The Productivity Trap

No more than 2 or 3 years ago I was a productivity freak. Back then I was in charge of my own business, an online publishing company started 10 years ago. I was managing all the aspects of that company and that built a fantastic pressure on my health and time. I had to be more productive, otherwise I would surely crack up.

About that time also I started to be involved in productivity techniques such as GTD and other personal improvement techniques like NLP or Transactional Analysis. Being a quite early GTDer made this blog moderately popular and that served as an encouragement to me. I continued on this path as it seemed the right one.

Why Getting More Productive?

But as time passed I started to question myself more and more often: “What’s the point in being more productive? What’s the point in doing more in less time? What’s the point in doing more, anyway?”. Those questions emerged from a real state of frustration and sadness. Yes, I was way more productive each month, but other than really doing more stuff, nothing interesting happened.

Doing more in less time is a big trap. Doing more in less time makes you wanna do even more. Freeing your time by using productivity techniques, without having a proper life management system, makes you wanna use the free time in order to do even more. You get caught in your own treadmill.

I thought I was the only one caught in my own setup, but as I read other productivity blogs I started to see some sort of a pattern going on. Almost everywhere, productivity was perceived as a technique to squeeze more stuff into your capacity of doing. Just do more. It was weird. And it still feels weird, otherwise I wouldn’t be writing this blog post right now.

Productivity in itself, without a steady and complete personal management solution is simply unhealthy. It’s a paradigm of greed disguised in a technique for self-improvement. Doing more in less time is as bad as not doing nothing at all, because it directs your energy into a dry land of meaningless numbers.

Do versus Enjoy

As time passed by I started to shift my productivity approach from a quantity paradigm to a quality paradigm. In other words, I replaced the “more” with the “better”. As simple as it looks at the first glance, this shift is a total reinterpretation of the productivity concept.

The “better” part means to enjoy what you do. Means to be there and continuously enhance your activity, not just to adjust it against a set of fixed numbers. Doing things “better” means I have a quality system management in place. This system allows me to evaluate things around me and chose the ones I want to improve. Doing things “better” instead of just doing “more things in less time” doesn’t mean I have a life management system in place, but it’s the next best thing.

Begin productive, and here I refer to the “old school” definition, doesn’t have anything to do with your own capacity of being joyful. Anytime people talk about productivity, joy is usually out of discussion. Productivity is measured in tasks, lists and checked items, not laughs or smiles.

I’m sure it will sound weird to you, but for me being productive is a mix of doing and enjoying. If I’m only doing and not enjoying, I feel dull. If I’m only enjoying and not doing anything, sooner or later I start to feel equally dull. Whenever I mix those two states of my being, though, something magical happens with me: I am happy.

Productive vs Happy

As popular as they are nowadays, productivity techniques don’t vouch for your happiness. They can guarantee you’ll be doing a lot more stuff, but they won’t outline the real cost for that.  They won’t tell you that you can be caught in the process… Yes, you can do it with a mind like water, yes, you can Get Things Done, but then again, if you don’t have something bigger than just a productivity system in place to run your whole life, your own productivity will become a worm hole.

A life management system is something that includes a productivity technique, if you want to. It’s something that assess your desires, allows you to make decisions and to implement them. The implementation part can be enhanced with productivity techniques, but without the first two steps: assessment and decision, your productivity is an empty space, emptying your life task done by task done.

Doing more is consuming, doing better is happier. Almost any productivity technique I learned and applied have a consuming mindset: they are based on numbers and quantities. They teach you to do more in less time. Why? Maybe I want to do less in more time, but I want to do it better. Maybe I need a quality assurance system for my life, not just a quantity measurement system.

A Life Management System

During the last few years I felt more and more the need for a life management system, for something bigger than just a productivity system like GTD. Don’t get me wrong, I had my share of benefits from applying GTD but I don’t think a productivity system in itself is the only thing I need in order to be happy.

Life management is the process of consciously living your life. It’s the process of integrating all the parts into something meaningful and controllable, into something that you can understand at any moment. A life management system can only use one or more productivity techniques every now and then but it cannot contained by them.

During the last few months I started to gradually create what I call my own framework for life management. Getting rid of the productivity as a daily habit was the best thing I had ever since. Not thinking in terms of productivity but in terms of happiness is enlightening.

In the end, using productivity for just doing more is unfair: it takes you from your real self, it steal the genuine joy from your life and puts you in slavery to the numbers.

Later update: there’s a follow up to this article, in an attempt to create a more formalized approach towards productivity: The Productivity Map.

33 thoughts on “The Productivity Trap”

  1. I am currently trapped in this situation and reading your blog really helped me gain more insight to the situation. Great work!

  2. Pingback: Time, Money, Productivity, and Life?
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  4. You are totally right once again.
    We get stuck trying to do more in less time and then at the end, even though you may have got a lot done you just feel frustrated.
    Or worse you didn’t get anything done when you were supposed and now feel guilty. Which is something they never mention in those producitivity guides.
    Thanks for the great post.
    .-= Kaitlin M´s last blog ..This Is Why You Will Never Get Out Of The Real World =-.

    • The frustration of not doing “enough” is so dangerous that I really think it creates pathological effects. Been there, done that, not anymore, thank you 🙂

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  6. I agree completely!

    In fact, this is pretty much what my book is about: The Power of Less: The Fine Art of Limiting Yourself to the Essential. I talk about how to do less, to focus on what’s important, and not overload yourself. Simplify to be more effective, and happier. Focus on what truly matters.
    .-= Leo´s last blog ..The Essential Motivation Handbook =-.

