The Moral Trap of ‘More Productive’

Say hello to your future productive self!

In all likelihood, you’ve decided you want to be more productive because you’re frustrated with yourself. You get angry with yourself when you procrastinate work and instead surf the internet. You have a hard time starting tasks or projects that seem effortful, and you kick yourself when you run up against a deadline that wouldn’t have been a problem had you only started sooner. You want to get rid of your bad tendencies and replace them with focused, deliberate action. Hooray!

What you may not have asked yet is why else do I want to be more productive?

If your primary goal focuses on getting rid of bad behaviors, such as stop procrastinating or stop getting distracted, then you’re setting yourself up for disappointment. The absence of bad behavior is not the same thing as cultivating new, positive habits. Plus, if the motivation to be more productive is to somehow improve ourselves morally and ethically (“I’m a better person because I don’t procrastinate”), then we’re going about it all wrong.

More importantly, being more productive for the sake of feeling more moral is pretty boring.

What Will I Get Out Of It?

A better question to ask yourself is: If I were a more productive person, what would I get out of it?

Maybe you want to do better at your job in hopes of a promotion, recognition in your field, or more money. Maybe your performance is fine, but you want to spend less time working so that you have more leisure time, more time with family, or enough bandwidth left at the end of the day to tackle a personal project.

Here’s a question you might not have asked yourself yet: When I think about what I want, does being more productive lead to that result?

If the answer is no, then increasing your productivity would be an act of self-flagellation. Don’t fall into this trap of punishing yourself for the seemingly bad behaviors that you believe you should change when changing them doesn’t lead to the result you want.

Where Can I Be More Productive?

Two more important questions to ask yourself:

  1. Where in my life do I want to be more productive?
  2. Where in my life can I be more productive?

Nothing is more deflating than job burnout that’s caused not by you and your performance, but the unreasonable demands your employer puts on you.

I’ve been there. I once worked for a boss who asked so much of me that there was no amount of efficiency, intellect, or go-get-’em attitude that could have helped me tick every box the boss wanted ticked in 40 hours a week. When I was already stretched well past my limit, he mentioned one more thing I could accomplish that would be “a real feather in my cap.” I didn’t want a feather in my cap. I wanted a reasonable workload.

When I realized the problem wasn’t me, I went looking for a better job. It’s a Sisyphean act to try to make the impossible possible.

Don’t Try to be ‘More Productive’ If You’re Unwell

No one ever talks about it, but there are prerequisites to launching on a productivity-boosting journey. The most important one is wellbeing.

It is futile to focus on increasing your personal productivity if your basic physical and mental needs are not being met.

While I can’t defend every aspect of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs (Maslow himself later criticized some of his original theories), he was onto something by saying we cannot reach self-actualization if we are lacking in psychological wellbeing, safety, love and belonging, and self esteem. How can you expect to improve something relatively trivial, like personal productivity, if you’re in a bad emotional or physical state? You can’t make a soufflé if your kitchen is on fire.

‘More’ Productive is a Comparison

The “more” in “more productive” means there’s a comparison. More productive than what? More productive than when? You need to quantify your current state of productivity if you intend to improve it.

Just as when you make any major lifestyle change, as you start to develop new habits for your future productive self, you need to let go of your old ways. Easier said than done. It takes self-discipline, vigilance, and commitment. It’s really hard.

The good news is there are many incremental changes that are easy to adopt and that together lead to productivity gains. I’ll stop myself short of calling them life hacks, but these tricks are based on research that proves they increase productivity for the majority of people.

Many of them are quite simple, but it’s hard, slow work to adopt enough of them that they add up to something substantial. That’s why I don’t call them life hacks; a life hack implies a quick fix. Instead, we need habits. It takes a while for new habits to stick, but they pay off overtime.

Avoiding the Moral Trap of ‘More Productive’

Too many people jump on the “more productive” bandwagon without thinking through what they want, how they hope to achieve it, and what actions they need to take day in and day out to make it happen.

“Being more productive” shouldn’t be something we want simply because it seems desirable. Part of the reason it seems desirable is because we’ve been taught to associate heightened productivity with ethics and morality. We get down on ourselves for not being productive enough because it’s somehow morally and ethically better to be productive.

Culturally, we tend to equate should behaviors with morality. We should eat healthy. We should lessen our impact on the environment. We should exercise. We should parent our children with patience and kindness. We should be mindful. Not all should behaviors are the same, however, even though we often unconsciously start to associate all of them with moral upstanding. Additionally, some should behaviors don’t require ultimate perfection. There’s a whole lot of space between being an ideal parent and requiring a visit from Child Protective Services.

If you want to be more productive, the best thing you can do for yourself is define your desired outcomes first, without getting caught in a moral trap. Then, seriously consider whether being more productive than you are now will help you achieve your goals. If the answer is yes, then consider where in your life it’s realistic to be more productive than you are now. And you don’t need to be perfect. You only need to be more productive, a comparative change defined by what came before it. Finally, when nailing down the exact things you can do differently to affect this change, look for habits and not quick fixes.


Image by Aditya Doshi, CC.


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