A never-ending stream of articles each offer a new answer for how to be productive — or the same answer, re-packaged in a new way. And yet, no matter how many articles we read, most of us feel stuck in our same bad habits. Some of the challenge is that it takes time to build habits that lead to greater productivity.
But a big part of the problem is that a lot of the advice out there just isn’t helpful — and can often be counter-productive. Here are nine of the top myths about productivity — pieces of common wisdom that it turns out don’t hold up, and may lead you astray.
Because we like to give you actionable information, we have also come up with alternatives that will help you stay productive — and sane!
Myth 1: Copy the habits of highly successful people.
Lots of productivity articles like to rattle off the routines of highly successful people: Steve Jobs ate just two foods a week, Sigmund Freud got his beard trimmed each day, Oprah never misses a meeting, Tim Cook wakes up at 3:45 am (seriously?), and so on. Yet, valorizing the habits of a highly successful person is flawed for several reasons.
For one, it is statistically questionable.
“For a few people who are successful by developing productive habits, many are unsuccessful in spite of using the same habits,” says psychologist Aditya Shukla, on his blog Cognition Today.
Putting highly successful people on a pedestal can unknowingly hinder our own efforts.
Additionally, it promotes the idea that highly successful people maintain peak performance at all times. But no less than Benjamin Franklin, known for creating a highly demanding set of virtues and goals for himself and who may have been the creator of the todo list, “was not naturally inclined to keep his papers and other possessions organized, and he found the effort so vexing that he almost quit in frustration,” according to Mason Currey, author of Daily Rituals: How Artists Work. “Moreover, the demands of his printing business meant that he couldn’t always follow the exacting daily timetable that he set for himself.”
Putting highly successful people on a pedestal can unknowingly hinder our own efforts. “It’s easy to forget that they’ve had and still have their own set of struggles and challenges on their path,” says health coach Casey von Iderstein on Thrive Global. “We can perceive their lives as being perfect and unattainable.”
Instead: Use highly successful people as inspiration, not idols
Get inspired by the people you admire, experiment with their productivity approaches, emulate the ideas that genuinely help you work better — and throw out the rest.
“When we see someone who’s created a life that’s appealing to us, it’s important to use them as real, human inspiration (which is very different than idolization) — because when we see things from that viewpoint, we can get a much better idea of the whole picture,” says von Iderstein.
Myth 2: Maximize every moment of your day.
One of the most persistent myths — so ingrained that it can be how people conceive of productivity itself — is the idea that working well is about maximizing every waking moment of the day, to complete as much as you can, as fast as you can.
In fact, trying to be a perpetual achievement machine just isn’t in tune with human nature. According to "deep work" expert Cal Newport and other research, we have about three to four highly productive hours in us each day.
“Being prolific is not about time management,” says Adam Grant, an organizational psychologist at Wharton. “There are a limited number of hours in the day, and focusing on time management just makes us more aware of how many of those hours we waste.”
In fact, the focus on maximizing time may actually diminish our creativity, says Grant: “[P]roductivity and creativity demand opposite attention management strategies. Productivity is fueled by raising attentional filters to keep unrelated or distracting thoughts out. But creativity is fueled by lowering attentional filters to let those thoughts in.”
It turns out creative energy is highly complex, with a lot of contradictory elements going into it, according to psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi.
Creative people “rest often and sleep a lot,” he says. “The important thing is that they control their energy; it's not ruled by the calendar, the dock, an external schedule. When necessary, they can focus it like a laser beam; when not, creative types immediately recharge their batteries.”
Instead: Identify and focus on the few hours of the day you are most productive.
Focus your energy on being productive in those fleeting hours of the day when you have the most focus. Figure out when your most productive time of day is, and use a method like Eat The Frog or Time Blocking to do your most important work. Outside of work hours, make sure you’re taking time to disconnect and getting enough sleep.
Myth 3: Set big goals.
