NICOLAS COLE

Author & Entrepreneur

The Real Reason People Are Unproductive Isn't What You Think

BusinessNicolas ColeComment
Nicolascolerealreasonpeopleareunproductive

We are always looking for new ways to be productive. But why is it that we aren't productive in the first place?

People tend to chalk it up to the following: 

  • Distracting environment
  • Not enough sleep (or not enough coffee)
  • Too many "priorities"
  • Poor time management
  • Etc.

The truth of it is, "productivity" is just a fancy way of talking about discipline. You're productive when you are disciplined, when you remove distractions and get done what needs to get done. 

And what I've noticed is that there is a trend in people who are "unproductive," one that hides beneath the surface of more easily recognizable patterns.

The reason you aren't productive is this:

You are afraid.

When you are given an assignment, or you start a project that stretches slightly outside your comfort zone, you end up finding every excuse not to work on it. Why? Because you aren't confident in your skills to execute, and so you choose easier tasks that provide you with a more immediate sense of accomplishment.

What ends up happening is you spend all day working on the little things on your to-do list, just so you can check them off and feel "productive." But by doing so, you end up avoiding the one task that will actually move you to where you want to go--whether that be within a specific project, or even your career or life. The difficult tasks are the ones that stretch you, that make you feel uncomfortable. They are the ones that force you to grow. The people who embrace this, move quickly. Those who don't, run forever in place.

If you look around any workplace, the reason why people avoid certain tasks doesn't have anything to do with "the environment" or "not drinking enough coffee." It comes down to the fact that they don't know how to do what is being asked of them, andinstead of risking being wrong, they avoid it all together.

That's the real reason people are unproductive. They don't want to fail.

How do you combat this?

The way I have learned to overcome this bad habit is through handwriting my to-do list every single morning. First, I look at yesterday's list, and anything I didn't complete, I write down for today. Once I've done that, I add whatever other tasks were just put on my plate, and then once I have everything in front of me, I look for what is most important based on where I want to go and what I want to accomplish, and I circle it--and I tackle that first.

What I've noticed through doing this is that certain tasks will somehow appear on my to-do list over and over. By handwriting it, I start to take notice when I'm writing and rewriting the same task. That's when I have to ask myself, "Why am I avoiding this? Because it's hard? Because it's boring? Or because I am afraid to do it?"

Case in point, three years ago, when I first started working at Idea Booth as an entry level copywriter, any time I was tasked with calling someone on the phone, I avoided it. I was very shy and far from confident in my abilities to speak coherently over the phone to someone of stature. Day after day I'd rewrite the simplest of tasks on my to-do list, eventually realizing the only reason I wasn't doing this thing that would take me less than five minutes was because I was afraid. It's not that I didn't know what needed to be done--I knew exactly what needed to be done. I just didn't feel comfortable doing it, and so I avoided it all together.

This is the root of not being productive--fear. This goes for art, business, school, and effective communication of all kinds. We tend to avoid that which scares us.

Forget the "productivity matrices" or the "productivity hacks." If you can't pinpoint and get over the things that scare you, all you'll end up doing is crossing off a bunch of easy tasks on your to-do list that don't actually get you to where you want to go.

If you truly want to move the needle, if you actually want to be productive, you have to be willing to do what scares you.