close Facebook Twitter Instagram LinkedIn

Ticking Away: The Biggest Productivity Killers

What stands in the way of our personal productivity? Procrastination and distractions from technology come to mind, but might there be some deeper causes as well?
by Joshua H. Phelps | Aug 6 2020

What did you do today?

It feels like an innocent question, but it might also stir up some dread. There are days when we can reel off handfuls of accomplished tasks. Other times we struggle to count a few achievements that feel terribly meaningful.

The desire to remain productive rather than simply busy continues to drive us. And the topic of productivity continues to rank high in the nonfiction charts, with classics like David Allen’s Getting Things Done sharing space alongside newer entries such as James Clear’s Atomic Habits. Both titles approach the topic from different angles. Allen lays out his system for organizing and tackling your to-do list. Clear looks at the underlying psychology of habit-formation and how it can be leveraged to build your own productivity hacks.

Putting the insight and advice from productivity books into practice is a challenge, though. Various forces inside and outside our control conspire to act as productivity killers. Sometimes we play into their hands as willing accomplices. Sometimes we come to that realization too late.

While many of the forces that interfere with our ability to act productively feel distinct, when you start to peel the layers back from them, you begin to see the ways they interact and feed off one another.


Never do today what can be put off until tomorrow. So goes the tongue-in-cheek proverb, anyways. But, that mantra is probably one of the best ways out there to stifle your own personal productivity. Admittedly, it is comforting to feel like you have the time to work on something later. There’s space to relax or devote your attention to less pressing matters. In the case of personal projects or hobbies, so often we tell ourselves “I’ll work on it when I feel inspired.”

Assuming you’ll be such an eager beaver later.

Procrastinating doesn’t necessarily mean laziness, though. In fact, keeping busy with menial tasks is an ideal way to distract oneself from more important items on the to-do list. Some call it productive procrastination. By the end of the day, one feels strange for having done so much, but accomplishing so little. How were we supposed to find time to work on X when we were so busy with other things throughout the day?

The problem really hits home when all those pressing deadlines come due. In the end, the scramble to finish certain tasks that absolutely must be done leave others to fall through the cracks. Sometimes wittingly, sometimes not. But there was just no time…

We tend to view our personal productivity and procrastination as issues of time management. And there might be some truth to that. Laura Vanderkam has written about how people use their time and suggests we break that usage down each day in a log or journal to find out where the bottlenecks in our lives occur that prevent us from working towards our own desired goals. However, it is also important that we understand our own reasoning behind deciding to surf the web rather than just about anything else.

It is an easy course of self-justification to call a small diversion a break. After all, breaks are necessary as we work along and hope to avoid burning out. Or, as Rory Vaden puts it in Procrastinate on Purpose, waiting until the optimal time to act. That could mean taking a short walk, just stretching out some muscles, or letting your mind wander.

What it boils down to is intent. A break is meant to serve as a kind of productivity hack, allowing us to come back to the task at hand refreshed and perhaps with a new perspective. Procrastination serves as a tactic to deflect from deeper discomfort towards something you don’t want to do.


Talk to some people and they’ll say it is the stress from procrastination that helps them get things done. And that’s not to say there’s nothing to that. Psychologists have identified a couple different types of stress. Eustress helps you feel motivated and energized. Distress comes more with the feeling of being under threat.

And it is distress that poses a danger to productivity. The research on long-term distress shows a wide range of effects on the body and mind.

While the stress response evolved to keep our ancestors from being eaten, nowadays the notice of an overdue bill might as well be a saber-toothed tiger. Or coming back from lunch to find you’ve been assigned a report that needs to be written by the next day.

All these instances trigger a new stress response in your brain. Your body replies by pumping more stress hormones into your body. If prolonged, distress can have side effects such as:

  • Muscle tension & fatigue
  • Increased heart rate & blood pressure
  • Gastrointestinal discomfort
  • Loss of focus
  • Anxiety and/or Depression

Added together, it is perhaps little wonder that stress is such a productivity killer. Any one of the physical symptoms can pull attention away from a task. And focus is frequently cited as one of the things needed to complete meaningful work. As stressors pile up, the decrease in focus also hurts our ability to prioritize tasks.

We fret over working on one project because of the time it takes away from others, yet they both feel important. A feedback loop forms that only serves to compound stress and detract from our personal productivity.

What has become clearer, especially with research in the last decade, is the role societal structures contribute to the stress we feel in our lives. Works like Brigid Schulte’s Overwhelmed point to the various cultural factors that can lead to increased stress and the accompanying mental and physiological responses.

Mental Health

Anxiety borne from stress also blocks us from getting things done. Many of the physical symptoms of anxiety match those listed for stress above, only felt more intensely. Add to that a general sense of worry that something bad is about to happen or restlessness or the inability to control fears and concerns.

