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My affair with productivity started with a few triggers, one of them being a comment from my fiancé about the fact that I tend to start things, but never finish them. I get excited about new projects and I’m brilliant at kickstarting ideas. I also have many interests and I love learning.

And while it sounds great on the surface, when you put all of the above in the same pot with being a mother, running a business and bringing my share to my relationship and family, all of this proves a bit hard to handle and leaves me with a bunch of half-baked, half-finished activities and projects.

In order to help me get a grip on what’s really happening here, my business coach suggested that I look at the fundamentals of productivity – not the lists of quick tips on time management, but the actual foundation of why we work the way we do. He recommended a book called ‘Values Factor’ by John Demartini. Reading it opened my eyes.

What makes us unproductive?

We tend to think that what’s stopping us from getting things done is poor time management, lack of discipline or lack of assertiveness. Or, we’re unproductive because we’re too busy due to our poorly organised boss throwing random requests our way. Some of us are too tired to be productive, often giving a lot of energy to their family and friends before their own needs are addressed. And others don’t get things done because, paradoxically, they have too much time and they find it difficult to structure it effectively.

In reality, none of these are true causes of being unproductive – they’re byproducts of something far greater than the day to day management of our life. One of the big factors making us unproductive is living by what Demartini calls social idealisms.

Why are social idealisms powerful?

A social idealism is a way of thinking or behaving that is accepted by the society or environment you live in.

Acting according to those rules may feel nice, as it allows you to be part of the society – a trait we inherited from our ancestors, whose survival was dependant on social acceptance. Today, many people live by those rules simply because they cannot face questioning the group they grew up in. They may even believe that they’re inspired by those idealisms, having lived by the same rules for years on end.

However, all social idealisms do is tell us how we should behave, rather than invite us to think how we, as individuals, choose to act.

Such idealisms may have many roots. They may be dictated by religion or a political regime, by traditions specific to the country you’re from or habits taught at your school. If you look a bit closer, you may notice that certain idealisms promoted in your family – like, for instance, expectations of you attending an annual family gathering – make you feel guilty when you’d rather use that weekend for going to a course on investing that only happens once in a few years.

Social idealisms may even come from a much smaller group, like the women at your zumba class, or an external authority you respect, like your favourite university teacher or even your partner. All those groups and individuals have opinions and expectations about how you should behave and saying ‘yes’ to the rules they dictate may mean saying ‘no’ to what you really want to get done.

Laundry and opinions of others vs focusing on business

For me, an example of a social idealism ruining my attempts to get things done is the one related to the culture of my home country, Poland. For generations, women in Poland followed the same pattern: their interests had the right to live only if the needs of their families were met. These are the behaviours I noticed both with my grandmother and mother. And although this idealism ensured that all my needs were met when I was a child, over the years I started seeing disenchantment in my mother’s eyes about the fact that she didn’t have time to keep some friendships going or to develop a hobby.

Although I’m aware of the impact this idealism has on me now, I still need to pinch myself whenever I decide to use my own time to do laundry, instead of finishing a proposal for a new business deal.

Another social idealism that run in my life for years came from my (probably unsuspecting) cousin, who I very much looked up to as a teenager. For a very long time, whenever I was faced with a decision, I would first think what my cousin would do, and then decide based on what I thought her response would be. It was only when I entered my twenties that I realised that I actually didn’t know what I really wanted and often ended up doing nothing due to this paralysis. Now, a decade later, I still sometimes catch myself wondering what people I admire would do in my position.

And while in principle there’s nothing wrong with that, I can’t even think how much more productive I’d be if I didn’t spend so much time pondering other people’s responses.

I’m now also aware of idealisms coming from my fiancé, my work colleagues, and a breastfeeding support group I’m part of. It’s not to say that that I don’t consider their opinions. Quite the contrary, I do listen to their advice as they belong to my circle of trust. But I can safely say that listening a bit more to my own voice and then practising saying ‘no’ to some of the activities encouraged by people I trust allowed me to find the time and energy to do (and finish!) what’s important for me.

Time management isn’t enough

This start of my journey to productivity was quite unusual for me as before learning about social idealisms, I’d jump right into implementing time management ideas from lists of bullet points found on the Internet. I wouldn’t think that despite putting a hundred productivity tools to work, I’d still be unproductive, as I’d be running my life according to someone else’s ideas.

The knowledge of social idealisms, together with diligent work to discover my own values and finding the right tactics to boost my productivity, laid the foundation for a life with more balance, more understanding of myself, and more projects that don’t only start, but that get completed.

If you also have a tendency for leaving activities half-done, I encourage you to notice the social idealisms that run in your life. It’s only one of the aspects of personal productivity, but it’s powerful enough to give you a sense of being in control. Whenever you feel you should or have to do something, ask yourself: is this what I want, or is this what an external authority suggests for me to do? Which group or individual present in my life might want me to behave this way? Does this advice work with my vision of the future?

Please share your own personal productivity tips in the comments. I’d love to hear your experience and share them with the readers.

~ Anna

Anna Pawlowicz is DrivenWoman member in London and Founder of Fluid Focus, a productivity consultancy helping teams and individuals connect to their future focus and get the right things done.

If you’re interested in exploring the fundamentals of productivity, join DrivenWoman productivity workshop ‘Why Busy means Lazy‘ with Anna Pawlowicz on 13 September 2017 in Soho, London. Improving your ability to get things done is not an overnight process, but the right mindset and tools can quickly bring you closer to balance. It’s time to invest in yourself!

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