We all tackle productivity in our own unique way. You bring your own motivations and obstacles, your own set of skills and experiences. So do I. Each person who approaches productivity does so individually, even if we find ourselves converging on basic principles and preferences.
However, despite the truth that there are infinite variations between one individual and any other individual, there are also basic ‘types’ that start to reveal themselves. When it comes to how people approach productivity, there are four basic personality types, each with its own strengths and weaknesses. Knowing which one you are can help you identify common problems, overcome them, and get what you want out of your productivity pursuit (I’ll tell you which type I am at the end of the post.)
The Perfection Pursuer
The Perfection Pursuer is always looking for a better system, method, or organizational tool. This is the guy who will try 27 time-tracking apps before choosing one that meets his exact specifications, then get frustrated and quit using it three days later when he discovers a flaw in the design that doesn’t match his intended use (the Pursuer is really great at giving helpful, detailed reviews of products and systems).
Details are important for a Pursuer; in fact, he often feels (and sometimes says) things like, “If you can’t do it right, then why bother doing it at all?” And he means it. He has exacting standards, which he may attempt to impose on all around him. That doesn’t usually end well.
What other people don’t realize is that the Pursuer applies even more exacting standards to himself, and feels terrible if he fails to meet them. The Pursuer’s motivation is to help in a meaningful way, to do things right so that other people can benefit and so that problems can stop being repeated.
Common Roadblocks: Pursuers can get hung up on the researching, planning, and prepping stages of a project for so long that the need and motivation for the project will drain away before they actually start work. They can also get so lost in the detail needed to finish something completely and perfectly that they never really get to finish, thus denying themselves a sense of achievement.
The Mantra They Use: “I’ll do this right or not at all.”
The Mantra They Need to Use: “I can learn what I need to learn when I need to learn it.”
Keys to Success: If you’re a Perfection Pursuer, chances are you are one smart cookie. You know stuff—a lot of stuff. You research in-depth. You go far beyond what most people do in terms of information-gathering, analysis, preparation, and planning. You are capable of achieving amazing things, because you’re able to manage a lot of information and use it wisely. But you will waste all your talent if you never move out of the planning stages.
You need to trust in your own smarts and trust that the reward of doing is just as great as the fun of researching, planning, and prepping. Trust is difficult, I know. Keep track of your accomplishments, and set limits on how long you will research, plan, and prep before starting a project. Set end dates, too, and define what “finished” looks like so you can enjoy knowing you’ve completed a project.
The Shocked Superhero
The Superhero assumes that she’s powerful enough to do things that most people wouldn’t attempt. This drive may seem fueled by arrogance but the real motivation is usually all about helping people. Superheroes are often those who have played the role of the strong, steady, dependable person that people count on. They feel that in order to help people, improve the world, care for their family, or just be a decent person, they have to be stronger and steadier than most so they can achieve more for the people who count on them. It’s not usually a conscious thing; it’s simply a role that’s grown with them, and they’re not sure how else to go about doing things that matter.
The Superhero follows a pretty predictable pattern: a need, a problem, or a project emerges. The Superhero formulates a plan which any reasonable human would declare impossible: something like “write three chapters of my novel every day while simultaneously attending grad school, directing the community garden, and taking care of my infant child.”
You know, plans like that.
The Superhero will, unsurprisingly, fail miserably in this plan… although you might be surprised how long she manages to keep it going. The Superhero is shocked by her own failure and retreats into dismay, discouragement, sometimes depression, and often a debilitating period in which she questions her self-worth and right to exist. She’s failed to be the hero, and she doesn’t know how else to function; if she can’t be the hero, who is she?
Common Roadblocks: Superheroes who repeat this cycle often enough without breaking out of it will end up a complete mess, stuck in a rut of despair so deep that they don’t know how to climb out of it. The problem is that Superheroes are usually ambitious, intelligent, and capable; sitting in a rut is not satisfying. They need help to see that achieving things on a reasonable scale, with realistic plans, is good enough to still be a hero.
The Mantra They Use: “I will do ALL THE THINGS in one week or less!”
The Mantra They Need to Use: “The only failure is my failure to accept my own limits.”
Keys to Success: Hey, Superhero. You’ve got a lot going for you, so don’t give it up just because you can’t achieve it all yesterday. Quit comparing your story to what other people have done (or not done). Everyone puts in blood, sweat, and tears. Everyone messes up, regroups, and has to start over. Your true Superhero strength is in your ability to try again even after you’ve failed: that’s the key to success.
Learn to see and honor your own limits, not to push through them or pretend they don’t exist. Rest when you need to rest. Take time to play, and know that time spent not achieving is still important time. When you set a goal and make a plan to reach it, give yourself about quadruple the time and triple the resources you think you’ll need.
The Doubtful Dabbler
The Dabbler is afraid to commit to any sort of real productivity pursuit; whereas the Superhero is supremely confident of her own capabilities (until she crashes), the Dabbler is supremely doubtful of his. In fact, to the Dabbler, the world seems chaotic, uncontrollable, and, more often than not, dead-set against him. It seems that for every obstacle other people face, the Dabbler faces ten. For every common hardship, the Dabbler has three. And the Dabbler, fully and painfully aware of his own weaknesses and limitations, simply feels that fighting these obstacles is futile. Why try? he thinks. I’ve failed before. I’ll fail again.
