Rome wasn’t built overnight. It took time and consistent effort to build up one of the greatest empires in human history. Similarly, one of the secrets to success is being consistent in engaging with the smaller tasks that will eventually lead you up towards your larger goals. It might seem like a relatively minute task, but when done consistently, every small step makes a huge difference.
The same logic, however, applies to negative actions too. Little bad habits might not seem to have much bearing over our overall performance and well-being. But when they’re done repeatedly, it snowballs into an avalanche of impending (albeit long-term) doom.
This is especially true for time management. More often than not, the greatest time management killers that plague us are an accumulated consequence of bad choices and strategies with regards to how we allocate time to different aspects of our lives. Worse, we may not even realise the magnitude of these bad micro-habits.
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If you’re stuck in a cycle of endless procrastination, you’ve probably derided yourself about it and resolved to break the habit, only to find yourself consistently back at square one every single time you try. Chances are, you’d probably also have chalked it up to bad self-control, ill-discipline, or simply lack of conscientiousness. There is, however, one reason why procrastination feels so good: it’s an emotional strategy that we employ to defer the onset of negative emotions.
Recent research has found that procrastinators commonly harbour negative self-images; they tend not to appraise themselves positively and often suffer from shame and debilitating self-doubt.
Getting to work on a particular task necessitates entertaining the possibility that one might find oneself incompetent or lacking in some regard. Avoiding the task at hand, then, is an exercise in escaping from having to face those negative emotions, especially if the task itself is challenging.
The reason why it’s so hard to break the cycle of procrastination, despite the dire effects it has on your time management, general performance and well-being, is because you’ve come to anticipate the pleasure that comes from escaping from negative emotions as a consequence of putting your work off.
Human beings are hardwired to prefer smaller but more immediate rewards rather than larger but delayed payoffs. This “present bias”, as it’s known in psychology, is what explains so much of human behaviour, from instant gratification to the reason why so few people are able to toiling now in return for the promise of a better future.
Importantly, though, in the context of time management, it plays out in the preference for working on urgent tasks instead of important ones. The demands of the modern workplace are such that there will always be something urgent to work on, and so many people fall into the trap of reacting to this urgency.
Yet urgent tasks are rarely ever the kind of work that feeds into your longer-term priorities, or even that of your team’s and company’s. Crossing off a lot of “urgent” tasks from your to-do list might make you feel more productive, but it ultimately away from the time and effort you need to spend on advancing towards the important, long-term goals.
Another inescapable reality of the modern workplace is its hyper-distractibility. 24/7 news coverage. Widespread ownership of personal devices that make multi-tasking and constant task-switching the norm. Open-office plans that facilitate collaboration (but also interruption). And of course, magically self-replenishing email folders.
Small wonder, then, that the average office worker finds herself so easily distracted. The skill of working in high-focus mode, it seems, is rapidly wearing away over the years. Again, with so many distractions around you, it’s easy to make yourself feel productive merely by being “busy”.
Busy-ness in and of itself, though, is not an accurate measure of work performance and productivity. You can fill your time up at work with as many hours of “distraction” work (like spending too much time clearing your emails). But the end of the day, it doesn’t mean you’re making progress towards your KPIs or personal goals.