Feeling a kind of general anxiety does not have to be a productivity killer. The reduced stigma around mental health issues in recent times has led to a number of well-known public figures sharing their stories of grappling with anxiety. Sometimes they were experiencing what to general audiences looked like great success.

But there can also be the sense that the work is not as good as it could be or might fail to live up to expectations. Even famous actors with storied careers still experience stage fright. And this usually creates more anxiety around putting work out into the world. However, the stress driving such feelings does not always have
one underlying cause.

Studies have shown that perfectionism ranks high in the causes of procrastination. Oftentimes the logic goes that a project should only be put forth when it is perfect. And for that to happen, the mental conditions while creating and editing need to be perfect. Yet the people who talk that way can also point to many flaws in whichever draft they’re working on. Or they’ll compare it to another work considered a gold standard. The fear of feedback causes their retreat.

That kind of thinking can have its roots in deeper-seated self-esteem issues. The low appraisal of one’s own worth becomes carried through to the works one produces. Sometimes an individual in this situation will still show their work, but then gloms onto the negative feedback they receive as proof of their inadequacy. Any positive sentiments they receive become transformed into pity or patronizing. Repeated enough, the cycle can lead to people never feeling content to begin, spiraling deeper into negative feelings.

Depression interferes with personal productivity by depriving people of the vitality necessary either to start in on a project or continue one that is underway. Some of the symptoms include:

  • Sensations of sadness, emptiness, hopelessness, or worthlessness
  • Irritability
  • Lack of energy
  • Changes in diet or sleep
  • Slowed thought processes, speech, or physical movements
  • Self-blame, self-pity

The weightedness depression imposes upon the mind and body does take a toll on our capability. Studies have drawn a direct correlation between the severity of depression symptoms and the decrease in our productivity at work. Not only in terms of just doing our job, higher levels of depression also led to employees taking more sick days and having difficulty maintaining employment.

On top of the manifestations of depression listed above, people who experience psychosomatic issues as part of their depression also face great difficulties in maintaining concentration on their work or feeling like it is worth their while.


Today has become yesteryear’s World of Tomorrow. Technology offers us the convenience of controlling most of our lives from our phones. We can chat with a friend, order a meal, or turn on the thermostat. The list goes on.

For all the convenience at hand, though, much of the design behind our technology taps into the same neurological centers that drive the emotions described above. Take, for instance, the color red. We associate it with both danger, arousal, and sustenance. Either way, something red is often something worth investigating. And, if you look at the apps on your phone’s or tablet’s home screens, it’s common to find red dots in the corner of the icon when there is some kind of update. Like a ripe berry, we can’t resist plucking it.

And our technology has ways of sneaking itself into our lives. Push notifications can be silenced, but we frequently take the dings for granted. And that crisp sound or hard buzz acts as the sonic equivalent of a red dot. Especially if the phone is lying on the counter! The suddenness of a push notification’s arrival can actually cause a stress response in some people. Like its visual counterpart, when we know a new notification has arrived, we feel compelled to investigate.

Once the app has brought us inside, its design aims to keep us engaged. How many times have we gone to YouTube thinking we were just going to check out a couple short videos then come away after an hour and a half half-remembering what we just saw? Algorithms and infinite scrolling offer a constant supply of new content, and our novelty-hungry minds happily gorge on what’s served before us. And the autoplay feature makes it so easy to slip from one video to the next without thinking.

However, time has incited a reevaluation of certain social media features. The engineer who developed the infinite scrolling function and the creator of the retweet button on Twitter have begun in recent years to express regret over their creations’ consequences.

Such interruptions to our concentration add up to become massive productivity killers. A study at the University of California found that the average recovery time from a disruption to our attention was over twenty-three minutes! Time isn’t the only thing a distraction takes away. Research has shown an impact on work performance as well, increasing the errors we make on tasks.

And the absolute glut of information in our feeds have the potential to feed into feelings of anxiety and depression. Saturating ourselves with photos of other people’s vacation photos and lavish status updates can contribute to comparative thinking and conditions like the fear of missing out (FOMO) and status anxiety. Our own projects begin to feel diminished or inconsequential when set beside somebody else’s.

The news we read from around the world can contribute to the feeling that so much operates beyond our control. Stories from various media sources also tend to skew towards the negative and sensational because it grabs people’s attention. Exposure to these reports impact how we view the world. And that can zap one’s personal productivity dead if it leads to the feeling that they can contribute little in the face of strife and disease and political acrimony.

There are many productivity killers we face against in the course of our day-to-day lives. Each of us responds to them in different ways, and what may not be a problem for one person may act as a leaden weight on another. As our understanding of these different phenomena develops, we have also improved the ways we can push back against them.

The ever-growing section devoted to personal productivity in Blinkist’s library can help point readers towards potential solutions for the roadblocks they encounter in the journey towards greater productivity.

Facebook Twitter Tumblr Instagram LinkedIn Flickr Email Print