What’s wrong with productivity tips

Every week I see articles with productivity tips. Since there are so many productivity articles, I have to assume they are not working. Where do I find productivity tips? You can find a large collection of productivity tips here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here. What is the problem with productivity tips?

Being too productive is counterproductive

I remember the first productivity course I took. It was before the smartphones entered our pockets when we still had time to be bored and wrote our tasks on a piece of paper. I got a digital assistant and started prioritizing all my tasks. I noticed, that I usually find the time to do the tasks that I write down. So I wrote down all the tasks I could think of. I neatly organized the tasks by priority and measuring the time I spent doing each task. I was surprised by how much my productivity increased. I was happy for approximately two weeks, and then I collapsed without energy to do anything. After a week I threw away my neat list and went back doing things that felt right. Being a rebel, even when I added the activities that were supposed to make me happy, simply the fact that I HAD to do them did not allow me to relax.

Do we really control our lives?

When I was young and did not have children I used to meditate before I went to sleep and when waking up. I used to sleep seven hours each night. Then I got kids, I gained weight, lost the ability to meditate at home without someone crying for my help, and I occasionally wake up from the realization I need to do something important. When being a beginning programmer, I could program as much as I want, and once a week present the results to my boss. Now every day I need to manage a different sort of crisis, usually several crisis situations per day, with people contacting me to share their pain and joy. I can run away from everybody for a couple of hours, but when I am there I need to be available for other people. Sometimes I can manage my schedule, and sometimes my schedule manages me. I have some control of my life, but it is limited by my responsibilities. Occasionally I can do things the right way, and other times I need to implement “quick and dirty” solutions.

The more we learn the more we understand our ignorance

Nicholas Murray Butler said, “An expert is one who knows more and more about less and less until he knows absolutely everything about nothing.”. A manager, therefore, must be someone who knows less and less about more and more until finally, he knows nothing about everything. Most of us eventually need to combine both roles, so eventually, we lose confidence in what we know. The more we know, the more questions we have. No matter how fast we can learn, there is a point when the number of answers we can find cannot race against the number of questions we have. I teach accelerated learning, and I cannot learn even one tenth of the material I would love to learn on any given day. In very similar way, the more tasks we complete, the more follow-up tasks spawn, until we cannot complete all of them.

The fallacy of prioritization

When we prioritize, we focus on something we can do relatively easily: it needs to be well defined, we need to have a good plan and measurable goals, our resources should be sufficient to reach our objective, the effect of our activity should be significant and the risk should be moderate. Most of the great achievements and great experiences simply do not pass the test for a smart goal. Can we transform finding romantic partner into a smart goal? Is making and raising children a smart goal? Probably not. Most inventions and discoveries would be removed from any reasonable to do list, because they are too hard and unexpected. If we would rigorously follow the prioritization schemes we would never have families. It is not that having families is counterproductive, our prioritization criteria are not sufficiently effective. So occasionally we probably need to follow a deeper call, throw away the plans and do the right thing.

Success and failure

We are supposed to visualize our success and talk to our future self for motivation. We are supposed to understand that failure is a learning opportunity. Each small difficulty we encounter and eventually solve should make us feel that we generate value. We should be grateful for the ability to practice what we do and consider our activity a mission or a calling.

In fact, these are great pieces of advice when we give them to other people. When we say someone “you will succeed” and he fails, we give him a virtual hug and say “sorry”. When we fail, it hurts. We can act correctly in things that are not crucial for us. The emotions associated with success and failure in crucial things, in our own lives, are too strong for most people even with proper training.

Posttraumatic experiences

If we had a massive failure, we will have a posttraumatic experience. I heard somewhere a program, that analyzed victims of terror. The speaker said, “80% will experience a horrible situation and continue with their lives as if nothing happened, 10% will have emotional traumas which will not hinder their performance, and 10% will fall apart.” We have different levels of resilience to different kinds of situations. Some people may handle very well a family drama and fall apart when his career is over, and somebody else can easily sign unemployment but will be devastated if he needs to divorce. Even when we continue with our lives, we still keep the sensitivities generated by old traumas and will not be productive in certain situations.

Developing Asperger

I quote: “Asperger’s, is a developmental disorder characterized by significant difficulties in social interaction and nonverbal communication, along with restricted and repetitive patterns of behavior and interests.”

Some productivity tips call for minimizing distractions, focusing on one task and then focusing on quality over quantity. Then we will further get into the flow state when we essentially notice nothing but the task we deal with. And then people start distracting us and we might explode with an inappropriate response.

Some tasks require upmost concentration. There are few tasks that need to be handled this way. There are also very few people that can stay in this mood for long. And most of these people are not happy in their life. Was Albert Einstein a good husband and father? His family life was not a happy one.

Our life is a complex balancing act. Some people are great jugglers and quite happy with their lives. Others become fixated on a single object, and usually, miss most of the other things.

Where is creativity?

Creativity is often the opposite of productivity. When we are productive, we do not want to procrastinate or get frustrated or lose stability. When we are creative we need to ruminate, we need frustration to generate qualitatively new results, and we need a wide range of adventures and experiences.

Some practices are common for productivity and creativity, like a brain dump, when we write down everything that clutters our mind. Other practices are contradicting each other. Do we keep the to-do list, or do we through it away? Do we embrace risks or mitigate them?

The advanced creativity theories include several stages. Some stages focus on coming up with new ideas, other stages focus on disciplined research and removal of bad ideas. Only some steps need to be productive, mainly the steps that deal with implementations. Other steps should better be counterproductive, but we can limit the scope of this behavior.

The executive productivity

Unlike most of us, executives have a different approach to productivity. They need to decide which subjects need to be treated immediately, which need to be delegated, and which can be postponed. Setting up filters, being happy with “good enough”, this mindset is built for crisis management. Unlike project managers, executives do not get obsessed with goals and milestones but focus on values and vision. The executives focus on simple solutions, personal integrity and doing the right thing no matter how hard it is.

So what do I think?

I think there is no such thing as productivity, but several different kinds of productivity that contradict each other. For each sort of productivity, we might be able to construct a recipe. And we can outline processes which combine several kinds of productivity. Some things may even be common to all things we want to accomplish. Yet the tips should be considered as small parts of a larger system and might be counterproductive otherwise…

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