Time management is dead. We killed it off as soon as we came to accept that time is a finite resource that cannot be influenced, let alone managed. Yet more than a misnomer, the concept of time management as an effective workplace competence has been found to be lacking time and time again.

Even though most of us have attended a ‘time management’ training programme of some sort during our careers, all ‘time management’ has done is make us busier, but not necessarily more productive. Yes, we got more done, but did we get the right things done?

This has led to a proliferation of new productivity tools, tips and hacks that claim to ‘boost your productivity’. Yet what many still seem to miss is that productivity is essentially an emotional competence, and any technique that does not tackle the emotional barriers to productivity is likely to fall short of the intended goal.

Productivity is not about getting everything on our ‘to-do’ list done. We must accept that this is a chimera. We will never get to inbox zero, at least not for very long. At every moment in time, we are, however, making choices; what to do, what to focus on, how to respond. These decisions are largely unconscious, and we find ourselves very often feeling that the ‘day slipped away’ without us even noticing how.

When this happens because we have become so engrossed in an activity that we have deliberately chosen to apply ourselves to because it is aligned to our goals, we call this a state of flow. Yet very often, this typically results from reacting (almost unconsciously) to external circumstances and making choices that, although they might give us an illusion of productivity, contribute very little (if at all) to our goals.

Often, we know what we need to do with our time to be more productive and get closer to our goals. The problem is, we don’t feel like doing it! Our moods and emotions sabotage our logical thinking because they are biased towards the short-term and avoidance of pain. This is where we can influence how we feel about a task by focusing our imagination on the negative consequences that will inevitably occur if we do not undertake the task and/or the positive consequences that will likely occur if we do. Using this pain/pleasure principle we can start to influence our emotions to be more in line with our goals.

So, what’s the solution, you may ask? Well, to start with, there is no silver bullet that can boost your productivity. There is no one-size-fits-all solution to the quest for productivity, but here are a few practical tips that can help you to set yourself up for productivity:

1. Be aware that you always have a choice

Regardless of the situation we find ourselves in, we always have a choice in how to use our time. Granted, they might not be easy choices, but we are always able to choose our response to the pressures around us rather than simply react. Mindful meditation is a great way of training your mind to be aware of its own inner workings and reverse the mindless automatic habits that we have become caught up in.

2. Harness your imagination

Our human brain has an amazing capacity to imagine things that do not exist. Use it to visualise the consequence (positive/negative) of the various choices you have before you come to decide what to do with your time. Vividly visualising these imaginary scenarios can have a significant effect on your emotional mood in the present because your brain cannot distinguish between a real-life event and an imaginary one if the latter is vividly brought to mind.

3. Reward yourself

When you spend your time doing the easy stuff (typically the stuff that is neither urgent nor important) you experience a feeling of accomplishment (albeit false) and that makes you feel momentarily good about yourself. With the important stuff, the good feeling typically comes much later, and therefore is more difficult to appreciate in the present. To reverse this, find practical ways of rewarding yourself for getting the right things done. This can be as simple as enjoying the act of marking the task as complete.

Knowing and being reminded of what we really needed to do is hardly ever the problem; getting ourselves to do it is. By using your emotional competence to influence your motivation, you’re likely to find yourself in a much more productive state.

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