By Michele Linn published February 8, 2017

7 Productivity Killers for Marketers and How to Fix Them

productivity-killers-marketersIf there is one thing on my mind this year, it’s how we, as marketers, are getting our work done. Not to mince words, but how we work seems broken.

I see the issues with the way I work. All. The. Time.

I want dedicated time in my schedule to create, but I get interrupted or – when I do have time – I can’t seem to focus. Here are just a few common scenarios. 

  • I have an organized list of blog post ideas – and many half-finished articles – but I still scramble to meet deadlines.
  • My days are filled with scheduled and unplanned phone conversations that result in more ideas – but the more I talk, the less time I have to act.
  • When I do sit down to do actual work, I am interrupted with pings from IMs or phone calls.
  • When I struggle with something I’m writing, I check email to see if anything to add came in.

Many marketers I talk to can relate.

We spend so much time responding to immediate needs that it can feel exceedingly difficult to produce something meaningful. Many people wear their busy like a badge of honor, but how much are we truly doing to move our businesses – and our personal selves – forward?

I recently read Deep Work by Cal Newport (highly recommend), and it was an eye-opener. It offered ideas for so many productivity issues I have been grappling with. While many of Cal’s examples hail from academia and tech, there are lessons for marketers who are overwhelmed and who are looking for time to create necessary, great work, even if it is not urgent.

Here are some favorite aha moments on why marketers are having such a tough time being productive – and what we can do about it.

Lacking strategy

It’s no surprise that people aren’t productive if they don’t know what they should do – and how their work will positively impact the business. Cal calls this “The Principle of Least Resistance.” He explains:

In a business setting, without clear feedback on the impact of various behaviors to the bottom line, we will tend toward behaviors that are easiest in the moment.”

In short, if you are feeling unproductive, it could be because you don’t know where you should spend your time.

If you feel unproductive, it could be you don’t know where to spend your time, says @michelelinn. Click To Tweet

A better way: (We say this one all the time.) Document your strategy. If you aren’t certain where to start, seek these three must-have items to help your editorial and marketing teams work their best:

  • Who can you help the most? (This is the same question as audience, but the semantic change shifts your focus to who you can help instead of who you are targeting.)
  • How will you help your audience in a way that no one else can? (This is your content tilt.)
  • How do you define success – and how will you concretely measure this?

Are you thinking, “This all sounds great, but I’m not the person responsible for our strategy.” Or maybe something else is stopping you? Joe Pulizzi recently called out the most common excuses people have, so start here if needed.

Switching from task to task

We all know multitasking ultimately makes you less productive. But, even if you can avoid multitasking, many of us are plagued with going from meeting to meeting or answering whatever issue comes up when it arises.

Cal talks about the term “attention residue,” which Sophie Leroy coined in her 2009 paper, Why Is It So Hard to Do My Work? As Cal explains,

When you switch from some Task A to another Task B, your attention doesn’t immediately followa residue of your attention remains stuck thinking about the original task. This residue gets especially thick if your work on Task A was unbounded and of low intensity before you switched, but even if you finish Task A before moving on, your attention remains divided for a while.

A better way: This may sound counterproductive, but I have been letting my brain rest in between tasks – and trying not to constantly jump from one thing to the next. For instance, when I am out of the office, I make an effort to not look at my phone and to become comfortable with silence and quiet. While you may wonder how this helps, it’s letting me build the discipline to turn off – and not always be looking for the next new thing where I need to shift my attention.

Giving in to distraction

I think we can all relate: We’re faced with a difficult task. We put it off and prioritize other work we can get done. But, when we do find the time, we can’t get into our groove and focus. Maybe we overthink the topic or simply feel stuck.

Instead of pushing through, we check email, Twitter, or Facebook to see if anything new needs our attention. (Hint: Nothing typically needs your attention right then, but it’s a great way to feel like you are feeling productive.)

A better way: While the urge to check email or go online won’t necessarily dissipate, train your brain to focus on one task for a time. You need to practice turning off all distractions and doing one thing without stopping.

I often refer to the Pomodoro technique, which is a common method of working for 25 minutes, taking a five-minute break, and then repeating the process. This is a great approach if you are trying to create something or tackle a particularly thorny issue.

I also find success training my brain by reading 20 minutes of a non-fiction book each day. I started this habit last month when I swapped reading with checking email first thing.

