Here’s my guilty confession: I’m addicted to productivity. I love reading productivity articles, I love listening to podcasts about productivity hacks, my passion is signing up to mailing lists that promise to alter my very being — for the better and for good. Half of the articles I read on this website are written by people swearing this one trick will make me a better and more productive person. And I believe it, every time.
This one, I tell myself, this hack will be the one to change my life!
Some productivity guidance, it has to be said, has definitely had a life-changing impact. Tom Kuegler’s course got me writing on Medium regularly, which I love. Optimal Living Daily taught me some long-lasting skills, like keeping up with a gratitude journal, or writing down the top three things I want to accomplish tomorrow, the night before.
The key difference, I think, is that those weren’t quick hacky fixes. Both those were habits that I worked to incorporate into my life. At no point did I believe I could simply take the productivity tip onboard and magically change my life within three to five working days. I understood up front that it’d be an ongoing process.
By contrast, every time that I ran into any inconvenience or difficulty in my life, I am very prone to thinking back to the latest productivity article or blog I’d seen. If I had low energy at work? I’d try changing up my desk configuration. If I had trouble sticking with new habits? I’d closely watch my thoughts for signs of discontent.
The vast majority of this content has done absolutely nothing for me. Every time I check my inbox now, I wearily unsubscribe from whatever productivity master promised me the latest, feeling guilty that it didn’t work for me and a little let down.
“Hacks” addressed the symptom, not the cause.
Over the years I’ve followed this cycle: struggle with challenges, read productivity article, be convinced I’m about to radically change myself, try it once, fail to solve my problem, be dejected.
I’ve learned that sometimes, learning the next best productivity hack, lesson, or skill, isn’t the way forward. It’s addressing the underlying problem that needs to be done.
What do I do now instead? I look for and try to solve the root cause.
In reality, there’s no productivity hack that can fix 99% of your problems. Only you can.
For example, I was feeling really unmotivated and lethargic at work. I switched my desk around, to no avail. I started using the Pomodoro technique, which didn’t work for me — I just started finding ways to work around it.
I sat down one Saturday morning, gave myself full permission to be honest with myself, and thought about my situation.
I thought about the work I’d been doing, and how I felt unfulfilled, not at all eager to get started on it. I considered the aspects I did like at work: writing, marketing, and solving customer problems directly.
I realized I’d been sucked into doing lots of things which were exactly my domain, and less time doing the things I’d originally been hired for.
It sounds corny, but I hadn’t let myself think about the possibility that the work was at fault, rather than me. I genuinely rather thought there was some “fix” I could apply to myself instead of admitting that the work was the problem.
The root problem was that the work was uninspiring and dull, not that I was somehow lacking in motivation.
The solution? I started saying no to things I didn’t want to do, explaining that I needed to focus on my priorities. Now I go to work every day, ready to get on with my job and do my best at things I like.
Productivity isn’t the same for everyone.
Another example: I hated working out in the mornings. I would d r a g myself out of bed in the mornings, stuff my unhappy body into sports clothes, and blast pumped-up music to force myself to get amped up about the workout ahead.
I tried every tip in the book to try to love exercise, or at least be more prepared for it: I optimized my eating routine, I tried different workouts, I tested different kinds of music. None of them worked.
My problem was so basic and low-tech that I had to laugh when I finally put my finger on it: I was tired.
My body was tired in the mornings and didn’t want to exercise.
The solution wasn’t to be found in drinking 17–20 ounces of water, there was no miracle app that kept me magically accountable. I just shifted to working out in the evenings and sleeping in an extra hour.
I don’t love exercise, but I certainly enjoy it a lot more now than ever before.
I needed to stop solving problems with unrelated “hacks” when the answer was just to come at the problem from a new direction. I always felt like I was just missing some crucial components in my brain, some tip, trick or hack that would let me unlock my true potential. In reality, there’s no productivity hack that can fix 99% of your problems. Only you can, by solving the root of your problems.