    • There is this geek joke in the Unix world: less is more 🙂 (both “less” and “more” being in fact two different applications which are doing almost the same thing). But behind the joke there is a lot of truth, and I’m glad you found some related value in this post. And yes, I’m sure “The Power Of Less” is a great book, if it shares the same style and ideas with your blog 🙂

  7. Hi!

    Great post. I’d love to learn more about this. Are there any videos, or books or anything like that you can recommend?

    I’m facing this issue right this very moment. Im working on a new venture, and while i enjoy working on the project day to day, i’m so obsessed with trying to get it up and running as quick as possible that im already burning myself out, and i’ve only been at it for 3 weeks. I really need to slow down, but a big part of me feels that if i do i’ll fail.
    .-= Khuram Malik´s last blog ..Why the iPhone should’ve sucked but doesn’t =-.

  8. Yes, I agree. Productivity for the sake of producing more gets you nowhere, except on a lifelong treadmill of churning out more and more product. However, if there is no enjoyment or happiness associated with production, then quantity may increase, but quality begins to suffer. With an ever-increase of productivity, at some integral point, quality must be sacrificed in order to produce more quicker. There simply will be “no time” for quality work, as well.

    Excellent post!

  9. @Jonathan Thanks for the comment, we surely share a common mindset in this matter. Read your posts and we’re pretty close 🙂

    @BunnygotBlog great point! Focus is the core changer here. Balancing your focus on all the areas of your life is the key 🙂

    @eu I’ll surely look into that book, as far as I remember it’s quite a famous book 🙂

  10. Have a look at the book “Zen and the art of motorcycle maintainence” for some interesting discussion on the topic of quality and doing things better.

  11. Hi –

    I think it is all a learning process, part of life. If you want to be productive you find ways of being so- when the focus is spending some free time with family or by yourself. You are looking for a balance.

    Some feel their job is more then a weekly paycheck:)
    Great post!

  12. Great article Dragos,

    Thank you for shining some light on the other side of productivity. This is something that few people think about, but as you pointed out it can really throw your life out of balance. I have also written about this subject in 2 articles (Can Productivity Be A Trap? and Is Productivity the Key to Happiness?). If you like, feel free to leave a comment with a link back to this post. If we get out of balance in this area we can have a negative impact on our whole life.

  13. @Steven Aitchison Thanks for the comment, yes, quality of life and not the quantity of done tasks is what counts in the end 🙂

    @Ian Peatey I know the feeling of being caught in “I need to finish that in order to start feeling good”, that’s the point, you never have time to feel good because you see things from a position where you don’t control your time, an outside system is controlling it

    @basia You have powerful intuition, “assess” and “decide” are some of the cornerstones of my life management system, I will write more in the following days about it.

    @ibz LifeHacker and GTD are good products in their niche but they are overrated as “magical tools to cure all your problems”. I think people are buying them blindly and then try to hide their frustration in becoming productivity rock stars.

    @nutuba very close to what I feel, you have to try more contexts and see what’s happening, assess and decide for yourself.

    @Jay I liked the “robots” metaphor 🙂 Been there, don that, I know how it feels 😉

  14. I agree with Ian on this one. There is production for productions sake and then there is your life to-do list. I think there is a whole slew of GTD’s robots that are just doing things to have the illusion of getting things done in life. I think people need to do what you are saying here- life is not about completing to-do list, it is about living an authentic life!

  15. I think you’ve nailed it dead on! Quality of life isn’t about how much we get done, it’s about what we get done in relation to what needs to be (or what should be) done. I too used to spend a lot of time keeping data on how I was spending my time. 🙂 At home, we decided to turn the TV off and spend more time doing things together — and there’s a lot of worthwhile things we can do together, we discovered. It’s not about a list of to do item, it’s about relationships. Or something like that. Anyway, I’m looking forward to reading more!

  16. YEAH. Finally somebody says it! That’s why I never got into all the GTD thing in the first place. The problem is not doing as much as possible! The problem is finding what you like and working on that. Productivity will simply come. And if you’re not being productive is because you don’t enjoy what you are doing or just because you have a bad day, which is no shame. Things like GTD or sites like LifeHacker are just being sold to people that don’t really know what they are (should be) doing.

  17. Quite right Steven,
    ‘assessment and decision’ -they are powerful words. They contain probably the essence of (happy) life. There are so many manuals that give instructions HOW TO…; we can get help from countless sources; there are so many “angels” [lovely dyslexic spelling mistake :)] from which we can view life. And still it is me who assesses and decides. These two have to be very personal as I am unique. I learn from others when I WILL BE ABLE TO say: ‘I am happy’. But I CAN choose if this is what I want. Dragos skillfully depicts many spheres of life where an opportunity to ‘customise your life’ arises. Thanks a lot

  18. I would add that it also depends on what you are doing. If you’re not doing something that’s in some way meaningful to you, no matter how much you get done it won’t bring you happiness.

    Of course what’s meaningful for one person is different for others, so part of the Life Management equation is about discovering what gives your life meaning, doing as much of that as possible, and discarding all the other stuff. A system can then be a support for you.

    I’ve found myself, at certain times in my life, trying to do all the stuff I thought ‘needed’ to be done, all the time with the mistaken idea that once all the tasks are finished I could start living. Of course it doesn’t work because the tasks keep reproducing like rabbits and they never get finished. I agree with you completely that living is in the doing and the enjoying combined and it starts right now .. not tomorrow.

    I enjoyed reading your post – insightful as always. Thank you


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