To Be Productive, You Need to Realize When to Stop

DarrylBrooks by Darren Nunis on Unsplash

My first long-term job was installing tile. And for two-thirds of that time, I had my own business. Of course, running a business means knowing how to charge for services, and to do that, I needed to know how productive I could be.

If I could install 100 square feet of tile in an hour, I could install 800 square feet in eight hours, right? Or, I could put in twelve-hour days and install 1200 square feet of tile. Well, not so fast. Laying tile is hard, physical work. At a certain point, you get tired — too tired to work efficiently or think clearly. Then you start slowing down. Worse, you begin making mistakes. Now you are not only not moving forward, but you are also backing up.

You have to realize when to stop.

After that, I began a thirty-year career in computers. Great, no more physical work. I can keep going indefinitely. Well, not really. I don’t know if the brain is a muscle or not, but I know it gets tired. Eventually, you slow down and start making mistakes. And the biggest mistake is not realizing when to stop.

It’s late in the afternoon, and I’ve been cranking out code all day. I’d like to get this one last routine done so I can start testing tomorrow. But I just stare at the screen. The logic won’t come. I’ve forgotten the variables and can’t make anything work. I spend an hour trying to write code that should have taken ten minutes.

I just wasted an hour. An hour I could have been doing something else. Like spending it with my family. I should have stopped. I hit a roadblock. I wasn’t going to force myself through it. Tomorrow is another day. I knew from personal experience that sometime in the night, that last routine would magically appear in my brain, and the next day it would make sense.

Tomorrow is another day.

Don’t keep wasting today being unproductive just because you think you should keep going.

Next, I became a photographer. One job I had a few years ago was doing 80 headshots for a company. Each one only took about five minutes. I could have done them all in one day.

But I didn’t. I knew from experience that after a certain amount of time doing a repetitive task, my mind would wander. I will lose attention. And I owed the eightieth person just as much attention as the first. So, I spread those portraits over four days.

What? You spent four days doing what could have been done in one? No. I spent a couple of hours each on four separate days being productive. Then I spent the rest of those days being productive doing something else. Because I knew when to stop. And instead of bulling my way through until I began screwing up, I scheduled that stopping time in advance.

Now, I am a writer. I can write like a demon. The words just flow from my brain through my fingers onto the screen.

Until they don’t. I’ve talked before about how I write an article a day. And to some full-time professional writers out there, this won’t seem like much. They have to crank out thousands of words a day. That’s the job.

But it’s not my job. My job, the job I have given myself, is to produce an article a day. So, as soon as I finish this first draft, I will save this document and be done with it. Until tomorrow. Because tomorrow is another day.

So, what do I do with the rest of my day? Goof off? Go fishing? No, I do something else. Something more productive than staring at a screen trying to force the words to come. I proofread the article I wrote yesterday. I polish and complete the article I wrote two days ago. I publish, pitch, or submit the article I wrote the day before that. I research ideas for the next dozen articles.

Recently, I started playing guitar. Scratch that. I started learning how to play the guitar. And I wanted to learn today. But in addition to practicing the guitar, I had to practice patience. At first, because my fingers hurt and my hands got sore. But once I got beyond that, I began to practice longer, an hour, ninety minutes, two hours.

At this rate, I’ll master this in a month.

Not so fast. Practicing guitar is a repetitive task. You do the same thing over and over until you have memorized it. Memorized in your mind and your body. Muscle memory. But here’s the thing.

Practice doesn’t make perfect. Practice makes permanent.

If you practice correctly, you will learn how to play perfectly. If you practice how to make mistakes, that’s what you will learn.

After a while, my hands still get tired. So do my eyes and my brain. Those little dots start to run together and move around. I begin hitting the wrong notes on the wrong strings at the wrong time.

I should have realized when to stop.

And so I did. I began limiting my practice to one hour. Because I know I can practice for an hour efficiently. Then I stop. Tomorrow is another day. And even then, I pay attention. If I start faltering before the session is up, I quit anyway. Practicing mistakes is a mistake. The other day, I sat down to practice a song I am trying to learn. After about five minutes, I quit. It wasn’t happening today. I’ll try again tomorrow.

There are a lot of factors that go into being productive. Knowing how to break projects down into manageable tasks. Knowing how to set priorities and assign dependencies. Knowing how to schedule time and move from task to task efficiently.

And as important as all of those, knowing when to stop. Knowing yourself well enough that you can see when your mind or body is faltering. When you are no longer moving forward but spinning your wheels.

To be productive, you need to realize when to stop.

Because tomorrow is another day.

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I am a writer with over 16 years of experience and hundreds of articles. I write about photography, productivity, life skills, money management and much more.

Alpharetta, GA

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