Scott H Young

How to Find Your Productivity Achilles’ Heel


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Everyone procrastinates. Heck, you might be procrastinating right now by reading this, instead of doing something that should be done. That isn’t news.

What I feel is more interesting is where people procrastinate when we do. Even the most productive people have Achilles’ heels, types of tasks which they procrastinate on. Similarly, even the people who claim they have no willpower still have some work they always do on time.

Why is that? And how can you use that knowledge to fix the problem?

I’m a Productive… Except When I’m Not

I’m not superhuman. I have bouts of laziness, procrastination and every other typical human failing.

But, when it comes to my normal work, whether it is assignments for university, tasks for running my business or personal goals, I usually show up. I’ve written according to my 2-3x weekly schedule for this blog almost without exception for nearly 2 years.

I’ve also exercised for nearly 6 years 3-5x per week. I’d guess that in those past six years, I’ve never missed more than 2-3 weeks in a row, and only then because of travel or illness.

Despite that, I have my own Achilles’ heel. Certain types of tasks I’m no better than average at getting them done on time. Others, I forget to do, delay them when I remember and generally fare poorly at getting them done.

What’s my Achilles’ Heel? (And How That Can Help You Fix Yours)

In looking over my weekly/daily goals for the past few years, I would say there are two types of tasks I’m most likely to procrastinate on:

1. Maintenance tasks.
2. Non-routine errands.

Maintenance tasks are things like backing up my computer or website, reorganizing my filing system, tidying or doing laundry. For example, on that last point, I pushed doing laundry off my daily goals list for about 5 days before finally getting it done.

Non-routine errands are another weak-point for me. Things such as calling a support line to cancel a subscription or renewing a driver’s license. Especially if these things have no clear deadline (a subscription could renew indefinitely, unless I stop it).

Why do I procrastinate on these things? Also, how can the self-knowledge of your weak points allow you to improve on yours?

Two Reasons: One in the System, the Other in Motivation

The first reason certain tasks are procrastination trouble spots is that the system you use to organize your life doesn’t accommodate them well.

Obviously, if you used a system like GTD to the exact specifications, keeping every list and folder and using it perfectly, there wouldn’t be any tasks that don’t fit. But nobody uses those systems perfectly, and even if they do follow it closely there are certain types of work that will more easily slip through the cracks.

This seems to be a major reason errands occasionally are sources of procrastination for me. Because they don’t take much time, or have any significant advantage for completing them early, they don’t get much weight in my weekly/daily goals system. I do use a calendar to funnel date-sensitive tasks into the system, but if the errand has no deadline, W/D Goals tends to ignore it.

This is especially true with errands which may not get finished just because you invest time in them. Last year I continually procrastinated on making phone calls to difficult-to-reach people. The reason was simply that my productivity system didn’t manage those types of tasks well. If I call and get a busy signal, am I finished?

Correcting Systemic Errors

Fixing problems in your system usually isn’t too difficult. The solution is just to create a way of elegantly capturing those tasks so that you don’t forget about them. Defining deadlines for errands without deadlines will probably go a long way to solving my procrastination problem with these kinds of tasks.

The difficulty is sometimes in fixing a system problem, you make your life more complicated. Now instead of just having one to-do list, you have three. The bulkier your system, the less it pushes you to work. I’d rather have a 95% successful system that was ruthlessly simple, than a 99.5% system which was horrendously complex.

The Other Problem is Motivation

The other reason for an Achilles’ heel is psychological. There are certain types of tasks that you just don’t like to do.

I think maintenance tasks fall into this category for me. In theory, they shouldn’t be procrastinated in my W/D Goals system. Exercise and blogging are similar tasks in terms of work, frequency and consistency, but I rarely have procrastination issues with them.

Somehow, backing up my website or reorganizing my filing system just feels a lot less satisfying than finishing a blog article or going to the gym.

I could give up and claim that the situation is intractable. That blog writing and exercising are just naturally more fun, so I’ll always be doomed to procrastinate on the other items. But that isn’t really my style.

Instead, I’d like to probe into why I don’t have motivation to do these tasks, and maybe see the beginnings of how to correct it.

