My article was originally published via Entrepreneur Magazine here
Do you feel overwhelmed, behind schedule and stressed out most days? Whether I’m speaking to an employee, entrepreneur or vice president of a Fortune 500 company, I am consistently hearing the same thing — “I always overestimate what I can do in a single day and am always playing catch up.” Or, “I finish most days with an incomplete to-do list and leave work feeling dissatisfied and like I didn’t do enough.”
Most of us overcommit our schedules, bite off more than we can chew and have this overzealous belief that we can somehow manage it all. But in the end, this routine is basically training us to fail. Everyday we are proving to ourselves that we can’t follow through with the things we intend to.
While the impact is subtle, it is consistent. And repetition is how our brain learns. The scary thing is that this process is eroding confidence, happiness and employee engagement on a daily basis.
The psychology behind why we are so busy.
In all honesty, I am a naturally very disorganized person. In the past, I have tried countless time management systems and none worked for me. Even though I was working longer hours and putting in more effort, I was always behind schedule. I came to the realization that it didn’t matter what system I use; they will always fail unless I change my way of thinking.
I started digging into my past and researching more about human behavior. What I found out was that one of the most commonly shared and feared beliefs is “I’m not good enough” or “I’m not doing enough.” These beliefs are often formed in our childhood when we experience any form of hardship or pain. Whether it’s divorce, bullying or abuse, children tend to blame themselves or feel responsible for what is happening in order to make sense of the situation. Consequently, these negative beliefs of not being good enough are engrained into the subconscious and carried forward the rest of our lives.
This rang true for me. My entire life, I brushed my parents divorce off as if it wasn’t a big deal. I would always think since it was not something that bothers me today, it must have not impacted me much. But after doing some incredibly deep personal work, I too realized I shared that common negative belief. While I didn’t blame myself for the divorce, as a kid I definitely thought I could have done more to prevent it from happening. I knew my parents were unhappy, and at the time felt that I didn’t do enough to help keep our family together.
This belief turned out to be at the core of every single insecurity and fear that I had — and it was the reason I sucked at time management.
How our beliefs impact our productivity.
Unfortunately, most of the beliefs we carry with us today were influenced from our childhood. Our subconscious mind is like a record player that controls the majority of our thoughts. So when it learns beliefs of “I’m not doing enough” and “I’m not good enough,” it keeps them on repeat in the background, even when we don’t realize it.
So when we get to our desk each morning, our subconscious is saying: “You’re not doing enough in life. You’re not good enough. You need to do more. You need to do more. Something bad might happen if you are not doing enough.”
To combat this negative belief, we set these unrealistic goals and overcommit our calendar everyday with a long to-do list. Doing this makes us feel good each morning and motivates us with the anticipation of all the things we could accomplish that day. Unfortunately, this process almost always ends in overwhelming, unfinished work and a shot to our self confidence when we leave the office.
The biggest challenge is that it doesn’t matter how many times we tell ourselves that we have to do less and stop being so busy. It will never work because our brain is so afraid of not doing enough. It associates not doing enough with the pain we experienced as kids and will do anything to avoid feeling that again.
Always remember, your brain is two times as motivated to avoid pain than it is to find pleasure. It would rather you be miserable trying to do too much than risk the potential consequences of not do enough.
Five steps to creating a productive mind.
1. Remember your brain is tricking you.
When you plan your day, always remember that your brain is going to make you feel that you need to do more than is realistically possible. In the morning, remind yourself of this, take a step back, and take more time to assess your priorities.
Try to choose three core priorities each day that you commit to completing. Of course, you will have other things to do, but everything else should come second to those three. It’s better to commit to three of your most important priorities each day and do them very well with all of your energy than to set 10 priorities, half-ass six of them, miss the rest and stress yourself out.
2. The compound effect.
Throughout our lives, we’ve created a habit of taking on as much as we possibly can. So realize that doing a big one-day purge is not going to change things. It requires consistent action each day. To change our thought process, it requires us to consistently think in the opposite direction. A good way to do this is to start asking yourself each morning: “What is one thing I can take off my plate today?” Or as the Focus Funnel suggests, what can you eliminate, automate or delegate?
3. How to say no.
Adopt the belief that always saying yes leads to stress. The reason we have a hard time saying no is because we fear letting others down and worry that we won’t be perceived as competent. So, we people please.
Focus on the fact that you’re saying no to the task and not the actual person. Saying no to the work or task is a lot easier than saying no to a person. You can even clarify this with the person you’re interacting with so they feel better about the situation as well.
4. Admit that you are likely bad at time estimation.
One of the most powerful realizations I’ve had is that I am horrible at estimating the amount of time certain tasks will take. I almost always underestimate the time and overestimate my abilities. This often lead to me being late, behind schedule and disappointed. Understanding this has helped me plan my days more realistically and not cram a million things into each hour of the day. I always suggest adding on 15-30 minutes to your larger priorities for the day, just in case of overflow.
5. Schedule a buffer zone.
Every day should have a 30 minute to two-hour buffer zone to leave room for distractions, emergencies and unexpected meetings. Never schedule this block of time. But be sure to have a master list of your weekly priorities that you can choose from if this time never gets used.
To be successful, it’s important to make our dreams big, exciting and unrealistic. However, in order to get there, we need to plan each day as realistic as possible.