There was a time in my life when a large portion of my social interactions revolved around making fun of people behind their backs. I’m not proud of this time, but I can see now how this behaviour was a reflection of my inner weakness. It was easier to tear people down than it was to build myself or others up — and it was satisfying, like how burning things with a magnifying glass was satisfying for some of us when we were kids.
Pointing out the flaws in others makes us feel better about ourselves but at what cost? We gain nothing for our efforts. It’s a lose-lose scenario, and an example of something unproductive people do constantly. I know because I was one of them.
Turning a new page in my life, I can look back at the things I did that stifled my productivity and satisfaction in life. I can look at the things my friends did and still do that keeps them from living their best lives. In this article, I’ve compiled 7 things unproductive people do every day. I should mention that I am guilty of every
1. They procrastinate everything
The more times you procrastinate, the more you instill that habit. The people who procrastinate on the mundane things in life (cleaning up after themselves, paying bills, exercising, etc.) are more likely to procrastinate on the life-altering things as well (starting a side-hustle, changing career paths, travelling, etc.).
This cross-over is due to the science of habits. Habits rely on a cue, a response, and a reward. The cue for procrastination is essentially something tasking. The response is to procrastinate. The reward is an activity considered pleasurable to the procrastinator.
It’s hard to blame chronic procrastinators for their choices — it’s a chemical battle between the limbic system and the pre-frontal cortex. The limbic system contains the pleasure center, while the pre-frontal cortex is responsible for planning and decision making. The problem is that the limbic system is more developed than the pre-frontal cortex, thus winning the chemical battle more times than not.
Along with a chemical battle, procrastinators struggle with years of operant conditioning in which they reward procrastinating. So, if the limbic system is stronger than the pre-frontal cortex and responsible for pleasure, then the sorts of activities that procrastinators prefer will be considered pleasurable. They essentially reward themselves for procrastinating. What started as a chemical battle becomes a psychological battle as well. The habit of procrastination becomes further reinforced through this vicious cycle.
Tips to curb procrastination
When you have a task that wants to be done, count down from 5 and get started. This is Mel Robbins’ tactic known as the 5-second rule. Mel Robbins fell into a massive slump in her early 40s. She would struggle to get out of bed, and spent most of her time lazing around the house and drinking.
Her aha moment came while watching a rocket launch. The trick seems too simple to work, but it does. You stimulate your prefrontal cortex into action, overriding the stronger limbic system. You create a new habit response system — remember cue, response, and reward. Counting down from 5 and acting is the new response. Self-respect and a sense of accomplishment is the new reward.
2. They distract themselves with useless activities
As I write this article, I find myself intermittently playing chess games, or browsing social media. One might argue that playing chess is not a bad use of time. But it’s not how I intended to use my time. Steven Pressfield notes how resistance only manifests when moving up.
“Resistance Only Opposes in One Direction: Resistance obstructs movement only from a lower sphere to a higher. It kicks in when we seek to pursue a calling in the arts, launch an innovative enterprise, or evolve to a higher station morally, ethically, or spiritually.” — Steven Pressfield, War of Art.
Although playing chess appears to be a good use of time, I know it’s a form of resistance. It distracts me from my more important tasks, like writing.
The unproductive person will find it easy to rationalize distractions. Distractions go hand in hand with procrastination. “I’ll write tomorrow,” or “I’m not in the mood for exercise,” or “I don’t have time to make videos,” are all classic excuses. How can we have time for scrolling social media, yet not enough time for our goals?
Tips to curb distraction
Carve out a time to work. If you leave your productivity to chance and mood, then you’re more likely to procrastinate and distract yourself with immediate gratification. People who are intentional about their activities (ie. when, where, and how) are 3 times more likely to succeed.
Put your phone in another room while you work. The mere presence of your phone reduces your cognitive capacity. Smartphones have such a magnetic pull on our attention. Arianna Huffington even created an app to limit the distractions her phone provided.
3. They make excuses
Anything can be rationalized from a subjective stance, all the way from procrastination to criminal activity. The unproductive individual may not be a criminal, but they are a master of excuses — they will seek to rationalize their lack of accomplishment under any pretense. It’s easier and more comfortable to avoid responsibility than it is to face the challenges any worthwhile undertaking presents.
“99% of all failures come from people who have a habit of making excuses.” — George Washington Carver
There is a difference between excuses made due to uncontrollable circumstances and those that are controllable. Sure, if someone’s been hospitalized, their only responsibility is to get well. I’m not talking about those rare occurrences. I’m talking about daily excuses. I didn’t feel like it and I ran out of time. Those are controllable situations. What they amount to is another year gone by and no progress made.
