The Real Reason People Are Unproductive Isn’t What You Think

We are always looking for new ways to be productive. But why is it that we are unproductive in the first place?

People tend to chalk it up to the following:

  • Distracting environment
  • Not enough sleep (or not enough coffee)
  • Too many “priorities”
  • Poor time management
  • Etc.

I don’t think these are the real reasons though. What I’ve noticed is that there is a trend in people who are “unproductive,” one that hides beneath the surface of more easily recognizable patterns.

The reason many people are unproductive is this:

They are afraid.

When they are given an assignment, or they start a project that stretches slightly outside their comfort zone, they end up finding every excuse not to work on it. Why? Because they aren’t confident in their skills to execute, and so they choose easier tasks that provide them with a more immediate sense of accomplishment.

What ends up happening is they spend all day working on the little things on their to-do list, just so they can check them off and feel “productive.” But by doing so, they end up avoiding the one task that will actually move them to where they want to go–whether that be within a specific project, or even their career or life. The difficult tasks are the ones that stretch you, that make you feel uncomfortable. They are the ones that force you to grow. The people who embrace this, move quickly. Those who don’t, run forever in place.

If you look around at any workplace, the reason why people avoid certain tasks doesn’t have anything to do with “the environment” or “not drinking enough coffee.” It comes down to the fact that they don’t know how to do what is being asked of them, and instead of risking being wrong, they avoid it all together.

That’s the real reason people are unproductive. They don’t want to fail.

How do you combat this?

The way I have learned to overcome this bad habit is through handwriting my to-do list every single morning. First, I look at yesterday’s list, and anything I didn’t complete, I write down for today. Once I’ve done that, I add whatever other tasks were just put on my plate, and then once I have everything in front of me, I look for what is most important based on where I want to go and what I want to accomplish, and I circle it–and I tackle that first.

What I’ve noticed through doing this is that certain tasks will somehow appear on my to-do list over and over.

By handwriting it, I start to take notice when I’m writing and rewriting the same task. That’s when I have to ask myself, “Why am I avoiding this? Because it’s hard? Because it’s boring? Or because I am afraid to do it?”

feeling unproductive

Case in point, three years ago, when I first started working at Idea Booth as an entry-level copywriter, any time I was tasked with calling someone on the phone, I avoided it. I was very shy and far from confident in my abilities to speak coherently over the phone to someone of stature. Day after day I’d rewrite the simplest of tasks on my to-do list, eventually realizing the only reason I wasn’t doing this thing that would take me less than five minutes was because I was afraid. It’s not that I didn’t know what needed to be done – I knew exactly what needed to be done. I just didn’t feel comfortable doing it, and so I avoided it all together.

This is the root of not being productive: fear. This goes for art, business, school, and effective communication of all kinds. We tend to avoid that which scares us.

Forget the “productivity matrices” or the “productivity hacks.” If you can’t pinpoint and get over the things that scare you, all you’ll end up doing is crossing off a bunch of easy tasks on your to-do list that don’t actually get you to where you want to go.

If you truly want to move the needle, if you actually want to be productive, you have to be willing to do what scares you.

This post was written by Nicolas Cole and first appeared on his blog.

Nicolas Cole is an author, Top Writer on Quora, and the founder of Digital Press. His work has acquired over 30 million views online, and has been published in Time, Forbes, Business Insider, CNBC, and more. He is best known for writing about creativity, entrepreneurship, productivity and personal growth.