The Essentials: Being Productive
Why is it that we often wake up with big plans — and seemingly enough energy to complete the tasks on our to-do list — and go to bed lamenting all the unfinished work?
A social worker joins Emily to pose questions about productivity to Alice Boyes, a former clinical psychologist. Alice shares the planning, creativity, and decision making that her success and satisfaction hinges on — and how she manages to ignore everything else. She highlights mental mistakes that prevent people from accomplishing their most meaningful work, and she gives guidance for overcoming them.
Alice Boyes, a former clinical psychologist, is the author of two books on mental health, The Anxiety Toolkit and The Healthy Mind Toolkit. She’s writing her third book about productivity.
Kate Troutman is a social worker.
- “5 Mental Mistakes That Kill Your Productivity,” by Alice Boyes
- “Don’t Let Perfection Be the Enemy of Productivity,” by Alice Boyes
- Getting Work Done, by Harvard Business Review
- HBR Guide to Being More Productive, by Harvard Business Review
- HBR Guide to Getting the Right Work Done, by Harvard Business Review
- Getting It All Done, by Harvard Business Review
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A complete transcript of this episode will be available by May 24.
EMILY CAULFIELD: You’re listing Women at Work from Harvard Business review. I’m Emily Caulfield. This episode is part of our series, The Essentials, in which women working for the public good contribute their wisdom and practicality to discussions of key career skills. For me, productivity is ultimately about making work easier. When I feel productive, I feel a sense of progress and confidence. And being efficient with what I need to do helps me make more space for what I want to do, and how I want to steer my career. Some days I check off most things on my to-do list, and other days I struggle to push through a single daunting assignment. Kate Troutman offered to join me in sorting through these feelings and frustrations with an expert. As you’ll hear, she’s got some, too. Kate’s a social worker at a trauma center that treats people who are critically ill or severely injured. And her job is to coordinate as many resources for them as she can before they leave the hospital. Or if tragically they won’t be leaving, to support them and their families through end-of-life care.
KATE TROUTMAN: It just feels that everything that I’m supposed to be doing needs to be the most productive.
EMILY CAULFIELD: And this is where Alice Boyes comes in. She can relate to the obstacles creatives like me and front line workers like Kate faced to be more productive at work. Alice is a writer who used to be a clinical psychologist. She’s published two books, The Health Mind Toolkit, and The Anxiety Toolkit, and she’s in the middle of writing a third about productivity.
ALICE BOYES: It isn’t about getting things done. It’s about getting done the most important work that you could be doing.
EMILY CAULFIELD: I expected Alice to give us typical productivity tips – how to do the most work in the least amount of time. It was so refreshing to have the idea of productivity reframed this way. In talking to Alice and Kate, I started to think more about my values and how my to do lists aligned with those values or don’t. I hope their insights speak to you, too. Here’s our conversation.
So, Kate, what did your day today look like? Or what does a typical day look like for you? And where do your, like, productivity challenges come up?
KATE TROUTMAN: You know, a normal day, when I get in, there’s people who may have come in to the ER overnight. Sometimes the domestic violence, homelessness. Maybe it’s a new diagnosis of something, and they can be quite sick, brought in from an accident. Those are all types of things that I’m required to respond to. And then I’d still get phone calls from my manager, from different family members asking questions about school, insurance, various numbers of things. There’s a lot of action things happening, and so it’s really difficult to find the time outside of that to sit there and do the, you know, communication, documentation, statistics, I mean, other pieces. And like normal kind of written pieces that will come along with a lot of positions. It is very hard to find the time, and when I have that time, I struggle to use it productively. I’d say there’s also a bit of an adrenalin piece that comes in when I’m moving around, when emergencies are taking place, because all of this is happening, and then there is a car accident that came in. So, I’m kind of required to stop everything and go respond to the car accident. And so very quickly, the priorities change, and I’m OK when it’s all happening like that. But again, it’s just after all of that settles down, it’s really difficult to focus and find the time and feel like I’m using it efficiently to finish all of the other things I need to do.
