What’s wrong with advice about productivity?
1. ‘Being More Productive’ is Never the True Goal
Productivity advice tells you how to be more efficient with your time in a very general sense, or it can give you suggestions for curbing distractions and focusing. But it never considers whether those actions will help you reach your true intended goal.
Whenever you find yourself thinking “I should be more productive,” stop and ask what is your real goal. Do you want to finish up at your job everyday as a sales associate earlier than you do now? Do you want to write more? Do you want to feel good about yourself for making all the phone calls you’re supposed to make? Each of those examples relates to productivity, but how you’d go about achieving them is completely different. Additionally, any solid advice you get that’s specific to the goal will likely have a greater affect than any generalized advice about increasing productivity
Instead of reading advice about productivity, think about what goal or outcome you want. Then you can consider advice that’s specific to it.
2. Productivity Advice Usually Comes From Productivity Enthusiasts
Productivity enthusiasts are biased. They’re usually into productivity because they’re already fairly productive. What do they know about making an unproductive person any different? Sometimes you find a convert among them, someone who formerly was extremely disorganized and unproductive, and now they’ve turned their life around. Even when that’s the case, what are the chances that what worked for them will also work for you?
3. Productivity Advice Often Comes From Privileged People
The same goes for highly privileged people. These are the CEOs and politicians who talk about waking up at 4 a.m. to get more done. I have no doubt most of them work hard, but I do have a hard time believing that there is some magical power that we only get by working before dawn. Plus, when do these people sleep? And do you really think they are actively engaged and productive for all their waking hours? It’s just not true. They’re disillusioned about what’s enabled them to reach the place in life that they have. What they do in their life does not translate into anything an average person should do.
4. Almost No One Gives Advice Based on What Works for Most People
So much productivity advice is of the “and here’s how I did it” variety, as I’ve already mentioned. First-person experiential journalism can be fun to read, but does it apply to you? We can gain insight from someone’s emotional, physical, and psychological experiences, sure, but it’s faulty to think, “If I do take the same steps, I’ll have the same results.” What worked for them won’t necessarily work for you.
Be careful of this same trap when listening to so-called experts citing studies and statistics. More than once, I’ve dug into the original source material of a citation only to find that the findings were taken out of context or details were omitted. For example, I followed up on one person’s claim that he read a study showing how watching news coverage of terrorism could create more anxiety in people than those who were in the actual terrorism event. The original study, however, specifically looked at children and adolescents.
5. If You’re Interested in Productivity, You’re Probably Don’t Need Much Help
Productivity advice has a bit of a “preaching to the choir” problem. Those who up to listen and learn are already converts.
Last year, I interviewed David Allen of Getting Things Done fame, and he said something about having trouble reaching people:
Allen: … I’ve had trouble selling productivity for 35 years!
Me: What do you mean by that?
Allen: Well, come on. I solve a problem most people don’t know they have. Getting Things Done is not so much about getting things done; it’s about being appropriately engaged with your life so that you can be present with whatever you’re doing. I’ve been able to sell enough. Interestingly, the people most interested in GTD are the people who need it the least. … Anyway, I’m not a marketing expert. If I were, I may have made more money and reached even more people than I have. As it is, it does reach—it creates an attraction to a certain type of person, and they already know the value of systems. They’ve already tried systems, and their own productivity and creativity is throwing themselves out of their own comfort zones.
Image by Karsten Seiferland, CC.