His team have gone home for the night. With no one left to manage, he finally sits at his desk and shakes the mouse to revive his monitor.
Suddenly, his Outlook Calendar pings a notification; then a second, a third, a fourth, a fifth… It’s catching up to remind him of the series of tasks and meetings he’s missed today.
Every evening, he rearranges his calendar. The tasks he’s missed get pushed to the next day, flooding tomorrow’s to-do list.
The same feeling that’s sat tight on his chest all day becomes more pronounced. Like a funnel, the workload forever increases whilst his capacity remains the same; it’s a bottleneck, he thinks to himself. His projects are overdue, his daily tasks incomplete, and he wonders — “how? I haven’t stopped all day.”
This isn’t actually a bottleneck situation at all, but rather, a self-perpetuating cycle.
Most of us try to find solutions to our time management problems through processes. We schedule tasks in our calendar, we write to-do lists, we download the latest time-management apps.
But the solution doesn’t lie in the processes. It lies in our behavior.
And if we want to be productive, we need to understand it.
Our primal desire to seek certainty
Scheduling tasks in our calendar, writing to-do lists, and downloading the latest time-management apps, all help us achieve one thing.
People naturally crave certainty. But as business leaders and entrepreneurs, it’s our job to innovate and move the business forward into the unknown future. There is no playing it safe.
The problems we need to solve and the tasks we need to complete are often completely new to us.
I launched Jotform as a free product in 2006. When the time came to build the premium version, I made a decision that would catapult me into the unknown. I hired our first employee.
At this point, I knew how to be a developer, but not a leader. My responsibilities shifted with this new dynamic, and continued to do so as our team slowly grew.
I had more leadership activities; I had to learn to manage and motivate others on-the-job. And make decisions without the luxury of certainty.
I hired the wrong people, I had to let people go, I didn’t always provide my team what they needed. But it all contributed to moving the business forward.
If we let our anxiety to tackle innovative activities lead us to postpone our leadership tasks, we stand in the way of our productivity.
Consultants Ron Ashkenas and Robert H. Schaffer point to a survey of over 1,300 managers that reports only 47% of their work time was taken up with managerial activities. The rest was spent on more familiar hands-on tasks they were comfortable doing, as opposed to leading.
We have a natural tendency to turn our attention towards tasks that give us a semblance of control. So, we allow our teams to delegate upwards, on the basis that we’re doing something productive by “helping them” with their work.
Alas, another evening of rearranging our calendars.
Embrace the intersection
Here’s the tricky part.
Canadian Professor of psychology, Jordan Peterson, famously explained why it’s the intersect between chaos and order that life reveals itself as “intense, gripping and meaningful.”
Because whilst total chaos would be overwhelming, total order would prevent us from exploring the unknown and therefore learning new things.
The same applies to our work. A level of planning and consistency is key in helping things move forward; Jotform didn’t grow into a business that serves over 10 million users without systems. Habits and systems have made it all possible.
But we recognize that exploration and innovation are essential if we want to take our learning and our business to the next level. We need to welcome uncertainty, without allowing it to wreak havoc. And it’s not an easy feat.
We learned that business leaders who manage to engage most of their time on productive, leadership activities, rely on a combination of two traits:
- Energy, and
Energy is the vigor that pushes us to tackle unknown tasks and heavy workloads. But to result in real productivity, this energy needs to be deliberately focused on a particular task.
Being focused means we need to “zero in on a goal and see the task through to completion.” It includes not responding immediately to every e-mail or organizing meetings that can wait.
So, there’s an added risk that comes with welcoming uncertainty; namely its ability to drain both our energy and focus.
If you gave your brain the choice between an uncertain outcome, or a certain but negative outcome, it would choose the latter. A recent study has shown that our brain dislikes uncertainty, even more than a certainly negative outcome.
When we see the future as uncertain, a strong threat response is generated in our limbic system. We feel anxious and this anxiety reduces our ability to focus. Our brain thinks something could be wrong and demands extra energy from the body; literally draining us from the energy we need to focus on our very important to-do list.
It’s a vicious cycle. Embrace uncertainty — at your own risk. But channel certainty — and your progress is sure to stagnate. You choose.
Jotform wasn’t an overnight success. I built the business slowly, without raising any outside capital. So, whilst we avoided the pressures of hyper-growth, building the business organically comes with its own set of challenges.
And when I’m working to solve a problem and meet a tight deadline, it’s not helpful to tell myself “I just need to find a way to calm down.”
Changing my body’s physiological state isn’t exactly something I’ve been trained to do. And, adding yet another task to my to-do list is unlikely to make me less anxious.
So, I was excited to learn that the physiological state our body is in during periods of anxiety isn’t all bad. It can actually help our performance.
Anxiety accelerates our heart and breathing rates and activates the release of hormones designed to keep us alert and awake. Now, this is helpful if you’re trying to solve a problem and meet a tight deadline.
So, Harvard Business School professor Alison Wood Brooks suggests we stop trying to calm down, and instead, shift from a state of anxiety to excitement.
Simply saying the words “I am excited” is enough to not only help us feel more excited, but perform better too. It’s much easier than trying to change our physiology to reduce our anxiety. All we need to do is change our own story about how we feel.
If you fear a change in your work schedule, try telling yourself, “I hope something new and unexpected comes up today.”
If you fear a subordinate won’t achieve the desired result, try thinking “I hope they struggle with the task and see what challenges they need to overcome.”
If you fear not being able to improve your performance, think “I hope I struggle to improve and make a mistake, because once I solve those challenges, I’ll be better for it.”
This practice is called paradoxical intention. It might seem crazy but it’s been successfully applied by neurologists for decades, to help people break the vicious cycles they perpetuate. Such as, avoiding difficult tasks only to rearrange our calendars — again.
Productivity has a lot more to do with mind management than time management.
You can rearrange your schedule and procrastinate to your heart’s content. But there isn’t a system or an app that’s going to help you detach from that vicious cycle of unproductivity.
To perform at your best, shift your focus from your external environment to your internal environment. The former you’ll forever struggle to control. The latter you stand a much better chance with.