Looking deeper, I think the main reasons I lack motivation to work on these tasks is that:

  1. Deep down, I don’t feel they accomplish anything meaningful.
  2. I don’t take much pride in their completion.

Now for some maintenance tasks (polishing cutlery, for example) these two points are probably true. But that’s probably why I never put them on my to-do list in the first place.

The problem here seems to be that consciously I recognize that regular backups or reorganizations are necessary and important, but I don’t sense that on a gut level. Second, I don’t reward myself enough for sustaining these types of maintenance tasks. I congratulate myself for keeping the blog regularly updated and feel guilty if I don’t exercise, but I don’t have the same internal rewards for keeping my desk tidy.

Obviously recognition of these motivational weak spots is just the first step. The next is to start installing habits to correct it. That will take more time and effort, but it isn’t an impossible problem to solve.

However, just as I have current procrastination weak spots, I used to have even more, and patient habit adoption helped cure many (if not all) of those weak points.

How to Spot Your Motivational Weak Spots

I think just about anyone here could go through a similar process to what I went through. Starting with fixing the gaps in your productivity system and then identifying why you don’t put energy into accomplishing certain types of tasks.

Procrastination strikes unevenly. Fixing the weakest links strengthen the entire chain, so spotting these glitches in your approach can have a huge impact.


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12 Responses to “How to Find Your Productivity Achilles’ Heel”

  1. Yongho Shin says:

    Very interesting take on productivity! I resonated with both points you made (system + motivation).

    System: There was a point when I did GTD to the max: Google calendar, to-do list on the Google calendar, Google document listing all my goals so that I can see them on the go. I even divided all my goals into short-term and long-term goals.

    Unfortunately, I spent significantly more time writing down goals than accomplishing them. I would write things like “clean my desk” and write down exactly how to clean my desk (clean the first drawer, clean the second drawer, clean the desk top, etc), but then became lazy when I had to actually do it.

    In other words, I had so many goals that I resorted to not fulfilling any of them. (great point – I later found out – for the Paradox of Choice, fantastic book by Barry Schwartz)

    So I took 1 day to simplify all my goals into just 1 document for one-time tasks (eg: have dinner with a specific friend) and 1 calendar for all regular activities (eg: laundry, grocery shopping, writing). This motivated me so much more.

    Perhaps it’s just me and a handful of people, but I find that the more simple I keep my goals, the more likely I am to actually get them done. Creating a better system made me more motivated, and much more productive.

    Thanks for helping us find our productivity Achilles Heel!

  2. Another great piece. I think we all have to accept that we have sweet spots and tend to stick with those because: (a) we enjoy them; (b) we can see a purpose; (c) it makes us feel good; and (e) it fits in with our image of our self. The problem is that the more menial tasks tick very few of these boxes. I often find that if I do the things that I dislike first – usually with some very loud, positive music in the background (if the children don’t already have something playing) – that I can drown out at least for a while the little voice inside my head that keeps telling me how supremely dull a lot this Stuff is (washing clothes for 5 being at the top of my list!). Just be careful that the selection of music (something I love) doesn’t become the task…

  3. I have my Productivity Achilles’ Heel also. And after reviewing your post, rewarding is a key ingredient.

    I’ve found writing success journal everyday is a great way to rewarding yourself also.

  4. Chris says:

    Actually, if you have these problems it means that you did not implement GTD perfectly. Weekly goals are as such not a part of GTD and for good reason: they support this kind of procrastination Instead, as I am sure you are well aware, there are tasks that are organized according to where you can do them. Using this instead of weekly goals will immediately solve the procrastination for errand-type tasks. Well, that is, if you actually go for errands. This, I find, is best accomplished by an addition to GTD that I find valuable: a weekly program. The weekly program is filled by on the one hand tasks that return every week, like doing laundary, and that do not need to be put anywhere else but on the weekly program. And, on the other hand, with names of task lists that I look at exactly at that piont of the week. For instance, I always check my errands list first thing after lunch on Saturdays. Not going for at least one errand at that time can only be excused if the list is empty or if I have another appointment at that time. What then needs to be done is that every task list needs to get enough time in the weekly program such that tasks are not on it for too long. Tweaking the weekly program for that purpose takes some attention but it is definitely worth it.

