To say we are a culture of productivity junkies is an understatement. Just go to Amazon and type in the word “productivity” in the book department. There are over 50,000 titles that populate on the subject. My point here is there is a LOT of focus on getting things done.

Focusing on the Wrong Thing

Many of us have a mounting list of things we want to get done and things that have to get done. For those of us who are to-do-list prone, our lists can get quite long. While a list can help us to feel more organized, a long one can produce quite a bit of anxiety. In an effort to feel better, it is easy to surmise that the more time spent on the to do list, the better. Most of us can relate to fantasizing about relaxing once everything is accomplished.

Though it appears to be counterintuitive, knocking things off the to do list isn’t the panacea you may dream it to be. I am going to present some reasons why that idea- getting more things done -is not the key to removing stress and feeling happy.

Shifting Your Perception

As we move through our day focusing on WHAT needs to get accomplished we are missing something WAY MORE important. We are forgetting about HOW we are approaching those items on our to do list. The anxiety that long list creates often produces a productivity monster inside of us—consumed with checking things off the list and bristling at people who get in our way.

Are you one of those people who interrupt others when you are in the hurry for an answer? Perhaps you don’t take the time to hold the door for a co-worker because you don’t have a minute to spare. Maybe you cut conversations short or have body language that conveys that you are closed off to conversation and aren’t interested in talking because there is a deadline looming. As we go through our day, instead of connecting with others, we avoid them. Too often we see the other people in our life — coworkers, friends, family members– as barriers to getting things done. 

What Brings True Happiness

Let’s re-examine this whole productivity thing. Why are we so attached to doing? At our core we are all seeking some kind of fulfillment, contentment or happiness. The to do list produces stress leading us to believe removing items will produce a blissful, ecstatic state of being. Is that true? What exactly does the positive psychology research on happiness say on this matter?

The research says that the happiest people have 3 things going on:

  1. They have meaning in their lives. There is a sense of purpose driving them.
  2. They have intimacy with others.
  3. They live out the virtues, things like patience, kindness, loyalty, etc.

Relationships Are Key

We could argue all three of these factors involve other people. Take the first one for example; meaning often comes from serving others or being attached to a project that betters those around us. Intimacy undoubtedly involves others. Lastly, many of the virtues pertain to our relations with others. If what we are really seeking is happiness and we get happiness from connecting with others—why the heck are we paying so much attention to the to do list and trying to get through the day without being bothered by people?

Leaders Pay Attention

Here’s something else that’s pretty interesting relating to the same topic but in the realm of leadership.

In the world of organizational psychology, scientists have studied different types of leadership styles and how they contribute to the employees’ commitment to the organization. One type of leadership style is termed “Relations-oriented leadership”. This type of leadership focuses on the quality of the relationships with subordinates. Another type is “Task-oriented leadership” where the focus is on the tasks that need to be accomplished. What researchers have found is:

The Relations-oriented leaders are able to: affect their employees’ commitment to the organization in an emotional way, they are able to attract and maintain good talent and able to get better results in performance. In sum, the HOW trumps the WHAT.

People Are Quick to Judge

Here’s another reason to focus on the HOW instead of the WHAT: there have been other studies that show that people are pretty quick to judge when you do something they consider wrong, rude or inconsiderate. Research has shown that people are quick to assume negative qualities about others and slow to deem people as good and trustworthy. Something to consider as you go about your day.

Therefore, it is not difficult to see the importance of focusing on HOW you treat others, go about your work in your effort to reduce you to do list. We all know the importance relationships play in the area of promotions and raises. Not only that, taking the time for these relationships should give us a boost in our feelings of happiness and fulfillment. 

Ideas to Help Make the Shift

So what can be done if you’re just one of those to do list people that love being productive? Here are a couple things you can try.

  • Put people at the top of your to do list-LITERALLY. Actually write this at the top of your to do list. When you think about your priorities everyday, you are going to put people above tasks. 
  • Even though you may be reluctant to add more items to your to do list, you may want to consider nurturing relationships as part of your list. Who do you need to talk to today? What relationship needs nurturing? Write down people you need to call or catch up with. Who do you need to send a card to? Take time to connect—you’ll feel better. 
  • Accept that it may take longer to get things done. This will allow you to be more willing to stop and pause and have a conversation instead of rushing off and making the person you’re talking to feel unimportant or like they are keeping you from something pressing. 
  • Find a touchstone or reminder so you can reconnect with this new attitude throughout the day. My husband wears a band around his wrist to remind him. Setting the clock on your phone to go off several times during the day as a reminder is another suggestion.
  • Spend time improving your communication style. Communication is a real art and can be a challenge if you are one of those really direct types. Make friends with a therapist or social workers. You will learn tons just listening to them communicate.
  • Work on your ability to relax and not react in difficult situations. Keep a level head. Take up meditation or prayer – something that helps you calm down and get into the present moment. Daily devotionals can be effective. Find something that provides you with that perspective that you need. Resist the urge to get too attached to the WHAT and keep the HOW ever present. Remember, it just takes one time to mess up with someone for them to redefine you negatively. 
  • Find a different way to evaluate your day. Instead of looking at what you got done, you could develop a new criteria- was I patient today? Was I kind? Did I laugh today? Did I have a meaningful connection with someone? Did I listen to someone today? Did I prioritize others over myself?

I wish you productivity that also improves your relationships. Relationships first. People over tasks.