EMILY CAULFIELD: Alice, what advice do you have for Kate in dealing with this?
ALICE BOYES: Yeah, so I just wanted to acknowledge a few things that you said at the beginning. So, it’s almost like ironic that the things that people would think are the hardest things there are about your job, being with people when they’re going through something really tough, that’s something you almost find easier than the paperwork stuff.
KATE TROUTMAN: That’s a very prudent observation. I would agree with you.
ALICE BOYES: And I was exactly the same. I could talk to people feeling really strong emotions all day, every day. Ask me to fill out a form, and it fills me with dread and terror. So, I think that’s really important to realize it’s a really common experience, to have it be like that. And you were so insightful of saying that other word, it’s kind of adrenaline-fueled. And so, when you’re trying to sit down and do the paperwork, it’s where that adrenaline is kind of wearing off, and you don’t have that physiological push to get things through. I think in terms of figuring out where you can put your energy, one thing is to think about what your core mission is. Your sense of your core mission in your work. And my spouse is a medical doctor, and she says like her core mission is to help her patients have as many years as possible in good health. Right? So, if you’ve got some set of single sentence mission statement like this, you can sometimes say, “well, does this work towards my core mission, or doesn’t it?”
Another really important place to put your energy is to overcome this problem that I call, it’s a phrase, though I hadn’t heard it until somebody mentioned it to me: It’s too busy chasing cows to build a fence. Alright? So, it’s when you know that you’ve got these systems that are not ideal, or you’ve got some ongoing problems that you’ve run into, like the one you’ve identified. Right? You’ve identified that it’s hard to do the paperwork when your adrenaline’s wearing off. And that’s something that you really need to do some work on solving that problem in a big picture level. But what happens is that we’re always too exhausted to do that picture work. So, I think the number one task would be figuring out not how to carve out the time to actually do like the notes, but about how to carve out the time to work on that problem at a big picture level, like thinking about who might help you solve that problem, or who might have information that helps you solve that problem?
KATE TROUTMAN: Alice, when you were talking about what is your core mission, it was running through my mind, like what is my core mission? What is my core mission? When I get up every day, and I go into the emergency department, or this ICU, and sometimes I see people have the worst day of their life, and other times it’s a very humbling moment, and I get to be a part of it, just walking beside people. But what is my mission? I’d say my mission is wanting to give people the resiliency to carry on in their day-to-day world and out in their community. My aim is for them to need me as little as possible. I’m just trying to think about how much I do over the course of my day and how much falls into that, and how much doesn’t. It also makes me wonder if there is a different setting that ultimately in the future would give me more complete fulfillment in being able to obtain that or feel like I’m obtaining that mission on a more regular basis.
EMILY CAULFIELD: Alice, I don’t know if you told us what your core mission was. Did you?
ALICE BOYES: You know, I can’t summarize it. It’s something that I have struggled with. But it’s something to do with reaching people in the biggest way that I can. For me, I’ve learned that through writing I can do that a lot more than I could do it when I was an individual therapist. So, I used to be a psychologist. I haven’t been a psychologist since 2013. And it was a huge thing, because I had studied for years and years and years to be eligible to use that title. And I gave it up because I realized that I could be more productive in another way. And also, by giving that up, I also freed myself from some of the bureaucracy and some of the rules that come along with having that title. So yeah, I really do need to come up with my own core mission statement, and I embarrassingly haven’t.
EMILY CAULFIELD: No, I think that’s good. That’s a good start.
KATE TROUTMAN: Does your professional core mission and the core mission that you carry on in your personal life, do they overlap at all? Or are they completely different?