Tips to curb excuses
Take responsibility for your mistakes. Excuses appear when something has gone awry. You had a goal in mind, but you didn’t accomplish it.
First, recognize that failure is an opportunity to improve. Perhaps you had a plan but didn’t follow through on it. For example, you planned to write 4 articles a week, but you only wrote 1.
Identify the reasons why the plan wasn’t followed through the lens of responsibility. An excuse would be to say you didn’t have enough time. You can go deeper — why didn’t you have enough time? Did you distract yourself? Did you sleep in? Or was the plan unrealistic to begin with?
If the plan was unrealistic, say you spent all the free time you could afford — without distractions — writing, but still fell short of your goal, it’s time to re-evaluate. Perhaps writing fewer articles would be more realistic, or writing shorter articles. Whatever the case may be, it begins with taking responsibility.
4. They glorify relaxation
Our health is arguably the most important feature of our lives. Stress is a killer, and rest is key, but there is such a thing as too much leisure. It’s natural to want to wind down after a long day at work. Unfortunately, you will never accomplish your other goals in this case. If your goal is to move up in your current career, and leisure is how you prefer to spend your free time — then great, you’re winning. But if you have other goals in mind — side hustles, or writing, or changing direction career-wise, then all that leisure is gobbling up your potential.
Don’t get me wrong, I think relaxation and leisure are awesome. But it’s about balance. If you accomplished your goal, and your plan is on track, hurray you deserve to chill. Excess relaxation is only a problem when it gets in the way of your goals. I know many people who aren’t satisfied with their careers, quality of life, relationships, etc. but who put relaxation on a pedestal. In all fairness, there’s nothing wrong with relaxing after a hard day’s work. But it won’t propel you in any new directions.
Tips to curb excess relaxation
Get your priorities straight. I can’t stress enough how important goals are in life. If you have a goal, and you know where your priorities are, then you can plan for relaxation. You can smash through your work and your goals, and still have time to relax in the evening — as long as you’re realistic about your priorities and needs.
I value my relaxation time immensely, but only when I’ve accomplished my goals. You don’t even need to do all the much to make progress. If you make 1% progress every week, you’ll have progressed 52% in a year.
Unproductive people, who don’t make any progress year after year, glorify relaxation to such a degree that they don’t put adequate time into their dreams.
5. They seek to confirm their biases
We all have some form of bias, it’s part of the human experience. Part of self-development is diminishing those biases. Biases can be good, bad, or neutral depending on the situation.
Consider loss aversion, this is an extremely common cognitive bias that makes sense. Studies show that we prefer to avoid losses over realizing gains. In the same study, it is “suggested that losses are twice as powerful, psychologically, as gains”. Makes sense right? Winning is great, but losing is so much worse.
Loss aversion doesn’t always work in our favour. Consider in chess how a brilliant queen sacrifice might ensure victory for a player. Loss aversion inhibits us from sacrificing the queen in favour of the greater victory.
Not all biases make as much sense as loss aversion.
Confirmation bias is the tendency to search for, interpret, favor, and recall information in a way that confirms or supports one’s prior beliefs or values. — Nickerson 1998
Confirmation bias can be a massive detriment to productivity. It can manifest negatively in all aspects of our lives. If my prior belief was that I’m not smart enough to be self-employed, then confirmation bias dictates that I will lean into the information that supports that belief. If I believed that I was destined to be overweight or underweight my whole life, then confirmation bias will find a way to make that a reality.
You will see that someone who is consistently unproductive will also have many biases to confirm that identity.
Tips to curb biases
Challenge your beliefs — especially the ones that stand between you and your goals. If you want to lose or gain 15 pounds, observe the biases that erupt in your mind. This is how I’ve always been. I’ve tried before, I just can’t. I love food too much. People don’t like me when I’m hungry. These are examples of confirmation bias around weight, but a similar narrative can be applied to any other goal you have.
Consider alternative perspectives — the six thinking hats method is a way to break down observations/decisions into 6 categories. Focusing on available data, tuning into your gut reaction, observing the negatives and positives, considering creative solutions to a problem, and delegating the various perspectives are the six different ‘hats’ you might wear.
Seek conflicting opinions — talk openly with those around you (preferably a diverse group). Don’t be afraid of dissenting opinions, they’re necessary to curb your biases.
I realize this article might have a somewhat negative tone to it. I’m not here to cast any judgement, we’ve all been guilty of 1 or more of these things in our lives — and likely still are. The purpose of this article is to shed a light on the common acts we commit that take away from our productivity, goals, and dreams.
If we can curb our procrastination, distractions, excuses, and biases even just a little bit, then we might save ourselves years of stagnation. The key takeaway from this article is that it’s okay to not be productive, but we suffer when we do so unconsciously.