We’re Wasting Time on Productivity

wasting time on productivity

By any standard definition, I’d be considered a productive person. I wake up, workout, go from full workdays straight into side projects, and rarely watch TV mindlessly. I am a list maker, a calendar savant, and inefficient UI makes me cry. Productivity isn’t really an accumulated set of tools so much as it is a way of life. I don’t know how to function otherwise. And yet, a lot of us are wasting time on productivity.

Over the last few months, my Twitter feed has slowly evolved into a sphere of self-aggrandizing productivity chat as I’ve become increasingly involved with #TechTwitter. Everyone is looking for the next tactic that will enable them to become more productive or more efficient. I can’t blame them. We are measured by our productivity. And since our value depends on being able to out-productive the next type A person, we see someone who spends their day filled with “useful” activity as doing better than we are. A productive person is a valuable person. Unproductive moments present an opportunity cost we can’t afford.

By this logic, it makes sense that we would spend 6 hours a day tweeting about researching tools that could rocket us to the next level of productivity. We won’t rest until we become the final boss of productivity Twitter, where every moment of our day is packed with activity except for the 20 minutes we scheduled for mindfulness meditation.

We’re wasting time on productivity because we lack a common definition.

Much of the research on productivity is concerned with understanding the reasons why we aren’t productive. We know that phones are distracting and that having constant notifications makes it hard to stay focused on any singular task. Some people are more productive at night, something that is largely determined by our own personal circadian rhythms. Most of this serves to tell us what we already know: some of us are naturally more productive than others, and all of us are more productive when we’re less distracted.

Suffice to say, productivity research is lacking. Much of the research on productivity comes in the form of research on goals or motivation but doesn’t make much of a point to understand exactly why we are productive.

One attempt at understanding the mechanism of productivity comes from a US Army study on ultradian rhythms. These 90-minute intervals, much like circadian rhythms, are thought to be an innate physiological cycle, during which factors like perceptual and motor performance are impacted. While having an understanding of that which accounts for differences in productivity is a start, a study performed on 8 males ages 22-26 doesn’t bode well for understanding global biological drivers of productivity or how we can work with our biology to improve our productivity.

Productivity spheres spend too much time on theory and not enough on practice.

Some people are wildly productive. I have no doubt that they would be able to give me some effective pointers on how they structure their day. It’s also likely that a decent amount of their suggestions would also be fairly useless.

Focusing too much time on the theory of productivity and not enough time being productive inherently hinders our quest to become productive. We are so worried about taking notes, linking facts to other facts, and creating a personal chronology that we forget the actual utility of being productive.

The method of deliberate practice predicts that for two people who spend the same amount of time doing something, one will be better at it because of their technique and systematic approach. The method comes from the study that influenced the “10,000 hours to become an expert” concept much of the Internet seems to hate. TL;DR, the practice habits of violinists were studied, and Malcolm Gladwell misinterpreted it to mean that the average hours a violinist had logged by age 20 was a predictor of expert status. Everyone freaked out and determined that 10,000 hours was the magic number for expertise.

Further research on the concept was critical of both the study and the public’s interpretation, stating that much of the difference was attributable to individual factors and that skill is more of a valid predictor than overall time spent practicing. Despite the relatively contentious debate about what it takes to achieve expertise, this either/or situation doesn’t apply to productivity.

We can easily put this into numbers to make an example. Say 50% of your time is spent working on your craft, and 50% is spent on organizing/increasing productivity. In an alternate universe, this works out to 75% and 25%. To have equal mastery, you’d need to make sure that your productivity time enables you to be 50% better at the thing you’re actually doing to make up for the time you spent developing productivity. Too much time spent consuming productivity writing and downloading app after app takes away from the time we actually spend on our craft. This isn’t even accounting for the time it takes to learn how a productivity concept works and effectively apply it to our various applications.