While this may sound crazy, I find that this mini-exercise in concentration not only inspires my writing, but it also trains my brain to stay focused. It’s expected that my mind may start to wander, but I don’t stop reading – or give in to the temptation to do something else – for at least 20 minutes. Surprisingly (or not), on the days when I don’t make time to read, I find my mind wanders more easily and I give in to distraction.

Reading for 20 minutes is a concentration exercise that trains my brain to stay focused, says @michelelinn. Click To Tweet

Being accessible

As a manager and someone who tries to be a helpful colleague and industry peer, I used to put a lot of value on being accessible. While there is something to be said for being available, it’s draining and makes it difficult to have control over your day. What you set out to accomplish simply doesn’t happen. While unscheduled conversations may be helpful, do they need to happen right now?

A better way:  I used to consider myself available if I wasn’t on a phone call. Now, I’ve flipped and my default is “unavailable.”

Cal, who hails from academia, suggests having “office hours.” As he and many others have discovered, “people will usually respect your right to become inaccessible if these periods are well-defined and well-advertised, and outside these stretches, you’re once again easy to find.”

Wanting to appear busy

We have all done this: We shoot off a few emails first thing or late at night so people know we’re working. Or we constantly check email during the day so people think we are at our desks. Again, Cal explains:

If you send and answer e-mails at all hours, if you schedule and attend meetings constantly, if you weigh in on instant message systems … within seconds when someone poses a new question, or if you roam your open office bouncing ideas off all whom you encounterall of these behaviors make you seem busy in a public manner. If you’re using busyness as a proxy for productivity, then these behaviors can seem crucial for convincing yourself and others that you’re doing your job well.”

A better way: Put boundaries on your work life – and prove your worth by what you produce instead of how quickly you answer emails. While I used to value constant connection, I now consider it a hindrance and wish more people would make it a point not to check email so frequently.

Prove your worth by what you produce instead of how quickly you answer emails, says @michelelinn. Click To Tweet

Sharing too much

Another seemingly productive task is sharing your ideas with coworkers. I immediately related to Cal calling out an exceedingly common practice of sending – and getting – emails that simply say, “Thoughts?”

Yes, as the sender, this practice gets the emails out of your inbox, but it can take a lot of time for the person on the other end to decipher and respond. And, what you are thinking is often on a different train of thought than what spurred the sender to forward something in the first place. At times, a train of fruitless emails ensues, and, even if you do find an agreement, should this item even be a priority?

A better way: I often think back to these words of wisdom from Robert Rose who talks about the time and care it took to send interoffice memos 20-plus years ago. Given that process, you only sent a memo when you had something important to share. But now, we share more because it’s easy. But is this truly the best thing for your teams? I challenge you to think about what you are sending via email. Just because you can, should you – and should you send it now? Will this help your coworkers do their job better or will this send them down an unproductive path?

Ideally, your team would have a central place to store ideas that don’t need immediate attention but which you don’t want to lose. But, if this resource doesn’t exist, batch your ideas for people and share them at regular intervals so you can prioritize what needs to happen when.

Not prioritizing projects

Another productivity killer related to lack of strategy and sharing too much is not prioritizing your most important projects. For many of us, it’s easy to come up with ideas, and, to an extent, brainstorming has this aura of productivity to it. It feels like you are doing something even though nothing concrete is delivered.

Lack of strategy & not prioritizing most important projects are #productivity killers, says @michelelinn. Click To Tweet

A better way: I recently shared some ideas on how to get control of your ideas and be systematic with how you knock them out one by one. Agile marketing is an even more rigorous approach to identifying and working on your most important tasks first. It’s something I am learning more about this year, as I think it will be a boon to productivity. Andrea Fryrear, my go-to person for Agile marketing, recently answered common questions about this increasingly popular approach.

I’d love to hear from you. What is killing your creativity (i.e., driving you crazy with your process)? What other ideas do you have for working more efficiently?

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Cover image by Joseph Kalinowski/Content Marketing Institute

Author: Michele Linn

Michele Linn is the co-founder and chief strategy officer of Mantis Research, a consultancy focused on helping brands create and amplify original research they can use in their marketing. Before starting Mantis, Michele was head of editorial at Content Marketing Institute, where she led the company's strategic editorial direction, co-developed its annual research studies, wrote hundreds of articles, spoke at industry events and was instrumental in building the platform to 200,000 subscribers. In 2015, she was named one of Folio's Top Women in Media (Corporate Visionary). You can follow her on Twitter at @michelelinn.