In the scale-the-highest-mountain, live-your-best-life language of self-improvement, it can often seem like the people who set the most ambitious goals are the most successful.
But if you set goals, like signing up for a half marathon so that you’ll run more, or publishing a novel so that you will write, you could overwhelm yourself with too big a goal, too soon, and it could backfire. In the long term, it may cause you to think of the action — running, writing, etc. — as too daunting.
This is what a group of studies from researchers at the University of Chicago and the Korea Business School found. Focusing heavily on goals — in activities as varied as exercising on a treadmill, creating origami, flossing, and practicing yoga — was correlated with dropping out earlier.
In one of the experiments, the researchers compared a group of students who were told to think of their workout as a means to lose weight to another group who were told to think about the workout experience. Each group was then asked to state their intention for the workout. The students with the weight loss goal planned to run on the treadmill longer than those who were told to focus on the experience, but what actually happened was the reverse: the students who focused on the goal actually ran less than those who focused on the workout experience (34 minutes, compared to 43 minutes).
“Staying focused on our goals detracts from the inherent pleasures of the activities we need to pursue to achieve those goals,” as 99u sums it up in a description of the study.
Instead: Start with “ludicrously small”, consistent habits.
To achieve sustainable productivity habits, it’s best to build up with easily achievable tasks. “Many of us quickly lose steam, get discouraged, and quit on our goals prematurely because we bite off more than [we] can chew,” says psychologist Nick Wignall.
He recommends “start[ing] ludicrously small.” Come up with what seems like a manageable, regular routine, and then downgrade several steps even from that. For example, if your goal is writing a novel, start by committing to writing one hour every morning, then scale down to 500 words every day, then 500 words every week day, then settle on 300 words every week day.
Basically, the more bite-sized the tasks are, the easier it is to create a routine that you stick to. Eventually, these small chunks of accomplishment will amount to something big — like that novel.
Myth 4: Optimize your productivity apps and systems.
This is a funny one to debunk as a writer for Doist, but hear me out. Tweaking (or totally overhauling) our productivity apps and systems makes us feel like we’re accomplishing something. The problem is, that “something” is managing our productivity apps and systems, not actually working toward our goals.
While it’s great to find the right app (for me Todoist) or system (for me the Pomodoro method) leaning too heavily on them can take on a life of its own, especially when it focuses on quantity — ticking as many items off your to-do list as possible — rather than quality — prioritizing the tasks that will have the biggest impact on your goals — according to Dan Ariely, a psychology and behavioral economics professor at Duke University.
Take, for example, trying to reach “inbox zero”. When the goal is finishing every day with no emails in your inbox, the incentive is to spend a lot of time checking your email and creating elaborate filing systems. But all this leads to is having a blank screen for an inbox. It doesn’t actually achieve any larger priorities. (It may even be a waste of time. People who use folders to organize their emails do not find them any faster than people who just search for their emails, according to a study from IBM researchers).
At some point, the diminishing returns of optimizing our productivity systems turn negative. Quantifying ourselves through the use of apps and systems is stimulating and even addictive, but it can distract us from more cognitively demanding — and fundamentally more satisfying — work.
Instead: Be selective about the apps and systems you use.
Set your priorities offline. Then, use your favorite apps or systems as a way to break down and achieve your priorities. Use just a couple apps and systems, and don’t stress about staying up to date on every new thing. Choose apps based on whether they help you achieve your goals and not because you feel like you should be using the hot new app.
Myth 5: Use rewards.
American culture heavily promotes the idea that people are most strongly motivated by external rewards, like money or prestigious titles.
But the story of the person who realized all of the money and power they could want did not make them happy is as old as time.
Instead, we tend to derive our most meaningful and sustainable stores of productivity through “intrinsic motivation”.
According to a 2013 study of around 3,500 German schoolchildren, those motivated to earn good grades worked hard and did well in the near term, but those who worked hard because they were interested in and wanted to achieve mastery of a subject did better in the long term.
