There’s a reason why most productivity advice fails to make any meaningful difference in your life over the long run. It’s not that the hacks and tricks and techniques don’t work. They do.
It’s that we see this kind of advice as the best possible way — the pinnacle, really — of improving our productivity. But it’s not. It’s based on a set of false assumptions. It misses the true purpose of being productive because it neglects how humans function at a biological and psychological level.
Imagine the perfect week. A seven-day stretch where you manage to do not just everything you aspire to do, but all the little things you conceive of along the way. The “I need to call mom”s and “I should pick up milk on the way home”s too. Where your plans fit into your calendar like a key into a lock, and your work assembles itself like a neat puzzle, perfectly abiding by the ever-looming deadlines of the ticking clock.
If you’re like me — a human being subject to their own, chemical reward system and a host of cognitive biases — this week has never happened in your life. And it never will. Because it’s a myth.
But that’s exactly what endless time optimization strategies are chasing. They pretend this week exists. If only we could chase it down once, we’d know how to catch it again and again. That’s nonsense, and its underlying assumption is deeply flawed: If you can hack yourself to do ever more, you’ll eventually reach a point where you can do everything you need to in any given week.
If you’ve ever had even a great week, you know that’s not how humans work.
First, our brains are wired to seek problems. Calm isn’t exactly our default state. So whenever we’re done fixing one thing, we naturally look for the next. Second, we love the dopamine hit of hitting even the tiniest goal way too much to just pass up on the opportunity to complete another one. Finally, we tend to think that all our time is ours, that life won’t interrupt, and that we know not just how much we’ll be able to do in advance, but also how long any given task will take. None of these are true, all victims of the planning fallacy.
Clearly, the do-more-until-you-can-do-everything approach can’t work. And that’s why gimmicks and tactics can’t possibly be the best productivity advice.
But what happens if we reject it? If we flip the basic assumption on its head? Maybe, we’d find an entirely new purpose of productivity. I think we would.
If you assume you can never get everything done, that you have no way of knowing how much time you’ll have available, and that you’ll often misjudge your own abilities and the hours required along the way, going for the maximum number of tasks instantly becomes a wholly futile effort.
By imagining the opposite, you’re forcing yourself to come up with a new definition of what being productive even means. To me, it means making good-enough progress on what I care about the most amidst the chaos of life.
The way you do that is by managing your expectations of time, much more so than managing your time itself.
Once you accept that life is riddled with chance, coincidence, luck, you’ll see productivity in a new light, with a new purpose. You’ll feel incentivized to build a different system. One with lots of buffers and room to fail. A system that’s optimized for minimum stress instead of maximum effort.
You’ll still have your goals, your to-dos, your milestones, but you won’t throw a tantrum every time you fail to check every one of them off your many lists. You’ll have compassion for yourself. More for others, too. You’ll learn to flow with life, around life, through life, rather than compartmentalizing it. You’ll be happier, less prone to burnout, and taste more of that elusive state of calm chasing checkmarks can never bring.
True productivity happens in your mind, not the outside world.
It happens when we learn to sit with our pattern-seeking machines without acting on them. When we say “thanks for the dopamine” and choose not to chase another hit. When we begin to find true comfort in the fact that we are imperfect beings acting in an imperfect world, rather than fighting the truth and the time we have so little of.
Only if we build our idea of this important concept on the fundamentals of what it means to be human can we erect a construct that lasts. An understanding that’s not sprawled with flawed assumptions.
Maybe, at the end of the day, we’d even get more done. Not that that matters.
Because that’s not what productivity is about, is it?