How the Quest for Productivity Fails Us
*My new flagship course on Time Anxiety is now open for registration. The course will be a 5-week, interactive online experience for a limited first cohort.
For many years, I was really into productivity. I read every book, tried every method, joined bandwagons and fell off them.
It’s not as though it was all ineffective. Some of it worked very well! Or so I thought for a long time. I got better at doing more, which is what I thought I wanted.
Slowly but steadily, however, I began to realize some built-in problems with my productive methods. Two big problems, in fact.
The first problem is that “getting things done” is a futile quest.
No matter how hard you work—and, crucially, no matter how much you optimize or improve your methods—you will never get everything done. Not even close!
In fact, the more you try to “get things done,” the more you optimize, the more frustrated you’ll become. You just make small improvements towards an impossible goal.
Imagine trying to memorize the key facts of every article on Wikipedia. There are currently more than six million articles in the English language version alone.
Memorizing the key facts of every article on Wikipedia is physically impossible. It doesn’t matter how much Adderall you take, how many books on habits you read—it’s not going to happen. Not only that, but the goalpost keeps changing: more than 17,000 new articles are added every month. You’ll just end up further and further behind.
Maybe you think, okay, but I don’t want to memorize every Wikipedia article. Fine, but do you really think there’s a limit to your ideas? If you had more time every day, wouldn’t you just spend it getting more things done?
And then you’d be frustrated once again, because there simply isn’t enough time, no matter what you do.
Now we come to the second problem.
The second problem: “more” is not the answer to “too much.”
What do you do when you feel overwhelmed? Do you pause, slow down, reflect? If that’s your honest answer, good for you.
For many of us, when we feel overwhelmed, we look for something else to add. We go in search of a better software application or a new means of writing a to-do list. Maybe it’s a new cold shower routine or a different meditation tool. You get the idea.
Isn’t this crazy? We can’t keep up, so we try to keep up with even more. In an attempt to pair down, we just add on more things.
So something else can’t be the solution, no matter how cool the mediation app claims to be. More is not the answer to too much.
As I wrote once long ago: The problem is not your crowded inbox; it’s the lack of purpose in your life.
Time Anxiety: The Fear of Running Out of Time
Taken as a whole, we can call this state of being Time Anxiety. I’ve been studying it for months, first out of my own interest and then because I noticed a strong reaction from other people when I mentioned it.
I came to the topic by way of serendipitous accident.
The honest truth is that I was supposed to be writing a book. I don’t mean, “I had a book idea,” I mean I had a book contract with a big-name publisher. I also had a deadline.
The way I write books is a combination of sprints and “a little each day.” Generally, I try to write 1,000 words every day. Over time, a thousand words adds up, even if much of the initial draft ends up being discarded with repeated iterations.
While I was working on the book outline, I started exploring something different—this concept of Time Anxiety. It’s not unusual for me to work on a few projects at once.
But of course there are limits, and typically when I’m in “book mode,” most other projects are in maintenance mode. I frequently remind myself that we all have a limited amount of creative energy we can spend each day. And of course, whatever you choose to spend it on, you’re choosing to not spend it on any number of other options.
You might see what the problem is. The more I worked on my shadow project, the more I wanted to work on it all the time. It went from being my reward for completing other tasks to the main thing I looked forward to each day.
Then I just stopped waiting to work on it, and started working on it first thing in the morning.
Finally I decided: this is the way. I should go with this. I deferred my book contract and did this instead.
And that’s what led me here, to today. I’ve spent three months making a cohort-based experience that I’ll teach live to a small group in February.
*I’m still writing a book; I just pushed back the deadline a few months. One day I’ll tell you about it, but for the next six weeks, this course is my primary focus.
Back to You: What Can Be Done?
Much of what I was working on during my non-book writing time is now out today: a 5-week interactive experience to guide a small group through rewriting patters and creating what I call a personal operating system.
If you’re interested, you can learn more about the Time Anxiety course on the registration page. Since that experience will only be available for a limited group of people, I’ll leave you with a few tips you can use with no further training. You can apply these tips immediately.
Step 1. Acknowledge that you have a problem. You’re not going to get everything done! It’s impossible. Stop chasing a futile goal. Use Wikipedia when you need it; don’t try to memorize it.
Step 2. Reject the cult of productivity. Take it from me: the advice you’ll receive is just going to leave you unhappy and frustrated. Watch this short video to learn more.
This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t enjoy being productive. It’s just that it’s far, far more important to work out some other things before jumping in with the latest to-do list or meditation app.
Step 3. Write a life plan and weigh your decisions against it. There are countless versions of yourself you could become—an untold number of permutations and opportunities! This, of course, is overwhelming. So you’re going to need to narrow it down, and that’s where a life plan can help.
Step 4. Use short, daily check-ins to take stock. At the end of every day I ask myself, “Did today matter?” I review the list of my five life goals and consider if I made progress toward them. I identify what tripped me up, and what I can do to make tomorrow better.
I’m creating a more detailed set of reflections for the course, but if you do nothing else besides the above, you’ll start to feel a bit better.
Oh, and one more thing.
For every action you take—at least every action that requires substantial time or energy, two limited resources—stop and ask: does this matter? Even better, will this matter a year from now?
If you don’t feel great about your answer, proceed to another question:
“If I left this thing undone or just let go of the sense of obligation, could I also let go of feeling bad about it?”
Modern life is not always that simple, of course, but sometimes it is. And for the times when it’s more complex, there’s a way to plan for that as well.
Productivity tools and methods should support our purpose and mission, not define it.
More is not the answer to too much. There is a better way!