Most people think of productivity as a skill, something that can be improved with practice. But this is, in reality, only partially true. Why? Because this thinking misses an important point. That being more productive is about what you do less of, not more of.
To really improve your productivity you need to figure out and identify the habits that are interfering with your productivity and eliminate them. When you do, you’ll find that you’re actually far more productive than you realized.
While there are lots of pitfalls on the road to productivity one of the most overlooked is working in marathons instead of sprints.
What Marathon Working?
As we mentioned, one of the biggest productivity pitfalls people fall into is to attempt to work in marathons.
What do we mean? Here is a practical example.
You have a deadline looming for a large project. You decide that the best way to tackle this is to set a day aside to do it all in one 'fell swoop'. So you decide on say, Tuesday. You think it will take about you eight hours to complete, so you plan on working straight through from 8am to finish, which, you calculate, should be about four or five pm. Easy.
The problem here is that you’ve created a marathon for yourself. And in terms of productivity, marathons are bad news.
A few things are likely to happen in such a situation:
You'll Give Up
At 8am you'll sit down at your desk, and instantly become overwhelmed by the sheer amount of stuff work you need to do by 5pm. After a couple false starts, you simply give up. Nothing gets done, and you go into true panic mode, and the best case situation is that you 'try again tomorrow', putting you behind schedule in all your work, not just this single project.
Instead of giving up entirely, you procrastinate. You respond to some email first, maybe return some calls, read a little news, and then decide to dig in. But now you’re “behind schedule” and fear creeps in.
So, to distract yourself from your anxiety, you procrastinate some more. Rinse and repeat a few times and you’ve procrastinated so much that you end up with a low-quality piece of work at the end of the day, if you get any real work done at all.
You’ll Get Lost
The final pattern people get into when they try and marathon their way through work is that they get lost down rabbit holes. Because they’re trying to work through a huge pile of work, it’s easy to lose focus on what’s a priority and what needs to get done in what order. This leads to too much time being spent on some things and too little on others. The end result is either giving up or a low-quality result.
You can avoid all of these outcomes by learning to work in sprints instead of marathons.
How To Work In Sprints
A sprint is a time-limited burst of focused, high-energy work on a specific task.
For example, if you have six hours of work, you might divide that work up into three parts. Then design a series of 45-minute sprints to work through each part.
Working in sprints has the following benefits:
When you make a plan to work in sprints, it forces you to plan out your work in detail and create more specific sets of tasks. This means that when you do sit down to work, there’s less confusion and mental friction to getting started. Also, you’re more likely to stay on task and prioritize well.
Working in sprints has the profound psychological benefit of improved doableness. Doableness is the perception that, while difficult, a piece of work is something you can achieve. While intense, sprints have a much higher success factor than marathons, which means higher motivation, stamina, and energy while working.
More Positive Reinforcement
Another underrated benefit of working in sprints is that you give yourself more frequent opportunities for reward and positive reinforcement. If you can treat yourself to a cup of nice coffee or some highlights from ESPN after completing each sprint, you’re far more likely to keep your motivation and energy levels high. This is much easier than trying to delay gratification for six hours straight.
Sprints have the final benefit of being flexible. If you begin a sprint and realize you’re stuck or overwhelmed, you can often substitute a different sprint and work on that instead.
This often gives your brain time to process the difficulty better, so that when you go back to the tricky sprint, you find you have more clarity about it (plus more confidence and motivation after completing the substitute sprint).
The next time you have a major project or piece of work to accomplish, ask yourself:
How could I work on this project in several sprints rather than trying to slog through it in a single marathon? With a little planning upfront, you’ll find sprinting a far more effective and enjoyable way to work through your most challenging projects and tasks.