Resistance to productivity

By Francisco Sáez • November 07, 2011

Why do we procrastinate even knowing that this behavior will bring us problems? Why is it so hard to quit a job or a career that gets us nowhere? Why do we continue to do (or not to do) certain things, even though we know that the fact of doing (or not doing) them hurts us?

According to Seth Godin in his book Linchpin (2010), a part of our brain, the most instinctive, produces our main resistance to change, innovate and get out of our safe zone. This part, which he calls the lizard brain, cares about our security: it is responsible for producing hungry when our body needs food and fear when we are confronted with new things. There is also another part of the brain, called the daemon by Seth Godin, which is capable of generating the great ideas and the art that allow us to make a difference with other people.

Both parts are in constant struggle. Everytime your genius shows up—you think of something that could be brilliant—, your lizard brain tries to sink it, inventing all sorts of stories, arguments, emergencies and distractions. It is hard to give your best when a part of you tells you to shut up and go on with your life.

Daniel Goleman explained very well this phenomenon in his famous book Emotional Intelligence (1995). He called rational mind to the part of our brain that thinks, and emotional mind to the impulsive one. Both interact and form our mental life.

The emotional mind corresponds physically to the limbic system, while the rational one corresponds to the neocortex. The limbic system is the part of the brain that was developed in first place and therefore, although it is much smaller, it is more powerful than the neocortex.

When an emergency shows up, our emotional mind is in charge. At that time, it is difficult to reason. Even when the rational mind wins the battle initially, the emotional mind tries often to regain control. It is when you say, “Oops! I should not have done it.”

The resistance provoked by the emotional mind—or lizard brain—causes many people to avoid the tools that can help them save time and be more productive. They would rather be busy doing someone else’s task list than create their own. By living according to someone else’s instructions, it is not their fault if something goes wrong. What a peace!

This is also the main reason why many people fail when trying to implement a personal productivity system like GTD. It takes change. It takes discipline to do the important things and eliminate the ones that simply keep you busy.

You cannot avoid this resistance, but you can numb it. To do this you must create the appropiate environment and habits. It is not easy, but here are some tips:

  • Don’t follow the rules all the time. Get out of your comfort zone and write your own script. Fear? The feeling of liberation will be incredible. This is how great things happen.
  • Learn to lose. The fear of failure is the main asset that the lizard brain will put in place to make you give up. Ignore it.
  • Forget the Plan B. You are giving the lizard brain the perfect excuse to abandon the new challenge.
  • Generate many ideas. Help your inner genius to emerge. Not all of them will be great, but not all will be bad. Get used to write them down.
  • Accept uncertainty. Do not be afraid to live without a map that tells you what to do at all times. Indeed, this is the spice of life.
  • Read books like the ones mentioned in this post. Your lizard brain will tell you that it is useless, but it is no coincidence that successful people are the ones that read more.

About the author

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Francisco Sáez (@franciscojsaez) is the founder and CEO of FacileThings. He is also a web developer specializing in Ruby on Rails who is passionate about personal productivity and GTD as a means to a better life.

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