- Scott H Young - https://www.scotthyoung.com/blog -

How to Find Your Productivity Achilles’ Heel

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 [1]. 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 [2]. 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 [3]. 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.