My 5 Worst Productivity Mistakes

A few years ago I was in a serious battle with overwhelm at work.

I was constantly feeling stressed about all the different projects that needed to be moved forward. While my inbox tugged me in five different directions, I had this ever-present feeling of guilt about the things I knew I really should be doing, but kept putting off.

And even when I wasn’t working, the stream of notifications, emails, and texts kept me half-present with my friends and family.

It was exhausting. I knew there had to be a better way.

So I set out to find the root of the problem and learn how to get more of the right things done without my responsibilities having an iron grip over my mind 24/7.

And while I’m still not perfect, I’ve grown tremendously. I’m in control of my schedule, can be more present with my friends and family, and I’ve canned the nagging guilt.

As a nonprofit professional, you’re likely more overwhelmed, overworked, and stressed out than many of your colleagues in the corporate world. You wear more hats with fewer resources.

And while this problem with overwhelm isn’t unique to the nonprofit world, I have an extra measure of compassion for those of you working to make a difference while dealing with these issues.

At the end of the day, my mission is to empower the people and organizations I partner with to start loving their work again. I help remove their barriers, obstacles, and frustrations by improving their website, so they can shift their focus outward to those they’re helping.

While I won’t be talking strictly about websites in this post, I want to talk about another topic close to my heart that has a lot to do with how much you love (or hate) your work: productivity and work/life balance.

Today, I want to share with you the 5 biggest productivity mistakes I made, and how I corrected them. I hope this provides a springboard to start, or help you continue, your journey towards a more fulfilling life.

Mistake #1: Blaming others

Early on, I had the deep realization that if I continued to blame external factors, like my clients, colleagues, boss, or personal commitments, I would never have the power to improve my situation.

As long as “something else” was the problem, I had relinquished control. There was nothing I could do to make my work more productive or fulfilling.

This is a difficult idea to come to terms with.

For starters, it feels safer to blame others. It’s hard to look yourself in the mirror and realize you’ve had the power to address your problems all along. It’s easier to transfer some of that responsibility elsewhere.

We also subconsciously accept constraints we or others have placed around us. Things like our meeting schedules, the meetup you joined a few months ago that you “have” to attend every week, or (in my case) the way I had been allowing others to overstep my boundaries and behave in a way that caused a lot of stress and anxiety in my life.

There are obviously external factors you can’t control like the requests of your boss, the behavior of your co-workers, workplace policy, etc. But you do have control over the importance you give your inbox, the habits you decide to adopt or remove, and even whether you choose to remain in a working environment or relationship that’s unhealthy.

This mindset shift is so fundamental that without it, most of the following mistakes are difficult to correct.

If you don’t believe you have the power to change your situation, you’ve given control of your happiness and well-being to others. Click to tweet this.

Mistake #2: Confusing the meaning of urgent and important

Early in my productivity journey, I read The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. In it, the author presents a decision matrix developed by Dwight D. Eisenhower:

Photo from

Urgent activities need to be dealt with immediately. They have a deadline or time constraint.

Important activities are of long-term or strategic importance.

Most of us spend our day in the bottom-left corner of the matrix, checking urgently unimportant things off our to-do list. Then, when we’re really stressed out, we decide to “get our act together” and search for a productivity app or organizational system to help us do more unimportant things in less time.

Do you see the problem?

We mostly know our big rocks—the important things we need to get done—during any given week. But we have a tough time understanding when something urgent is not important.

So all these seemingly “important” things shout for our attention and we end the week feeling like we’ve accomplished nothing.

Learning how to identify important tasks

Sometimes your emotions are the best barometer for discerning the importance of something. If you end your day or week feeling like you were insanely busy, but got nothing done, that’s an indicator you’re spending too much of your time on unimportant things.

Try making a list of what you actually did, or use a tool like RescueTime to track your actual time allocation, so you can start to identify the unimportant things eating your time.

You know what else I’ve noticed?

