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—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.
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.
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.
The specific reason someone procrastinates can help them identify what strategy will help them better manage their time; thus, it’s important to consider some potential causes of chronic procrastination and determine which one applies to a particular situation.
Many researchers who study procrastination argue that negative emotions are a primary driver of many instances. Procrastination is a form of avoidance, which is a common and often maladaptive strategy for dealing with difficult emotions such as anxiety, depression, or stress. Research has shown that experiencing negative emotions one day consistently predicts procrastination the following day. Perfectionism, or the need to strive for flawless work, can trigger self-criticism and anxiety; it can also lead someone to put off a project altogether out of fear that it won’t be exactly right.
Learning strategies for coping with negative emotions more effectively—either through cognitive behavioral therapy, mindfulness, or otherwise—can help someone both feel more emotionally stable and get a handle on their productivity.
It’s difficult for most people to move seamlessly from one task to another. The human brain is generally not designed to multitask (that is, pay equal attention to more than one task at a time).
Switching tasks requires at least a few moments of mental adjustment—and for some, the process of mentally redirecting their focus can be much longer. Some research suggests that those who are more cognitively flexible—that is, able to consider multiple concepts simultaneously or switch between them quickly—are able to switch tasks slightly more efficiently, but they will still have a certain amount of lag time as they move from one to the other.
Since a small amount of time is lost whenever tasks are switched, the most productive approach is usually to focus on one task at a time before moving to another; this minimizes the number of “switches” that can hamper productivity. Multitasking is almost never a good idea, as it greatly increases the number of times the brain must switch tasks.
Spending time on unimportant tasks is a subtle but pernicious form of procrastination. Someone who needs to write an important paper, for instance, but instead spends hours deep-cleaning their apartment would likely feel frustrated with themselves at the end of day—even though clearing their apartment was technically “productive.” Like other forms of procrastination, putting off critical or time-sensitive tasks in favor of nonessential ones tends to be rooted in avoidance.
To improve meaningful productivity, it can be beneficial to clearly outline one’s priorities before starting work. Identifying the priority (or priorities) that must be completed during the period in question—whether the individual is looking at the next hour, the whole day, or the upcoming week—can help someone direct their attention where it matters most, rather than getting pulled off track by busywork. Making it more difficult to think about or access potential “meaningless” tasks (by leaving one’s phone in another room, for example, or working in a distraction-free space) can also help keep someone focused on more critical priorities.
Experts recommend deliberately directing one’s attention outward, rather than inward. Excessive inward focus when trying to get work done can lead someone to obsess over negative feelings like anxiety and procrastinate more as a result; focusing instead on external sounds and sensations while working can help someone maintain motivation and improve output.
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.
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.
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.
Coworkers who interrupt periods of productivity—either by being loud in shared workspaces, starting unrelated conversations with individuals who are trying to focus, or putting additional projects or conflicting priorities on someone’s plate—can be frustrating. But due to the social and political nature of many workplaces, such situations must often be managed delicately so as not to create further tension.
Individuals in distracting offices should be open to clarifying with their colleagues how they intend to spend their time each day or week. It’s okay to ask not to be disturbed during an important project, for instance, or to gently rebuff a coworker who tries to start a conversation about her weekend. Investing in noise-canceling headphones or shutting an office door, if possible, can also help reduce noise and communicate to coworkers that the individual is attempting to focus on a project.
If it becomes difficult to avoid such distractions, it may be best to bring it up to one’s boss and discuss ways that coworkers can better respect others’ boundaries and need for focused, productive time. However, individuals should not altogether discount the power of unstructured conversations with colleagues; not only do they build social connections that can improve workplace morale, they can also be where new ideas are created or problems are solved.
Many organizations have multilayered organizational structures, and any given worker may have multiple “bosses” to whom he or she reports. When communication is poor between bosses or they attempt to “compete” for the worker’s time, it can become difficult for the individual to manage conflicting priorities or keep up with both bosses’ expectations.
To combat this, open communication is the first step; the worker and bosses should meet regularly to discuss reasonable expectations and outline which priorities can be placed on the back burner if necessary. The employee should also practice friendly assertiveness when priorities conflict, by calmly letting the boss(es) know that he or she is juggling too many tasks and needs to set some aside for the time being.
“Zoom fatigue” is a term that became widespread during the 2020 coronavirus pandemic, when many people and organizations turned to video chat platforms like Zoom in order to maintain social distance. It refers to a feeling of exhaustion, stress, and loneliness people report feeling after spending too much time on video calls.
Researchers speculate that because video calls do not perfectly mimic in-person communication—and may come with delays, garbled audio, or glitchy images—they are more taxing for the brain to visually engage with. Most video call platforms also allow the user to see their own face while they speak, which can be disconcerting or distracting.
Some organizations, in an effort to better oversee employees who were suddenly working from home, increased the number of “meetings” that employees had each day. Thus, some workers found themselves spending significantly more time in Zoom meetings than they did in in-person meetings, contributing to their exhaustion with the platform.
Having fewer meetings of shorter duration is key to combating Zoom fatigue; if information can be easily shared over email or via a messaging app, choosing to do that rather than setting up a Zoom call can reduce user fatigue.
In cases where a face-to-face conversation is preferable, Zoom meetings can be valuable—as long as they are well-structured, with a clear agenda and someone to move them along if they start to drag. If a conversation necessitates an unusually long Zoom call, allowing breaks—and providing employees the freedom to turn off their cameras if they find doing so to be less distracting—can help minimize the physical and mental discomfort that can come with a long, drawn-out video call.
A good way to combat Zoom fatigue is to simply to set clear rules and boundaries about the use of Zoom or other video chat platforms, especially if one is obligated to spend large amounts of time on Zoom during the workday. This doesn’t mean cutting off communication with loved ones altogether; rather, talking on the phone, going on walks with friends (while maintaining social distance as needed), or even writing letters can all be great ways to stay in touch—and reap the benefits of social connection—without coping with the stress of excessive video calls. Many people are also finding that limiting video calls to a core group of close loved ones helps them be less taxing, as trying to maintain weak connections over Zoom is thought to be a strong driver of Zoom fatigue.