But the Dabbler doesn’t really want to give up, and that’s why he keeps dabbling.
He’ll read a book. Try a system, but just tentatively. He likes to talk to people who seem to have it all figured out, hoping that he can gain from them the secret formula: that insight or strength or ability that other people seemed to get but he didn’t. And he keeps stumbling along, eyes on the floor, in his quiet, doubtful way achieving a lot more than he ever notices.
In fact, that’s the one thing the Dabbler needs to see more than anything else: the fact that he’s capable of a lot more than he thinks he is, if he’ll just look up and see it.
Common Roadblocks: The Dabbler will tend to shift blame, usually because he’s already so aware of his faults that he can’t handle the idea of acknowledging any more. The problem, however, is that shifting blame to an outward source also shifts the power to change to that outward source. Failing to take responsibility means that the Dabbler gives away his power. It also means that when he does achieve something, he often attributes the achievement to things beyond his control. This fatalistic tendency can keep the Dabbler stuck in a very unsatisfying, debilitating mindset that makes him a victim in the center of an unpredictable, vindictive universe.
The Mantra They Use: “Well, it probably wasn’t going to work out anyway.”
The Mantra They Need to Use: “Everything can change, including me, and I’m the one who will change it.”
Keys to Success: Dabbler, you’re much smarter and far more capable than you think you are. It’s time to acknowledge your strengths and abilities as honestly as you acknowledge your weaknesses and faults. Remember that failure in the past does not mean failure in the future. The past is there for you to learn from, not for you to repeat. There is no such thing as inevitability unless you want there to be.
Start making positive statements and taking small but deliberate steps forward; then acknowledge what you’ve done. Say it aloud, “I just took that step.” Write it down. Keep a list of your successes. And don’t be afraid to commit fully when you’re ready to try something new. If you can find a trusted friend, seek their perspective on your abilities and plans; an objective but friendly coach can help you see your own capabilities, sort the uncontrollable out from the controllable, and apply your skills in the most effective way.
The Energized Empath
The Empath is a person of immense capability who is able to accomplish a huge amount of work through the sheer force of her energy and personality. And you’ll know what she’s working on, if you’re within earshot; the Empath loves sharing her ideas, her projects, her methods, her vision, and her goals with everyone around her (even if they don’t care). The Empath is often very, very good at motivating other people. So much enthusiasm! So many ideas! And so very generous in sharing resources and connecting people to each other.
The Empath struggles, however, to maintain the multiple projects that she is so enthusiastic about beginning. Where the Pursuer thrives on sorting out the details, the Empath gets lost in them. Without organization and good systems, the Empath will waste a lot of that energy on trying to revive ideas and reconnect with the information and resources she had, once, somewhere around here…
Common Roadblocks: The Empath doesn’t understand why other people aren’t as enthusiastic as she is; a measured response or, worse, no response can be extremely hurtful to an Empath. She thrives on encouragement and reads silence as rejection. The Empath is generous with her information and resources, and is shocked when others are not generous in the same way. To her, working together is just more fun; why wouldn’t everyone want to pitch in on this awesome project? It’s important that the Empath learn to respect other working styles and not take their need for space as an overt rejection of her, personally, or of her ideas.
The Mantra They Use: “Let’s do all the things TOGETHER!”
The Mantra They Need to Use: “Finishing this project first will make starting the next one even more fun.”
Keys to Success: Empath, you’re a fireball of of motivation and energy when the rest of us are lost in the dull gray of mundane daily life. We need you around, even if we get annoyed with your enthusiasm sometimes. The truth is that sometimes you feel completely depressed and demotivated, and that scares the hell out of you. Know that it’s okay to be tired. It’s okay to take breaks. It’s okay to be out of ideas. The dry time won’t last; more ideas will come.
Build and depend on really simple organizational systems. Take the time to learn them and put them completely in place, so you don’t have to waste your energy and intelligence on the details that wear you down. Always, always break your big goals down into short-term goals. You need measured milestones so you can see your achievement, celebrate it with your coworkers and friends, and stay motivated to reach the next one.
Which Personality Are You?
Okay, I promised I would tell; I’m the Shocked Superhero, and I admit that I’ve lived through the Superhero cycle more times than I should. It took me a long time to catch on to the fact that I have limits, very real ones, and that learning to acknowledge and honor them is much more productive (and satisfying) than trying to power through them.
I’m married to an Energetic Empath; he’s the most enthusiastic supporter I have (Empaths are great at being excited about other people’s ideas, too) but sometimes he wears me out with his endless projects. I depend on him to encourage me when I’ve overshot and failed, again. He depends on me to help him stay organized and finish (some of) the projects that he starts.
The truth about these personalities as that each one comes with incredible strengths and with corresponding weaknesses. There’s no wrong or right in how we approach productivity; there’s only wisdom to be gained when you acknowledge who you are, appreciate what you can give, and accept the help you need. We’re all better together (even if some of us prefer to work alone).
Which productivity personality are you?
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