Most Productivity Advice is Wrong. Here are the Top 5 Things You Need to Know Instead

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Who here is obsessed with being productive?

raises hand

I’ve been a self-proclaimed workaholic since I started my first business when I was just barely 15. It’s been a gift and a curse to be subsumed in my work since a young age. It has granted me the will to persevere when others would have quit. Simultaneously, it has often prevented me from being able to enjoy the present: anytime I’d go to hang out with friends, there’d be this little voice in the back of my mind telling me to get back to work. I only felt right if I was busy, but for many years I squandered my time only staying busy, but rarely accomplishing anything.

 I can't call a person a hard worker just because I hear they read and write, even if working at it all night. Until I know what a person is working for, I can't deem them industrious... I can if the end they work for is their own ruling  principle, having it be and remain in constant harmony with nature.
- Epictetus, Discourses, 4.4.41;43

That is until I read the book, GTD by David Allen. It was a revolutionary change in my thinking and would go on to help me increase my productivity by two-fold.

Allen proposes a system that taught me to take any thoughts or future todo’s out of my head and to create a collection system where all those tasks, projects, or epiphanies could be funneled through.

I found myself enamored by this new way of thinking. All of a sudden, I could finally achieve Inbox Zero, and instead of shame over how behind I felt, I could proudly tweet on occasion how many tasks I had completed.

I became obsessed with all things productivity and started reading endless articles and books on procrastination, forming good habits, setting goals and more.

In-between the calls and live chats I was answering for my business, I’d open up articles on sites like Lifehacker, Forbes, and Entrepreneur articles and started reading them. You know the ones. “Top 10 ways to be more productive, to be more focused and get shit done!”

The problem came when I started to realize that reading all these articles was taking a considerable amount of time each day. In some ways, reading those articles felt good, but I rationalized to myself that I was investing in myself every time I stopped to read one.

In my quest to be more productive, I discovered the benefits of having dual-monitors, which could only lead to one thing.

Playing World of Warcraft and answering support tickets

Now I wish I could say there was a single moment where I realized that I was addicted to something I had perceived as a good thing, but it was, in reality, a series of small revelations that eventually led me to stop justifying the time and effort I was going through to learn more about productivity.

Descartes believed that idleness was essential to good mental work, and he made sure not to overexert himself. After an early lunch, he would take a walk or meet friends for conversation; after supper, he dealt with his correspondence.
- Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey

After reading about the daily habits and rituals of some of the most successful artists in history, I re-discovered that work is but a journey, and my obsession over optimizing every possible moment was leading me to burn out instead of fulfillment, ending each night with a feeling of dissatisfaction in my work.

I can’t recall where I heard this from, but I read somewhere that some of the most productive people just get work done. They don’t have time to read books or spend any amount of time learning about the latest and greatest productivity hacks. Perhaps sometimes they forget stuff, or their number of unread emails gets a little big, but at the end of the day, they just get work done.

After discovering I had an unhealthy obsession with trying to be productive, things started to click into place. I was the world’s worst procrastinator and felt like a failure in my inability to prioritize the right things in the given amount of time I had each day. I had turned to thinking I was using the wrong technique, had the wrong productivity system or software. After testing nearly every project management and todolist software, it dawned on me that it wasn’t my workflow or software that was causing the problem, it was me.

I had come to develop an unhealthy obsession to work, and my addiction to productivity articles and books were doing me more damage than good.

Productivity Escapism

Somewhere in the process, I reflected on my habits and discovered that my constant perusal of productivity articles was a way to escape from the daily grind and more essential priorities I had in my life and business.

Even though productivity is a hot commodity, too often it has led to increased rates of burnout, depression, and other mental health disorders. I came to realize—as much as I desired to be a Cyborg—I’m still human, and I can’t keep putting off the present to be productive for the future.

So what did I do? I started to find better ways to beat my procrastination, work more efficiently, and allow myself to have a life outside of work. It wasn’t easy and it’s still an issue I deal with on nearly a daily basis, but I’ve made tremendous progress.

Descartes believed that idleness was essential to good mental work, and he made sure not to overexert himself. After an early lunch, he would take a walk or meet friends for conversation; after supper, he dealt with his correspondence.
-Daily Rituals: How Artists Work by Mason Currey

Being More Effective & Less Busy

Productivity advice is good only up to a certain point. It’s helpful to read about the ideas and various methods, but most of what we end up trying out doesn’t come from a top 10 hacks article, but rather by immersing ourselves into a book or topic. While not everything works for everybody, below is a list of techniques and methodologies that have worked in-part for me.

Create Constraints

Having constraints over when and how you work is by far one of the most challenging things one can do. However, if you know that you're going to stop working at 6 pm, then it makes it much easier to minimize, if not eliminate procrastination all-together.

Having clear boundaries between work and play has helped me get through some of my worst days of heavy procrastination and low energy. Having a reward in mind once you complete an activity or that you have to leave at a particular time can be the cherry on top that makes it just possible to focus on the right things in the limited amount of time you have.

