What to Do When You Are Less Productive Than Your Teammates?
Tips for when you’re not as productive as you can be.
“I’m not as productive as Sarah from my team” is something I found myself thinking more than once. Sarah might be a more experienced professional whom you worked with before, or sometimes she’s a combination of several people that set a bar of professionalism you aspire to reach. She is the embodiment of unreachable perfection that’s great to aspire to but is hard to measure and advance towards, and so the real question is — are you as productive as you can be at the moment?
Like Julia Evans, I find that a significant amount of my holdback is emotional and in this post I’ll focus on three tips that help me get out of my own head and be more productive.
Reduce Mental Load
Sometimes you may lose focus at work because instead of thinking about the feature you’re developing, you think about it AND the pile of worries that is dumped upon your head (it’s a really complex feature, I don’t know if I can finish it on time, Sarah would’ve already finished it, my manager doesn’t trust me, I’m an imposter and so on).
When that happens you can’t possibly focus on the feature at hand. As the pressure and self doubt grow, our curiosity and creativity shrink. This is sometimes called Monkey Mind.
If you identified yourself in the example above, one method that I find helpful is pausing to lay the thoughts out in clear view. In our minds those thoughts can go wild — uncensored and unpolished and very self-judgmental. Talk to someone you trust or write those thoughts down on paper, write down every thought, that way you can slow the rush of thoughts down. Now go over what you wrote or said and ask some questions — is that thought reasonable? What is the fear that this thought represents? Which evidence that you have can contradict this thought (for example, your success stories, positive feedback etc.)? Talking to someone you trust can really help as they can help you ask the right questions and give you some feedback and perspective (or share from their experience, which is also helpful!).
Break Out of Tunnel Vision
Sometimes you may find yourself deep in work and when you take a step back you realize you were focused on the wrong thing or your work isn’t aligned with the task at hand.
If that happens to you, I suggest setting times during the day to reflect on how you’ve progressed — this can either be by yourself or by setting meetings with others that hold you accountable, for example work daily meetings.
At first this may feel counterintuitive as it interrupts “the flow”, in reality that’s exactly what you want to do — break out of the tunnel vision by taking a step back and asking yourself, ”am I focusing on what is most beneficial for myself and/or the feature?”.
One way to do that is use the Pomodoro technique — integrate focus times and break times into your days. The break time is just as important as the focus time, as it allows you to evaluate your work!
This method also allows you to handle distractions — when focus and break times are known, you can put aside disturbances to the short or long break periods as you can plan for when they take place. You can even remove your phone from the room so it doesn’t distract you during focus time.
Replace Stress and Burnout With Realistic Estimations
If you feel you’re working too slowly, you might trick yourself into this burnout loop: you work overtime, late at night and during the weekend and suddenly from “just a little extra work” an exhausting routine is set.
Forgetting to decompress from work creates stress and burnout. For me, realizing that I’m thinking about work before I go to sleep and when I wake up in the morning — as a routine — signifies that I’m experiencing burnout.
I strongly recommend setting more rigid work-hours and realistically estimating what you can do in the current timeframe. For example, if I estimate that by Tuesday I will finish a feature I’m working on, I expect to get everything working and tested before noon and send a Code Review request before mid-day, I can set an alarm to mid-morning and see if I’m on the right track. This can be expanded not only to your daily progress but also to your week, month etc.
When your estimates are off, take a moment to understand why that happens (it was difficult to estimate such big task without breaking it to smaller chunks, I didn’t take into account that this type of task takes me this and that much time, I didn’t consider meetings or on-calls in my schedule, I didn’t anticipate a bug that came up, etc.) and re-estimate based on your newfound understanding. That will allow you to improve your time estimation and your ability to raise flags to your manager and/or other teams that are waiting for your product to be ready.
You might find that your manager expects certain holdups and they appreciate the flag raising! (Thanks Yael Fisher for reminding me of that!)
Bonus Tip: Increase Your Feedback Circle
Feedback is very important. With feedback you can get a fuller and more honest evaluation of yourself that will help you grow as a person and professional. I suggest asking for feedback from your peers and managers if the culture of your workplace allows asking for constructive feedback — understand what you’re good at (that’s very important to reduce the mental load!) and what you should improve upon. You can set goals and action items with your manager or a mentor you trust to keep track of your progress and stay aligned with what matters.
If you don’t have a mentor, consider asking for one in your circle of friends, peers or a relevant community you’re part of. The mentorship can be continuous or ad-hoc, from people in your line of work or outside of it — you can even have more than one. Who do you go to when you need a trusted second opinion on different matters?
There’s much more to be said on workplace culture, productivity and feedback. Here are some more resources you can look into:
- Managing the Imposters Syndrome Lecture by Inbal Porat at Leaders In Tech (Hebrew).
- The Pomodoro Technique as Working Meditation by Barbara Oakley.
- Diversity and Inclusion in the Workplace at Baot’s Website.
Hope this post was helpful to you. I’d love to hear your tips and thoughts on this!