Productivity hacks kill happiness, dead.

Claire Heginbotham
Nov 8, 2018 · 7 min read

Have you ever felt so gripped by despair, so strangled, that you’ll do anything to fix it?

Just anything to stop the gulping black hole of your heart from wanting more.

Here’s why we think productivity will help us feel better.

You think: I’m unhappy because I don’t have the life I want. I don’t have the friends, money, body, or success that would make me happy.

Knee-jerk reaction: I should work harder to get the things that I want so I can be happier.

Most people default to the knee-jerk reaction and most people — like when going on a new diet — fail to stick to their commitments. Congratulations, on top of your previous unhappiness, you can now add personal failure and laziness to the list.

Look, feeling like you’ve failed is a mighty powerful part of life. It’s what motivates humanity to move forward, reinvent, and reach for the stars. Failing is not bad by nature, but it sure feels bad when you’re doing it.

So what do we do? We try to make ourselves feel better by becoming more productive. We give ourselves little tasks to check off on our to-do list and fill up our calendars with a manic schedule that allows us to say “Gosh, it was a tough week wasn’t it?” to our friends at Friday night drinks.

But waking up at 5 am, spending 10-minutes a day meditating, and tracking your productivity during working hours itsn’t happiness — its a distraction.

The problem with your knee-jerk reaction to unhappiness is “wanting”.

If I were a fairy godmother, I think the hardest part of the job would be giving people what they need, not what they want.

What are some of your biggest ‘wants’ right now?

A 6-figure paycheck or business?
A sexy beach-ready body?
Owning your own 4-bedroom house?
A shmancy wireless mouse from Kickstarter?
A holiday without internet?
A personal chef?

I’m sure you could write a list of crap that you want to get your grubby paws on. Stuff that could really ‘up’ your productivity and happiness.

Write it down. Type it out in the comments or in your notebook. Go wild and put down everything you want right now — it’s cathartic, trust me.

You see, “I want to be happy” doesn’t actually say much about you. If you’re thinking clearly, you’ll notice happiness is more a mood than a state of being. Like being hungry or full — it’s something that has two extremes and a whole load of grey in between.

Overall happiness is deeper than a passing mood. I love a good dopamine hit, and I’m guilty of obsessively crossing items off a piece of paper with a satisfyingly black pen. But I know that after I’ve closed my notebook, that feeling will fade and I’ll be right back where I started.

True unhappiness or dissatisfaction with your life feels stronger and stickier than a fleeting emotion. Giving yourself doses of dopamine or earning a higher paycheck will give you a temporary boost, but at the end of the day when you are going to bed or in the morning as you are waking up, you still have to deal with your deeper thoughts.

So how do you stop flinging your poor brain from one productivity hack to the other? You need to get mentally healthy and improve what I like to think of as your “Base Mood.”

What You Need to be Healthy Mentally

Your base mood is how you feel when you’re not gripped by emotion. People suffering from depression tend to have a very low base mood and constantly feel down and out about life. Healthy go-getters tend to have a higher overall base mood and are more optimistic about the future.

If you were to rate your happiness right now, from 1–10, where would you land? If you were to rate yourself every day, what would be your average? Although I used to hover around 6, these days I’m more of a 7. Oxford has condensed this into a 1–6 rating, stating that most people are, on average, just about a 4/6 (take the test here and let me know what you got!).

There’s been a LOT of research into happiness. It makes sense considering that most mental health professionals get into the field to understand themselves better. In the end, it’s what works for you — not for me — that will help the most, but after years of solving my own issues, this way of thinking could help you too.

Protect yourself with a resilient lifestyle

People went crazy about the concept of resilience or ‘grit’ a few years ago. TED talks were given, books were released, and children were encouraged to keep trying if they failed. Overall, not a bad outcome.

Having a resilient lifestyle means you place significant importance on aspects of your life and the way you think. To my mind, it requires a little work, but not a regimented ‘productive’ (those quotes are sarcastic air quotes) lifestyle.

