Why Is It So Hard To Get Things Done?


Productivity or rather the lack of it can kill a business. That’s no exaggeration and you’ll see later in this post why I say that. But before I outline why, the first thing I want to show you is why we’re naturally unproductive – why being unproductive is not our fault.

Earlier this year I gave an onsite leadership training session to a group of managers of a company. The training went well and the CEO received positive feedback and also a clear message that his managers would be able to implement what they’d learned and probably make better leaders if only they had the time.

Their days were usually filled with fire-fighting problems, and supporting their staff as well as delivering what their bosses (including the CEO) needed.

The CEO called me and asked if I’d deliver another session but this time on productivity. The CEO could relate to the feedback because he too found it hard to keep up with what he needed to do and with keeping his company moving in the right direction.

As productivity is a big issue (and if you read my posts you may remember me writing a couple of pieces on the subject) of course I said yes.

In preparing for the training, which I delivered last week, I wanted to really understand why we as humans find it so hard to stay on task and complete it on time, so that I could present these reasons to the audience and establish an understanding before moving on to how to be more productive.

The research revealed some fascinating facts – well, to me they were fascinating.

I found out that we are in fact wired to be unproductive. It’s not our fault (well, it is partly); it’s Mother Nature’s.

The lack of productivity can be a real killer to business and is a hugely important subject. And so I thought you’d like to know why you find it hard to get things done as planned. In my next post I’ll give some tips on what you can do about it.

Our Brains are Wired to be Unproductive

A major area of your brain, called the pre-frontal cortex, manages, among other things, your personality, behaviour, decision-making and problem-solving abilities.

Unfortunately, it loves to be distracted – it has a novelty bias and is attracted to shiny objects like iron filings to a magnet. This was probably a life-saving feature for our distant ancestors to survive another day without being eaten or injured. And it fosters curiosity and the desire to learn, which is of course wonderful.

But it’s clearly not what we need when we’re trying to stay on task and be productive.

So when my school reports repeatedly said I was easily distracted, it wasn’t my fault. When someone walks into a room and you look up to see who it is, it’s not your fault. When your phone pings to tell you that you have a text message (as mine has just done) and you instantly reach for it to see who it is, it’s not your fault and when your email program tells you that you have new emails in your inbox and you immediately click to see – it’s not your fault.

We’re Rewarded for Doing Lots of Small Tasks

Our brain “rewards” us for completing a task no matter how trivial that task is. It cannot differentiate between what’s important and what isn’t and so you will be rewarded whether the task was to check your Facebook status or answer a text or whether it was to call a new prospect to get a face-to-face meeting or cross a busy road safely.

When you complete a task your pre-frontal cortex and other areas of your brain receive a shot of a “feel-good” hormone called dopamine, as a reward.

We love dopamine and that good feeling we get when we complete a task and so, if we’re not disciplined and focused enough we will naturally stay busy switching between lots of small tasks and feel good and feel that we’ve got much done.

We are fooling ourselves that we’re being productive and our brain is supporting the lie by rewarding us.

We Cannot “Multitask”

Let’s get one thing straight – regardless of gender – we can’t multi-task. Our brain cannot process two pieces of information at the same time.

Millions of neurons rapidly switch from one thing to the next – they cannot independently work on resolving two things in parallel. All this switching has both a cognitive cost and a metabolic cost.

Cognitive cost – Trying to do several things at once involves, as I said, millions of neurons rapidly switching between tasks, 100 of times a second. This produces cortisol – the stress hormone, which – yep, you guessed it – increases stress.

Together with adrenaline, which is also produced, your brain can very quickly become over stimulated, scrambled and foggy. Decision-making becomes hard.

At an extreme, imagine the tired mum who shouts at her kids to stop because she can’t “hear herself think” as they run around her shouting and vying for her attention.

“Multi-tasking” impairs our ability to think clearly and make decisions.

Metabolic cost – Our brain weighs around 2% of an average person’s total body weight and yet consumes around 20% of total energy. It’s a very hungry organ. All these neurons switching 100’s of times a second is tiring.

“Multi-tasking” consumes the available energy very rapidly – the same energy (glucose) that’s needed to focus and stay on task.

So, our brain loves shiny objects and is very easily distracted. It is rewarded and therefore wired to complete lots of tasks no matter how trivial rather than stay on one important task where the dopamine hits are fewer and further apart.

And all this switching between distractions and tasks makes us confused, unable to make important decisions, stressed and tired.

Our brain is not on our side when it comes to staying on task and being productive – On the one hand we’re rewarded for switching between and completing lots of tasks and on the other, we’re punished.

So you see why not staying on task and getting what you need done isn’t biologically your fault.

And as if that wasn’t hard enough, we are surrounded with information overload. There is more information at our fingertips via our mobile phone than we need in order to make an informed decision.

When given too much choice, research has shown that we struggle to make a decision. There’s a famous “jam stall” experiment. When the market stall was laden with lots of jams of different flavours people struggled to decide and would walk away. When the stall only displayed a few jam jars, faced with less choice and fewer decisions sales went up.

Ignoring something has it’s own cognitive and metabolic cost because you have to actively decide to ignore it. Ignoring your phone or email inbox knowing that there is an unread message or email is something your brain has to continuously decide to do because it instinctively wants to see the message or email.

Being productive is hard. But being unproductive can harm a business in many ways and not least in cost. Even medium-sized businesses can lose hundreds of thousands of pounds in lost productivity each year.

Research has shown that the average office worker is productive for 2 hours 53 minutes out of an 8-hour day. With around 225 working days in a year for a 5-day week that adds up to 675 productive hours or 28 days or less than an average month. The average office worker will give you 4 weeks worth of productive work spread over the entire year. Now add up how many people even a medium sized company employs and you’ll see why in, time alone, unproductivity can cost a business a small fortune.

Then add in all I’ve said about the effects of being unproductive and how that can lead to bad decision-making, missed targets and mistakes and you can see why I said “the lack of [productivity] can kill a business”.

It is a hidden killer. Unlike your top competitor, you can’t see it or touch it and it isn’t easily recognised as the cause of harm in your business. But when you focus on it, when you give it attention, you can see the damage it can cause to you, to your people and to your business.

It also has a huge cost at a personal level with raised stress levels and the health implications that go with it.

Being productive and helping your people be productive is a vital element to the success of your business. If work isn’t being completed on time or is sub-standard and assuming the capability and resource is in place then productivity is most likely the problem and must be addressed.

In my next post I’ll highlight some key ways to improve productivity.

If you think you and your people could be more productive then get the help you need to make it happen because the underlying impact on your business can be massive. Contact me to see how I can help.

Related posts you may have missed:

Your Productivity – Here’s Something Rather Scary

The average office worker is productive less than 3 hours a day. That’s less than 1 month a year. Checkout the maths.

Increase Your Productivity – Increase the Urgency

Increase productivity and focus by limiting your available time.

Struggling to Grow Your Business? Become a Big Fish

Connect the dots from your purpose and vision to your goals, objectives and tactics and you are far more likely to achieve those goals and take your business to the next level.

Photo credit: Flickr