Urgency breeds urgency. If you have a “fast-paced” or “dynamic” workplace culture that revolves around urgent tasks, you have an uphill battle to fight.

Urgent activities are often caused by a lack of adequate planning. When everyone is operating in “fight or flight” mode, no one can carve out the time for planning, which creates a vicious cycle.

But don’t despair. Even if you have a fire drill culture in your organization, it doesn’t mean you can’t work to counteract this dynamic by implementing a few of the habits I outline later in this article.

I would suggest picking up a copy of Beth Kanter’s The Happy, Healthy Nonprofit if you’d like to dive deeper into strategies for preventing workplace burnout.

Mistake #3: Avoiding difficult conversations

At the height of my stress, I was in a constant state of angst because I felt like I didn’t have enough hours in the day to help all our clients AND move my business forward by writing, sending proposals to new clients, managing our finances, etc.

I was overloaded, and as a result the important things I needed to do to grow my business got neglected.

Then I had a stark realization that I was the one who ultimately put myself in this position. I had committed to all these responsibilities and then deemed my situation unchangeable.

As I started to dig deeper, I realized I had committed to all this work because I was massively undercharging for our services and couldn’t afford to hire adequate help. But I was avoiding having a difficult conversation with our clients about raising our rates.

It was easier to just deal with all the stress…until it wasn’t. For the sake of my sanity, and my family, I needed to have a series of difficult conversations to bring my life into balance and my workload under control.

You might be thinking:

“That’s great, Spencer. But I’m not a fancy-schmancy consultant like you. I can’t just ask my boss for more money and then hire someone to do my job for me!”

Yes, our situations are different. But don’t miss the point of my story here.

  • You can have a hard conversation with your boss about your workload and its impact on you, personally and professionally.
  • You can kindly approach your co-worker and ask to be excused from her weekly time-sucking meetings.
  • You can nicely request an agenda before someone schedules a call with you.
  • You can quit your job and find a better one that aligns with your values.

There will always be reasons and “buts” for not making these kind of decisions.

Is avoiding them worth the price you’re paying?

Mistake #4: Justifying bad habits

Think about the last time “one of those” emails came in.

You know the ones I’m talking about:

It’s the weekend and you’re sitting around the table having dinner with your family and friends. You check your phone and your weekend is immediately ruined as you see that scathing email from a VIP.

You stay up until midnight crafting the perfectly worded response and collapse into bed exhausted and anxious. Later, you don’t remember anything about the weekend other than how that email made you feel.

That exact scenario happened to me a few years ago. I hated it.

At first glance, it may seem like we can’t do anything about these kinds of situations. I know that’s what I believed for many years.

But the reality is that these situations are created because of bad habits we’ve justified to ourselves:

  • “I need to have my inbox open all day.”
  • “I need my phone to notify me the instant anything comes in.”
  • “I need to be subscribed to these 500 newsletters to stay up to date.”

Close your #$^% inbox

Let me start by addressing the killer of all productivity, your email inbox. Allow me to go on a rant for a second.


Okay, rant over.

See, the problem with responding to emails as they come in is that your inbox becomes a giant to-do list that anyone can add things toClick to tweet this.

It’s little wonder that most of us feel unproductive – we spend all day micromanaging our inbox like some sort of helicopter parent, letting other people prioritize our time with their incoming requests.

Answering email feels productive in the moment, doesn’t it? But at the end of week, you know otherwise when you head home to another weekend riddled with guilt.

Let me guess what you’re thinking right now:

“But Spencer, you don’t understand my job. I need to have my email open. Bad things will happen if I don’t!”

Actually, I understand more than you know. We have more in common than you might believe.

I’m in a service-based business, and response time is very valuable to our clients. And I’m committed to ensuring they get world-class website support when they work with us.

So how do I manage it without the world going up in flames?

Three simple rules:

Rule #1: Open and process email 1-2 times per day

The first time I tried this, I was scared.