At a certain point, spending time on theory ceases to be effective. This isn’t to say that 25% of our time dedicated to improving productivity isn’t sometimes warranted, but without the personal cost-benefit analysis, we could end up wasting time on productivity. The ideal productivity to practice ratio is different depending on the skill or the individual.

I have a theory that the reason so many of us are consumed with ‘increasing productivity’, studying it, reading about it, developing our strategies, etc., is because we are trying to procrastinate our actual work. Spending time on productivity allows us to feel like we are doing something without putting the challenge in front of us.

I’m writing a book at the moment, and I find myself constantly reading about how other people wrote their books. Rationally, I know that there are a million ways to finish a book and my strategy won’t look like anyone else’s. While I’m not consciously avoiding writing my book, I recognize that it is much easier to sit in the comfort of learning how to produce rather than actually producing. Writing, creating, and publishing means facing realities I might not want to about the quality of my work. Sitting around wasting time on productivity enables me to push out the inevitability of grappling with this discomfort just a little further.

An example and shameless self-promo here- I’ve been using Roam Research to write this book. There are so many videos and tweets and an entire internet community of individuals who are incredibly self-aware of their cult-like dedication to this app. On realizing I was spending far more time reading other people’s opinions on it or making really cool CSS themes than actually writing, I figured it was time to re-evaluate.

Honestly, though, this is a really nice CSS theme. Get it here.

This is all to say that analysis, evaluation, and strategy are useful tools. However, tools are meant to be used. Spending time researching like a productivity scholar is less impactful than spending that time developing competency in the skills related to your craft (unless, of course, you are a productivity scholar, in which case, ignore everything I’ve said.)

Productivity vs. Competency

I claim that we are wasting time on productivity because in many of the cases where we claim we are unproductive, what’s missing is competency.

Regardless of the app or technique, if we lack essential skills, we won’t do the thing (whatever it may be) effectively. I know that this is kind of a “duh” statement, but I point it out because I believe a lot of us have lost sight of the value of simply being competent.

Using how the “10,000 hours” concept was derived as an example, let’s chat about the violin. I “practiced” violin anywhere from 3-20 hours a week from the age of 4 until 16. Far too many of these hours were spent petting the cat, staring out the window, or plucking my strings obnoxiously.

It’s fairly obvious in this instance that total hours logged does not equate to mastery of the instrument. I absolutely could have been more productive with my practice by actually touching the instrument the whole time or allotting time to fingering technique, sight-reading, etc. Regardless of whether my performance was influenced more by the number of hours spent with a violin in my hand or individual differences in practice strategy, it would have been useless if I didn’t know how to hold a bow or read music.

Competency is the low-hanging fruit we ignore in favor of what’s at the top of the tree. Competency does not imply perfection, nor does it imply a perfectly-streamlined process. Sometimes it is awkward, or boring, or unpleasant, but it is effective. We can always become more competent, and in many situations where we seek increased productivity, we are really looking for increased competency.

I believe this is especially true in creative work. Writing 10,000 words in a day might make me a “productive” writer, but it doesn’t guarantee effective communication, grammar, or work that I’m proud of. Competency gives me a wider range of skills from which to draw. In applying this to my more technical and scientific work, this is still possible. It’s all a question of identifying these skills and choosing how I go about improving them.

In focusing on competency, we inherently increase productivity.

Although a few productivity strategies are effective universally, many of them are too specific to any one individual’s experiences. Taking time to evaluate the competencies that are relevant to our own needs gives us a clear pathway to get better at them. This can’t be said for productivity. The fact that something is popular doesn’t necessarily make it good, nor does it mean it is suited to your needs.

While taking the time to delve into crucial competencies and understand what comprises them can be a difficult task, it allows more room for nuance than productivity gurus would have us believe exists. It’s hard to sell courses on productivity strategy once people realize that reaching productivity enlightenment is an unattainable goal with a nebulous definition. Until the rest of us realize this, however, we will continue wasting time on productivity.