Productivity mindsets

At work at the moment, we are running some workshops for students that struggle with procrastination.

Procrastination is the behaviour of putting important things off till later. In the case of students this manifests primarily as delaying starting and finishing assignments/ study tasks in a timely fashion.

Procrastination at its worst leads to a cycle of panic and shame. Panic, because everything is being done at the last minute. Shame because the students know intellectually what they should do, but struggle to do it, and keep getting caught in the same pattern.

The first thing we do in the workshops is let students know just how common and human it is to procrastinate. This is helped by students hearing from other students about their most common procrastination habits.

We then try to dig in a little further and understand the underlying thoughts, beliefs and personal narratives that seem to be driving the procrastination.

What is interesting to observe is the different beliefs and narratives that accompany procrastination behaviour. Some of the most common include:

Self-criticism – frustrated by their study habits, students commonly get into the habit of criticising themselves. They continue to criticise themselves even when they acknowledge it de-motivates them, rather than motivates them.

Self-doubt – after struggling with procrastination for a while, students start to doubt whether they even have the ability to study and complete their degree. This occurs even with students who have previously got good grades.

Fixed ability – related to self-doubt, some students have a fixed sense of their overall abilities. They see their performance as reflecting their ability level, and don’t entertain the idea of growth and improvement.

Motivation first – students wait for a positive shift in their mood or motivation level before considering making changes to their study behaviour. However, after being stuck in the procrastination cycle for a while, it is actually unlikely that motivation will precede productivity. It is more likely to happen the other way.

Goal-value confusion – students come to doubt their choice of degree/career and get stuck in this internal debate, rather than trying to connect with the underlying values that drove them to study in the first place: learning, helping people, opening up opportunities,

Fear avoidance – humans are wired to detect and avoid threat, but students come to see their study as a threat and believe that the discomfort accompanying it is a sign that something is wrong and therefore should be avoided.

One of the things that we encourage these students to do is to adopt different mental stances towards their procrastination. If their existing mindsets/beliefs/narratives are not helping them tackle the problem, then we encourage them to entertain the idea of adopting different mindsets.

But what kinds of mindsets? Is there a single mindset that guarantees escape from lack of productivity?

My view is NO. There isn’t a single mindset that reliably drives someone to productivity. But there are a few interesting ones I’ve come across in my work, and also my personal life that have been beneficial to me in terms of productivity.

I thought I’d list a few here.

Memento Mori – I like to reflect on the fact that I will die someday, and it might be soon. I’ll be super annoyed with myself if I wasn’t using my time effectively in the lead-up. It also reminds me that everything is impermanent, including my mistakes or stuff-ups, so why not give it my best shot.

Life as experiment – Life isn’t a performance where you are supposed to deliver your lines perfectly. It is more like a lab experiment where you mix a whole bunch of things together and see what happens. Perfection isn’t the goal. Experimentation and learning is the goal.

Growth mindset – When I start something I haven’t done before, I openly acknowledge that a) I’ll probably suck at it at first and b) I will get better at it over time if I practise. I have the capacity for growth and improvement, which is the antidote to early experiences of failure.

Fear-approach – I always thought my fear was a sign that something was wrong. But most of the time, it is a sign that I am a) doing something really important to me and/or b) I am right at the edge of my abilities, so whatever comes next is likely to help me grow my abilities. Try using fear as a guide that you might be in exactly the right place.

Self-compassion – I’m human, which means I will stuff-up regularly, just like everyone else. When I do, I need to make amends (apologise if necessary) and reorient myself towards what is important to me. I wouldn’t demonise another person trying to learn from their mistakes, so why should I demonise myself? Self-compassion isn’t a way to absolve yourself of responsibility or blame. But it is about giving yourself a chance to redeem.

Worst mood – best work – Some of the best work I do is when I really don’t feel like working. That discovery blitzed my previous belief that there were certain moods or emotions that were the basis of my creativity/ productivity. Getting shit done can be a great accompaniment to grumpiness.

Do these mindsets make me a productivity machine? Not really. I spent yesterday eating chips and watching terrible movies. But they are a foundation for my ongoing efforts to get more done, make a bigger and better contribution, and use my time most effectively.

What mindsets help you tackle the challenges of life? What mindsets help you get more done?

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