5 of the Worst Pieces of Advice You Hear About Productivity

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In a world with so much advice about productivity, why do most leaders still struggle with feeling overwhelmed, overworked, and overcommitted?

It’s a fair question.

The answer is complex, but part of it has to do with the fact that not all advice is good advice.

Perhaps you absorbed some of it.

After I burned out by living and leading at an unsustainable pace, I spent a decade and a half sorting through productivity advice. Not all of it is great.

I found a system that works astonishingly well, but getting there involves getting rid of some unhelpful ideas.

Here are five pieces of the worst advice you hear about productivity. Some of these are nuanced, but in the end, they’ll still let you down.

In a world with so much advice about productivity, why do most leaders still struggle with feeling overwhelmed, overworked, and overcommitted? Click To Tweet

1. Eat the Frog: Do the Hardest Thing First

Just because something is difficult doesn’t mean it’s significant or produces results.

Just because something is hard doesn’t mean it’s significant or produces results.

The idea is that you should do the hardest/worst thing on your to-do list first. As in: “Eat the frog before breakfast, and the rest of your day will be easier.”

That can be good advice if you’re a procrastinator, or you’ve got an item on your to-do list you’ve been dreading, or if you just can’t get past the psychological block associated with a goal you haven’t gotten started on.

But as a regular, daily practice? Nope. Not a good idea.

Just because something is difficult doesn’t mean it’s significant or produces results.

Just because something is difficult doesn't mean it's significant or produces results. Click To Tweet

Instead, a much better practice is to do your most important work first, not your hardest work. That’s doubly true if you’re a morning person. (If you’re not a morning person, do the most important work in your Green Zone, a concept I explain here.)

So what counts as important work?

One filter I’ve found extremely helpful is to evaluate the long-term potential of the work you’re doing.

Social media posts, for example, typically have an impact that lasts for minutes or (if you’re lucky) an hour. Do you need to post? Sure. But don’t use your best hours to do it (unless that’s your job).

Working on a book in your prime hours has more potential for impact than working on a blog post.

Similarly, long-term planning requires deep thought and reflection. Using your prime hours to do it is a fantastic use of your best energy and focus.

Are any of these inherently ‘frogs’? Not at all. You might enjoy them. And they matter a lot.

Working on your most important work in your prime hours will result in a much higher return on investment than working on something difficult.

Working on your most important work in your prime hours will result in a much higher return on investment than working on something difficult. Click To Tweet

2. Get Up at 5 a.m. to Crush Your Goals

For most leaders, especially creative leaders, showing up exhausted to work doesn’t work.

So again, this can be helpful advice. Sleeping till noon probably isn’t going to get you where you want to go.

I’m a big fan of early mornings, and I’ve used rising early to produce great results in my life and leadership. So have tens of thousands of other leaders.

But is unfailingly getting up early always the best strategy?

I don’t think so.

Why is that?

Well, for starters, a rested you is a better you. And if getting up at 4 or 5 a.m. means you’re not getting enough sleep, you’ll drag yourself through the day.

A rested you is a better you. Click To Tweet

For some jobs, that can work. If you’re doing a repeated task (say, for example, waiting tables at a restaurant), you can get through the day with your tank half full.

But for most leaders, especially creative leaders, showing up exhausted to work doesn’t work because you work almost exclusively with your brain. And an exhausted brain doesn’t produce much.

If you’re like me and your work requires you to write, lead teams and create something out of nothing, a sharp mind is the greatest asset you can bring to a job.

Fatigue will not only produce a brain fog that makes your work difficult, it will also make you irritable and super easy to frustrate. All of that is a recipe for really poor work.

While getting to be early and rising early to work is optimal when for whatever reason, you get out of routine, catching an extra 30 to 90 minutes of sleep might be exactly what you need to do.

Showing up rested, refreshed, and ready to go beats showing up early, exhausted, and unable to produce your best work.

The flexible work hours many leaders now enjoy make showing up with a full tank easier than ever.

I’ll always love my early mornings, but I like bringing my best even better.

