Why do we behave unproductively? What is the psychology behind it and how can we change our behaviour?
Ellis Pecen is a performance psychologist and former professional performer. She’s worked in comedy, business, music, theatre, public speaking, individual sports and education. She combines academic research and practical experience to make performance psychology more widely accessible.
Harsha Boralessa of CFA UK’s Soft Skills Working Group said: "I was delighted to host Ellis' insightful and informative talk on the Psychology of Productivity. Ellis has followed up by putting together some strategies for improving productivity. There are no quick fixes, but if we observe our behaviour, increase our self-awareness and put in the effort, it is possible to achieve significant improvement over time."
From the moment you wake up until you go to sleep, a simple pen and paper tracking diary of when and how long you take for each activity will allow you to get an objective overview of what you are currently doing.
Once you have a couple of days of your tracking diary, you can introduce small changes. For example, if it turns out you spend two hours on Facebook, the next day you can aim for 1.5 hours.
The tracking diary also results in quick productivity as you can interrupt your habitual loop, which can make us less prone to procrastinate.
- Identifying triggers
Often our procrastination and productivity behaviours are triggered by influences in our environment. Many of these also happen at sub-conscious levels. For instance, some people procrastinate when they are by themselves, or when they are in a particular type of space.
To allow for maximum productivity, we need to create an environment conducive of this. This requires us to identify what might be influencing out behaviours. A good starting point is to describe the situation that is bothering you. For instance, procrastination. When is it happening? Where are you? Who are you with? What else is going on in your life? Once you have identified potential triggers, it is a process of elimination and experimentation. For example, you might not feel like procrastinating if you moved your laptop to the nearest café or shared workspace and worked from there. Find the trigger and work around it.
- Strategic stress and procrastination
Stress works wonders for productivity, yet we often interpret stress as negative and focus on how bad we feel, creating a vicious cycle for ourselves.
When we learn to use stress strategically it can aid productivity. For instance, we often take as much time as we are given to perform a task. When given less time, we tend to become more anxious and narrowly focused on the task. While this may not feel good at the time, this is not necessarily bad for performance. Giving yourself less time to do something can improve productivity. It’s about being short and powerful. Less is more.
Once the task is done, we can return to focusing on feeling good and relaxed. Balancing wellbeing and performance allows people to thrive and achieve goals. Ideally, humans need short bouts of stress intertwined with moments of calm. Chronic stress is what breaks us down and is often caused by incessant worry, fear of stress and lifestyle habits that are preventing maximum performance. There’s a time to feel good and a time to say yes to stress!
- Key habits
Productivity is about energy, not time. One way in which we can give ourselves more energy and less time to waste, whilst also allowing for optimal wellbeing and productivity, is to incorporate ‘key habits’. These are positive habits that cue positive, productive behaviours.
Often our behaviours follow from what we did previously or what our environment primed us to do. For instance, making your bed immediately after waking up in the morning can be an example of a very simple key habit. While this may seem trivial, you are starting the day with a disciplined act of productivity. Other powerful habits include exercise or making time for an important hobby. The return in energy makes it a worthwhile investment and the benefits of this key habit can be carried over to the quality of your work.
- Mood and motivation
We often confuse motivation with excitement and end up waiting for a feeling of motivation before we get a job done. In high performance, no one would get anything done if they waited until they felt like doing it. Pushing yourself is effortful and will require that you get on with the job rather than waiting for motivation to come ebbing in.
A focus on habitation is more important than feelings of motivation. Creating a new habit will initially feel effortful, yet once it becomes an engrained habit, our brains process the behaviour with more speed and ease and it becomes second nature. The same counts for mood. Your mood can shift by getting started. You do not necessarily need to wait until you feel like doing it.
However, if you are experiencing writer’s block or similar, a change in activity and mood can be useful. Luckily, it’s not that difficult for humans to shift their mood under normal circumstances. We can try things like going for a walk, listening to music or talking to a friend.
- How you see yourself matters
We behave in accordance with what we think about ourselves, whether we do so consciously or not. Our thoughts and beliefs cause automatic behaviours in our daily lives.
We need to examine what we believe about ourselves. For example, some people may be afraid of success because they were brought up to believe that success was for other people or that they were not deserving of success. In such cases, we often end up gravitating towards situations and behaviours that confirm the beliefs we hold about ourselves.
The belief ‘I am a procrastinator’ is a powerful one. It might help to understand that human brains naturally tend to preserve energy, and that positive change will initially be effortful. A more positive belief to focus on might be: ‘I am a person dedicated to positive change’. A simple reframing of our thoughts instantly causes different and more positive neuronal associative networks to be activated.
Read the following words and feel what happens: ‘kind’, ‘flowing’, ‘supported’, ‘cherished’, ‘nurturing’, ‘faithful’, ‘admirable’, ‘respectful’.
We spend most our mental time doing the opposite of this and wonder why we’re miserable. Think in line with the thoughts of the person you want to become. Behave in accordance with the person you want to be. Do it today.