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Productivity Blockers
Most people don’t realize that there are three aspects to progress.

You can make progress by going faster – that’s productivity. You can make progress by improving the system – that’s efficiency. And you can make progress by removing obstacles and roadblocks in your way – and that’s what we’re going to cover in this article.

To use an analogy, if you’re driving a car, you can:

  • Drive faster.
  • Tune the car or make a better road (improve the system).
  • Remove stop lights or debris from the road (remove the blocks).

Let’s look at some of the most common blockers for being productive and what we can do about them. We’re going to cover 5 basic blocks, and 5 more advanced blocks.

Productivity Blockers - Boxes

1. Back-to-Back Scheduling

One of the most common roadblocks to productivity is packing meetings and agenda items into your calendar so tightly, that you have zero flexibility to move things around.

This is a really common occurrence with people who first learn about time management, and then decide that the best way to optimize their day is to finetune and control every minute (or 5 minutes) of it.

What you want to do instead, is allow leeway for travel time and “between meetings” time. For example, 1-hour back-to-back meetings is plain silly. Make your meetings 45-50 minutes and give people that 10-15 minutes that they need to get to the next one, to reset, to grab a cup of coffee and so on.

Another common occurrence related to this is failing to factor in travel time between appointments or bookings.

Example: As much as I would love to say that I can get my workout done in 1 hour, the truth is it takes me 30 minutes to get to the gym by skytrain (including walking to the station), I spend a good 15-30 minutes warming up, there is rest time between sets and then I spend another good 20-30 minutes stretching and doing mobility exercises after the workout.

2. Excuses

That’s just not me.

This is something that we’re all familiar with. People have a tendency to limit themselves and think that just because they’re a certain age, had a certain upbringing, belong to a certain ethnic group or whatever it is – that doing something or learning something is “just not them”. It can be learning to use technology effectively, it can be learning to write well, it can be learning to understand systems – it can even be learning to just be productive.

The simple truth is that with enough leverage, you can learn anything that you want. And with enough leverage and the right principles and some practice, you can be productive in everything that you do.

3. Environmental Distractions

If there’s a lot of stuff going on around you, it’s hard to be productive.

In an office you have co-workers, emails, phone calls and people hustling and walk around all the time.

At home you have the television, computer applications and family.

If you let these things distract you, they will. The trick is to control your environment to the point where it can help you be productive. We’ve talked about different ways before, but it could be anything from slipping on a pair of headphones to having a closed door policy so that the co-workers don’t disturb you.

4. Notifications

These are similar to distractions, and are a result of the increasing ubiquity of personal technology in our lives.

They are mainly: phone, email, IM, apps.

Anything that buzzes or beeps or rings, interrupts your train of thought.

If you take the driving analogy, it’s like driving along a road and then having random obstacles appear out of nowhere that you have to constantly stop and pay attention to. If you try this in real life, you’ll never get to where you want to go.

The solution is simple – tweak your notifications so that you only get notified about what is really important.

5. Not Having What You Need

Ever gotten in your car and realized that you’d left your keys on your dresser?

Or what if you got in your car only to discover that the steering wheel and gear shift were missing?

This happens all the time in the workplace – people start on tasks without having what they need to do it at hand. This can be documents, data, apps open or people on call.

It also works the other way – having too many things that you don’t need open and in front of you.

Our solution is called Clear to Neutral – at the end of every task, close everything and wipe the slate clean. At the beginning of every task, have open and and ready everything you need to work.

Productivity Blockers Traffic

6. Over-Engineered Systems

Over-Engineered systems is our first advanced productivity blocker.

Simply put, it says that too much complexity in a system is a recipe for disaster.

If you’ve built a system and people can’t understand it – it’s too complex.

This means keeping everything simple, with fewer pieces, and fewer transitions. In fact, those are the exact guidelines we use for building internal systems at Asian Efficiency – if it can’t be explained in 20 minutes or less to everyone on the team… it’s over-engineered.

