The Productivity Trap

I have years of experience against it. I know it’s there, and I see it coming. But it’s too strong. I fell for the productivity trap again.

I am trying to become a more prolific writer. So I have a method1 I use to come up with new article ideas and flesh them out. The method wasn’t anything planned, it just grew organically with the need to output more. It’s messy, suboptimal, disorganized, and wasteful. But so far, I always delivered the goods on time. It works.

So one day a while ago I decided that it didn’t work, and that I had to improve it. I was reading a lot, but I wasn’t taking enough notes. I used to copy-paste interesting bits to a file. No more: I had to come up with something better. So I went into a Notion frenzy, then I went back to Obsidian after a hiatus, and the next thing you know I was watching 2-hour videos of other people taking notes in real-time.

Among it all, my to-do app somehow found itself open again, and pomodoro timers started popping up. The allure of order enchanted me, and I was finally about to reach productivity nirvana. Only, I was so caught up with optimizing the system that I didn’t write a single line of text.

I opened my article on the deceptive nature of energy with these words:

The most crucial element in productivity is not picking the right method. It’s not organizing your calendar. It’s not keeping a to-do list. The important bit is actually doing the thing you need to do. And to do the thing, you need energy.

I had lots of energy, the problem here is different. Just like reading the news makes you feel more informed, reading about productivity makes you feel more productive. The productivity trap is insidious because you actually do feel like you’re progressing, when in reality you’re not. Time goes by, and you haven’t moved a single inch towards your goal.

“We got it, productivity methods are bad,” you’ll say. But they’re not. A total lack of structure makes efforts wasteful. In complete chaos, you’ll be working, but in darkness. Everything needs structure. That said, the opposite, a fixation on order, is also not the answer. So what is?

The most productive people I know are those who walk the narrow path between order and chaos. They have a scaffolding, a skeleton, with rules strict enough to help but loose enough to allow for creativity.2 They have a system, but they can’t really tell you what that is. Likely, it grew organically as the need arose. They tinker with it from time to time, but do not let that get in the way of their work.

A switch went off in my mind. I imagined order and chaos as a gauge, where on one end is chaos and on the other order. I thought maximum productivity was all the way at the order end. In reality, the sweet spot lies in the middle.

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Have structure, but allow chaos into your work. Order keeps you moving straight, chaos introduces serendipity. Order keeps things manageable, chaos keeps them flexible. Accept both and walk the narrow path.

I got back to my initial method. Because getting work done is more important than how the work is done.


“For the man who flies from and fears everything and does not stand his ground against anything becomes a coward, and the man who fears nothing at all but goes to meet every danger becomes rash; and similarly the man who indulges in every pleasure and abstains from none becomes self-indulgent, while the man who shuns every pleasure, as boors do, becomes in a way insensible; temperance and courage, then, are destroyed by excess and defect, and preserved by the mean.” (Aristotle, c. 330 BC)

Notes

  1. Literally just saving things to Pocket and a Kanban board on Notion with my ideas and drafts.
  2. If you’ve ever listened to Hello Internet (RIP), that’s Brady. Notice how Grey seems to be less productive than Brady even though he obsesses over methods? This is because he can’t stay on the narrow path: order is too alluring to him.