ALICE BOYES: That’s interesting. Like when I was preparing for this before we started, my daughter came in, and she said to me, “Mom, did you know that tomatoes are a fruit?” And I said, “I did know that.” And we had this big conversation. And we asked Google some questions about other things that were apparently fruits. Like cucumbers and peppers are apparently fruits. I knew the tomato thing, but not those other things. Right? And so, one of my really important values and things is to inspire this love of learning in my child. Right? So, I really did think in that moment, inspiring this love learning in my child trumps preparing for this podcast. Right? So, I guess I have different values and things going on. I sort of have some idea of the order that they fall in, I guess.
EMILY CAULFIELD: I like that. That helps you prioritize how you’re spending your time.
ALICE BOYES: Yeah. So, what my focus is, it isn’t about getting things done. It’s about getting done the most important work that you could be doing. And what that is, is really going to change from year to year and kind of across your career as you develop more skills, and you develop new relationships and that kind of thing. So, my approach is absolutely not about helping you be a cog in a machine. It’s: how can you get done the most important work that you could be doing? And one of the things I think about as the few really big decisions that you make in a year will determine the trajectory of your success. Right? So that you don’t need to worry about being productive every minute of every day. Because there’s even like a Jeff Bezos quote about that, where he’s saying, I’m not here to make decisions every day. I’m here to make a few really good decisions a year. And it kind of sounds like that, oh, well, that’s Jeff Bezos. Right? He’s just in charge of strategy or whatever. And it’s like that for everybody. One of the most important decisions for the year for me was like the title of the book. Right? And it would be really easy to just be tired from the whole process of writing it and not put the focus on that, that should have gone on it. Or when people choose to sign up for retirement contributions, that kind of thing, that those are the really critical decisions that people make in a year, and that’s what’s really going to determine your success, not with your productivity every minute of every day.
EMILY CAULFIELD: So, do you try to figure out what those things are at the beginning of the year? Or are you just deciding over the course of the year what those important things are? Like, is there a way to look ahead and know those things?
ALICE BOYES: You could have some insight into it. But you can’t always have completely control over it. But you can choose to do things that seem like they’re going to have a long-term impact. And my thing is, don’t separate the personal and professional. Right? Because it’s easy to put yourself last, and then not get the personal things done. Like whether that’s buying a house, or some years it’s going to be the personal thing that is the really pivotal thing, and some years it’s going to be the work thing that’s going to be the really pivotal thing. But just be doing things that at least have the potential to actually change the trajectory of your success.
EMILY CAULFIELD: Alice, I have tried standard productivity methods and hacks. I’ve tried bullet journaling, eating the frogs, or doing the toughest thing first, writing to do lists the night before, or scheduling tasks. What do you think of these in general? I know they’re all very different. But do you have any feelings about them, Alice?
ALICE BOYES: Yes, so let’s take scheduling tasks. OK? Because that’s something that is very commonly recommended. So, one of the things to think about there is, what are the actual psychological mechanisms going on there? And part of that’s the idea of implementation intensions. So, they did research on whether students would do the essay or not. And if the students planned when and where they were going to do the essay, they were more likely to do the essay. So that’s forming implantation intentions helps us follow through on tasks. You don’t necessarily have to necessarily have to schedule the task to form implementation intentions. I think a lot about how I’m going to do a task without actually scheduling it. I form some of those implementations. I think through the steps that I’m going to use to do it. The other part of that is the idea that scheduling tasks, or we’re going to do time boxing, so that we’re going to fit in our deep work. Right? But you don’t actually need to do that time boxing if deep work is something that you’re doing on a regular basis. So, it actually takes an awful lot of self-control and mental energy to be able to do it that way. Like a far better way is more to use habits, to have habits where you do the deep work in a particular sequence, in a particular part of your day every day. Right? It requires a lot less self-control than scheduling in at three o’clock one day and at nine o’clock the next day, or whatever it is. So, with some of these productivity suggestions that sound kind of simple or obvious or whatever on the surface, there are lots of different ways that you can apply the underlying principles without necessarily applying the specific surface level tip, and sometimes the surface level tip is not actually that good.
