How to be more productive at work: Urgency vs. intensity

We all have endless todo lists, deadlines, and obligations. We are always searching for how to be more productive at work and how to be more productive in life, period. But some part of us wants to simply relax, to actually enjoy life, and to chip away at our personal bucket list. This tug of war creates its own stress, on top of the stress that comes from trying to complete all those items on our todo list. 

Personally, I have found stress to be something we create for ourselves. There actually is an answer to everything, if we apply ourselves and are patient about it. A sense of urgency actually distracts us from success; rather than focusing on the task at hand, it puts the emphasis on a negative thought: “I don’t think I can pull this off! What if I don’t make it?” 

In fact, a certain kind of focused intensity solves many problems, at work and at home. 

Let’s take our home life first. 

The best parents and spouses pay attention to their loved ones. The child who knows he or she is being listened to will be massively less uptight than the one who doesn’t think anyone is paying attention. Children know they need their parents in the early years of their lives. And if the parent is always distracted, and barely “there,” this makes the child fearful. 

“Something terrible is going to happen,” the child is thinking, all the time. This “something terrible is going to happen” thought stays with the child for the rest of the child’s life. The most insecure people I have known and have tried to help always had that “missing parent” aspect in their lives. They have a really hard time learning to become the “loving parent” to themselves, something that is much easier for the adults who had parents who were present, helpful, and comforting. 

Just imagine a parent who is trying to get the kids into the car for an appointment. 

The urgent parent will be focused on the deadline; rushing and pushing and basically seeing the children as an impediment. Which, of course, signals to the child that the appointment is more important than the child. 

The intense, present parent will focus on whatever the child needs to get into the car successfully. The child will know that yes, they are working on getting somewhere on time, but the parent is doing it “with” the child, not “at” the child. This teaches a child how a leader behaves, instead of a bossy person who always shifts into “hands on hips, frown on face” mode.

Ditto for the early months of a relationship. When people first fall in love, they are paying close attention to each other, all the time. They are learning things about each other, studying each other, and basically turning their attention from just about everything else. Over time, if they stay together, the couples who end up unhappy pay less and less attention to each other, until they begin to feel they are better off apart. In contrast, there are couples who continue to pay full attention to each other, fall more and more in love, and who become each other’s closest and most trusted friend. 

Now let’s look at work. 

We all believe that being more productive at work means, basically, that you can get more done in a given day. Yes, you have to make sure you’re doing the right things—Steven Covey was one of the first to make the distinction between “Urgent” and “Important” things, and to point out that it is sooooo easy to work all day on the urgent and unimportant things while letting the non-urgent, important things slide. An oldie but goodie article in Forbes summed this up nicely, and is a good reminder that the “non-urgent, non-important” things often fall into the social media category.

Fear is not a positive motivator. If your self-talk is mostly fear-based, I guarantee you are not going to be as productive as the people who speak nicely to themselves. Instead of saying to themselves, “OMG, I always screw this up!” the positive-self-talk people say, “It’s ok, you can do this, you just need to focus and stay calm.” 

A sense of urgency is a fear-based motivator. A sense of intensity, of calm focus on the task at hand, is a sure way to emerge victorious and satisfied. 

One of the reasons I enjoy watching Chopped is to see this dynamic pan out in real, high-pressure situations. Each person gets the same assignment, and each person approaches it differently. Sure, there are people who believe they are superior to all the other cooks and can do no wrong. Those folks tend to stumble even more than the super-stressed cooks. 

The people who usually win are those who, no matter what happens, including a “burned the main ingredient” disaster, simply move to the next right action. They remind me of one of my husband’s mantras: “Find it, face it, fix it.” 

Urgency comes from not being prepared; not believing that you will succeed; underestimating the reality of how long things take; and setting unrealistic deadlines. It’s not a positive place to be. 

Intensity comes from paying attention; seeing the whole picture; and opening yourself up to all the possibilities. Even the most mundane, otherwise routine tasks can be a bit of an adventure when you are intensely present. You just get more out of life, and more of what you do is successful. 

Of course, like anything else in life, you can even overdo intensity. If you are only intense when doing one type of thing, and ignore everything else in your life, things will get out of balance and something or someone will be damaged. Or, if you are so intense about everything that you can never relax, you will drive yourself—and everyone around you—crazy. 

The difference between intensity and obsession can be a rather thin line. If you are trying to figure out why someone is behaving the way they do, and it’s all you think about, you are obsessing. If you spend some time thinking about it, draw the best conclusion you can, and then move on to other things, that’s a healthy and productive intensity. 

In fact, it is often better to let your subconscious work on a problem after you have looked at it consciously from all angles. At some point later in the day or overnight the answer will come to you.

As a bit of a side note, since so many of us are working at home, one of the ways to make sure you are more productive when you’re working is to be fully at work while working, and fully “at home” while doing other home-centric tasks. Most of the work-based texts can wait that extra 15 minutes on the off hours while you pay close attention to someone you love, or that domestic task that you really have to get finished. 

If you are trying to figure out how to be more productive in life, start by working on calmly focusing on the task at hand. Live in your eyes, not the back of your head where that lizard-brain, always-complaining voice lives. Think about what you’re doing, and give it your best. 

And when it is time to relax, focus on that, too. A little bit of “off” time will increase your productivity overall. 

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