We all have those days when we have a to-do that runs a mile long. Yet we aren’t able to get down to business. We read books on productivity, use time-management tools, plan, and even get accountability buddies. It works in many situations. But sometimes, it’s a lost cause. And with that, comes a feeling of heaviness, guilt, unworthiness, a tendency to compare ourselves to others et al.

What’s really going on behind the scenes?

Situation #1: Sometimes we don’t feel like it.

Yes, we all like feeling inspired for the work we undertake. But according to numerous experts, it is a grand assumption to believe that we need to feel that way, to get things done. And if that inspiration goes missing, we let our work suffer. The solution: just show up and start. As simple as that.

In his book Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking, Oliver Burkeman shares that, when we say things like “I just can’t get out of bed early in the morning,” or “I’m not able to work on that slideshow at all,” what’s happening is that we can’t get ourselves to feel like doing these things.  There is no physical obstacle. But he asks, “Who says you need to wait until you ‘feel like’ doing something in order to start doing it?”

Situation #2: Sometimes we are afraid of messing it up.

In the workplace, a lot of our tasks have a promotion focus – we see it as a way to end up better off than we are now – as an achievement. Research shows that we are motivated by the thought of making gains, and work best when we feel eager and optimistic. But the moment there is anxiety or doubt, our task performance is compromised.

The solution: a prevention focus. Instead of thinking about how you can end up better off, you see the task as a way to hang on to what you’ve already got – to avoid loss. When you are focused on avoiding loss, it becomes clear that the only way to get out of danger is to take immediate action.  So, here, anxiety is helpful. Next time, think of your to-do as preventing career damage.

Situation #3: Sometimes tasks are too challenging or non-stimulating.

Often when we think of how we can work better, our thoughts are around better chunking of time, starting work early or a smarter plan. But, oft we never deliver on these intentions. Studies show that people routinely overestimate their will power. The solution: if-then planning.

Making an if-then plan is more than just deciding what specific steps you need to take. It’s also deciding where and when. “If I have to turn this in tomorrow at 10 AM, then I will start right now, and work with Ben.” This form of planning, as shown in over 200 studies, increases rates of goal attainment and productivity by 200%-300% on average. It prompts us to rely more on decision making, than will power.

Gaining little insights into the working of our minds, is a step into turning awareness into action. Of course, one size does not fit all. What helps you get over your unproductive blocks?

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