KATE TROUTMAN: Well, Alice, one question I had is when you said that you actually spend more time kind of visualizing and thinking through the tasks that you have to do. Is that just throughout the day? Or is that like in the morning when you get up? Like, do you have like a dedicated period of time that you find it more useful for you to do that? Like, if you’re having coffee in the morning, and you’re alone, and you’re kind of thinking through the course of the day, or at night before you go to bed writing a list, do you have specific time that you set aside for that?
ALICE BOYES: Yeah, so I find that usually I end work sessions on a stuck point. So, what is really useful to me is to go for a walk or to run an errand, so to drive somewhere, or something where I can let my mind wander. And what usually happens there is, I end up sort of mentally planning where I’m going to pick back up at my next session. So, it means I’m not facing a cold start. I’m not picking the work back up at a stuck point. So that’s something that I do. The other thing I do is, I find that problems often solve themselves when I wake up in the morning. So, if I’ve been doing deep work the day before, then I will often wake up with a solution to like the previous day’s problem. And so just hanging out in bed for like five or 10 minutes in the morning is really useful to sort of capturing those solutions. But definitely having more mind-wandering time. One of my big points on productivity is, people rely too much on their focused mind. There’s this whole big push where they get told that we need to be more distraction free. And we need to improve our focus. But that is really going about it in a way that’s much harder than it needs to be, that your unfocused mind is this amazing toll for solving problems and finding solutions to things. And if you can just let yourself have more mind wandering time, those solutions will just kind of pop up on their own without you having to kind of strong arm them.
KATE TROUTMAN: Some of my favorite points during the day is the commute that I have, whether I’m walking, biking, taking the bus. There’s something about being in public again, being out on a bus and kind of being in a group of people, but just quietly sitting there and not really having anywhere to be other than just right there on that bus. I find that really liberating sometimes because I am able to let my mind wander. Now that you’re identifying what my mind is actually doing, I would say it’s successful, in when not pushing it, I will connect pieces that I wouldn’t otherwise.
EMILY CAULFIELD: You’re making me really miss the commute, since I’ve been working from home for such a long while.
KATE TROUTMAN: I know, how do you let your mind wander during the day when you’re at home?
EMILY CAULFIELD: Well, I was just going to ask Alice, like, how do I work in mind wandering time, time where I can kind of step away from thinking about work and trying to be stress free during that time? Should I be working that into my routine somehow?
ALICE BOYES: Yeah, so going for walks is a huge thing for me. And there’s good literature on that. There’s one study where they had people go on a backpacking trip for four days, and then they tested their creativity, and their creativity scores were like 50% better after the four-day backpacking trip. And so obviously you can, you know, scale that back to what’s actually achievable. So that’s just something that is incredibly useful. But a lot of mine is doing something that are necessary, like driving to the supermarket is something that I’ll do after I take work position. I also, I have a five-year-old, and we have like a swimming pool, so something that I will do during the summer is, she will be in the pool. She kind of just sits on the steps with her arm floats on, and I will sit on like a big inflatable unicorn and float around the pool. And that’s something that’s really useful time for me to do some of that thinking. It is creativity. It’s figuring out what is going to work for you and your lifestyle. So, I need to be supervising my five year old, but that’s a way that I can both be doing that and having some mind wandering time. Whereas if I was to take her for a walk or something, she would need a lot of attention, so that’s something where she doesn’t need a lot of attention during that activity. And also, I’m physically away from my computer. So, it sort of forces that.
EMILY CAULFIELD: Can I ask you guys about your to do lists? I have my to do list for today. Mine is kind of long and ridiculous, but I’m going to speed, I’ll speed through it. So today I’m supposed to send images for color correction. I have to update a budget spreadsheet that I have. I have to schedule some Instagram posts. I have to hire illustrators for next week. I was prepping for this interview. Update an illustrator database. That keeps getting pushed off every week. Clean up my desktop, clean up my workspace, clean up my room. Send PDFs to artists. Research for the next issue. That’s my work stuff. Now personal stuff. Do laundry, do my taxes. I still have not done my taxes. Post new Etsy items. Research for a trip that I want to go on. Work on my portfolio. Fix a pair of pants. Paint my bike frame. And then get organized, is the last item, with a lot of exclamation points after it.
