Every superhero has recurring supervillains. Sometimes, they’re easily defeated by the hero, but as the story moves on, they become more aware of the hero’s weaknesses, and cleverly exploit them. The villains are never fully vanquished and nearly always find a way to resurface again and again.
In the same way, your productivity at work is usually attacked by the same villains over and over. You may have a completely unscheduled and distraction-free day, but still not accomplish much if your villains get the best of you.
Your unique set of supervillains are based on your personality, your physical workplace, your digital workplace, and many other factors.
Like the comics, you can never completely get rid of your productivity supervillains. They can only be respected, and managed, not solved, and you must always be on your guard. One small opening is enough for the supervillain to come in and take control over a whole season of work.
In my own life, since I can’t forever destroy my supervillains, I find it helpful to name and recognize them early on. Each bad guy takes a different approach; Batman has a very different strategy of fighting Two-Face than he does the Riddler. Naming your villains and talking openly about how to fight them goes a long way in taking back control over your productivity.
Here are the top five recurring supervillains that are most likely to destroy my productivity at work.
1. Doing the easy stuff first
When I sit down with my task management system to decide what to prioritize, I am always drawn to the quick and easy tasks first. This supervillain tells me that I should build up momentum and clear my schedule to do the bigger tasks later.
I fall for this one all the time, and *spoiler alert* I almost never end up finishing those big tasks later on in the day. If I don’t do them first, they don’t get done.
I have this one recurring task to do that takes about ten minutes. If I miss doing it, it’s not a big deal. But that ten minutes is too enticing, and I almost never miss doing that task while I push off bigger things.
On days when I lose to this villain, I feel like I’m just treading water and never moving forward. On the flip side, if I have a day when I get my big stuff done, but miss out on the small things, I never feel bad, because I know I’ll get the small stuff done tomorrow.
How I fight this villain: Recognize that I can make any task seem important, and consciously choose to do the hardest task first.
2. Checking communication too often
It’s a deep part of my personality to want to be helpful and have other people like me. One way I do this is by making sure I’m available to others. Turning off all my notifications seems rude and selfish sometimes. So, I keep checking messages and email frequently just to be sure that no one is waiting on me.
But once I open up those floodgates, it’s hard to stop. I get sucked into conversations that go on forever and end up losing a bunch of time just doing communication triage.
How I fight this villain: In the end, people are going to be more happy with me if I actually get big things done rather than just respond to immediate requests. Also, I have to recognize that I disappoint others more if I respond immediately and say I’ll do something, but then push that task off for several days. The longer I put off checking communication, the better I do.
3. Ignoring energy management
My productivity villains tend to strike hardest when my energy is down. If I’m feeling strong, I tend to be able to fight off their attacks pretty easy. But when I feel weak, then I’m much more likely to give in. When my energy is low, I can almost feel myself looking forward to being drawn into this villain’s web and clickbait all of a sudden looks really enticing.
I do a lot of editing for other writers. Editing a bad article not only takes time, but it completely drains me and makes me highly vulnerable to this attack.
My work day starts at 5:30am. My energy is usually lowest at about 1pm-2pm, or just after lunch. I find it really hard to concentrate at that time. I’m also a pretty munchy person in general and working at home means that I’m only 50 feet away from grabbing food any time I want.
How I fight this villain: I have to be very selective about the writers I work with so that I don’t end up doing much editing on their work. Since I know the afternoon is hard on me, I do best if I either take a break and do some physical activity, or push off my simple tasks until that time. Sometimes ending my day an hour early and then coming back for an hour in the evening works well as long as my schedule allows it. For the munchies, limiting quick snacks that are in the house, and eating full meals helps a bit.
4. Bad meetings
A great meeting gives me a lot of clarity on what tasks I need to do and their priority. A bad meeting drains the life out of me and makes me want to not talk to people ever again. Also, meetings take a different mindset than solo work, and it’s really hard to be productive when I’m constantly switching between them.
How I fight this villain: There are some bad meetings I can’t get out of, but I can control a lot of my meetings. I make sure there is a clear agenda, clear action items, and that we connect on a human level. I’ve also found that grouping all of my meetings on the same days helps to both prevent that mindset switching, and also provides me with some meeting-free days when I can focus on solo work.
5. Personal stuff
I keep all of my personal email separate from my work stuff, but when your workspace is digital, you are never more than a few keystrokes away from anything. The voice in my head reminds me of a personal task I need to get done, and convinces me that 1) I can do it quickly, and 2) I’ll forget it if I don’t do it now.
How I fight this villain: Similar to any other area of work, I need to use a separate task management system to keep all these thoughts when they pop up, and then block out time towards the end of the day to do them all at the same time.
Who are your supervillains?
In my experience, I’ve found that time management and productivity are extremely subjective. The supervillains I face aren’t the same as the ones you do. While I can pick up a few time management tips from other people, in the end I have to have my own unique plan.
Great time management is all about being intensely self-aware. Once you identify your supervillains and figure out how they affect you, you have a much better chance of defeating them. If they go unnamed, they become generic things like laziness or an inability to focus, which are much harder to fight.
Supervillains also never die. You can’t just kill off Lex Luthor, the Joker, or Magneto once and for all. They always find a way back. Similarly, whatever your productivity supervillains are, you will probably always struggle with them. They will win some days, but the more honest you are about them, the better you can do at recognizing their tricks and overcoming them.
So, who are your supervillains?