Check Up on Yourself

Hand making 'okay' sign

Sometimes the stars align and you finally adjust your system to the point that you feel secure in your productivity. You feel that you’ve got a handle on the difficult tasks and issues you have on your plate, and everything is going okay. Times like this feel awesome—until you realize you were all wrong.

That isn’t to say these times never happen. With practice and pragmatism you can achieve the productivity you want. But sometimes we feel like they’ve happened, but that’s only because we don’t see the reality of our situation. So the next time you’re feeling all settled in, check up on yourself before giving yourself a pat on the back.

The trouble with determining our productive success is that if our inefficiencies aren’t causing any direct problems right now, it’s unlikely that we’ll notice much. We’ll only notice when our tendencies throw a wrench in the works. So when things are going smoothly, it may be that you’ve found a way of doing things that works … or it could just be that the world isn’t conspiring against you just yet.

To make sure it’s the former and not the latter, try tracking your standards of success for a few weeks. If you feel like you’re showing up for most events on time, start recording your arrival time and the start time of everything you go to for the next few weeks. It may be that you’ve convinced yourself that you’re only late occasionally, but really your late and on-time arrivals are just about equal. Maybe you feel like you’re allocating your time evenly between work and family’but really your family just hasn’t been bothered quite enough to mention that they’re feeling slighted. Instead of assuming you’re doing well, ask. Record the number of times you answer a work email or call during what is supposed to be family time.

This sort of tracking has been used before by those who study organizational behavior. A number of years ago a study was done on freight packers at Emery Air Freight. The company wanted the packers to use freight containers whenever they could. Using the containers was more difficult for the packers, and the rate of use was 45%. However, when they were asked how often they used containers, the packers said they used them 90% of the time. This may have been an outright lie, but it may also have been self-delusion. The packers may have thought they were using the containers as often as it made sense to, and it probably felt like 90%.

Getting the packers to actually use the containers 90% of the time involved one quick fix: the packers had to record and report a checklist of what they packed each day, divided by whether or not the packer used a freight container. On the first day of the new reporting program, container use was up to 90% of shipments.

The motivations behind the packers’ change in behavior are probably more complex than an initial summary shows, but the principle is the same. If you’re tracking your efforts and making yourself aware of them—and maybe even reporting them to a spouse or close friend—you’ll be better able to decide if you’re actually doing well or if you just think you are. The fact that you have to write down every work-related thing you do on family time may discourage you from making unnecessary exceptions.

That said, tracking your efforts for a few weeks has an added benefit: if you are doing well, you can prove it to yourself. You’ll have numbers to back up the idea that you’ve got things under control. And then you can give yourself a very well deserved and documented pat on the back.

Image by Ambro via

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