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Forget all those productivity tips that focus on focus, insisting you avoid distractions. Yes, outstanding work requires focus. But it also needs times when you let your mind wander, for relief and inspiration.

That advice comes from Alice Boyes, a New Zealand psychologist who believes we need a kinder, gentler and more realistic approach to our productivity efforts. She points to Lin-Manuel Miranda, who, struggling for inspiration, took a beach vacation, read Ron Chernow’s biography of Alexander Hamilton, and came up with an odd but ultimately wildly successful idea for his next musical.

“When experts explain how important the unfocused mind is to productivity, what they often gloss over is how much courage it takes to harness its potential. Modern productivity culture gives us the message that focus and rigid habits are safe goals. But to be your most productive, you will need to devote time to being unfocused,” she advises in her new book, Stress-Free Productivity.

She argues consistent daily habits are overrated as keys to productivity. Being too habit-bound can reduce how often you have the novel experiences essential for creativity. Trying to keep those habits afloat can stress you out. The habits can sometimes deter you from giving priority to important matters or make your days seem monotonous, everything passing by in a blur.

Habits also require a certain temperament; some people are more spontaneous, some habit-oriented, and so you could be fighting your own essence in trying to follow the dictums of other productivity gurus to develop a habit-infused life. “I’m not saying that habits aren’t important. They are, but they’re not everything,” she says.

Big successes often come from behaviours that at the start seem like an inefficient use of your time. Success isn’t about taking an efficient approach to everything, she insists. Learning a new skill is an example; the start can be slow, seeming inefficient, but the results profound.

As well, being tightly focused on optimizing every second of your day can make you miserable. Being excessively time-focused is lousy for your relationships. Other people won’t fall neatly in line with your priorities and schedule, only making you more miserable. “Time management strategies like time boxing (scheduling what you’ll do for every hour of your day) can be useful. Taking them too far and trying to apply them perfectly is counter-productivity,” she writes.

As well, you don’t need to be productive every day to have a successful career. She notes that the trajectory of someone’s success is largely determined by a few pivotal moves each year. Most productivity advice ignores that reality, overvaluing consistency – which is an unachievable dream and contrary to the natural ups and downs of life and human psychology. “People ask themselves, ‘How can I be consistently productive’ without asking themselves, ‘Do I need to consistently productive?’” she writes.

In fact you don’t need to be. And trying to be consistently productive can have a detrimental effect. One prime example: You’ll talk yourself out of following an obsessive interest in some tangential matter that could be as profound for your career as with Mr. Miranda reading that biography. Big leaps in success often come from trying things that are new to you or undertaking challenging long-term projects. It takes courage, not consistency, to pursue such pivotal moments.

Another misconception is that maximum productivity does not come from conceiving a plan for yourself and executing it without wavering. Productive paths have changes in direction that are not immediately productive but optimal for your career. You need to follow your nose when a piece of work you did is surprisingly impactful, you revise your opinion of your strengths, or your instinct tells you to grab an unexpected opportunity.

Keep agile. Be productive, but not necessarily every moment. And be wary of some of the productivity nostrums you have imbibed.

Quick hits

  • One technique for avoiding the dominance of technology in your life is when you have a big writing task to turn to pen and paper. Clodagh Beaty, co-creator of the Emotional Salary Barometer, looks for somewhere different to write in such situations, ideally outside in nature – away from the distractions a computer can offer.
  • The prevailing wisdom is often the prevailing prejudice, and proving it wrong can be a source of great advantage, notes consultant Wally Bock. If you want to go against the prevailing culture, see if you can use one of that culture’s strong beliefs to make your case.
  • Marketers are returning to traditional advertising with those ads experiencing increased engagement. They also offer increased trust, with print and television advertising the top two trusted sources, business professors Christine Moorman and Nader Tavassoli and research fellow Megan Ryan report in Harvard Business Review.
  • Knee-jerk is not an admirable trait, says entrepreneur Seth Godin. Pause and wait for five beats before you issue a diagnosis on some proposal or rip into someone, allowing more thought and human connection.

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston-based writer specializing in management issues. He, along with Sheelagh Whittaker, former CEO of both EDS Canada and Cancom, are the authors of When Harvey Didn’t Meet Sheelagh: Emails on Leadership.

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