Why trying to get everything done will ruin your productivity

With the launch of How to be Really Productive, I’ve been doing a few interviews lately, talking about what productivity is really about. One thing that keeps coming up for me is what I call The Everything Myth.

Productivity is not about getting everything done. In fact, trying to get everything done can actively hamper your productivity. Here are six reasons why:

1. You distract yourself

It’s really hard to focus on just one thing when everything else is beckoning. Whenever I run Productivity Ninja workshops and ask the question, “Who or what distracts you most from getting things done?” the top answer is often “Me!”

We distract ourselves with thoughts of everything else we’re trying to get done – other projects, other ideas, other reminders and nags. When you try to get everything done, everything distracts you from the one thing you’re trying to get done.

2. You dilute your impact

When you try and do everything, all you end up doing is spreading yourself thin and diluting your impact. It’s what Greg McKeown describes as “the unfulfilling experience of making a millimetre of progress in a million directions.”

You actually achieve less, and do your clients no favours either. Ever tried to shop in a store that sells ‘everything’? How easy is it to actually find what you need? And how reassuring would it be, to take your car to a mechanic, and find half-assembled washing machines, printers and lawnmowers in the garage?

Being able to be all things to all people might seem like an attractive proposition, but in reality it creates confusion, mediocrity and vagueness. You make less impact, give less value and everyone ends up frustrated.

3. What you actually get done becomes a lottery

When everything’s a priority, nothing is. When faced with a giant to-do list, choosing what to do becomes more like a lucky dip than a thoughtful decision.

You keep plugging away, day in, day out, in the hope of hitting the jackpot. There’s always a tiny chance that you will, but more often the pay-offs you actually see are the token amounts – or nothing at all.

4. You become addicted to activity

There’s a difference between fake work and real work. Fake work is the activity that keeps you busy and gives you very little in return. Real work is the action that takes you closer towards your goals and gives you meaningful results.

The problem with trying to get everything done is the pressure gets so high, it’s easy to get hooked on the momentary satisfaction of ticking something – anything – off your to-do list. And often it’s the activity that gives a quick hit – rather than the actions that take more of your thoughtful attention, tenacity and creativity to work through.

5. You worry about things beyond your control

Another common symptom of trying to get everything done is we overextend our sense of responsibility and worry over things we can’t actually do anything about.

Not everything you worry about is within your control. Take a look at your to-do list. How much of it is filled with clear, actionable tasks? How much of it is just a sense of worry – something you have a vague sense of responsibility over, or something you’re taking too much responsibility over?

As cricketer Glenn Turner put it “Worrying is like a rocking chair, it gives you something to do, but it gets you nowhere.” There is plenty of worry in this world to keep us busy. If we’re going to be really productive, we need to separate the work from the worry.

6. You never get to the end of everything

As human beings, we are not designed to function on a constant output. We need times when we stop, and times when we start again. Times of recovery in between times of performance. Our momentum, energy and motivation depend on our ability to stop. To derive satisfaction from a sense of completion, to be able to switch off and feel good about what we have accomplished, so we can rest and start again tomorrow.

Without this, we lose our fire, our drive, our clarity and our ability to do our best work. We become overwhelmed, disillusioned and eventually burnout.

The problem with everything is, it never ends. And the truth is, there is always more work we can do – more calls we can make, ideas we can have, more projects we can pursue. In a world where work never ends, it’s up to us to create our own finish lines. To decide what job done looks like, what success looks like, and enjoy the sense of completion and satisfaction that comes with doing good work.

True productivity is not about doing everything.

It’s knowing what you don’t do, so you can genuinely commit to what you do do. It’s separating the worry from the work, and the fake work from the real work. It’s choosing what you get done, instead of leaving it to chance. It’s being focused on where you create your biggest impact and make your best contribution, and giving that everything you’ve got.

Over to you. What do you make of The Everything Myth? What would it mean for you to let go of trying to do everything? What would that allow you to focus on instead?

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