But for most leaders, especially creative leaders, showing up exhausted to work doesn't work because you work almost exclusively with your brain. And an exhausted brain doesn't produce much. Click To Tweet

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3. Try Harder

When it comes to becoming a more productive leader, effort alone isn’t enough. If nothing else changes, nothing will change. You need a new strategy.

If you’ve read this far into a blog post on productivity, you probably don’t have a motivation problem.

For motivated people, though, trying harder rarely makes them more productive or more successful. Trying harder might have been exactly what you needed to do in the third grade, but it’s hardly good advice for motivated adults trying to contribute to the world.

If you’re already motivated, trying harder usually just makes your wheels spin faster. This is the exact reason so many New Year’s Resolutions fail.

What’s the problem with trying harder? Simple, unless you embrace a new strategy, you won’t make progress.

When it comes to being a more productive leader, effort alone isn’t enough. If nothing else changes, nothing will change. You need a new strategy.

When it comes to being a more productive leader, effort alone isn't enough. If nothing else changes, nothing will change. You need a new strategy. Click To Tweet

4. Efficiency is the Key To Effectiveness

If you make efficiency your goal, you’ll hit a wall.
You might become more efficient, but in the long run you’ll rarely become more effective.

I love efficiency, and it will make you more effective. At least, at first.

So why is it bad advice?

It’s bad advice because, very quickly, efficiency brings you diminishing returns.

I think I’m passionate about this one because I was very efficient and still burned out.

During my recovery, I was able to pinpoint the problem. The challenge with efficiency is that you’re working with a fixed asset: time. You can become more efficient in how you use your time, but no one will ever give you extra time.

It’s not like if you get a promotion or find out, you’re pregnant with your third child that someone doles out an extra hour a day because they feel sorry for you. No, you must figure out how to deal with it with no additional time. And that’s what stresses so many of us out.

If you make efficiency your goal, you’ll hit a wall.

You might become more efficient, but in the long run, you’ll rarely become more effective. Your productivity strategy has to go far deeper than that.

If you make efficiency your goal, you'll hit a wall. You might become more efficient, but in the long run, you'll rarely become more effective. Click To Tweet

5. Do What You Love, and You’ll Never Work Another Day In Your Life

Do what you love is for amateurs. Love what you do is for professionals.

Seth Godin

You’ve seen way too many wanna-be influencers play the ‘do what you love and you’ll never work another day in your life’ card.

I agree with Seth Godin, who says, “do what you love is for amateurs. Love what you do is for professionals.” (Bonus points: If you want to listen to a fascinating interview with Seth on work, this one is amazing.)

This makes sense on so many levels.

Take writing, for example.

First, you may love writing, but you may not like submitting your receipts to the bookkeeper or filing your taxes. And yet that’s part of your job.

Second, as much as you like writing, there are days when you don’t feel like it, hit a wall, or are not really a fan of doing a third or seventh edit.

Third, if your writing becomes a profession, you’ll end up in meetings with agents, publishers, and marketers and be in the mix of publicizing your work, which many writers find tiring if not downright exhausting.

Finally, if you’re really good and gain a large audience, you might find yourself needing and leading a team, which takes your time and focus away from writing.

Whether you love leading a church, podcasting, running a restaurant, or building into kids through next-gen ministry, some things feel like work.

However, if you train yourself to enjoy your work, you’ll be able to take deep satisfaction from what you get to do.

Do what you love is for amateurs. Love what you do is for professionals. @sethgodin Click To Tweet

Need a Better Strategy?

Deep productivity breakthroughs happen when you embrace a strategy that works.

If you’re looking for a better strategy, I’d love to help.

On December 15th, I’m launching the Highly Productive Leader Challenge. It’s a 30-day guided journey through the productivity strategy I’ve used for years and has helped over 50,000 leaders free up meaningful time and energy.

If you’re ready to crush your goals for 2023 and get more done in less time, I’d love to help.

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Carey Nieuwhof
Carey Nieuwhof

Carey Nieuwhof is a best-selling leadership author, speaker, podcaster, former attorney, and church planter. He hosts one of today’s most influential leadership podcasts, and his online content is accessed by leaders over 1.5 million times a month. He speaks to leaders around the world about leadership, change, and personal growth.