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The Seductive and Destructive Appeal of Productivity Porn

Some candid thoughts about how the very things that make us feel more in control can end up derailing us, and how to make peace with the messy business of doing.

I write primarily about productivity and self-improvement. I also struggle immensely with both of those things. I have days where my goals are clearly laid out, I refer back to my priorities to make decisions, and I truly get things done. But other days, I wake up, my morning coffee barely wakes me up, and I just can’t get a single thing of value done. I stumble until I surrender to dinner and sleep. I am still chasing that mythical wonder week where I accomplish all of my goals, and get revved up for another 7 days of productive work.

So yes, I write about ways to be more productive, and ways to grow, but those things are so difficult to actually do. But it is precisely because these things are so difficult for me that I write about them, and publish that writing. If they are difficult for me, but also matter that much to me, I suspect the same is true for many others.

I know that many of us struggle with this. Many of us try, and fail, to become more productive, and to be better people. We often see these two ventures as one and the same thing — which can be a dangerous way of thinking. We don’t have to be super-productive to be good people. I think many of us forget that.

Sad-sack reassurance aside, I have been on a quest for the past 10+ years for the perfect productivity system. While I still haven’t found that system, what I have begun to realize is that such a system — if it even exists — is not really the answer I’m looking for.

I Thought I Was Looking for a System…

A productivity system — like any other system — is just a tool. Like any other tool, it only allows you to do a job more efficiently, but it cannot tell you what job to do or how to do it. Those are two things that most of us have to re-examine regularly; two decisions that many of us need to make almost every day. Our failure to take those decisions seriously is at the root of the things that plague so many of us: procrastination, unaccomplished goals, abandoned projects, and so on.

But tragically, we continue scouring the internet, books, podcasts, and courses — trying to find that mythical system that will add that missing piece to our productivity game. We continue to have faith that a system will save us. And in fairness to us, that faith is not our fault. We have been brought up to believe in systems. Systems will save us all. But so often, we forget that systems are only tools.

How I Got Hooked

Ever since I got a job in the real world (that is, outside of academia), I became almost obsessively interested in how to keep track of all the things that needed doing. I discovered David Allen’s Getting Things Done, the website 43 Folders, and various podcasts about productivity.

Notice what I didn’t say I became interested in: the actual doing of what needs to get done.

It wasn’t until just recently that I realized that. In fact it was a few weeks ago. It was an unexpected, but very welcome, epiphany. And like all epiphanies, it happened in my kitchen.

The “Dishes Epiphany”

Sometimes, you can find wisdom in the most unusual places. Recently I found myself face to face with a particularly large sink-full of dirty dishes. This is not unusual at our house. My wife and I both work — a lot. And we also try to spend a lot of time with our kids (before they’re old enough to mostly replace us with friends as preferred companions).

As I looked at this sink, i realized that it technically wasn’t a full sink; it merely looked that way because the bowls and plates had not been stacked so as to make the most efficient use of the space (bowls inside bowls, cups inside cups, plates on the bottom, etc.). So I began rearranging the dishes, so that there would be more space in the sink. This is something that is second nature to me. When I see the sink like this, I tend to just do it.

But then came the epiphany: 
In the time I spent arranging the dishes in the most efficient way, I could have just washed the dishes!
I wasn’t necessarily crunched for time, and I had all the necessary tools to just wash the dishes. Instead, I chose to focus on efficiently organizing the mess in the sink so that it didn’t look as badly in need of attention.

How often do we do the same thing, but at a larger scale? How much of our time is devoted to simply re-organizing a mess that should just be cleaned up? How often do we adopt a new tool, a new method, a new mindset in order to avoid actually taking care of what needs to be taken care of? I think the answer is: more often than we’d like to admit.

The Reason Behind the Organizational Rabbit Hole

Most of us indulge in some kind of rabbit holes. They’re those things that are tangentially related to something important we’re trying to do, but only tangentially. They are at once both easy to get sucked into, and difficult to pull away from.

