We Read Productivity Tips Because They Promise a Better Self

People don’t want productivity tips to make them more productive. By and large, they want them because they give the promise that you can be someone other than who you are now. The negative things you see in yourself can be washed away. That’s the promise, and it can be a moral trap.

The more I read about productivity, both the science and people’s perceptions of what it is, the more I see that tips are not really what people want.

When we dive into the research and experiments on productivity, the resulting tips can at most offer small, incremental improvements to output and quality. We also have to extrapolate a lot to believe in even that much. So much research on productivity takes place on college campuses with undergraduate students who are doing very specific work, such as turning in assignments or completing math problems in a way that’s designed to test cognitive ability and determination.

When people read productivity tips, what they want is forgiveness.

When people talk about personal productivity, they’re holding up a mirror and describing who they want to be by pointing out things they don’t like about themselves.

For example, when someone says they want to be more productive so they can write a book, what they’re often saying is, “I’m disappointed in myself for not having written a book yet.”

When someone says, “I want to increase my productivity at work,” there might be an underlying sense of “I don’t think I’m good enough at my job as is.”

People whose productivity goals focus on procrastinating less, well, those are obvious, no? “I want to procrastinate less and improve my focus,” means “I have a negative feelings about my inability to get work done.”

If we want to avoid this trap, we have to start by asking whether being more productive will give us what we want. That means we also have to work hard at defining and describing our goals. It can’t just be an endless desire for improvement.

Ultimately, these negative feelings and thoughts are not productive at all. They are easy to exploit, however, and create the basis for a market of books, articles, software, and gadgets that promise increased productivity. We feel compelled to read productivity tips for the same reason people enjoy buying beauty products, athletic wear, and health food: They sell the promise that we can be something better than what we are now.

Image: Ohio University Libraries, CC


2 thoughts on “We Read Productivity Tips Because They Promise a Better Self

  1. Great article. Here’s another angle.

    A recurring problem with studying productivity is that there’s a freely mix of physical and psychological objects. For example, “being late to meetings” is an example of the former whereas “being a procrastinator” is an example of the latter.

    The distinction between the two was first highlighted by psychological historian Kurt Danziger who noticed that social scientists were using tools meant for statistical analysis of physical objects in their work. As a result, they were making mistakes.

    I think that you are pointing in the same direction. You can be on time all you want (physical object) but still feel like a procrastinator. As you have probably noticed, there are _many_ definitions of procrastination, rendering the term almost useless for practical purposes. That’s just one example, and I found many others…even by the academics who lead the time management world. Their work has had little impact on the real world of people with time management problems because of this confusion, IMHO.


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