A study of 7,000 workers showed the standout trait of productive people can easily be learned

Don’t just think positive. Sebastiaan ter Burg/Flickr
  • The psychology of productivity is simpler than you’d think.
  • One key trait of super productive people is that they anticipate problems – and how they will solve them – in advance of any task, according to leadership experts Jack Zenger and Joe Folkman.
  • Some psychologists call this strategy “mental contrasting,” or “WOOPing.”

When I think about productivity, I typically think about in-the-moment productivity: how to avoid getting sucked into your inbox during focused work, how to curb perfectionistic impulses while writing.

But a better way to conceptualize productivity, I’ve learned, is to consider about the work that gets done before you actually start the task at hand.

I recently spoke with Jack Zenger and Joe Folkman, the CEO and the president of leadership consultancy Zenger/Folkman, about a study they ran on the traits of super productive people. For the study, the results of which are outlined in the Harvard Business Review, Zenger and Folkman had managers, coworkers, and clients rate 7,000 people on their performance.

As it turned out, the ability to anticipate and solve problems was a key trait of the most productive workers.

As Folkman put it, it’s the “ability to step back and say, ‘OK, this sounds like a great plan. What’s going to get in our way? What’s going to happen that’s going to upset this plan?” If you can anticipate those obstacles, Folkman said, you’re better off.

Maybe a colleague won’t respond to your email in time, and you’ll be missing information for a project. Maybe the projector won’t work in the conference room. Or maybe you’ll get writer’s block and an article that should take an hour to write will take three. What will you do in those situations?

Zenger added that most people don’t ever take the time to think about what could go wrong – but when they do, they tend to be pretty good at it.

In the Harvard Business Review, Zenger and Folkman cite research by the psychologist Gabrielle Oettingen on “mental contrasting,” or envisioning the obstacles that stand between you and your goal, and how you’ll overcome them.

Oettingen came up with a catchier term: WOOP, which stands for Wish, Outcome, Obstacle, Plan. When you WOOP, you think about your ultimate goal, the best possible outcome, the personal obstacle(s) that stand in the way, and the plan for getting around those roadblocks. Consider it a more nuanced version of positive thinking.

Oettingen and her colleagues have found that WOOP-ing works whether you’re trying to lose weight or ace an exam.

The alternative to visualising potential obstacles is maintaining a completely positive attitude – which can be dangerous. As Folkman put it, “you’ve painted yourself into a corner.”