Be Mindful of your Energy Level

If you’re a business owner, then work can often be 24/7; a constant pressure. It can, therefore, make it difficult to know when you should pull yourself away and do something else. For the longest time, I couldn’t recognize this feeling and would continue to try and push myself to complete something when it just wasn’t happening.

Either through sheer experience, meditation or a little bit of both, I’m now better able to recognize my energy and focus levels throughout the day. If I’m finding it difficult to focus on a particular task, I’ll consider looking at another task under my “Low Energy” label list in Todoist. This is a collection of personal, organizational and other easy administrative tasks that don’t require much thought or effort.

Whereas in the past I would open up a distracting website, I’m now able to direct my attention to something less important, but equally as effective.

Last but not least, if I still can’t bring myself to do a low-energy task, I’ll listen to my gut-feeling as to whether I need to go out for a run, walk or pet my kitty.

It can be difficult at times to pull ourselves away from our work because of that inner voice that criticizes us when we’re not working. It’s not always a voice, but sometimes a feeling of contempt or disappointment at ourselves, and with the help of meditation and mindfulness I’ve now been able to recognize when this critic creeps in.

If you feel like you’re having to grind it out, or ideas are coming to you slowly, it might be time to call it a night. If you’re not getting things done because you’re low on energy, then you have a prioritization problem and should start your day by asking yourself what to work on first.

Setting Clear Intentions

It’s almost automatic to get dragged into emails and chats and find ourselves asking why it feels like we didn’t get anything done after working all day. You must be willing to set intentions before you sit down on the computer, and quite often that is predicated by asking yourself what are the top one-three most important tasks I can do at the beginning of the day to feel satisfied at the end of the day?

In a previous blog post, I discussed how the Eisenhower Matrix can help you create a mental framework to dictate between items that are the most important, from items that you can delegate or trash all-together.

More recently, I’ve found success in using the Productivity Planner, where I ask myself what are the top 3 tasks related to my list of active projects. As long as I complete 1-2 of those tasks, then I can close the book and be satisfied with my day.

When you feel like you’re drowning in a sea of To-do’s, often all it takes is a few minutes to think about what’s on your plate and what the next action is that will take you further to that goal. Then wipe everything off your plate and focus only on the items that are the most important or meaningful to you.

Know your maker vs. manager mode

Paul Graham, the co-founder of YCombinator, a famous venture fund, wrote an essay a few years ago that enlighted many, including myself. He recognized that we often split our day into chunks between Making stuff (writing, code, ideas execution) and Managing stuff (emails, meetings, slack). The problem is that it’s way too easy to respond to issues that come up early in the day, but by the time things die down a bit, we’re too mentally drained to work on the items that were most important, to begin with, but we couldn’t find time for.This is where Paul Graham proposed scheduling time in his calendar to separate his responsibilities of leading an organization from all the long-term project stuff that would have the most significant impact on the growth and stability of the company.

I’ve encountered too many entrepreneurs and CEOs who lack any sense of accomplishment at the end of the day when all they do is switch back and forth between checking their email, taking a phone call, and messaging on Slack. Shit happens, things come up, there will always be that voice in the back of your head wondering what new chat messages you received and what new emails are waiting for you. Only by finding ways to limit those distractions can you ever find the time to work on the things that you can derive the most meaning from.

As a serial entrepreneur, I’ve been through the creative and managerial stages of running a venture, and it’s a cycle you don’t really notice until after the fact. I love building companies much more than I love running them, as most of the excitement and creative energy comes at the beginning when you’re crafting it. You inevitably get bogged down with scaling issues and start spending most of your time just trying to keep the beast together and operating smoothly.

It took me far too many companies to realize I would get that initial motivation, then have it die out shortly after I had achieved some level of success. Then each day turned into a routine that would lead to repeatedly being burnt out from working too hard on the things that needed to be done but didn’t bring me any joy or sense of satisfaction.

When you’re building a business, it’s inevitable that you’ll start spending more time managing than making in the later stages. However, it’s important to recognize that you must still find time for the creative, curious side to explore and tinker as that is where you'll derive the most meaning and excitement for the business from.

At the End of the Day…

When it comes down to it, there almost seem to be an infinite number of productivity methods and philosophies. You might find that you grab to one particular system over another, but at the end of the day, it has less to do with the method and more to do with the way in which you approach it.

It took me a long time to figure out that the problem of not doing my tasks had nothing to do with OmniFocus, Todoist, Things, Nozbe, Wunderlist or any number of Todo programs, but it was simply a tool that I had to use properly.

All the items I discussed above are by far superior to any productivity system, because at the end of the day it comes down to setting the right intentions and being mindful of how you are spending your time. If you can do that, then you’ll find yourself forming your own productivity system and escaping the trap of Productivity Porn.