Pretending to be Productive

Post written by Leo Babauta.

We’ve all done it: put off important tasks by doing smaller tasks, emails, calls, meetings, managing our to-do lists — seemingly productive activities that really just delay doing the things we know we should be doing.

This is procrastination in disguise. It’s busy-ness that feels productive, but in truth we’re not working on the truly important things.

Let’s say you wake up in the morning and decide that the most important thing you can do today is write a certain report. But instead of starting on the report, you check email and answer a few of them, maybe even getting your inbox to zero. Then you work through a stack of papers on your desk, and take care of a few pressing items on your to-do list. You send a few more emails and check your finances to make sure they’re in order.

All of the actions you took might be productive — they’re good things to do. But you’re using them as excuses to put off the most important thing — the report you know you should write. You made a commitment to yourself to write this report, and now you’re not honoring that commitment.

We’re pretending to be productive, instead of actually getting important stuff done.

How do we beat this? First, recognize it when it happens. Second, put your foot down, clear everything else away, and work on your important task — even if it’s just for 5-10 minutes.

Let’s cover both of these things briefly.

Recognize the Syndrome

It’s hard to recognize the “Pretending to Be Productive” Syndrome because it feels like we’re doing good work. And in some ways we are — we’re also putting off the important task.

So to recognize it, make a habit of picking an important task to tackle, first thing in your work day. Write it down. This is your short to-do list. You can have a longer list, but also have a short list.

Now, get started on the short list. You will likely have the urge to put off this important task and do some other things. This is the moment to pause and recognize that you’re procrastinating.

Later in the day, after your important task is done, cross it off and put another important task in its place. This is your new short list, and if you’re not doing this, then you’re procrastinating.

That said, you do need time to do the other stuff — small tasks, routine things, email, etc. You can block off some chunks of time each day to do those things, but do the important things first. One of the tricks I use is I let myself do the smaller tasks and email only after I do some work on the important task — so the less important stuff is my reward for doing the important stuff.

Focus on the Important Task

So you have your short list — just one important task to work on right now. How do you focus?

A great method is to set a timer. Let’s say you decide to work for just 5 minutes — clear everything away, set your timer, and get to work on your important task. When the timer goes off, set it again for 5 minutes and take a break — you can check email, do other tasks, or get up and walk around.

Then repeat. In this way, you get your important task done in small chunks, then you get a “reward” of doing the other productive things you want to do.

Once you get good at 5-minute focus periods, increase it to 10, then 12, then 15. I find 15-20 minutes a good time to focus, and then my mind needs a break. See what works for you.