but it is difficult for other people to know whether the passive-aggressive person intends the irritation.  Brian gets frustrated with Elaine, but he does not know for sure that she is angry.  In fact, Elaine herself is only dimly aware of her anger.  It is also worth noting that in the way she is expressing her anger, Elaine is hurting herself as much as she is hurting Brian.  

    Whatever the cause, when patients come to me who are not getting done what they want to get done, I ask them to agree to the following plan.
  1. Create a place where you work and only work.  This is especially important for people who work at home.  Make a boundary between your “work” and “non-work” worlds.  Everything that you see and hear should promote a focus on your work.  There should be no distractions.
  1. Set a goal for the day.  Start with a goal that is much smaller than the amount you hope or need to produce each day.  For example, the first goal I set with Brian was for one paragraph, even though he felt he should produce much more.  The key is selecting a goal you know that you can meet.  If you are not sure in your heart that you can meet the goal, then it is too big.  Then, do no less and no more than this goal.  When you have met the goal, you are done working for the day.
  1. As much as possible, do your work before any other activity.  Once you are done you can do whatever you want.  Ideally, you would start in the morning, reach your goal, and have the rest of the day free.  However, if you procrastinate, you might spend the whole day and night “not working.”  You cannot go to sleep until the goal has been met, or until some deadline passes that you have set for stopping and going to sleep.
  1. When you have met your goal successfully for many days, gradually increase the goal for the day, until you have reached a satisfactory level of productivity.  But always remember to keep the goal manageable.  
  1. If you miss a day for some reason, you are not allowed to increase the goal for the next day to make up for it.  You can only increase the goal after meeting it successfully for several days.

    This approach has considerable research support.  That is, people who work in this “slow and steady” fashion are much more productive in the long run. Almost everyone can become more productive using this method.  

     When anxiety is the cause of low productivity, anxiety-reducing techniques can be helpful.  You can do some form of relaxation or meditation before starting.  Be mindful of your negative thoughts.  Watch them.  Rather than just accepting them, assess them objectively.  Are you thinking logically, with an eye to the big picture?  Is there evidence to support your thoughts?  Don’t let your inner critic rule the day.  Talk back to this critic.  Where your thoughts are irrational, replace them with more realistic and constructive thoughts.   

    When anger is the culprit, learn to be more assertive.  This does not mean to yell and scream -- it means learning to acknowledge and express your preferences in a way that you respect.  Assertiveness is a skill that you can practice and learn.  

    Achievement is not something that just happens.  You have to make it happen.  Writers who wait until they are “insipired” to write are the least productive.  In fact, if you adopt the approach I have suggested, you will find that insipiration happens more often.  The quality as well as the quantity of your work will improve.