May 16

How To Increase Productivity (It’s Not What You Think)

Mental Health

Looking to increase productivity? You're not alone. According to a survey of in-app users, Headway found that 60 percent of respondents shared a desire to be more productive. What's more, "be productive" was the No. 1 goal across users from the United States, United Kingdom, and Australia — beating out other self-growth goals like "have more money," "have a healthy body," "love and be loved," and simply "be happy." 

But at the same time people are striving to increase productivity, they're reporting being busier than ever. An estimated 60 percent of workers eat lunch at their desk (guilty) and spend up to 15 hours per work week simply sending an answering emails on average

When you factor in the lifestyle of content creators and creative people in general, that sense of overwhelm likely only increases. Because in addition to working on your craft, you're also constantly crafting content. And if your craft and your content aren't yet paying the bills in their entirety, you're doing it all on top of, you know, eating at your desk and spending absurd amounts of time on emails. 

So what's the key to getting more done? It's probably not what you think. 

The First Step To Increase Productivity Is To Redefine It

Most of the time, when you look into tips to increasing productivity, you're going to get practical advice on how to structure your day and handle obligations. Things like goal-setting, task management, time batching, and the Eisenhower matrix are all helpful tools on how to prioritize. 

But they don't typically address the most critical underlying factor: your happiness. 

People often conflate productivity with your employment or career, but it's important to disconnect the concept of "being productive" with "producing quantifiable results." For instance, tackling a work report, renewing your driver license, creating two new social media videos, and sending out a few brand deal emails are obvious examples of productivity. There was an input and an output, as well as the potential for more results based on what you did.

But taking your dog on a walk, spending an hour FaceTiming your best friend, reading a book, or starting a garden are also productive tasks. Even though most people wouldn't classify them that way. Because, quite simply, they typically help your body produce all those happy chemicals you need to feel satisfied in life. 

A 2017 Gallup study found that 70 percent of Americans felt disconnected and emotionally uninvested from their jobs. It's easy to extrapolate this to a general sense of unhappiness, since we spend so much time at work (and many articles have done that, citing this source). But feeling disconnected or not emotionally attached to your job doesn't automatically equate to being unhappy. While yes, a sense of purpose and positive effect are critical components to overall happiness, you could even make the argument that not being emotionally invested in your job is a healthy form of life balance. 

The first step to increasing your productivity is to recognize you're actually getting a lot more done than you realize.

For Many People, Being More Productive Doesn't Make You Less Busy

An article by Arthur C. Brooks in The Atlantic hones in on the notion that busyness is ruining happiness. Brooks starts by citing a Pew Research survey in which 60 percent of respondents said they sometimes feel too busy to enjoy life, with that number jumping to 74 percent when asking parents with a child under the age of 18.

You might think, then, that "getting more done" with the same amount of hours in the day — e.g. productivity — could ultimately reduce this sense of overwhelm and busy burden. That might even be why you clicked on this article, or any one of the thousands giving helpful task management tips and tricks. 

But for starters, that's easier said than done. Being busy is often a mindset as much as it is a reality. (This is one place where the Eisenhower matrix really can help psychologically: removing a sense of immediacy from tasks that aren't both urgent and important). If you're the type of person with an endless list of to-do's, you can be as productive as you like, but it won't make you any less busy, and by extension, any more happy. 

The Key To Productivity Is Happiness — And Not The Other Way Around

So this is where the crux of the matter comes in. In all likelihood, you may be asking how to increase productivity, but what you really want is to increase your happiness. And the answer to that is, well, to do less. 

So, yeah, to do more, you need to do less. (Gee, thanks team RootNote, very helpful). 

In other words, you need to make more free time for yourself. More time to talk to friends, play video games, try a new hobby, travel, cook, or even just stare at the ceiling while tossing a tennis ball up and down. 

How much more? For most American, a lot. 

A UCLA study published by the American Psychological Association found that the sweet spot for "free time" in a day is about 9.5 hours. If you're doing the math, that means you should be sleeping for about 7-8 hours, enjoying yourself for about 9 hours, and only "being busy" for about 7 hours. 

If you're saying to yourself that sounds impossible, you're not alone. The study also found that the average amount of discretionary hours (a.k.a. free time not encumbered by work or familial obligations) for an adult is about 1.8. That's a huge gap between the ideal number for happiness and the actual number. It's also probably why so many people report being unhappy. Even when they are otherwise "getting a lot done." 

It's important to note there's also such thing as too much free time. When people feel like they have "nothing to do," they often create busy work, or worse, start to feel a lack of purpose. Having all the free time in the world and having no free time can be equally damaging to a sense of happiness, oddly enough. 

But that's why the notion of "hustle culture" and "always be busy gurudom" is so damaging to actually feeling happy and productive. You need to create time and space to do things that have nothing to do with your to-do list. When you derive happiness from other areas of your life, you also create a sense of motivation to tackle the otherwise mundane tasks. And when your happiness isn't also attached to how productive you are, you'll soon find that being generally happy makes you a lot more productive. 


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