The biggest productivity mistake people make

Takeaway: I think the biggest mistake people make when they try to become more productive is they try to do more things, instead of the right things. The solution to this: find tasks that are aligned with what you care about, so you know why you want to accomplish the things you’re doing.

Estimated Reading Time: 2 minutes, 39s.

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I read quite a few books for AYOP, and one of the best ones I’ve read recently is Start With Why, by Simon Sinek.

The idea behind Start With Why is simple, which I think is why the book is so powerful. The crux of the book is that customers don’t buy what a business makes, they buy why a business makes it (yeah, it’s a business book, but stick with me for a second). Just as your friends spend time with you because of who you are rather than what you do, people form deeper connections with companies that have a clear sense of “why” (a purpose). According to Sinek’s research, companies that focus on their purpose (an actual purpose, not the corny purpose on their mission statement) are a lot more successful than other companies in the long-run.

Take Apple as an example. As Sinek put it in his fantastic TEDx talk (which at the time of writing has about 16.5M views):

If Apple were like everyone else, their marketing message would be: “We make great computers. They are beautifully designed, simple to use, and user-friendly. Want to buy one?”

However, this is how Apple actually communicates: “In everything we do we believe in challenging the status quo. We believe in thinking differently. The way we challenge the status quo is by making our products beautifully designed, simple to use, and user-friendly. We just happen to make great computers. Want to buy one?”

Apple communicates and focuses on why they make what they do before thinking about what they should actually make–they think about their “why” before they think about their “what”–and Sinek argues that this one of the main reasons they’re so successful.

why

This idea is a powerful one, and I think it also applies to becoming more productive.

When you focus on simply doing more things (“what”), as opposed to doing things that are aligned to your values and what you believe in (your “why”), you may be able to push yourself to be productive in the short-run, but in the long-run you’re going to be a lot less satisfied and productive. The key is to, like Apple, start from the inside of the circle and work outward; first determining what you value and what motivates you the most, and then taking on tasks and responsibilities that fit with who you are.

Unless you make widgets on a factory floor, simply producing more won’t make you more productive. Productivity isn’t about doing more things, it’s about doing the right things; things that mean something after you accomplish them because they are aligned to your values and who you are. I’d argue that if you’re trying to get stuff done without a clear outcome or purpose in mind, you aren’t being that productive at all, because in the context of your life you aren’t accomplishing all that much.

Intention behind action is like wood behind an arrow, and by figuring out what truly motivates you, you’re going to become a lot more productive at the end of the day. The key is to “start with why”, and find tasks that are aligned with your values and who you really are.

  • This is incredibly timely for me, Chris. I’ve been battling with doing too much recently and I need to start looking more at why I’m doing it. I’m hoping that that will help me in better balancing my commitments with my passions and my relationships.

    • That’s fantastic! I find it’s pretty easy to get caught up in taking on whatever comes your way.. I always feel infinitely better whenever I get a chance to step back from my commitments and move myself in another direction.

  • This is incredibly timely for me, Chris. I’ve been battling with doing too much recently and I need to start looking more at why I’m doing it. I’m hoping that that will help me in better balancing my commitments with my passions and my relationships.

    • That’s fantastic! I find it’s pretty easy to get caught up in taking on whatever comes your way.. I always feel infinitely better whenever I get a chance to step back from my commitments and move myself in another direction.

  • HUNTER BOYLE

    Great Post and I also like the concept- Takeaway . Keep at it.Cheers.

  • Great Post and I also like the concept- Takeaway . Keep at it.Cheers.

  • Dan Erickson

    I agree. I am downsizing many aspects of my online presence so I can focus on the right things.

  • I agree. I am downsizing many aspects of my online presence so I can focus on the right things.

  • Sophie Oberstein

    Here are a couple of quotes I use when I’m trying to communicate this topic in a workshop I’m running:
    “It is not enough to be busy, so are the ants. The question is, what are we busy about?”
    ~ Henry David Thoreau

    “He who has a why can endure any how.” ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

    • Love these :-) Thoreau’s quote has to be one of my favourites on productivity.

    • “It is not enough to be busy, so are the ants. The question is, what are we busy about?”
      ~ Henry David Thoreau

      That is a fantastic quote, Sophie!

      Thanks for sharing this.

