When Tools and Techniques Are Not Enough

March 19, 2023

Some productivity problems are technical. If you scan lots of letter and receipts but experience friction in your document-scanning app, you can easily find a better one. Technical problem, technical solution. Unfortunately, most of the biggest productivity problems are emotional problems and don’t have quick technical solutions.

It’s not that tools and techniques are useless when it comes to emotional problems. They can ameliorate the situation. They’re just not enough. If you feel stressed and overwhelmed, you can learn how to properly use a to-do app like Things 3 to feel more in control. But that only goes so far: it doesn’t address the cause of your deep emotional challenges.

For instance, do you routinely feel guilty about not accomplishing certain tasks even though you had intended to work on them? People tell me all the time that they face this problem. There is surely some selection bias going on—people who feel guilty are more likely to watch my videos or enroll in my courses—but it is obvious that productivity guilt affects many people.

Again, I can recommend a few techniques. If you often feel guilty, review what you did accomplish recently, create a shorter to-do lists for each day, and work on your most important tasks first. But let’s go beyond those basic techniques. What causes you to experience guilt? What triggers that feeling and the associated negative thoughts?

Spend some time introspecting. Journal about your guilty thoughts and feelings. Meditate. Talk it over with a friend. Perhaps you’ll notice thoughts like:

“I get paid so much, yet I barely work three hours a day.”

“It’s really important to me that I reply to existing clients quickly, but doing that means I only have a bit of time each day for business development.”

“Months ago, I told my friends I’d get the first draft of my website out there, but I haven’t even started working on it.”

When you pay attention and notice thoughts like these floating around, you get actionable insights.

You might need to work on your mindset, focusing on the value you deliver to your employer rather than on the hours you put in. You might need to delegate some of your client response work so you can maintain your response time standard while freeing up your own time to grow your business. And you might realize that you should not promise that you’ll complete something soon if you haven’t started it yet. In each case, examining your emotions is an important part of feeling better.

What’s your biggest emotional productivity problem right now? Do you feel guilty, overwhelmed, or inadequate? Do you feel like an impostor or a fraud? Do you feel angry because you’re not as sharp as you want to be? Reflect on this problem and on your feelings. Pay attention to your thoughts and write them down. See what that teaches you. In particular, consider both which tools and techniques might help and what emotional growth you need to do.

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