Other posts by Michele Linn

  • Corrie

    Michele, you nailed it! Thank you. I needed to hear that I’m not the “only one” to struggle with these distractions and behaviors. I feel empowered to change my IM and e-mail settings and even try the Pomodoro method. Fantastic article with actionable tips–thanks so much. Here’s to a more productive day!

    • Michele Linn

      You’re definitely not alone, Corrie. SO many marketers I talk to are struggling with similar things. Hope you have a productive day as well — and thanks for stopping by to comment.

  • Steve

    Thanks Michele. Makes ton of sense. I am also starting down the path of being more focused and I like the Pomodoro and reading ideas, although I think I will end my day with reading to get relaxed and take me mind off other concerns so I get a good night of sleep and can feel refreshed in the morning. And I have been working with a client in an agile manner for the last six months- I am so impressed with what we’ve been able to accomplish during that time. As Marketers we should adopt that agile methodology. Many digital and direct marketing teams have been using that approach for years. Applying it elsewhere in the marketing organization would be beneficial.

    • Michele Linn

      Great modifications, Steve. I really like that you are using Agile as well. I haven’t adopted that methodology formally, but I am very interested in it. I hear so many wonderful results!

  • Boğaziçi Eğitim

    Thanks for this useful post. Marketing is always a hrd thing to handle properly. Please keep on writing more and more about marketing.

    • Michele Linn

      Thanks so much, Bogazici. I love this topic and plan on writing about it more.


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  • Freelance Graphic Designer

    I don’t think this kind of work problem is endured by just marketers 🙂 I’m sure most freelancers feel the same, and probably anyone who works in an office where they are in ‘control’ (as if!) of their time. Thanks for all the tips.
    Now, I have to stop writing and focus on …. oh look, I got an email…

    • Michele Linn

      You’re absolutely right. Our CMI audience is marketers, but these tips could be applied to so many people I know. Here’s to the war against distraction!

  • Roger C. Parker

    Dear Michele:
    Thank you for shedding light on one of the key issues of the day.

    Your daily “20-minute concentration training” idea is pure genius. I hadn’t considered scheduled reading time from a broader perspective than just “learning time.” I encourage you to track the correlation between your reading session days and your focus/productivity during the day.

    By the way, coming down my “book review highway” is a book I enthusiastically recommend to you and anyone else concerned about productivity issues take a look at Thomas L. Friedman’s latest book, “Thank You for Being Late: An Optimists Guide to Prospering During an Age of Accelerations.”

    Amazing premise accompanied by deep thinking and ultra-fine writing. Check out the sample chapters on Kindle.

  • Roger C. Parker

    I have a couple of questions, Michele, about your daily 20-minute “reading to focus” sessions.

    During a session, how “selective” are you?

    In particular, if you’re reading a book and not getting much out of it, do you feel OK about skimming the book, or putting it down and finding something more rewarding? Or, do you just plow on, hoping the book will get better?

    Do you tend to read more than one book at a time, or do you finish the book before starting another?

    Is your 20-minutes a day routine strictly work-related, or does it include reading for pleasure? (Not that both aren’t possible in the same book!)

    Do you, or anyone reading this, find a difference in pleasure and/or retention between reading ebooks versus printed books?

    • Michele Linn

      Hi Roger,
      A few thoughts on your questions:

      I typically give a book some time, but if I am not learning much new, I move on.

      I typically am reading multiple books at once.

      For my 20-minute routine, I read books that will help professionally. But, I like to read fiction as well.

      I read “professional” books via the Kindle app on my iPad. I highlight what I like and take notes as well. I can then easily review all of my Kindle highlights in one spot. If I am reading purely for pleasure, I like both paper and digitla books.

      And thanks for your book recommendation, Thank You for Being Late: An Optimists Guide to Prospering During an Age of Accelerations. I will check it out!

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  • Brian Griffin

    Really great article – all of this is spot on!

    • Michele Linn

      Thanks, Brian!

  • Jean Lie

    The main phrase here is “focus to finish your own task”. The productivity of an individual depends on how they set a goal to a certain task. Avoid distraction and dedicate yourself on your task.