KATE TROUTMAN: Is get organized a carryover on your to do list?
EMILY CAULFIELD: Oh my God, so many of these are carryovers, and I’ve checked off like four of these items today. And so, a lot of these are carryovers, and they’re going to come with me tomorrow, and probably into next week. Kate, what about your to do list?
KATE TROUTMAN: Sure. Actually, I will be getting hitched in about six weeks. So there’s a lot of stuff that’s–
EMILY CAULFIELD: Congratulations.
KATE TROUTMAN: –popping up. Dentist appointment, eye appointment, fitting. I do have a separate work list that it’s finish updating the overnight guide. Call Ron. Call sister. Email the school. Guardianship update, question mark. It’s really gratifying to make them off. And I think that’s sometimes why I keep such a detailed list. Alice, do you like to do lists? Is a to do list something that you keep, and that you generally recommend for people?
ALICE BOYES: I have, over like a long period, had simplified my life down to a point where I don’t really need that as much anymore. I only have like two things on my calendar each week. So, and we were also joking before we started, that I only wash my hair once every three months. So, I’ve gone like a no poo method on that. So that’s not for everybody. Right?
KATE TROUTMAN: I support it.
EMILY CAULFIELD: I concur.
ALICE BOYES: But there are ways, depending on what your nature is, we can kind of give up some of that conventional life stuff that helps to simplify more. So, I could really easily be dragged into the whole sort of American culture of doing, but I have over a really long period of time figured out how not to be sucked into that. And really figured out what works for me. So, I generally have two deep work periods in a day. I don’t always have that, but I had it for almost a full year with the book that I’ve just written, where every day I would do about two two-and-a-half-hour deep work sessions on writing, and then after that, like it really solved the problem of prioritizing, because I just didn’t have very much energy for anything else after that. Like it was just every day, like just doing the odd little thing that would keep life ticking over. Like today, I’ve got rental properties, and I had to pay the property taxes on them. It was something that was due next week. So, every day, on top of my deep work, I’ll just do a couple of more things, and it will keep life ticking over. But it does take a long time to do that, and it’s very personal, because like not everyone is going to want to stop washing their hair. But like that’s something that works for me. So, it is really a journey of self-discovery more than it is a journey of finding, how can I make myself comply with standard advice?
ALICE BOYES: Alice, sometimes there’s work that’s not urgent, but it’s still really important, that piles up in the background so much that at that point I feel I’m too embarrassed to ask for help. Even though that is exactly what I want and need. Do you have a recommendation for what I can do when I’m feeling overwhelmed like this?
ALICE BOYES: Yes, so just don’t think it’s a personal thing, or don’t think it’s only happening to you, or don’t think it’s happening to you because of some flaw that you’ve got. It is like a universal human experience to have that happen, so taking all that shame out of it, taking as much anxiety out of it as you can, so if you’ve got any sort of thoughts about, well, if I ask about how this terrible thing will happen, like making sure your reality tests those thoughts. I would also say like, it’s really important to use habits rather than to use self-control. So, I talked before about how I have this writing habit. When I’m in an intensive writing phase, I write every workday in these two specific periods, and it becomes a habit. It doesn’t become like something I have to think about putting on my schedule. And we know that the more something is a habit, the less self-control it takes to do that thing. So, I would say that you had to figure out some way of having that become a habit. And it takes a few months for those, a fix of habits to kick in, where it starts feeling more automatic, and we have the self-control required stuff to go down. And I know that that’s really challenging with everything that you’ve said about sort of what your responsibilities are and what your schedule’s like, and emergencies come up and things. But as figuring out if something is really important, and if it is kind of, it does need to be important. Like it does need to be kind of related to that core mission. It should be that deep work stuff that you’re trying to make a habit of. But I would say that that is something to definitely try to work towards. You don’t necessarily have to have this all figured out now. It will be a process that happens over a period of some years where you figure out the best rhythms for you about how you work best and how you get that deep work stuff done.
