I read this really good article by Peter Bregman last week called Are You Training Yourself to Fail? on the Harvard Business Review blog. It hit home with me and probably will with you too.
In it Peter talks about how it’s rare to find the person who is naturally pre-disposed to being highly effective. Most of us start our day with a long and ambitious to do list of the important tasks we hope to accomplish. Unfortunately we get busy with email, phone calls and errands so very little gets done. We then get discouraged and do things to make us feel better for the moment like browse the internet – often about articles on being more effective.
We do the same thing over and over relying on sheer will power, which yields the same result each day.
Here’s the thing: the odds are against us getting our most important priorities accomplished. Our instincts most often drive us toward instant gratification. And the world around us conspires to lure us off task. Given total freedom, most of us would spend far too much time browsing websites and eating sweets. And being totally responsive to our environments would just have us running around like crazy catering to other people’s agendas.
For me, the allure of accomplishing lots of little details would often override my focus on the big things I value. Each morning I would try to change my natural tendency by exerting self-control. I would talk to myself about how, starting this morning, I would be more focused, psych myself up to have a productive day, and commit to myself that I wouldn’t do any errands until the important work was done.
It almost never worked. Certainly not reliably.
By doing this, we are teaching ourselves to fail. Failure is fine as long as we learn, but what happens if we keep doing the same things, hoping for different results but not changing our behavior?
Then we are training ourselves to fail repeatedly.
Because the more we continue to make the same mistakes, the more we ingrain the ineffective behaviors into our lives. Our failures become our rituals, our rituals become our habits, and our habits become our identity. We no longer experience an unproductive day; we become unproductive people.
The only way to break the trend, according to Peter, is to develop new rituals. To do this we need trial and error. Each night take a look at what worked and repeat it the next day. Look at what didn’t work and stop it.
What I found is that rather than trying to develop super-human discipline and focus, I needed to rely on a process to make it more likely that I would be focused and productive and less likely that I would be scattered and ineffective.
Rituals like these: Spending five minutes in the morning to place my most important work onto my calendar, stopping every hour to ask myself whether I’m sticking to my plan, and spending five minutes in the evening to learn from my successes and failures. Answering my emails in chunks at predetermined times during the day instead of whenever they come in. And never letting anything stay on my to do list for more than three days (after which I either do it immediately, schedule it in my calendar, or delete it).
It doesn’t take long for these rituals to become habits and for the habits to become your identity. And then, you become a productive person.
Once you develop these rituals, don’t let up. Anyone can be productive for a day, week or month. However, if you get in a groove and stop these rituals you’ll be right back to where you were when you started. Productivity is similar to losing weight. It takes awhile to become productive, but you becoming unproductive again is very quick.
Check out the full article here. Peter also created a quiz to test how well you manage complexity. My score was pretty bad. How about you? Take the quiz here and let me know how you did in the comments.
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