Note: Upon her indictment on federal money laundering charges and her arrest February 8, 2022, Inc. dismissed Heather Morgan as a contributing columnist. As is our practice, we do not unpublish editorial content, and rather have added this note for full transparency.
There's a widespread and mistaken belief that lazy people don't get stuff done. In fact, many lazy people are highly productive, and even efficient. Turn and look around you... There may be a highly effective slacker lurking nearby.
If not all slackers are slacking, it's also true that many hard-working and ambitious people are actually underperforming. I would argue that it's even easier for the zealous type to become unproductive, because constantly trying to do more can lead to burnout and bad habits. The slacker, at least, is protected by a natural inclination toward efficiency and the path of least resistance.
For the office hero who is always pushing to do more, I've compiled a short list of pitfalls and how to avoid them.
#1. Starting your day on time sucks like Facebook
Waking up early is a great way to boost your productivity, but there's no point in foregoing sleep if you're going to spend the first few hours of your day browsing social media feeds or the news. In fact, how you spend the first 20-40 minutes of work often sets the tone for what you will accomplish for the rest of your day.
Solution: Try to defer your social media and news guilty pleasures until lunch time (or later).
#2. Thinking you can do it all
Checklists and project management systems can be great, but trying to give yourself too many things to do can actually paralyze you. One of the most common productivity killers of ambitious people is pretending to think you can do everything.
I know, because I used to start each day and week by creating an overly-optimistic checklist of tasks that weren't humanly possible to finish. I thought pushing myself harder would make me more productive, but instead, it only overwhelmed me and led to major burnout.
Solution: Don't have more than 3 things on your to-do list at any time, and have one major objective you want to accomplish each day. Force yourself to prioritize instead of making infinite lists that give you a false sense of achievement.
#3. Constantly switching between different kinds of tasks
The most unproductive days I've ever had were the ones where I "had to" jump back and forth between meetings and creative projects. I was distracted and distant in my meetings and unproductive and unoriginal with my work. If you have a big project to do, especially one that requires creative thought, you need to make uninterrupted time for yourself to brainstorm and put ideas into action.
Solution: Try the "block and tackle" strategy. Schedule your calls and meetings in chunks so that you can have blocks of time to get other work done without distractions, like going heads-down on a presentation that requires real creativity.
#4. Doing make-work instead of important work
I don't know a single entrepreneur who hasn't been guilty of this at some point in their career. It's so easy to lie to yourself and work on things that are more fun or easy than what you need to do. For startup founders, this is usually taking meetings and going to conferences instead of figuring out and implementing processes.
One of the best things I ever did in the first six months of starting my company was to eliminate all activities that did not help generate revenue, because everything else was a dangerous distraction.
Solution: Articulate a few objective targets or goals for each month or quarter, and purge your to-do lists of the things that don't help you accomplish them.
#5. Procrastinating on the really important stuff
Unfortunately, the thing you need to do the most is probably the least fun or exciting, and it might also be extra challenging or downright ambiguous. It's way more comfortable to knock out dozens of easy tasks you're sure about, ones that don't cause the kind of anxiety that results in procrastination (another word for 'avoidance'). So how can you force yourself to eat that ugly frog, and just get it done.
Solution: Think of something you want to do even less than the real thing you need to accomplish. On cue, your natural urge to procrastinate will kick in and override your resistance to the first undesirable task, which suddenly looks acceptable by comparison.