Interestingly, the use of extrinsic rewards — like raises, promotions, and benefits — can undermine intrinsic motivation when people already find a task engaging. If an extrinsic reward is introduced to someone who is already interested in a project, it displaces the internal motivation, a phenomenon called “motivational crowding theory.” Even if the external reward is subsequently removed from the picture, people have trouble summoning their original, internal motivation.
Instead: Cultivate intrinsic motivation.
Focus on cultivating your intrinsic motivation. First, take time to enumerate your top values in life using a framework like the Eisenhower Matrix. This will help you set priorities and understand the skills you most want to develop in your work.
Then, focus on the process rather than the outcome. For example, if you are trying to write a novel, you can write in time blocks and even create a to-do list where the items to mark off are time increments. This gets you to aim toward the very real and finite act of writing within a bounded period of time rather than the more abstract and outcome-oriented goal of writing a novel or even writing a chapter.
As author and artist Austin Kleon puts it, focus on the verb rather than the noun:
“Lots of people want to be the noun without doing the verb. They want the job title without the work…Doing the verb will take you someplace further and far more interesting than just wanting the noun.”
Myth 6: Willpower is finite.
The subject of willpower is one of the most controversial in social psychology. For many years, a theory called “ego depletion” has defined the conventional wisdom. According to this theory, exercising willpower and resisting temptation (to get a snack, to check social media, to take a nap, etc.) is a cognitively demanding task that diminishes our ability to perform.
But that theory has recently been called into question due to widespread failure to replicate its findings. Newer research suggests that willpower may be more variable, and based on context and culture. For example, one study comparing 400 people from India to 450 from the United States found that Americans had a harder time with self-control in persisting on a task than those from India.
“The daily exertion of self-control to become stronger is a part of the philosophical traditions in eastern Asian context,” explained Veronika Job, one of the researchers. Ego depletion “depends on the cultural effects and context.”
Related research from Job, Carol Dweck, and Gregory Walton finds that participants who believe willpower is unlimited show fewer signs of ego depletion compared to those who believed there are limits. Even the originator of the “ego depletion” theory, Roy Baumeister has published a paper stating that “motivation, personal beliefs, and limited resources” are varying contributors to willpower.
As researchers Michael Inzlicht and Brandon J. Schmeichel, who failed to replicate Baumeister’s theory, said, “[ego depletion] is not some mysterious result of lost self-control resources but rather the result of shifts in motivation, attention, and emotion.”
Instead: Build your willpower over time through positive affirmation and habit development.
Developing small habits, or rituals helps build willpower over time. Over the summer, I adopted a habit called “morning pages” recommended in Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way, where one writes three pages every morning without concern about skill or content. Doing this has gotten me into the routine of writing when I don’t feel like it, and I have seen both my motivation and the actual time I spend writing increase as a result. When an action becomes a habit, it doesn’t require any willpower at all. (For more on the importance of habit, check out Charles Duhigg’s book The Power of Habit).
Self-affirmation can also help increase willpower, according to a 2009 study. Try saying or writing a positive affirmation to yourself, or become mindful of your negative thoughts and revising them (turning can'ts into cans, for instance). It may sound corny, but it seems to work.
Although willpower is malleable, it’s important not to overdo work at the expense of leisure and relaxation. Taking breaks and making time to play will help you learn to like your habits enough to stick to them.
Myth 7: Visualize achieving your goal.
The only thing separating you from reaching your goals is your imagination, right? If you can simply see yourself reaching your objective — crossing the finish line of a marathon, sending your novel off to an agent, landing your dream job — you will achieve it. Visualization techniques like the Secret sound like they should work, but so often they don’t.
According to a straight-forwardly titled paper “Positive fantasies about idealized futures sap energy,” visualization doesn’t inspire us to jump higher, but rather causes us to become complacent.
“One reason positive fantasies predict poor achievement is because they do not generate energy to pursue the desired future,” the authors conclude.
People also become more easily deterred by setbacks because in our fantasy version, nothing went wrong.
