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Obstacles to Productivity

Productivity isn’t always easy to maintain. It can be thrown off by anxiety, burnout, lack of sleep, poor time estimation or decision-making skills, or simply having too many competing priorities. An otherwise productive day can also be derailed by external factors—particularly in the workplace—that make staying on task difficult, even if the individual is highly motivated to do so. Different obstacles to productivity tend to require fixes; thus, identifying the problem (or problems) that hinder progress is mission critical.

Internal Barriers to Productivity

Internal barriers to productivity—including persistent feelings of distraction, excessive task-switching, or a tendency to procrastinate—can be frustrating in themselves. But in a culture that glorifies hyperproductivity and being “always on,” feeling unproductive, even temporarily, can trigger intense stress, anxiety, or shame—feelings that often, in turn, make it even harder to be productive. In many cases, a negative emotion is in play; addressing these emotions can both increase mental well-being and trigger a significant boost in output.

Why am I so unproductive?

A chronic sense of non-productivity can have several root causes. Some are obvious—during the COVID-19 pandemic, for instance, many people found themselves struggling to remain productive while also managing a "new normal."  Other reasons, such as insufficient sleep or feelings of burnout, may be more difficult to identify.

Anyone who feels as if they’ve been consistently unproductive for more than a few days should first assess whether common culprits like their sleep schedule, stress levels, or exercise habits could be in play. 

It’s also important to look for signs of burnout, which may include feelings of apathy or general exhaustion alongside poor productivity. Depression may also be a root cause. If someone feels that their mental health is interfering with their ability to function at work or at home, it’s important that they seek help as soon as possible, either by finding a therapist or by integrating self-help approaches—such as increasing exercise, implementing stress-reduction tactics, or fostering social connections—into their daily life.

Why do I procrastinate all the time?

Some common causes of procrastination include poor time estimation abilities, a present-oriented (rather than future-oriented) mindset, depression or anxiety, and low tolerance for difficult or uncomfortable situations. Other procrastinators are simply in the habit of procrastinating and don’t know how to stop the behavior; still others struggle with poor self-confidence and tend to put off potentially challenging tasks as a result. Not all chronic procrastinators do so for the same reasons.

Workplace and Organizational Barriers to Productivity

Workplaces (along with many other organizations) prize productivity in their workers. But too often, they are set up in ways that impede it, or that prioritize the appearance of productivity over actual accomplishments. While it can be hard for any individual to fix a dysfunctional workplace or group, identifying what the problem is, and suggesting reasonable ways of ameliorating it to those in charge, can have a positive effect. In some cases, however, the best course of action may be for the individual to leave the workplace and find another that is better suited to his or her productivity style.

How do I know if I’m organizing or participating in too many meetings?

It’s not uncommon for organizations to fall into a pattern in which their employees spend too much time in unproductive, mandatory meetings. Meetings, even poorly organized ones, can create an illusion of productivity in the eyes of many managers. In fields that are primarily based on “knowledge work,” rather than on selling goods or on manual labor, the trap of too many meetings can be even more seductive, as workers’ output is often less concrete and may be difficult for managers to track without frequent check-ins. Another driver of unproductive meetings, experts argue, is that few people know how to conduct an effective, efficient meeting.

How can organizations have more productive meetings?

The characteristics of effective meetings are widely studied and lead to the following suggestions:

- Set clear expectations for what will be discussed and allow attendees to prepare in advance.

- Keep the discussion focused by having a designated person, usually the leader, redirect it when it gets off track.

- Maintain an atmosphere in which all attendees feel free to voice their opinions. Allowing one or two people to dominate discussion, without seeking input from others, is generally discouraged.

- Keep discussions positive whenever possible. Managers should keep the mood light and, when complaints or problems are shared, respond to them with an open mind and redirect back to solutions.

- Keep meetings short and to a minimum. Meetings that have no clear purpose or that drag on dampen employee morale and motivation while increasing fatigue.

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