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The 80/20 Rule: Find And Remove Your Internal Blocks To Improve Productivity

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By Emily McIntyre on

Does your work week often start like this? It’s Monday. Coffee in hand, you browse through your email, Trello, Slack channels, and Instagram feed, taking stock of what to-do’s lay ahead, what your sister did in Cancun this morning, and all the projects your team has piled on your plate.

All of a sudden, it’s time for a meeting, and then an urgent project comes up, putting off that soon-due report you can’t seem to concentrate on. You do a brain dump, à la Getting Things Done. Everything looks urgent. Everything needs doing.

Hours slip by, and you still feel choked, overloaded with info and, worse, plagued by FOMO (fear of missing out). You end the day thinking of everything you didn’t do. You were busy all day, so why don’t you feel productive?

Why Do Productivity Systems Fail To Improve Productivity?

It’s not the systems themselves. They all work to improve productivity —if you can stick to them, that is. Pomodoro technique, Scrum, Deep Work, the list goes on. If you use and repeat these productivity systems, you’ll reap the benefits… so why the constant roadblocks?

The answer might not be where you think it is. It could be time to turn the focus from the outward systems to the inward motivation and focus. Yep, it could be time to turn to your routine and say, “It’s not you, it’s me.”

Think about the oft-quoted Pareto’s 80/20 principle, and turn it inward. If you applied 80% of your productivity-focused effort to the 20% of recurring internal obstacles, the results would be stunning. Instead of continually tweaking your note-taking process, put your effort into figuring out why you lose two hours of focus every Monday, or why your throat clenches when you start a work block.

And why not start now? Here are some common mental roadblocks you may want to check for:

Fear: The Unsuspected Productivity Killer

Think about that numbing moment of paralysis that sets in during the work day and inhibits productivity: What are you feeling? Very likely, your body is in a classic flight / fight / freeze state, and it’s choosing to freeze. This state is good for some actual physical threats, but useless when it comes to deciding whether to tackle your bloated inbox or make a sales call.

There are many varieties of fear that cause your clenched gut and cloud basic judgement calls. Next time, instead of ignoring or battling the fear, take a moment to ask yourself the crucial question, “What am I afraid of?”

The answer might surprise you:

  • Are you afraid of doing something new? Try to break the task into smaller tasks and tackle them one at a time, building a sense of accomplishment, or set a timer and just eat the frog.
  • Are you afraid of failing? Being specific about your fears is always the first step. Once you know exactly what you’re afraid of (are you afraid of missing your rent, or of looking like an idiot in front of your new coworkers?) you can decide how to face that fear.
  • What about FOMO? We all feel it, and we all have different solutions. Knowing exactly what you define as success, and making the decisions to stay on track is a big step in the right direction. You may need to stop context switching, start meditating, or download a gratitude app.

A Cloudy ‘Why’ Complicates Everything

Have you heard the folk story of two bricklayers who were asked what they did? The first bricklayer said, “Duh! I’m laying bricks!” and the second looked around at the unfinished structure and smiled, “I’m building a temple.”

Are you laying bricks or building a temple? Whether you are self-employed or working for a corporation, if you don’t know the reason for your work you are asking for confusion. If you find yourself confused as you start a project, or having trouble prioritizing, take the time to dig deeper and learn as much of the ‘why’ as possible, even if it’s just why you bothered to come into work today.

Many entrepreneurs and leaders agree that a purpose driven path is a clear indicator of success. Purposeful business is positively correlated with motivation, cohesiveness, connectivity, and ultimately, greater success.

Maybe You Actually Are Doing Too Much

Doing Too Much? Focus On Your 20% To Improve Productivity.

Whether it’s FOMO that causes you to say no (or yes) to everything or a legitimate passion for your work, if you have too much to do, there’s no way you can get it all done.

If you are consistently cramming too much into one day, it’s time to apply the 80/20 principle to your work. What activities bring the greatest return on investment? Which the least? Go ahead and cut those lesser tasks from your list, and see how you feel. Have a hard time saying no? Maybe it’s time to learn.

Is Life Intruding On Your Work?

We all deal with internal roadblocks to improving productivity. But if your home life is intruding on your work life—if you can’t let go of the argument you had with your sister, or your son’s abysmal grades, or the furnace exploding—it’s a strong bet that you need to develop coping techniques for stress in general, which will help clear the decks when it comes time to focus on work.

Stress coping techniques are as unique as the stress that you feel. Most involve either dealing with the emotion you feel, or dealing with the actual problem. It may take years of experimentation to learn how you, as an individual, best can cope with stress, but it’s a worthwhile experiment that can drastically change your life for the better.

Go 80/20 To Improve Productivity

For the next three months, try applying the 80/20 rule to your efforts on productivity – that’s 80% effort to the toughest 20% of your internal roadblocks. Dive deep, embrace yourself and the answers you give to the right questions, and watch your efficiency soar.