By Nir Eyal
February 8, 2023
(…and how to avoid them to keep a “productivity mindset”)
Productivity has many enemies: too many meetings, external triggers like interruptions from coworkers, and multitasking the wrong way, to name a few. But more often than not, it’s mental traps that trip us up.
“Mental traps are habitual modes of thinking that disturb our ease, take up enormous amounts of our time, and deplete our energy without accomplishing anything of value,” psychology professor André Kukla wrote in his book, Mental Traps: The Overthinker’s Guide to a Happier Life.
Learning to recognize these mental traps disarms them, enabling us to move past their threat to our productivity. Here are some common mental traps, accompanied by a solution to set you free.
Mental Trap: The Planning Fallacy
According to the American Psychology Association, the planning fallacy, is “the tendency to underestimate the amount of time needed to complete a future task, due in part to the reliance on overly optimistic performance scenarios.”
Underestimating the time you need for certain tasks means that you’re constantly unable to stick to a timeline. If you’re a freelancer whose clients have strict deadlines or part of a team that depends on you to complete a project as expected, meeting deadlines is crucial to your professional success.
Misjudging how much time you need to tackle tasks also means you’ll try to accomplish more than is possible in one day, which will cause an imbalance in your life. If you take on too much at your job, you might have to reallocate hours reserved for other domains of life—yourself and your relationships—to finishing those tasks.
Those high expectations, plus the low control you have in meeting them, are a guaranteed formula for burnout. After sacrificing hours previously meant for fun, self-care, or sleep, you’re likely to enter a state of emotional, mental, and often physical exhaustion brought on by prolonged or repeated stress.
Solution: Don’t Use a To-Do List Without Timeboxing
On their own, to-do lists are a trap. With no constraints, they don’t show force prioritization trade-offs nor help you stick to a realistic schedule.
Timeboxing, on the other hand, is a time management technique by which you reserve a specific period of time in your calendar for each activity. It’s a great way to beat the planning fallacy because it enables you to visualize your time. (If you’re new to timeboxing, try this schedule maker template to get started.)
You can use time tracker applications to monitor how much time you usually need to complete a work project, a recipe, a workout session, and more. Once you have a good idea of how long something might take you, plot it in your timeboxed calendar. This should give you a good idea of what you can realistically do in one day.
Be liberal with assigning time to your tasks. Don’t limit yourself to the minutes you need for the best-case scenario of productivity—timebox for your worst-case scenario. If you finish early, then you have breathing room to take a break.
Mental Trap: Liminal Moments
Liminal moments are transitions from one thing to another throughout our days. Have you ever opened a tab in your web browser, got annoyed by how long it’s taking to load, and opened another page while you waited? Or looked at a social media app while walking from one meeting to the next, only to keep scrolling when you got back to your desk?
By doing these actions for “just a second” or “five minutes tops,” we’re likely to do things we later regret, like getting off track for half an hour.
Solution: The 10-Minute Rule
Next time you feel the urge to check your phone in a moment of boredom or distraction, tell yourself to wait just 10 minutes. It’s likely that once the 10 minutes are over, your urge will be over.
The 10-minute rule, also known as “surfing the urge,” is when you take a breath to notice your sensations and ride them like a wave, which helps you cope until the feelings subside.
Surfing the urge is effective at helping me deal with all sorts of potential distractions, like googling something rather than writing, eating something unhealthy when I’m bored, or watching another episode on Netflix when I’m “too tired to go to bed.”
Mental Trap: The Mere Urgency Effect
The mere urgency effect is the “tendency to pursue urgency over importance,” as defined by this recent study. It says, “People may choose to perform urgent tasks with short completion windows instead of important tasks with larger outcomes.”
In other words, we tend to prioritize the completion of the five-minute menial task rather than the important project that will take us hours of work.
Email is a perfect example. It’s the curse of the modern worker. The average office-dwelling worker receives 100 messages per day. Even if you can tap out a reply in just two minutes for each one, that adds up to more than three hours daily. It will consume all the time you need for more important tasks if you let it.
Solution: Plan Focused Work Sessions
Timeboxing can protect us from the siren call of menial tasks. In your calendar, reserve a period for focused work, and let your family, coworkers, boss—anyone who might try to approach you in that time—know that you’ll be unavailable.
This will eliminate the guilt or anxiety you feel over not responding to emails every 30 seconds because your boss and coworkers will know you’re not slacking–you’re Indistractable.
Planning focused work time will also let you know that any other task you do in that time is a distraction. You might be tempted to recheck your inbox or, if you’re working from home, quickly throw some laundry in the wash—but that’s off-limits during your focused work time.
Mental Trap: Shame for Not Getting Everything Done
Humans aren’t machines, so we’re going to have moments of low productivity, even if we’re proactive about managing our time and attention. Making yourself feel shame about your lack of productivity isn’t going to do you any good.
Maybe you’ve made yourself feel shame for sleeping in instead of getting up for your early morning workout. Or maybe distraction was able to steal your attention more than usual today.
Don’t give in to self-blame. That toxic guilt will only make you feel even worse and can, ironically, lead you to seek even more distraction in order to escape the pain of shame.
Everyone struggles with distractions from time to time. The important thing is to take responsibility for our actions without toxic shame.
Self-compassion makes people more resilient to letdowns by breaking the vicious cycle of stress that often accompanies failure.
If you find yourself listening to the little voice in your head that sometimes bullies you around, it’s important to know how to respond. Instead of accepting what the voice says or arguing with it, remind yourself that obstacles are part of the process of growth.
Talk to yourself the way you would to a friend. We tend to be our own worst critics, but if we talk to ourselves the way we’d help a friend, we can see the situation for what it really is. Telling yourself things like, “This is what it’s like to get better at something,” and “You’re on our way” are healthier ways to handle self-doubt.
Feelings of guilt are yet another reason to use a schedule builder over to-do lists, which perpetuate harmful self-stereotypes because they act as a constant reminder that you didn’t do what you said you’d do.
Want more tips to foster productivity? Here are 8 productivity hacks you can do in 30 minutes.
About the Author
Nir Eyal is the bestselling author of Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products and Indistractable: How to Control Your Attention and Choose Your Life. Nir blogs at NirAndFar.com
Get a complimentary Indistractable workbook at: https://www.nirandfar.com/subscribe-behavior-change/
Disclaimer: The ideas, views, and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of International Institute for Learning or any entities they represent.