I thought I was going to reopen my inbox after a few hours and find the email equivalent of an angry mob waiting to greet me. What if one of our client’s websites went down? What if an important request came in?

Do you know what actually happened? Nothing.

And you know what else I learned? 99% of my email was not as important as I thought it was.

If a client’s site was truly down, or there was a genuine reason someone needed to reach me immediately, my phone would ring. When something is truly urgent and important, people will escalate it to your attention through multiple channels.

Checking email 1-2 times per day still allows me to respond to our clients promptly and provide great service, but gives me the space to get meaningful work done without interruption.

The most difficult thing about implementing this email policy is setting the expectations of others. Here are some suggestions:

  • For the first few weeks, set an autoresponder to all incoming email that explains you’re only checking email at XXam and XXpm due to high workload.
  • I suggest setting your times at 11:30am and 4:00pm. Why? Checking your email in the late morning allows you to have 3-4 uninterrupted hours at the beginning of the day to work on your most important tasks, and checking again at 4:00pm allows you to send off any last-minute emails without people expecting you to respond today.
  • Let people know that a phone call is the best way to reach you if something needs to be urgently addressed.

You might need to adapt this strategy to fit your situation. Don’t get hung up on the exact details.

The point is that if you can spend most of your workday with your inbox CLOSED, you’ll be amazed by how much you get done.

Rule #2: Turn off all notifications on your phone except calls

I subconsciously resisted this rule for a long time. I think, somehow, it feels good to have your phone buzz and see a new email come in, or gain a new follower on Twitter.

Notifications are addictive, like a little dopamine rush to your brain.

But is being immediately alerted to everything worth the chance of ruining your night or weekend when you find a crisis in your inbox? Is it worth you always being half-present with your family? Friends? Loved ones?

On my phone, the only thing that triggers a buzz is a phone call. That’s it.

I also have visual alerts for text messages, but I have to manually look at my phone to see them. As much as I love the funny memes my friends send me, sending back an “LOL” can wait an hour or two while I dedicate my focus to my most important goals in business and life.

I also disable the badge counts on my email app. You know, the little red number that tells you how many unread emails you have? If I want to check email on my phone, I actually have to open the app to find out if I have any new messages.

This doesn’t prevent me from sometimes opening my inbox to see what’s going on. But it sure makes me a lot more aware of how much I’m addicted to my email.

Whenever you open your email app, ask yourself:

  • Is this worth discovering a crisis that will ruin my night or weekend?
  • If something needs my attention, can I actually do anything about it right now? Or am I just checking out of compulsion?
  • Am I putting my inbox in a position of greater importance than my loved ones?

Rule #3: Viciously unsubscribe from email newsletters

One of the hardest parts about dealing with your inbox is the sheer amount of messages you have to process on a daily basis. It seems endless. New things are coming in every 5-10 minutes.

But here’s the deal:

If you look at the bulk of your email, you’ll discover most of it consists of newsletters you feel compelled to read. It’s easier to just stay subscribed than to find the unsubscribe button. Either way, it clutters up your inbox, distracts you, and takes you extra time to sift through.

I have a rule of viciously unsubscribing from any newsletter that doesn’t deliver me more value than the time it takes me to read it.

Plenty of great newsletters are out there, and I use them to keep up on industry trends and best practices. But nine times out of ten, they’re filled with information I might need someday, not now.

If I really need to find information on something, I’ll bookmark the article or website and come back at the time I actually need to use the information.

The amount of endless “top 10 things I NEED to do NOW” can be nauseating. Being inundated with these kinds of messages subconsciously confuses my priorities and makes me feel bad about not doing something I could have cared less about 5 minutes ago.

Mistake #5: Relying solely on my willpower

In my early days, I would log on in the morning and try to remember what I was supposed to be working on (usually using my inbox to help remind me). Then I would putz through the day trying to do as much of it as possible.

Needless to say, that wasn’t a very effective system.