7. Not Winning

To build habits, you need quick wins to gather momentum. What this does is it lets you see something working and experience it working – meaning that you’re more likely to do more of it in the future.

A common productivity blocker is not engineering your challenges and goals so that you can have quick and visible wins upfront.

A simple way to do this in your personal goals is to break down larger goals into smaller ones. They way that we do this in the business world is through using methodologies like Lean or Agile Development.

8. Not Learning

Refusing to learn new things closes off the possibility of imagining new things, of exploring new ideas or of gaining new perspectives about how things work.

Sadly, a lot of people today have stopped learning. Learning isn’t something that’s done just in schools and institutions – it’s something we should be doing every single day of our lives.

Thanh calls it a “growth mindset” – one where you constantly read, learn, take courses and open yourself to new ideas. Because when you do this, you learn new ways of doing things… ways that are better, faster, and more efficient.

9. Untrained Focus

Probably the most common-yet-misunderstood productivity blocker today is Untrained Focus.

Ever had a time when there were just so many things, so many pulls on your attention that you just didn’t know what to do or where to start? Maybe you’ve received a text, then a Facebook notification, but then you realize you have this report to finish, but you’ve got to get home and cook dinner.

That’s untrained focus – an unfortunate consequence of living in the modern day.

What we need to do is learn to tune out our distractions, harness our mind and mental resources… and then singularly apply them to something. When we can do this, productive and incredible results start to appear.

10. Untrained Self-Discipline

Your life is a complex system like a car or a plane. If something like the transmission or electronics are broken or not optimized, then the car or plane just won’t run as efficiently.

Your life is the same. If the different parts of your life (e.g., health, finances) aren’t in order, then that is affecting your productivity at work.

The solution? Optimize each part of your life. At Asian Efficiency, we call this harnessing your Self-Discipline.

BONUS: 11. Poor Estimation

I originally wrote this article with 10 productivity blockers but this one was too important to leave out.

The truth is, most of us are extremely poor estimators. We overestimate what we’re able to do in limited periods of time and underestimate what we can do in longer periods of time.

A simple solution to this is to use the Rule of 3. Pick 3 things to work on in a time period, and if you get them all done, go pick 3 more.

Over time, you’ll find that you’ll be able to estimate in batches of 3 more and more accurately – to the point where poor estimation no longer blocks your productivity.

Where To Go Next

As you’ve seen, every productivity blocker that we’ve talked about in this article can be overcome – with a simple trick, a simple system or a simple mindset shift.

We cover all of these shifts in the Productivity Blueprint – our comprehensive online video course that addresses the most common productivity challenges of the modern day. You can find out more about it here.

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Last Updated: March 30, 2021

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Thanh Pham

Founder of Asian Efficiency where we help people become more productive at work and in life. I've been featured on Forbes, Fast Company, and The Globe & Mail as a productivity thought leader. At AE I'm responsible for leading teams and executing our vision to assist people all over the world live their best life possible.

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  1. Great article! As a software developer, I already practice a lot of these tips.. but it’s great to see them written out.

    Really no-one can concentrate when their email/ notifications are constantly distracting them, people sometimes seem surprised that I don’t read their emails :0) If it’s important, they can come and talk in person.

  2. Great article, a lot of this hit home with me. For sure took note of it if can’t be explained in 20 minutes it is too complicated. I think that is a great strategy. I am a king at overestimating what I can do. I always have so much I want to get done and these grand ideas, but when it comes down to it I can’t get them all done in a day. So they move to the next day, etc. I have started to get on top of it but with a ton of practice!

  3. Awesome tips guys!

    Notifications are a killer for me… Tweets, emails, texts etc always distract me from the important stuff. I think the trick is to allocate 5 mins every half an hour or hour to read them all and send replies. For the rest of the time, just focus on your task.

    But I need to put this into practice for myself before preaching it!



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