3 Myths That Are Killing Your Productivity (and What to Do Instead)

UPDATED: June 7, 2023
PUBLISHED: July 7, 2016

As 21st century humans, we have access to a wealth of knowledge at our fingertips to check the veracity of pretty much any claim someone makes:

  • “Bill Gates is giving away $1 million to people who repost this message!” (Unfortunately false, as Snopes.com uncovered.)
  • “A wad of gum takes seven years to pass through your digestive track.” (Nope. Gum passes through your system just like any other non-digestible item in one to three days, according to TodayIFoundOut.com.)
  • “Blondes have more fun!” (As a brunette, I know that isn’t true!)

Despite our ready access to information, we can still be a gullible lot. Often the myths don’t do much more than give us something to threaten our kids with (“If you keep making that face, your eyes will stick that way!”). But sometimes believing these fallacies actually damages our ability to be effective in our lives.

Related: 6 Common Myths Holding You Back at Work

In fact, here are three of the most common productivity myths, debunked:

1. Don’t check your email first thing in the morning.

This “law” is as old as, well, the internet itself. Maybe it’s because there’s something slightly unseemly about lying in your bed responding to co-workers in your pajamas. Whatever the reason, productivity experts have long maintained that checking your email first thing can throw you off your game for the rest of the day.

Instead, focus on your No. 1 priority for the morning, letting nothing distract you until it is complete.

It sounds good in theory. But is it realistic or effective?

The problem:

If you don’t allow yourself to check in, how do you know if your priorities have shifted overnight? What if your boss sent you an email to let you know the big report you considered your “No. 1 priority” has been substantially changed or canceled? What if your sales rep in Japan sent you an urgent request for a pricing adjustment on a bid that needed to be submitted by 8 a.m. your time?

By isolating yourself, you’re cutting off a flow of information that could substantially alter your whole day.

The solution:

There’s nothing inherently wrong with checking your email before your first cup of coffee; the problem arises when you allow your email to dictate your schedule, instead of using the incoming requests merely as a piece of information. Get the information, adjust accordingly, then move on.

2. Get up early.

Night owls blame Ben Franklin for the popularity of the “early to bed, early to rise” belief. We’re programmed to believe that early birds are virtuous, wise and productive, while night owls are lethargic, hedonistic and up to no good in the wee hours.

We’re encouraged by popular wisdom to get up earlier. Your normal day starts at 6 a.m. with the kids jumping on your stomach? Set the alarm an hour earlier to beat them to the punch. You need that uninterrupted time to get your head straight before you move into your workday.

Related: 7 Easy Hacks for Productive Mornings

The problem:

Although this belief might have been true in the agrarian-based society of yore, we’re now working in a 24/7 global world. What’s 11 p.m. in Santa Fe is 8 a.m. in Frankfurt and 4 p.m. in Brisbane. Even the earliest of early birds can’t get all the worms in the world.

Pushing yourself to rise ever earlier doesn’t take into account the people you live with and the lifestyle you’re leading. No matter what Ben Franklin advocates, the parent of driving teenagers isn’t getting any shut-eye until all are present and accounted for—even if that means staying up later than they’d like. (Been there, done that; have the gray hairs and dark circles to prove it.)

The solution:

Adjust your schedule to your clients, your life and your personal biorhythms. Some people are naturally more productive in the later hours, while many peak midmorning. Figure out what works and get on a schedule that allows you to get enough sleep. Quality sleep is the real determiner, not what time your alarm sounds.

3. Don’t multitask.

If there’s a dirty word to productivity devotees, it’s probably multitasking. The notion of doing two or more things at once is almost an insult to those who advocate mindfulness, being here now and minimalism.

The idea is that by practicing extreme focus, you can work harder and smarter. Advocates of single-tasking cite studies that find multitasking negatively affects recall and performance. It makes so much sense that we’ve gone overboard, trying to eliminate multitasking in every area.

The problem:

Although no one advocates texting and driving, and I certainly wouldn’t want a heart surgeon watching Real Housewives while I’m under their knife, there are times when our full presence or attention isn’t required.

Not all to-do items are created equal. Applying another great axiom of the productivity world, the 80-20 rule, it’s safe to say that 80 percent of the tasks we do in any given day are low-value. So what if we talk to our mom while grocery shopping, or read the latest business book while on the exercise bike? What are we really missing?

The solution:

Instead of thinking about multitasking, think about layering your activities. Identify which tasks on your to-do list might require your presence, but not your full attention, then layer on other tasks that might require your brain but not your brawn. In this way, you can be two places at one time. Then reserve your “single focus” for those few, high-value projects that require quality time.

The productivity gurus, experts and writers are well-intentioned. But our life is not always about getting from Point A to Point B as quickly as possible. It’s equally important to figure out if you want to get to Point B in the first place, and to enjoy the trip along the way.

Related: 3 Questions Highly Productive People Ask Themselves Every Day

Bestselling author and content strategist Lain Ehmann specializes in helping entrepreneurs uncover hidden profits and potential – FAST. Her superpower is X-ray vision: she’ll see into your unique situation and design strategies to get the results you want as quickly as possible. Get in the #FastLain at LainEhmann.com.