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How to overcome the pressure to be productive

Most of us regularly feel the pressure to be productive. And certainly that pressure was ramped up during the recent Covid-19 lockdowns.  

For people suddenly living a life completely indoors this meant juggling personal, family, and work priorities. And the pressure to do it all without dropping any balls grew tenfold.

In addition, social media feeds were chock-full of ways to learn a new skill, build a beach bod, and write a best-selling book by June.

The underlying criticism so many of us soaked up while scrolling through these posts was that somehow we were “wasting the opportunity” to focus on our goals and be productive while staying at home and taking care not to, you know, get sick or die. (Heck, as we’ve been told ad nauseam these days, Shakespeare wrote King Lear in quarantine during the bubonic plague, so what’s wrong with us?)

Productiveness fuelled by stress

And yet, in hindsight, taking the time to rest, to lessen our workload, not stuff our days with to-do schedules, and just chill out with others in our home or with friends and family through video chat services, was probably the most productive thing we could have done.

After all, the pressure to be productive is often fuelled by stress. And while moderate levels of stress can be just the ticket to motivate your mojo and boost your brain productivity, the recent Covid-19 pandemic has already been classed as one of the most stressful events we’ll ever experience in our lifetime.  Topping that up with extra helpings of tension would only be more traumatic.  

Activity is not productivity

In addition, constant activity doesn’t equal productivity. It can actually make us feel more overworked, more overwhelmed and less able to meet our goals.

The pressure we put on ourselves to be high-performing machines was here long before the pandemic, of course. And, with many of us now facing financial struggles and less secure working lives, it has become just as prevalent in these post-pandemic times too.

That’s why it’s crucial that as we face into a life after lockdown, we look at ways we can work on accomplishing our goals and meeting our needs, but without burning out through the belief that if we’re “doing” we’re succeeding.  

So here are three steps and actions to take to help you overcome the pressure to be productive.

Step #1:
Understanding what’s pushing the need to be productive

You may have a deadline to meet, a dinner to cook or an activity you’ve been promising yourself for years you’re going to take up. Tackling these as goals or regular routines can be helpful in building good mental health and a sense of self and purpose.

After all, completing a project you put 80 hours of work into or ensuring your family has a healthy dinner every day even if you’re currently working from home, is definitely something to be proud of.

But sometimes we give too much power to our need to achieve, defining our self-worth by our ability to succeed or fail. And if your self-esteem is completely predicated on “doing” and “achieving” you may find yourself slumping into self-loathing, shame or anger every time you fail to work “productively”.

Those who have the need to be super-productive are often also wrestling with the need to be “perfect”. But productivity is not about working yourself into the ground or being perfect in all that you do. As Brené Brown writes in The Gifts of Imperfection:

“Perfection is not about healthy achievement and growth… Healthy striving is self-focused: “How can I improve?” Perfectionism is other-focused: “What will they think?”

What to do: So, if you’re feeling the need to be productive at all costs, ask yourself “why?” What are you trying to prove and to whom? (Could it be a case of ‘Hawaiian logic’ that Heather Legge describes in her article about overwhelm?) This will help you to understand what’s really behind the pressure you’re putting on yourself.

Step #2:
Feel the fear… and recognise it for what it is

The pressure to be productive is often fear-based. This can be particularly true in times like the recent pandemic.

Many of us worked longer, harder hours than we ever did before in the belief and hope that doing so would help us keep our jobs, our businesses, and our families afloat.

And of course, while this may have given us solid comfort knowing that we could control some part of our lives, constant “doing” can also be a way of avoiding reality.  

After all, if we’re too exhausted or unavailable to engage with the rest of life happening around us, we can avoid the truth of what’s around us too.  

But here’s why that’s not helpful: at some stage, the feelings we’re fencing off will come to the fore. And it probably won’t be pretty.

What to do: Manage your feelings as you feel them, and give yourself the energy and health of mind to deal with them appropriately.

If you’re particularly tired or low, don’t push yourself to be productive. Take a break. Read a book. Journal about your feelings.

Even stepping off the treadmill for an hour to rest and recover your mood can help.

Step #3:
Prioritise and plan

Productivity is a measure of efficiency. It means getting more done per time/cost/resource and typically in a way that involves quality as well as quantity.

After all, if you’re penning a book, 10 well-written pages that don’t need much editing are much more efficient than 20 mediocre pages you’ll have to redraft or bin.  

To achieve efficiency, you must prioritise and plan what needs to be done. But here’s what’s critical to understand: You don’t need to be doing something every minute of the day to be productive. You need to be productive during the moments you’re doing something. This is how you become efficient.

Focus on your priorities one at a time to the best of your ability. And give yourself a time frame for activity.

If you work from 9-5, but you also want to prioritise building a part-time business and training for a marathon, plan appropriate times to do the other activities. Maybe you train one hour in the morning before work, and put an hour aside after dinner for your side hustle.

Actually organising and planning time – and then maintaining that plan – will prevent you from being swept up in constant busyness and keep you off the downhill slope to burn-out.  

Everyone has priorities

Of course, the success of this is knowing which activities are your priorities. Even if an individual doesn’t have specific activities in mind such as training for a marathon, they have daily priorities.  

As a coach, I’m often surprised that many people allow others to dictate this to them. A person may regularly work late “because everyone else does”. Or they might always be available to colleagues, friends and family, even when that’s a distraction from their own to-do-list.     

Know your values

A trick to knowing what your daily priorities are is simply to check in with your values.

For instance, many people automatically put work above all else. But if you value having a successful relationship then you know you need to keep your work hours reasonable so that you can spend quality time with your partner. That also means, planning to be as productive as possible in the hours you allocate to work, so that you can accomplish this.

If you don’t prioritise and plan the important activities in your day, you’ll find yourself being pulled in every direction, and likely end up feeling pressurised and resentful.

What to do: Make a list of your values and see what areas of your life they represent. Allocate appropriate time to each area and plan to use that time as productively as possible.

Not only will this strengthen your efficiency in these spheres, but it’ll also help remind you that you don’t have to be a high-performing machine. Being a happy, energised and productive human being is, by far, good enough. 

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Gabrielle Collard
Verified Coach
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I’m a certified coach from London, Marketing Consultant and founder of The Coach Space. For enquiries email gabrielle@thecoachspace.com or connect with me on LinkedIn.

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