We dip our foot — or just a toe — into a rabbit hole, innocently enough. Before we know it, we’ve sapped all of our time and cognitive energy — and we’ve accomplished none of what we’ve set out to. We’ve wasted hours figuring out the best way to organize our projects, tasks, and files.

For me — and I suspect this is true for others — there’s something really attractive about getting your stuff organized. Whether it’s stuff for your gig at someone else’s company, or the stuff for your own company, there is something so oddly attractive about the activity of organizing — and that’s to say nothing of the feeling once you’re finished. You can stand back and smile at a neat digital or real-life workspace.

And yet, there are still plenty of things on your to-do list.

What I think is at the root of our attraction to organizing is this: we want so desperately to be in control. The activity of organizing delivers that much-sought-after feeling of being in control, and it does it very quickly. It’s why Tetris caught on like wildfire, and why mobile games so much like it still hold a place in our hearts. It gives us an unmatchable hit of pleasure to put things in neat and organized order.

Reading about a system that promises to get you organized and productive does a similar thing. You get the thrill that comes with the prospect of being in control, without having to engage in the dirty work of dealing with all of your stuff. And eventually, you feel that creeping sense of not having done what you know you should have.

A Way Out?

So often, we feel like our workload is out of control. Things fly at us — expectations and responsibilities — and we barely understand them, let alone know how to handle them. Given how out of control we can feel about our to-do lists, it’s no wonder we sometimes want to just focus on organizing things.

But the most important thing you could be doing is almost never organizing your stuff. It’s usually something else. It’s usually the messy, uncertain, and unattractive work of some big project. It’s usually thinking, and not the regimented, process-based thought that makes us get that hit of dopamine like we do when playing Tetris.

So what do we do? We still want to stay organized. We still want that feeling that comes from setting life’s Tetris blocks in the neat space where they can fit. But that is an in-the-moment craving. That’s not the long-term joy that comes from doing the important things. And that’s the battle: sidestep the allure of short-term, but unimportant pleasures for the long-term, important ones.

I wish I had an easy answer. But that would fly in the face of the very logic that creates the problem. And realizing that is actually the important lesson here. No system will save you. No list will make you get the things done that need to be done. So many unbelievably successful people spent exactly zero minutes agonizing about which way to organize their projects, or how their tools should be arranged. They weren’t afraid to leave things messy — because that’s how life is; it’s messy.

And because life is messy, we need to allow messiness. We have to meed life on life’s terms, if we want to get anywhere. So we can’t cling to the dopamine hit of organizing, so long as there is important doing to be done. And here’s the quick advice — if there is any: if you are truly plugged into the important things in your life, a few moments of thought will reveal to you what the important things are that need doing. In a sentence, no system will save you, only being plugged into (that is, really caring about) the people and projects of your life will. Unfortunately, that’s something that no system will do for you. I wish I had better news.

So…Burn My Lists?

Am I saying that there’s no sense in keeping productivity tools and systems in play? Am I advising everyone to burn their to-do lists? No. There is value in tracking what’s on your plate. After all, it allows your mind to do what brings the most value: thinking — as opposed to merely remembering (which it sucks at). Again, I’m not advising anyone to stop being organized.

What I am advising is that it’s very often difficult to see when we’ve become too focused on organizing, and the feeling that comes with checking things off of a long, well-organized list. Such feelings are not the stuff that real productivity is made of. Real productivity doesn’t look like a clean notebook or a logical list on your favorite app — synced across various devices. It looks like someone doing, engaging, thinking, balancing, mapping, writing, etc. It looks like checking in with yourself in the moment, tapping that very seat of your soul, to make sure you’re working on what’s most important to you.

Lists will always be a great way to keep less valuable stuff off your mind, and help you to make sense of the flood of things coming at you. But lists will never be a substitute for the messy activity of engagement with what matters. Know when your lists are keeping you from being engaged. I suspect that deep down, we can all sense when that is happening.