EMILY CAULFIELD: So, Alice, it takes time to build these habits, like you said. So, when life changes significantly, like say you’re now managing people, how do you revisit your habits and getting work done and being productive?
ALICE BOYES: Yeah, so you’re not starting back at zero in terms of understanding yourself. Right? So, you’re gaining understanding of yourself as you go through. And when the circumstances change, then you might have to apply your understanding of yourself in a somewhat different way, but you’re still gaining that understanding of yourself in the way that you work best as you go through. I would say that one of the things that comes up is that when we have a change, what changes is the most important work that we have the opportunity to do. Right? So that when you become a parent, the most important work you have an opportunity to do changes. When you start leading a time, the most important work that you have an opportunity to do changes. So, it is time to time to go back to that question and say, what is the most important work that I have the opportunity to do now? And really, going back to what Kate was saying a little bit earlier about sort of thinking, well, is this role that I’m in now the way that I can do my most important work? That really changes. Like early on in my career, seeing clients was really important to my development, because I needed that experience with people to develop the thoughts and ideas that are now things that I write about. But at some point, it became not the most important work I could be doing anymore. And it’s just allowing those shifts to happen. And being curious about how your life is evolving. And not necessarily going into it with this really fixed plan of how things are going to work out. But taking opportunities as they come, noticing when you’re extra interested in something, and really letting yourself evolve over time.
EMILY CAULFIELD: Well, this has been such a great conversation. I’m definitely going to take a lot of this information with me.
KATE TROUTMAN: Truly, before this podcast, I had not really been asked what the goal was of my daily work. And that’s pretty significant. I’ve been doing it for a handful of years now, and I’ve never gone in asking myself each day, and I think that’s something that is important to be able to give you focus and remind you why you’re doing something. And then if there is a shift at some point, something else becomes more important to be able to lean into that and let it happen.
EMILY CAULFIELD: Thank you so much, Alice, and thank you Kate.
ALICE BOYES: Yeah, just thank you to Kate so much, because your starting place was already having a lot of insight. Like, even if you don’t think that you’ve thought about this a lot, like you do have a lot of insight into this, and it really is just trusting those insights that you’re having, and letting those lead you, like what you said about a big problem is the adrenaline wearing off, and you’re trying to do paperwork in that state. But really trusting your own insights and reaching out for help based on what those insights are.
KATE TROUTMAN: For a second I thought you were going to say, you started with a lot of anxiety. I was like, oh, that too. But thank you.
ALICE BOYES: Thanks, guys.
EMILY CAULFIELD: If you’d like to read about productivity, Harvard Business Review has tons of books and articles. I’ll start with the books. There’s Getting Work Done from our 20 Minute Managers series. There’s also the HBR Guide to Being More Productive, as well as the HBR Guide to Getting the Right Work Done. And then Getting It All Done, part of the HBR Working Parents series. For the latest angles on productivity that we publish, including lots of articles by Alice, got to HBR.org. Women At Work’s editorial and production team is Amanda Kersey, Maureen Hoch, Adam Buchholz, Tina Tobey Mack, Erica Truxler, and Rob Eckhardt. Robin Moore composed this theme music. Email us at [email protected] I’m Emily Caulfield. Thanks for listening.
AMY G: Hi, everyone, it’s Amy G. One last thing. You know that new audio app, Clubhouse? We’re going to be on it later this week doing a sort of discussion group on the latest episode of The Essentials. We’ll be taking your questions and hearing your thoughts on the topic we discussed this week. If you’re on Clubhouse, follow the Harvard Review Club for more details. Hope to see you there.