Every time I hear a productivity myth described as fact, I cringe as if listening to a snake oil salesman peddle his cures. Productivity myths hold you back. They aren’t just inaccurate—they have the potential to hinder your productivity rather than help.
By letting them go, you can make room for productivity methods that actually work. Here are five myths you should stop believing now.
Myth: Motivate Yourself to Focus with a Reward
Do you tell yourself that if you just finish that one project, if you just focus for one hour, if you just buckle down for today, then you can treat yourself to something? You can go out for a nice dinner or get a cappuccino at a café or buy yourself something.
How has that been working for you?
For hundreds of years, we’ve believed that motivation is driven by reward and punishment. But the truth is, the root cause of human behavior is to relieve discomfort. All motivation is a desire to escape discomfort. Even when we think we’re seeking pleasure, we’re actually driven by the desire to free ourselves from the pain of wanting. And when we feel that discomfort, we are prone to distraction.
If you feel discomfort, also known as an internal trigger, such as anxiousness or restlessness, when you try to accomplish a certain task, then an arbitrary external reward is not going to motivate you to overcome that discomfort.
Instead, add a bit of play to the task itself.
Ian Bogost, a professor of interactive computing at the Georgia Institute of Technology, says that fun and play can be a part of any difficult task. They can even be used as tools to keep us focused.
The idea is to pay such close attention to your task that you find new challenges you didn’t see before. Those new challenges provide the novelty to engage our attention and maintain focus when tempted by distraction.
For example, if you’re struggling to sit down and write an article, give yourself a time limit, or try to write it as fast as you can. Operating under a constraint adds a fun element.
Myth: The “Best” Productivity Apps Will Help You Focus
Don’t fool yourself into thinking that, when you’re struggling to accomplish the task at hand, perusing the internet for the app that will help you focus is productive.
Searching for the holy grail of productivity apps is just another distraction. Spending hours searching for and trying out the best productivity apps is wasting time.
Productivity apps are not one-size-fits-all. You have to be intentional about finding the right productivity for you. First diagnose the problem, then search for the solution.
Myth: Multitasking Destroys Productivity
It’s true that most forms of multitasking aren’t effective. We can’t tinker on our phone and be fully present with our friends at the same time. We can’t simultaneously absorb information shared during a meeting and write a report.
People not only commit more errors when juggling many tasks but also take longer—sometimes double the time—to complete the tasks.
But there is one brand of multitasking that does effectively help you save time: multichannel multitasking, the concept of pairing one complex task with a lower-level task that uses a different sensory input.
Multichannel multitasking is a way to navigate the two limitations of the human brain: one, its limited processing power—the more concentration a task requires, the less room the brain has for anything else—and two, its limited number of attention channels, meaning it can only concentrate on one sensory output at a time.
As long as we’re not required to concentrate too much on any one channel, we’re able to do more than one thing at once.
We can make calls while walking, listen to podcasts while cleaning, and cook meals with friends and family.
We can even use temptation bundling—which involves multitasking with one task you enjoy and one you don’t—to motivate us. For example, you might exercise while watching your favorite TV shows.
Myth: You Have to Be Ready to Successfully Pursue a Goal
Do you have a goal, aspiration, or milestone so big that you keep putting off until you’re “ready”? This could be writing a book, going back to school to advance your career, opening a business, running a marathon… Whatever it is, you dream of it happening but keep saving it for someday because you’re “just not in the right place” to do it now.
Well, what exactly do you need to be ready for? Sure, with certain ventures like opening a business, you need to be financially prepared. But you can start working towards your dream now, no matter what your current financial situation. The myth of readiness is actually a detriment to your productive pursuit of a goal or dream.
Declaring yourself “ready” or not means thinking you have to have a quality output standard. It focuses too hard on the destination and outcomes and not enough on the journey, so getting started seems overwhelming.
We have to redefine what being “ready” means. In reality, you’re ready to pursue a goal when you can put in the time to work toward your goal for as long as you said you would.
As long as you schedule time for working toward this goal in your timeboxed calendar and stick to it, you’re doing everything you need to be doing.
Stop thinking of your goal or dream as something to finish. Just because you haven’t finished something doesn’t mean you haven’t made progress. You just have to work on it without distraction.
Myth: A To-Do List Is all You Need
When we need to manage all of our tasks, a common approach is to make a to-do list. We write down all the things we want to do and hope we’ll find the time throughout the day to do them. But often these tasks get pushed from one day to the next. It’s not an effective way to manage our time.
To-do lists aren’t useful for productivity for the same reason the myth of readiness isn’t.
Being productive, or making good use of your time, and finishing tasks are not the same thing. Output isn’t the only measurement of accomplishment. Treating it that way doesn’t take into account the journey of long-term goals and thus discourages people from pursuing those goals.
Yet to-do lists measure productivity based on output.
Stop making yourself feel like you’re not doing anything just because you didn’t check off a box today. If your task is an important project, it’s going to take time. It’s not something that can be done in a day.
This article also appears on NirAndFar.com.