  5. Craig Thomas says:

    I’ve recently found my Achilles heel. :) It turned out it was simply the fact I was comfortably sitting at my computer. Now I’m standing and the effect it’s had is simply amazing. My productivity/motivation have raised massively. I’ve only been testing for 4 days but so far I haven’t procrastinated once.

  6. Nice technique. I’ll give it a go sometime.

  7. Scott Young says:

    Chris,

    I’m inclined to disagree. Maybe not in *every* case, but I have explored productivity systems thoroughly, especially GTD. The main weakness of GTD isn’t that it’s design has holes, but that it is overly complicated for most people. There are *too many* solutions, and as a result the system requires over-maintenance without the drive generated by a ruthlessly simple system.

    -Scott

  8. Chris says:

    That is okay, Scott. Just use what works for you. For me personally, the peace of mind that comes from knowing that EVERYTHING (as in: literally EVERYTHING) is in the system is well worth it. Otherwise the worrying about all the things that I am missing is killing more drive then could be gained by applying a leaner system. I admit to being a bit control-freakish. I have been running a somewhat-like GTD stystem for years when I had not yet actually read the book. After I read it, I implemented more or less everything that is in GTD and never looked back. The best part of it is that I now have a much more complete life because I now actually can have projects in all important areas of my life without feeling overwhelmed. The confidence that the system can handle it all is so great, it is incredible.

  9. Titluciole says:

    Sorry to my bad english, unlike you, I’m more comfortable in french language.

    Interresting post ! I’m not passionate with cleaning, tidying and I’m used to procrastinate it on my to-do-list. What help me was to link this tasks with usual tasks or pleasant tasks. I do a kind of « holistic housework » lol. Like Pavlov’s dog and its « dring », when I take my shower, I clean my bathroom, when I drink tea on my sofa, I clean my low table, when I go to the toilets (which are near my washing machine) I ask me « where is my washing ? » and I do the next step to take care of it, when I leave a room, I look at the things which are in the bad place and I take it to the good place or to the garbage. I know that Christmas feasts are associated to the annual sorting of my make-up. I don’t have to think about it, or plan it, it’s a reflex.

    On my to-do-lists, the phone calls was always put off or forgotten. For me, it’s like park between two cars, I hate it and I manage to not having to do it (even if I live in a big town where it’s banal). I’ve decided to work on that and force me to do it, each day for 30 days with the help of this site, and it became more natural . Today, I don’t need to put off it anymore.

    The good news is we can work on it even if we all have our little weaknesses.

  10. Glad to see this is still generating some discussion.

  11. Great post. I am an avid promoter of systems, especially ones which are used to structure the repetitive tasks in your life allowing you to appear more care free and spontaneous on the surface.

    For example, I always check email, blogs, social and stats once a day in the morning. Always backup work once before shutting down in the evening. Leave Saturdays unplanned to finish off any outstanding work and Sundays for organising, improving systems and washing etc.

    It mat sound anal, but if you asked anyone who knew me they would be more than enthusiastic in how rarely I seem to plan things and act in very spontaneous ways. It is all down to how I structure the day to day running of my life so that I can focus on the unexpected turns of the journey. After al, that is where the real fun happens.

  12. David says:

    Procrastination has been a huge thing for me this past week and a half. I told myself I would have finished an ebook by the end of February. That was on the 11th of January, and I still haven’t started.

    I know that it will push me to the edge of my competence, but I haven’t done it yet.

    Major projects like these didn’t get a lot of focus in this post, but it did help with one thing: definition of the problem.

    Scott, If I had to label it, it would be a motivation thing, and if it werent for your post I might not have defined it that well. Thanks!

Debate is fine, flaming is not. Pretend that this comment form is a discussion taking place in my house. That means I enjoy constructive criticism and polite suggestions. Personal attacks, insults and all-purpose nastiness will be removed especially if it is directed at other readers.

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