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Mastering my ‘productivity guilt’

How learning about the brain unravels underlying causes of 'productivity guilt' and provides strategies to master it.

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‘I am working really hard’ vs ‘I always have unfinished tasks’

In my previous employment, I thought I was a very skilled multitasker — in retrospect, overlaying what I’m learning about the brain, I absolutely had no regard for the limitations of my attention. I obviously took it for granted and did a ‘brilliant’ job of task switching in rapid successions. No wonder there wasn’t a day that I didn’t go home exhausted. 

I had autonomy over my time and how I worked. So coupled with my quest for perfection, I put premium on being thorough — I’d be in the office from 7am to at least 7pm, five days a week, because I’d take longer time to finish. What I considered brain breaks then still involved looking at my mobile devices.

Worse, it didn’t stop there. I’d still do a bit of work at home in the evenings because I had my mobile devices with me — talk about not being brain-friendly. After all these efforts I would still feel stressed about my workload because it would seem my to-do list never ran out of tasks. For every one done item, three would show up it would seem. 

It made me question if I wasn’t doing enough, but I knew I was doing a lot — my former boss would even tell me to relax and not be too hard on myself.

Awareness is the first step

That did not ease my feelings of discomfort though. The internal conflict just bothered me and I felt it physically.

Unpacking one Big Idea from the Neuroscience of Leadership course I’m currently undertaking, I now know it’s an example of cognitive dissonance at work — two thoughts that are inconsistent with each other (working hard vs unfinished tasks), which research shows can result in tangible negative physical tension as some studies prove, either directly measuring physiological evidence as a result of dissonance arousal or through other indirect measures.

AHRI’s HRM talks about this inconsistency I battled with as a form of productivity guilt. My Neuroscience of Leadership studies is equipping me with practical strategies not just to understand my dissonance but also to master it.

Mitigating the biases

From the same module from the course, I was faced with the overwhelming reality of the sheer number of cognitive biases (over 200!) that we’re all susceptible to. But from this knowledge dawned a realisation of what drove my productivity guilt. The culprits: planning fallacy and negativity bias.

I used to structure my workday as if things would remain the same from the time I left the day before. I didn’t prepare space for ad hoc tasks or new tasks that may take precedence on my list. I would tend to underestimate the time I needed for tasks and squeezed in as many as I could for the day, I worked as if I was inside a bubble, when in fact, I worked in a fast-paced, dynamic workplace. Then at the end of the day, I would focus on the unfinished and the unstarted.

Changing my behaviour is a work in progress. Building on brain science-based models I’m applying in my context, I now take the time to intentionally prioritise and consider my body budget.  Instead of listing non-discriminately, I have a non-negotiable list: up to three projects that I’ll work on for the day with a corresponding list of small steps that must be finished by today — which only an emergency can get in the way. 

Breaking down tasks into small steps mitigate my planning fallacy. 

I endeavour to apply this both at work and personally. It’s realistic and I don’t set myself to fail. It makes room for ‘surprise stuff’ life throws at me. I find I accomplish more and don’t succumb to negativity bias. I leave my work for the day fulfilled, looking forward to doing more the next day.

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