Social Connection

The keywords “I feel alone” bring up over a trillion hits on Google. Humans are social creatures and we need meaningful social interaction to stay sane. if you struggle to make friends or talk to people, try signing up for a club (sports are excellent if you’d like to build comradery and book clubs are great for quiet souls). Call your friends regularily and stay in touch with your family. This type of social connection gives you a protective net for when things go wrong in your life.

Put it in Perspective

No, it’s not the end of the world. Make sure you slow down and put your life in perspective. Whether that be the understanding that the universe is large and you are a knat or that social media isn’t really all that important, maintaining perspective with help you feel less dismal about your situation.

Take Action

Feeling fat? Do 10 pushups. Unhappy with your relationship? Talk to someone about it. Point is, taking action will make you feel like you are making progress. Progress is the natural enemy of dissatisfaction.

Positive Thinking

Catch yourself when you go back to negative scripts about yourself and stop thinking in circles. Many people do this by the good old “Tell the mirror you are beautiful and confident” technique.

Move Toward Goals

Set up goals that you can achieve and work towards. In the darkest of days, I started by setting the goal to always make my bed in the morning. After a little while, it stuck and now I get a sense of deep satisfaction every time I get under uncreased covers.

Accept Change

Thing is, living the same life day-in and day-out would be boring and impossible. As time marches on you will change, your life will change, and the world will change. This is an undeniable fact that you need to accept and not fight against. If you’re struggling to accept change into your life, think about the days after you finished school — if you can deal with change after 12 years of schooling, you can deal with anything.

Counting the Hours Doesn’t Make You Smile

A study showed that participants who were not paid by the hour but rather a monthly salary were overall less likely to connect their income to their happiness. In a nutshell, if found that if you don’t calculate your hourly rate, you’ll be more content with your current situation.

Now if you want to be a millionaire with a heavy hitting company and a mansion in Brisbane, I say count your hours, track your earnings, and use that discontentment to fuel your motivation. But if your goal is a content, normal life with your loved ones, then maybe its time to give the time tracker a rest.

You can get really caught up in all this hyped up internet self-improvement hysteria. It’s easy to think that if you just planned your day better you could make more time for yourself. During one particularly low point, I had given myself an hourly schedule to follow from waking up to going to sleep, and I never felt worse.

Being productive, I think, is like changing yourself from a messy person to a tidy person.

A previous boss of mine (great guy), was a surprisingly normal person with a strong affinity for tidiness. One day he confessed to the office that he never left the house with dishes in the sink. I was floored. The resulting conversation was heated and passionate — my colleagues rallied around me and we all started listing reasons as to why we couldn’t possibly do the same. Voices were raised and eventually my boss threw out a phrase every lazy person dreads to hear, “We all have the same 24 hours in a day!”

Well. That’s true. It’s taken the better part of a year, but I eventually understood how he ‘found the time’ to keep his house clean and tidy. He didn’t actively set aside an hour in the morning for cooking and dishes, he just did them. Immediately. That’s where productivity hacks fail — they don’t teach you to just do it (thanks Nike). Setting your mind to ‘just do it mode’ is the most reliable, long lasting way to build the habits that you want.

Strengthen your Mind

In this post, I’ve rambled on about average happiness levels, building mental resilience, and taking a step back from hourly tracking, but the truth is, it all depends on you.

Shifting your mindset takes time and a little bit of bravery. It’s like staring up at a mountain and thinking, I’m going to climb that, when you don’t have any shoes on.

But you CAN do it. It IS possible to feel happier more consistently. My advice to anyone who’s struggling at the moment is to focus on your resilience and personal connections.

If you’d like to give me a little hit of dopamine right now, leave a comment and let me know if:

  1. This article helped you

Claire Heginbotham

Written by

Tech and travel copywriter who writes content, kickass websites, and emails that convert. Low key Star Trek fan.

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