Have you ever reached the end of the day only to wonder where the time went? This feeling is more common than you think. With more and more matters vying for attention, it’s no surprise that attention is constantly flittered away. Poor time management, however, is just one of the productivity thieves that can creep into each day.
Filipa Bellette is co-founder of virtual health practice Chris & Filly Functional Medicine. She is a clinical nutritionist, PhD scholar and writer who helps busy, burned-out professionals, especially those with children, become healthy, productive and connected.
Bellette’s research has highlighted seven signs of poor productivity likely pointing towards further serious physical, mental or behavioural issues. Don’t leave your productivity to chance with Bellette’s guidance on fixing problem productivity across these key areas.
1. Extreme multi-tasking
“Multitasking is a recent phenomenon”, explains Bellette. “Women especially have been known stereotypically to be exceptional multitaskers,” even so far as to “wear the label as a badge of honour, and pride themselves in juggling business, work, the kids, the partner, study, hobbies, and household chores.” This isn’t an optimal way of working, however, and could be doing more harm than good. “Multitasking can lower IQ, shrink the brain’s grey matter, and reduce productivity by a massive 40%.” Not ideal when high performance is required.
On a long enough timescale, extreme multitasking “can cause anxiety, fear and sadness,” added Bellette. Instead of juggling many tasks, she advised to “get clear on the task you want to focus on and close any windows or apps on your computer or phone to prevent getting distracted.” Bellette also recommends you put your phone on airplane mode when doing anything really important.
2. Poor time-management
Research shows poor time-management is a big cause of inefficiency at work. Characterised by “feeling scattered and torn, and a bit of an organisational (or emotional!) mess,” this can be a sign that you’re not “prioritising things of highest value” and instead trying to do everything. Being stuck on “a never-ending merry-go round, or constantly chasing your tail,” as Bellette describes the issue, isn’t conducive to long-term success.
If time-management is not a skill you have mastered, now might be the time to take it seriously. Bellette advises that you, “use a time-management tool such as Kanban to prioritize and track goals, projects and tasks.” Get clear on what your ideal week looks like and how you want to spend your time. “Include work, travel, personal development, self-care, and spending time with family and friends.”
3. Saying yes
Take a look at your calendar and make an assessment of every entry. How many commitments are there because you truly want to do them? How many did you accept out of guilt or obligation? How many of them progress your goals and how many of them progress the goals of others? If you’re spending time accepting requests from others, it might be a sign you’re saying yes too often. This is common, explained Bellette. “Humans have an inherent desire to help others out.” Especially with the working parents she advises, she often sees clients “putting their kids, clients, colleagues, business opportunities, friends and family first, before their own needs.”
Bellette knows this will “inevitably lead to burnout, a decrease in productivity, and quite sadly, dissatisfaction in life” and advises her clients to, instead, “create a plan of what you will say a firm ‘no’ to, what would be a ‘maybe, let’s check’, and what you will say a big ‘yes’ to, then stick to your boundaries. Additionally, always recharge after expending energy in your business or family life before you say ‘yes’ to the next thing.”
4. Experiencing brain fog
Burning the metaphorical candle at both ends can lead to fuzziness of head, thoughts and mind. The science says brain fog “can occur when you’re feeling overwhelmed and taxed. Chronic stress can cause neurotransmitters (such as adrenaline, dopamine and serotonin) to deplete, which can result in neurological issues.” These might include lack of concentration, reduced mental clarity, and forgetfulness, all issues that will kill your productivity.
Brain fog doesn’t have to be a permanent fixture in your life. To banish its effect, Bellette advises her clients to “have a break from the computer every couple of hours. Science shows ‘grounding’ is a quick and effective way to reset your brain. Go outside, take your shoes off, walk on the grass barefoot, or lie down with your bare skin touching the earth. It’s sounds hippy, but hugging a tree, with your face resting against the trunk, also works.”
Bellette works with clients who find they are “struggling to get out of bed in the morning, wanting to nap in the afternoon, or crashing at early evening”, all of which point to “energy issues.” She said that “fatigue is a common sign of burnout and will inevitably affect your productivity and ability to get work done.” Not only that, but the stress hormones of busy entrepreneurs are likely working in overdrive to keep pace with their busy lives.” A rollercoaster of stress hormones, peaking and troughing throughout the day, can cause crashes and make you feel terrible.
The answer to fatigue might sound obvious: get some sleep. However, the duration and quality of your sleep should be considered. A dark, cool room, minimal noise or disturbance and a tech-free space can all help professionals get more rest out of every horizontal minute. With better rest, your cortisol levels can be better managed and less reactive to every daily encounter.
Whilst regularly feeling anxious and worried might not automatically be associated with poor productivity, Bellette knows that entrepreneurs experiencing these feelings “might start second-guessing their words and actions, stop trying new things, or stop taking calculated risks due to a fear of the unknown.” Anxiety can also “diminish your ability to play and be creative, which is a big part of being productive.”
Regularly feeling anxious is a sign that intervention is needed. Bellette recommends you start by, “assessing your stressors.” Very often people get anxious because they are worrying about things that are outside their control. “List all the things that are concerning you, determine which stressors are within your control, and focus on addressing these stressors.” Identifying the root cause of your anxiety is essential. Working with a functional medicine practitioner can help to get to the root cause of anxiety and other body burnout symptoms.
Bellette said that not only can pain be “your body screaming at you to stop” and a sign that you have “gone too hard, for too long”, it can also squash your work output and cause poor concentration. Constantly feeling achy, struggling with a sore back, feeling tense with tight shoulders or suffering with headaches or tummy aches are all ailments that can spiral out of control and lead to an inability to work all together.
As with the other six productivity problem signs, prevention beats cure for pain. Bellette advises that her clients, “take regular breaks during work. Stand up, stretch, go for a 10-minute walk, do some foam-rolling. Look at your ergonomics in your workplace too. Many people find using a stand-up desk helps manage and prevent hip and lower back pain.” As the saying goes, those who do not prioritise their health will soon be forced to prioritise their sickness.
Anxiety, pain and fatigue have no place in the schedule of an entrepreneur trying to make a living and a difference in the world, neither do multi-tasking, brain fog and running around to fulfil unnecessary obligations. But unless you are intentional about how you spend your time, your attention will go to who or what shouts the loudest. If you neglect your wellbeing, it will come back to demand further attention and soon you’ll have no time left for you.
Lost minutes turn into lost hours, weeks and months, then entire careers and lifetimes. Spot the seven causes of lost productivity and put the fixes in place.