  • Sophie Oberstein

    Here are a couple of quotes I use when I’m trying to communicate this topic in a workshop I’m running:
    “It is not enough to be busy, so are the ants. The question is, what are we busy about?”
    ~ Henry David Thoreau

    “He who has a why can endure any how.” ~ Friedrich Nietzsche

    • Love these :-) Thoreau’s quote has to be one of my favourites on productivity.

    • “It is not enough to be busy, so are the ants. The question is, what are we busy about?”
      ~ Henry David Thoreau

      That is a fantastic quote, Sophie!

      Thanks for sharing this.

  • Well stated. I just had a wonderful conversation with a friend about how I really need to trim what I’m doing down to the most important elements. I’ve been trying to do too much lately, and the result is that things are left out too often.

    • Thanks Matt! I’ve found the same thing lately, now that I’ve started to take on a million things to close out my AYOP project and start something new. I’ve found that it becomes pretty easy to leave things out and see less meaning in the things I’m doing now that I’m taking on so much. Might be time to cut back or slow down a little, actually :-)

  • Well stated. I just had a wonderful conversation with a friend about how I really need to trim what I’m doing down to the most important elements. I’ve been trying to do too much lately, and the result is that things are left out too often.

    • Thanks Matt! I’ve found the same thing lately, now that I’ve started to take on a million things to close out my AYOP project and start something new. I’ve found that it becomes pretty easy to leave things out and see less meaning in the things I’m doing now that I’m taking on so much. Might be time to cut back or slow down a little, actually :-)

  • Ha, I just finished my dream collage before reading this :D
    I totally agree with you.

    • Cool! What’s a dream collage? That’s the first time I’ve heard the term :-)

      • I read of the idea over at lifehack.org: http://www.lifehack.org/articles/productivity/how-double-your-productivity-immediately-with-dream-collage.html
        While you need to be really careful with information from this site, I really like this idea.

        You gather images symbolizing what aims you want to reach, print them out and put them somewhere visible. They act as a constant reminder what is most important to you and thus helps you to work focused.

        I use to look at it creating my master todo list (with all the tasks), my daily todo list and when prioritizing tasks. So for me it helps to improve my focus.

        • Looks interesting! :) I like that method, sounds like the perfect way to account for your “why” when you’re planning out the week ahead!

  • Ha, I just finished my dream collage before reading this :D
    I totally agree with you.

    • Cool! What’s a dream collage? That’s the first time I’ve heard the term :-)

      • I read of the idea over at lifehack.org: http://www.lifehack.org/articles/productivity/how-double-your-productivity-immediately-with-dream-collage.html
        While you need to be really careful with information from this site, I really like this idea.

        You gather images symbolizing what aims you want to reach, print them out and put them somewhere visible. They act as a constant reminder what is most important to you and thus helps you to work focused.

        I use to look at it creating my master todo list (with all the tasks), my daily todo list and when prioritizing tasks. So for me it helps to improve my focus.

        • Looks interesting! :) I like that method, sounds like the perfect way to account for your “why” when you’re planning out the week ahead!

  • Lea

    I totally agree with you. I also think that when you do more things (“what”) thinking that you’re being productive, simply because the quantity is larger, you’re probably doing pointless things. Like spending your valuable time on things that are not that important and like you said aren’t in proper alignment. When your time could be better spent on one thing that is.

    Focusing on the right things might seem like you’re doing less (in quantity) but you’re actually getting further (true productivity).

    ~Lea

    • Agree completely :-) Taking on less things also helps with the flow of tasks, I think. I recently read an analogy that compared the tasks we have in progress to traffic on the road; what allows traffic to flow nicely isn’t the cars themselves, but the space between them. It’s pretty easy to get caught up in trying to take on as much as possible, but I think that just makes you less productive at the end of the day!

  • Lea

    I totally agree with you. I also think that when you do more things (“what”) thinking that you’re being productive, simply because the quantity is larger, you’re probably doing pointless things. Like spending your valuable time on things that are not that important and like you said aren’t in proper alignment. When your time could be better spent on one thing that is.

    Focusing on the right things might seem like you’re doing less (in quantity) but you’re actually getting further (true productivity).

    ~Lea

    • Agree completely :-) Taking on less things also helps with the flow of tasks, I think. I recently read an analogy that compared the tasks we have in progress to traffic on the road; what allows traffic to flow nicely isn’t the cars themselves, but the space between them. It’s pretty easy to get caught up in trying to take on as much as possible, but I think that just makes you less productive at the end of the day!

  • Good point. I wrote something similar a while back.