Instead: Use your imagination, but realistically.
The authors of the paper recommend trying “critical visualization,” where you imagine “realistic obstacles, setbacks, and other decidedly not-so-positive factors,” as David DiSalvo summarizes in Forbes. For example, you could imagine what would happen if you don’t get a dream job or have to postpone travel plans. Doing this helps you not get wedded to one specific outcome and it keeps the journey to your goal achievable while being more realistic.
Myth 8: Stay busy.
We all complain about being busy, and yet we keeping over-scheduling ourselves. Some of this owes to modern work culture.
It also has to do with the belief we achieve more if we commit to more. Take this account in Self of Lauren McGoodwin, a full-time recruiter and Master’s in Communications student living in Los Angeles:
Those rare times she actually allowed herself to think about it, she acknowledged that she got a charge out of packing her calendar, loading up her to-do list and getting it all done. The long list could be a source of anxiety, and sometimes she drove herself to exhaustion. But the thought of the alternative—a list with little or nothing on it? That just felt wrong.
While there is some evidence in research from Columbia University that busy people are productive because they “perceive that they are using their time effectively,” busy-ness often points to confusion about priorities.
According to the Journal of European Psychology Students, there are a few key differences between being busy versus being productive:
- Having “poorly specified” versus “clearly specified” goals
- “Hav[ing] multiple priorities, engag[ing in multitasking” versus “hav[ing clear priorities, focus[ing] on single task”
- “Say[ing] ‘yes’ to most of the things (impulsive ‘yes’) versus “say[ing] ‘no’ to many of the things (thoughtful ‘yes’)
- “Immediately respond[ing] to any given task” versus “schedul[ing] tasks”
Instead: Try these techniques to avoid the busyness trap.
There are different ways to avoid the “busyness trap.” Here are a few:
- Focus on just doing three important things each day, suggests entrepreneur Dan Sullivan.
- Have a one-hour electronic blackout period, recommends Thomas J. DeLong, a professor of management practice at Harvard Business School.
- Recognize your “bias for action” — common among entrepreneurs — and realize you do not always need to do something, says business psychologist Tony Crabbe.
- Say no to things that do not advance your goals.
- Have a morning routine where you take time to reflect on how you will organize the day to fulfill some of your values.
Myth 9: An uncompromising regimen will keep you productive.
We picture highly productive people as those who get up in the morning, drink a protein shake, and blow through their to-do lists before the rest of us are even out of bed. And it may be that there are some people who are this productive. But there is a reason many of us struggle with maintaining an uncompromising regimen.
“In my work as a psychologist, I routinely encounter some pretty unproductive side-effects that come along with the militantly productive mindset, one of the most common of which is judgmental self-talk,” says Wignall on his blog.
“While a harsh inner-critic can be superficially motivating in the short term, it tends to have crippling effects on long-term productivity because of the anxiety and depression it leads to,” Wignall adds.
Self-criticism that leads to depression and anxiety tends to make us feel smaller. Productivity comes from feeling light and open, not closed.
Instead: Try positive self-talk
Wignall recommends changing the way you talk to yourself when you’re trying to build up motivation to do something. Rather than being hard on yourself when you don’t meet your expectations (“I am so undisciplined when it comes to doing my finances”), be more supportive of yourself and understanding of your challenges (“I always manage to log my finances even though it is one of my least favorite things to do, and I am more disciplined in other areas of my life).”
The problem with productivity myths is that they can make you feel like a failure if you aren’t able to live up to them. They promote productivity for productivity’s sake, rather than for the sake of accomplishing something you really care about. That’s why the gist of much of the “instead” advice in this article focuses on devising ways to better enjoy your work and challenge yourself while managing expectations — so you don’t feel like a failure when you fall short and you keep going.
What productivity myths have you tried — and what did you find worked better? Share your experience in the comments section.
Elaine is a writer, editor, and content strategist who is interested in tech, health, and the future of work.