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How productivity tips make me more productive. (But not really.)

The super productive person I imagine myself as.

Nearly half of my feeds recommend ways to increase my productivity. There are the listsicles, which either tell me the top ten things I need to do to be productive or the top ten ways I’m destroying my productivity. And there are the longer blogs about the psychology of why productivity does or does not happen. They say there needs to be more habit building, more routine, and fewer distractions. Sometimes this information is presented in the form of hacks: “How to hack your productivity” or something similar.

At this point, I have read so much about productivity that I feel like I should have written a couple of novels, published thousand or so blog posts, and then run marketing campaigns for those books and blog posts. Once I’ve unlocked my productivity achievement badge, I can point to these productivity tips and say how they made me a productive person. Alas, I have but one half-completed, disjointed novel and exactly one blog post that I’m not entirely happy with. So, I have to ask myself why, despite reading all of these listicles and blog posts, I am no more productive than I was when I started.

I think the simplest answer is that these productivity articles have become a form of productivity for me.

I read about how to change my habits. About how getting up an hour and a half earlier sets the tone for the day with some ‘wonderful me time’ free of disastrous distractions. Also about how reaching that goal of reading a hundred books requires me to accept these distractions. And about how I must learn to squeeze in a few sentences here or a paragraph there when I’m not occupied by work or relationships. Oh! AND about how social media is the biggest time killer of all and how I should just get rid of it altogether (although I work in digital marketing and most of my closest friends now live in far off places). Apparently, I should write a letter that takes days or even weeks to to arrive or navigate the different time zones and call because that’s how real friendships are maintained.

To rein this in a bit, I do want to say that these articles are, in fact, giving wonderful advice — they really are — but I, for one, am overwhelmed by that wonder. I spend all my time imagining myself adopting these lifestyle changes and somehow my scumbag brain decides that that was the good work and then delivers the endorphins that would normally (probably) follow the actual productive work that I wanted to do.

To me, writing works the same way. Instead of writing out my novel, I just tell my wife about what I’m interested in and about the concepts I’m wrangling, and then off to bed I go, the happy unproductive sloth that I am (not to disparage the mighty sloth). I even tell her the neat new things I’ve read about being productive and how they will not only double my writing output, but will get me in shape, clear my mind, and help me sleep better. Arctic blast showers and meditation coming right up! Lean protein forever! Only the mindfulness dishes are never served because although I bought all the ingredients, I can’t be bothered to cook them. I wake up late and want a hot shower. And meditation? Forget it! If I close my eyes and take deep breaths, I’m much more likely to fall back asleep rather than learn how to handle the traffic of my thoughts (though Headspace tells me that’s coming up after fifteen lessons — three of which I have already fallen asleep in).

And even though many of the articles say it’s best to start slow with habit building, I really don’t have enough time to start slow. My cholesterol is building to unhealthy levels, I don’t get enough sleep, my pants don’t fit (to the point where buttons are popping off and flying across the room), I must stay current on the newest digital marketing trends for this year (Storytelling, SEO, Customer Journeys), and oh yeah, the thing I want to accomplish most, that novel, is sitting on an imaginary shelf.

But I feel okay with all of this because I’ve tailored my news feeds to tell me how to be productive, and the more I read about being productive, the more productive I feel. And the less I get done.

On the uglier side of things, what these blogs, lists, and tips might be doing, besides distracting me, is destroying the amount of work I put out. When I read ten (or thirty) tips stacked on top of each other that are needed to achieve productivity, happiness, mindfulness, etc., I am admitting to myself that what is happening in my life is not good enough. I’m not succeeding. It’s infuriating and discouraging to see these lists from people who seem to have it all figured out. I’m not saying that’s the author’s intention (I never cared for authorial intention anyway), but building even one habit is hard (which is why you should build a keystone habit, they say).

There is so much going in my life, that these one-size-fits-all lists can lead to self-doubt. If so-and-so overcame such-and-such, then why am I struggling? That person had it much worse than I did! And I think, why can’t I? There must be something wrong with me. I’m not getting it.

There is no secret formula to being more productive, I’ve found. We all have our own thing going — be it work, relationship problems, money, mental or physical illness, and so on. If you read one of these lists and take something from it, that’s really great. The two things I’ve managed so far are to try and get more sleep and to use Headspace to meditate here and there. But, I’m no longer going to get caught up thinking that if I’m not using the five minutes walking from the parking lot to my desk to read a book, I’m losing precious productive moments.

Rant over. Also, Shannon Leigh wrote a wonderful post about how fear of not achieving these things ends up crippling us. Put it on your list.

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