Not only was I constantly overloaded trying to remember everything on my plate, but things would fall through the cracks. Emails would never get responded to. Deadlines would get missed. I would wake up in the middle of the night remembering something I forgot to do.

In hindsight, I was WAY more optimistic about my ability to get things done by just keeping them in my head or strewn through my inbox and relying on my willpower to get them done on time.

Over the years, I’ve developed systems to help me manage everything on my plate. And they have nothing to do with “trying harder” or “having more motivation.”

In fact, these systems have helped me realize how hopeless I actually was doing things my old way, and why I was so caffeine-riddled and exhausted at the end of every week.

System #1: Everything gets written down

The first thing I started doing was dumping everything in my brain onto paper, and assigning due dates to items with deadlines.

This “revelation” occurred to me after reading David Allen’s Getting Things Done, which I would highly recommend to those looking to get more organized in their personal and professional lives.

This system seems so obvious, right? I know you’ve heard it before.

But are you actually doing it? Or did you just read about it and do nothing?

I eventually migrated my to-do list to an online location to make it easier to manage. I use Todoist to manage both one-time and recurring tasks. It’s my single source of truth for everything that needs to get done in my life.

Why is this important?

A lot of people use their inbox to keep track of their various projects. You might have an email from your boss 2 months ago that represents a task you still need to get around to. Or a message hanging around from a colleague that actually means you need to prepare a report for them next week.

By identifying these “projects in disguise” and capturing them somewhere outside your inbox, you’ll be able to better manage them alongside everything else that’s important to you. And you won’t feel so tied to your inbox because it’s no longer your task list.

Here’s a good rule of thumb:

If you’re waiting to do something before responding to an email, it’s actually a project.

In that case, copy the to-do to your master list, give it a due date if necessary, and archive the email in a folder somewhere you can come back to when you’re ready to reply.

System #2: Review to-dos once per week

Keeping a to-do list in a master location seems like a great idea until it slowly starts to fall out-of-date.

You fall back into old habits, have a few urgent projects stored in your head, and before you know it your shiny to-do app looks more like your shopping list from two weeks ago: out-of-date and irrelevant.

Here’s what I’ve found:

It’s crucially important to take 1-2 hours every single week to review your to-dos in their entirety, update their statuses, and add any missing items to the list

This is a great time to think strategically about how you used your time last week, and where you can improve your efforts from a prioritization and time management perspective.

But you might be thinking:

“If I already feel crushed by my workload, how am I going to find another hour or two to stay on top of everything?”

I felt like this too, and in the beginning I would let stress get the better of me and slip back into “emergency mode,” letting my old habits frantically take over to try and get everything done. If you try this system, it will probably happen to you a few times at first.

This inevitably leads to disaster, though, when you get to the end of the week and realize you spent your time haphazardly working on a bunch of things that felt really important at the time, but weren’t actually as important as you thought.

Your stressed-out brain is not in a position to make high-level priority calls when it’s operating in fight or flight mode. Click to tweet this.

Now, when I feel this way, I ask myself: “Is gaining back 5% of my time by skipping my weekly review really going to make a difference? Or am I actually going to be less productive by working on things without a proper plan and perspective?”

System #3: If it’s not on my calendar, it’s not getting done

My last system builds on the first two, and involves scheduling each of my to-dos on the calendar.

Here’s what I’ve found over the years:

When I log on each morning, I don’t want to ask “what should I do today?” I want to already know exactly what I need to do based on my priorities and time constraints.

When I do my weekly review, I go through my to-do list and estimate how long each item is going to take. Then, I go to my calendar and actually schedule dedicated blocks of time to work on that item.

If I think writing an email to my list is going to take 2 hours, I block off two hours on my calendar. This helps me be ultra-realistic about what I can and can’t do.

Here’s what this week looks like for me:

If I don’t have a piece of work represented by one of those colored blocks, it’s not getting done this week. Simple as that.

Why does this work?

