Tackling Productivity Paralysis

A man with his head in his hands with a computer screen in front of him

Have you ever sat at your desk, ready to start work but not being able to press the first key on the keyboard? Have you ever finished a long, busy working day and felt that you didn’t make any progress? If so, you may have been suffering from productivity paralysis.

Productivity can be defined as the rate at which a person does useful work and paralysis can be defined as not being able to take action. Productivity Paralysis is when a person is unable to do useful work. It has an impact on both the workday and a person’s overall wellbeing. Each day that someone suffers from this results in a larger gap between what is being done and what needs to be done. This increases stress which, in turn, may impact the person’s ability to switch off at the end of the working day to rest and sleep. The risk is that a viscous work-wellbeing cycle will emerge and the person will ultimately experience burn-out.

The causes of productivity paralysis are complex are intertwined. It could be borne out of a heavy workload without clear objectives or could just as likely be a result of personal stress. It could be the result of poor sleep, exercise, and diet or it could be linked back to having low levels of decision rights at work. If work and wellbeing form a cycle that feeds each other then it doesn’t matter what triggers the problem; what matters is that the cycle can be interrupted and the person can break free from productivity paralysis.

If the cause is difficult to determine and may not even be the main contributing factor anymore, where do you begin? As a fan of data-driven decision making and the agile methodology, I suggest that this can be tackled as an opportunity for continuous improvement. It takes time to implement changes in thoughts and behaviour so rather than waiting until everything is fully understood and able to be addressed, why not change what you can, when you can?

Step 1 – Collect the Data

You don’t have to be a data scientist or even be comfortable with spreadsheets to do this step so don’t worry! To complete this step you simply need to keep a log of your day for one full week. Do your best to track your wake and bedtime, your breaks and mealtimes, what you do during the workday, and what you do after work. Take note of your energy levels, mood, and how you feel physically as well as any high or low points during the day. The more you capture the better – but anything is better than not doing this exercise at all.

Step 2 – Complete a Retrospective

In Agile, a retrospective provides an opportunity to understand what is working well and what needs to be improved. You can do this on your own but it is even better if you can do it with someone you trust such as a partner, family member, friend, or even coach. Take time to reflect on the week’s log and pay attention not just to the work itself, but also indicators of your overall wellbeing. In conversation with the other person, do your best to answer the following questions:

  1. What is working well?

  2. What could be improved?

  3. What actions can I take?

A common action that benefits most people is establishing an end-of-work ritual that allows you to draw a line beneath the working day, relax, and rest.

Step 3 – Get Help

Some actions you can take without any dependency on others, for example choosing to go for a walk on your break. Other actions, especially those relating to your workload, may need to be discussed with your manager or team members. Identify who you need help from and what specifically you need them to do for you. It may be the case that not everything can be done immediately; you can still get agreement on what can be done now and when the remaining items can be looked at again.

Productivity paralysis can feel overwhelming and it can be hard to see a way out. But by focusing on continuously improving your situation rather than aiming for perfection, you can take daily actions to make positive changes and improve both your productivity and your overall wellbeing.

About Niamh

Niamh is committed to making the information and tools to improve productivity available to every professional who is striving to improve how they work and live.

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