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I’ve been developing a new productivity method that I’m calling “Navigating Productivity Pitfalls.” While I’m still honing this approach, I wanted to share it with you now because I think it is really valuable! I encourage you to modify it to fit your preferences and needs, too.

Navigating Productivity Pitfalls has three steps:

  1. Identify your personal pitfalls when it comes to your productivity practice.
  2. Develop proactive plans for dealing with your pitfalls in the future.
  3. Identify acute actions to take in the moment when you encounter a pitfall.

Step 1: Identify Your Productivity Pitfalls

The word “pitfall” conjures memories of playing the video game “Pitfall” in the early 1990s. It felt almost impossible for my tiny brain and hands to guide the main character across quicksand pits or lakes while dodging bites from hungry crocodiles. According to Merriam-Webster, a pitfall is “a hidden or not easily recognized danger or difficulty.” In other words, a pitfall is a trap! In the case of my childhood video game, the penalty for falling into a pit was losing the game. While that may have made me mad, I could just restart and try again.

When it come to our productivity practices, pitfalls are much more complicated. Sometimes we can hit a metaphorical “restart” button and try again, but we might be doing round two with less time, energy, focus, and other personal resources at our command.

In my experience, once I trip into one pitfall I just keep falling. For example, if I feel bad about saying no to potential paying opportunities and as a result schedule meetings outside of my work hours (pitfall 1), then I end up overbooking myself against my better judgement (pitfall 2), which means I overwork myself (pitfall 3) and eventually burn out.

While I’ve gotten much better about holding my boundaries around my availability, I still sometimes slip up and preemptively accommodate other people’s schedules. Perhaps your personal productivity pitfalls are also about boundaries. Or maybe your pitfalls are procrastination, overworking, or perfectionism.

Some of our negative experiences with our productivity will be outside of our control. Sometimes the context surrounding our productivity practice is toxic and harmful to us (for example, inaccessibility, microaggressions, underpaid/unpaid labor, or other institutionalized/systemic oppressions or inequalities). These types of “pitfalls” may require a larger solution than we can generate in these three steps. As you identify your productivity pitfalls, try not to shame yourself for struggling with obstacles, and when you work on Steps 2 and three, please honor your capacity to develop shifts that feel accessible to you.


Step 1 Prompt

Without judgment, write a list of times when you struggled with your productivity, time management, or prioritization. Your list might include goals that felt impossible to achieve, habits you never seemed to get off the ground, tasks you avoided doing, deadlines you missed, or times when you felt burned out, overwhelmed, or disillusioned about your productivity.

After you’ve generated your list, review it to identify any overlaps and patterns. Where did you have a repeated experience? Do you notice any patterns about how you engaged with deadlines? Are there colleagues, bosses, clients, or other people you had difficulty with? How did you do with setting and holding boundaries? Did you burn out, and if so, when? What else do you notice?

If you’re on a roll, I encourage you to journal about what the patterns tell you about your recent experience with your productivity, prioritization, and time management practices.


Step 2: Develop Proactive Plans for Dealing with Your Pitfalls in the Future

Proactive Plans are plans that you generate ahead of time to help you deal with challenges you might encounter when you’re working on a project. When you identified your productivity pitfalls in Step 1, you may have noticed patterns in your behavior or in the types of obstacles you run into. By generating proactive plans at the beginning of your project, you can predict the difficult parts of the process. Ideally, your proactive plans will help you avoid the pitfalls altogether, but if the obstacle is unavoidable then your proactive plans can help you move through it mindfully.


Step 2 Prompt

Review your list of pitfall patterns and identify potential obstacles you might encounter. Is there a particular step in your workflow where you regularly get stuck? Are there tasks that you often struggle to accomplish? Where do you predict you may lose energy, burn out, or struggle to focus on the project you’re working on now?

Looking at your patterns, generate a list of approaches that can help you avoid or soften your pitfalls. For example, one of my productivity pitfalls is overbooking myself, so my proactive plans include scheduling a thirty-minute break between meetings and limiting my coaching calls to three days out of the week.


Step 3: Identify acute actions to take in the moment when you encounter a pitfall.

While your proactive plans will help you to mitigate potential challenges, it would be foolhardy to assume you won’t hit any roadblocks. Acute actions are decisions that you make in the moment to deal with foreseen or unexpected obstacles. Just as you generated proactive plans based on your real life pitfall patterns, you can prepare an acute action list to help streamline getting back on track.


Step 3 Prompt

Develop a list of questions and “if X, then Y” phrases to help you make decisions in the moment (keep your questions/phrases close by when you work so you can easily refer to them). You’ll find more success if you base these questions and phrases in your actual pitfall patterns from Step 1.

Some examples are:

  • If I feel myself getting stressed or anxious, I will take a break to walk around the block while listening to a guided meditation or my favorite song.
  • If someone asks me to take on an opportunity, I will respond with “let me get back to you” and check in if I truly can and want to do it instead of immediately saying “yes” right away.
  • If I feel stuck, I’ll ask myself “What makes this task feel so aversive?” I’ll choose my next step based on my answer.

Put together, Steps 1, 2, and 3 can help you develop an approach to current and future projects that acknowledges what you need in order to find success without unintentionally burning out. My final suggestion for Navigating Productivity Pitfalls is to employ a strengths-based approach to your process by rooting your proactive plans and acute actions in your talents, skillsets, and interests. Good luck and enjoy!

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