When you can log on every morning and follow an hour-by-hour plan that you’ve set for yourself based on your priorities, your stress is suddenly lifted. You have the peace and confidence that you’re working on the most important things, and you feel in control of your schedule.

You also have the insight to know where urgent or unimportant things (such as meetings, calls, or last-minute assignments) are creeping into your work, and how that impacts when you’ll get your other things done.

There are two details to this approach worth noting:

First, you’ll notice I don’t have each and every little task mapped to my calendar. Rather, I have categories for some items like “Networking” and “Client work” that contain a lot of smaller tasks I need to do that day. Those tasks are tagged and stored in my master list so when I get to my networking time, I can go find what I need to do.

Second, I generally don’t schedule blocks of time shorter than 30 minutes. Otherwise, I end up feeling burnt out. I want to drive my calendar instead of the other way around.

Dealing with unplanned changes

Planning your calendar like this seems great – until you come back to reality and remember that a million things always seem to come up during the week.

If your current, less-structured plans get destroyed by unforeseen changes, how is scheduling every hour going to help?

Here’s the honest truth:

I don’t always perfectly nail my start and end times. For example, this post started as an email on Thursday and turned into 4,500+ word epic that took more like ten hours to write instead of the two I had planned on my calendar.

But the important thing is, I was able to look at my schedule and realize what I had planned for the next few days was less important than writing this post.

And, just as crucially, I was able to instantly see what wasn’t going to get done based on my schedule changes. For every item that gets added to my calendar, something has to get removed.

As my man Dwight D. Eisenhower says:

“I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.”

Without knowing what has to get removed from your calendar, it’s difficult to set expectations for yourself or others. Most people take unanticipated tasks or requests and add them onto their already-full schedule. They, and everyone around them, just expects them to be completed on top of everything else.

But your calendar knows better. It’s an impartial third-party that’s ultra-realistic about what you can complete without burning out. It helps take that “just one more thing” conversation and turn it into a practical “which would you like?” conversation.

Plan your unplanned activities

When was the last time you actually took a look at all the “last minute” things that came up during the week and stole your time?

They’re an easy scapegoat for productivity problems. Just like stress-inducing emails, there’s nothing you can do to control them…right?

But you know what’s crazy?

I’d venture to guess most of your “unplanned” activities during the week actually happen on somewhat regular intervals. Or, at least, you could anticipate them with better communication and planning.

Perhaps all these unplanned activities are happening because you haven’t (wait for it) properly planned for them.

I encourage you to try this for just one day:

  1. When you first arrive at work, and BEFORE you open your email inbox, make an hour-by-hour plan of what you’re going to accomplish today. It could be scheduled as events in your calendar or written on a sticky note – just as long as you have a plan.
  2. As you work, keep a log of where your time actually went. I adjust the events on my calendar as the day goes on, to reflect how my time was really spent. You could write your activities on a second sticky note if you want. The point is that you’ll instantly be able to see what things you overestimated, underestimated, or didn’t account for during your day.
  3. Look at the unplanned activities that came up and ask yourself:
    1. Could I have seen this coming?
    2. How can I adjust how I work, plan, or communicate to prevent this from interrupting my schedule again?

Of course, you’re never going to fully eliminate unplanned activities from your week. Lately, I’ve been experimenting with leaving 3-4 hours unplanned, to “soak” the extra stuff that comes in. It’s a constant process of tweaking, experimenting, and reflecting on what works.

I highly suggest you think about what works for you and try different things when you sense something is not going as smoothly as you hoped. A lot of my systems I’ve adopted from other people, kept the parts that felt good to me, and filled in the gaps by experimenting with my own ideas.

Ultimately, the habits and systems you choose to keep or adopt will dramatically influence not only your productivity at work, but your mental and emotional well-being too.

My hope is that you’ll have the clarity to realize where you can alter your thinking and professional habits so you can get back to loving the work you do and making a difference in the world.

Is there a productivity system or tip that’s been working well for you?

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