    To paraphrase Steve Jobs: Focus is about saying NO to many good things so that you can do something great.

    • I love that way of looking at things. You could fit every single product Apple makes on a small table, yet they’re a $500 billion company.. There must be something to this focus thing..

  • Good point. I wrote something similar a while back.

    To paraphrase Steve Jobs: Focus is about saying NO to many good things so that you can do something great.

    • I love that way of looking at things. You could fit every single product Apple makes on a small table, yet they’re a $500 billion company.. There must be something to this focus thing..

  • Alec Barron

    Hey Chris, great stuff!

    I’ve been doing a lot of research on burnout among entrepreneurs and freelancers, and 1 of the single biggest causes is by taking on too much. These days, it’s so easy to take on too much because we feel guilty if we say no to anything. And if we don’t feel guilty, we feel like we’re missing out on some potentially amazing opportunity.

    A lot of us trick ourselves into thinking we can “push through” this stuff, but ultimately it burns us out and inhibits our ability to do the things that really matter.

    The “Start With Why” framework is a great thing to ask yourself before saying yes to anything. I’d add that you still need to be brutally honest about why you want to do something or else you’ll get into trouble.

    I made the mistake of saying yes to something last night that I now immediately regret. There’s a good reason for me to do this project because it will help a lot of people, but I now realize my time could be better spent on a different project that will have a much bigger impact!

    • Really interesting stuff! I agree that the problem entrepreneurs face is often how hard it is to say “no” to tasks in that type of environment. I don’t personally consider myself an entrepreneur, but what I’ve seen from my friends that are, it’s almost expected that you stay overworked, or else you’re not “doing it right”. If you’re not stressed out and overworked, you should feel guilty and work harder.

      I also agree completely about being brutally honest with yourself before taking on more things. Admittedly the ironic thing about this model and others like it is how difficult it is to implement in practice. If it were easy for someone like an entrepreneur or freelancer to determine what actions were aligned to their “why”, they’d probably all be doing it, but something interesting I’ve found with this model is that it becomes exponentially more difficult to implement the more you have to do (because it becomes that much harder to step back from your work).

      But I think the more overworked and busy you are, the more valuable a model like this one can be. Especially when it takes just a few minutes to determine the value of, and say no to a big task, that’s some pretty high leverage time if you shouldn’t be doing the task in the first place.

      Thanks for the comment man! It got me thinking :-)

  • Hey Chris, great stuff!

    I’ve been doing a lot of research on burnout among entrepreneurs and freelancers, and 1 of the single biggest causes is by taking on too much. These days, it’s so easy to take on too much because we feel guilty if we say no to anything. And if we don’t feel guilty, we feel like we’re missing out on some potentially amazing opportunity.

    A lot of us trick ourselves into thinking we can “push through” this stuff, but ultimately it burns us out and inhibits our ability to do the things that really matter.

    The “Start With Why” framework is a great thing to ask yourself before saying yes to anything. I’d add that you still need to be brutally honest about why you want to do something or else you’ll get into trouble.

    I made the mistake of saying yes to something last night that I now immediately regret. There’s a good reason for me to do this project because it will help a lot of people, but I now realize my time could be better spent on a different project that will have a much bigger impact!

    • Really interesting stuff! I agree that the problem entrepreneurs face is often how hard it is to say “no” to tasks in that type of environment. I don’t personally consider myself an entrepreneur, but what I’ve seen from my friends that are, it’s almost expected that you stay overworked, or else you’re not “doing it right”. If you’re not stressed out and overworked, you should feel guilty and work harder.

      I also agree completely about being brutally honest with yourself before taking on more things. Admittedly the ironic thing about this model and others like it is how difficult it is to implement in practice. If it were easy for someone like an entrepreneur or freelancer to determine what actions were aligned to their “why”, they’d probably all be doing it, but something interesting I’ve found with this model is that it becomes exponentially more difficult to implement the more you have to do (because it becomes that much harder to step back from your work).

      But I think the more overworked and busy you are, the more valuable a model like this one can be. Especially when it takes just a few minutes to determine the value of, and say no to a big task, that’s some pretty high leverage time if you shouldn’t be doing the task in the first place.

      Thanks for the comment man! It got me thinking :-)

  • Wow, very inspiring and makes me think about why i do what I do. Really have to figure out the purpose and the reason behind. Those are the keys that motivate us and put us into taking action. Great sharing.. :)

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