3 Productivity Myths That Are Making Your Life Way Harder Than It Has to Be

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An author outlines the most common and destructive productivity myths he encountered while researching his book.

Even under the best of circumstances, life is hard–and so is running a business. You don’t need to make it any harder than it already is, but according to Indistractable author Nir Eyal, many of us accidentally make it even more difficult to get things done and accomplish our goals. How? We believe a few common but dead wrong productivity myths.

In a recent Medium post, Eyal lays out five of the myths about productivity he heard most often while researching his book. All of them are worth a read, but three jived so well with my own personal experience and reporting I just had to dig into them more deeply.

1. Multitasking is always terrible.

Over the years, I have written a whole host of anti-multitasking columns. I’ve covered studies showing multitasking lowers your functional IQ and increases anxiety and highlighted experts who debunk the widely held belief that some people are just better multitaskers than others (nope, none of our brains are built for it). So am I just going to throw all this research out the window and decide multitasking is great on Eyal’s say-so?

Not at all. Eyal agrees that trying to do similar or complex tasks simultaneously and well is impossible. You cannot have a conversation and check your email at the same time. But Eyal insists there is one specific kind of multitasking that is actually effective and makes your life easier: multichannel multitasking, or pairing a complex task with a less cognitively strenuous one that uses different senses.

“Multichannel multitasking is a way to navigate the two limitations of the human brain: one, its limited processing power–the more concentration a task requires, the less room the brain has for anything else–and two, its limited number of attention channels, meaning it can only concentrate on one sensory output at a time,” explains Eyal. He offers examples: “We can make calls while walking, listen to podcasts while cleaning, and cook meals with friends and family.”

In fact, mixing light physical exertion with thinking has been shown to unblock creativity, and moving while discussing something helps us resolve conflict. So don’t throw the multitasking baby out with the bath water. In limited–but useful–circumstances, doing two things at once both saves you time and improves outcomes.

2. The to-do list is the be-all and end-all of productivity.

For many people, the humble to-do list is the foundation of productivity, and for good reason. Dumping all your deadlines and responsibilities onto paper or in an app is an effective way to clear your brain and get to grips with your commitments. But Eyal warns that to-do lists present pitfalls as well as advantages.

“Being productive, or making good use of your time, and finishing tasks are not the same thing. Output isn’t the only measurement of accomplishment. Treating it that way doesn’t take into account the journey of long-term goals and thus discourages people from pursuing those goals,” he writes.

Experts even have a name for putting off meaningful but long-term work in favor of less important but satisfying to-do list checking. They call this “priority dilution” and claim it amounts to a form of procrastination.

Many worthwhile tasks don’t fit neatly neatly onto tidy lists. Creativity, for instance, often demands long stretches of unstructured thinking that looks like slacking–just ask Einstein and Steve Jobs. Similarly, relationship building, strategic thinking, and the simple joy of being alive are near impossible to break down into to-do list items. Don’t let the satisfaction of ticking through a to-do list distract you from essential but fuzzier tasks.

3. You need to be “ready” to get started.

Nope, not at all. This one is just not true. When LinkedIn asked members what advice they’d give to their younger selves, the same tip came up again and again–stop trying to come up with the perfect plan or preparation and just get started. You’ll never be ready. We all figure it out along the way.

Eyal agrees, writing: “Declaring yourself ‘ready’ or not means thinking you have to have a quality output standard. It focuses too hard on the destination and outcomes and not enough on the journey, so getting started seems overwhelming. We have to redefine what being ‘ready’ means. In reality, you’re ready to pursue a goal when you can put in the time to work toward your goal for as long as you said you would.”

If you had everything you needed to reach your goal at the outset, your goal probably isn’t big enough. Humans learn by doing, so focus on the process and trust that pursuing your goal will transform you into the kind of person who can reach it.