Why I Don’t Get “How to be productive” Articles.

Yan Babitski
May 31, 2020 · 7 min read

There is a phenomenon called “Illusion of understanding” — a sense of confidence that “I know the topic” while, in fact, that’s not true. Every time I see an article with a title like “X things to be more productive,” “Y things to do in the morning,” or “Habits of successful people,” I feel that these should be taken with a pinch of salt. More often than not, they create an “Illusion of understanding” regarding the topic of productivity.


I’m not trying to say these are somehow bad articles, not at all.

A good story

Some items in those articles tell about smart things and clever concepts that you can tell a friend or coworker when you meet for coffee: “I was reading the article the other day and it was saying that 20% of effort produces 80% of results.” Maybe you can’t directly apply it, but it’s just fun to learn it.

Other points tell us interesting historical anecdotes like how one person sold Eiffel tower, twice. It is usually connected to a pretty much obviously correct tip like “Gather as much information as needed, but not more than that,” but why not? The story is very well worth it.

Or a story could tell us about a personal experience. My day used to be super busy. I would first reply to the email that I just received from another team, which needs some info I know. Then I switch to code review my teammate just sent me. Then I would bump into coworker while making coffee and spend the next hour discussing the best design for her problem. A few more such “accidental” things and the day is over, with no movement on things I am supposed to deliver. Not anymore. It all changed after I read Jim Camp’s book “Start with No.” Even if this problem is not a problem for me, there is still something valuable in seeing how other people solve the issue and succeed.

So if the topic of productivity is just an occasion to tell a few interesting stories — that’s great. The “How to be productive” is just a way to package the stories together.

Useful advice

Sometimes the focus is more on the topic, though. There might be a story here or there, but overall the article is serious about delivering some usefulness to the reader. And some of the items are indeed useful.

E.g., one of the points in the list suggests exercising. That’s a great proposition. Scientific studies show that exercising improves brain function, reduces inflammation, reduces anxiety and depression, and does the whole host of other good things.

Another point tells us to get enough sleep — that’s also a sane thing to consider. Some studies show that during sleep, parts of our brain responsible for information processing don’t stop their work. Instead, they switch to processing of different kind of signals — ones that are coming from visceral systems, regulating the work of organs, and “calibrating” overall body function.

“Eat well” is also often mentioned and again — that’s a good investment of your effort. Research shows that there are multiple ways of how gut health could affect our mood, thinking, and overall feeling, although it could be tricky to figure out what healthy food exactly is.

Not good

Even if each point considered separately looks good, these pieces of a puzzle put together don’t form a clear picture.

Rational advice is not good for irrational people

People are not rational. “The best way to sell a $2,000 watch is to put it right next to a $10,000 watch”. It is reasonable to sleep better, and there are scientific studies that clearly demonstrate it, but it doesn’t mean you would do it. Knowing the benefits of good sleep and the dangers of not having it won’t help you to stop watching Netflix at 12:00 am. What it could do instead is to make you feel bad when you would finally go to sleep at 02:00 am.

A good article with four solid ways backed by science to be more productive could just give four solid ways backed by science to blame yourself.

Why exactly do you want to be more productive?

For productivity advice to be truly useful, it has to take context into account. The good place to start to explore the context is to consider why there is even a need for increased productivity. This means that there is probably a feeling that the current level of productivity is not sufficient enough.

Is that a feeling that things I’m currently doing are meaningless, and I’d like to have a purpose? If so, increasing the number of meaningless things done doesn’t seem like a good way to solve this problem.

Or is there a feeling of frustration that I think would go away when I complete this project / get this job / etc? Well, it could work. Or it might not.

Or it could be the case that there are so many interesting things to do, and I only have 24 hours — increased productivity is a way to get more things done in less time. True, but with increased productivity, I would find even more interesting things to pursue…

Without the whole picture, even the most significant advancements in productivity could result in very little actual improvement.

How to draw an owl

Is “sleep well” good advice? It’s as good as “to be successful — get a job in a great company.” You can’t say it’s wrong, it’s just not very useful for most people. There is probably a reason why you are not sleeping well. E.g., it could be that late evening is the only time when everyone is asleep, and you have some quiet and space to do creative work. Or it could be that you need a rest after work and it’s usually 11:00 pm already when you have enough energy to do something. Would it be a sustainable solution to cut that time and force yourself to go to bed?

Good advice should not only make sense and be backed by research, but it should also have a real plan. A good plan like one that helped a person to become healthy while continuing to smoke and drink alcohol. A plan that relies on your talent, strengths, and interests instead of completely depending on will power.

Aren’t you overcomplicating things?

“But wait” — you could say, “aren’t you overcomplicating things? It is great to have a professional tailor to take exact measurements for you and craft a suit that would fit and look perfectly. But you can also create a good look with mass-produced clothes sized as *S, M or *L.”

That’s a fair point, though in this metaphor having a list of the good suggestions put together without any system whatsoever would look like a look where you dress all of your best clothes at once.

“X ways to be more productive” offers quick fixes for problem that is too complex to have quick fixes

Sometimes it is appropriate to look for a “quick fix” and figure out the solution using trial & error. If you have trouble connecting to a zoom meeting, that wouldn’t be reasonable to start learning how networks work, TCP/IP protocol, and other things. It would make more sense to try restarting zoom or the computer itself or reloading the router. You don’t know how it could help and if it would help at all, but it’s ok as long as the problem is fixed.

But that’s not a good strategy if you want to become good at something that is reasonably complex. You could manage to land a software developer job relying almost entirely on stack overflow (that’s a website with lots of answers to lots of typical questions), but it would be really hard. And it would be a nightmare to work. Have you ever tried to find a post on Facebook, which you sure you saw in your newsfeed a few hours ago? You scroll down, but Facebook decided that this time you need a different newsfeed, and you can’t find the post. Imagine that feeling being a big part of your job — things that used to work no longer work, and you have no idea why.

A better way

A good strategy would be to cover fundamentals. Software engineers study computer science; doctors study anatomy, virologists study biology. With fundamentals, when a favorite “hack” stops working, you can look at what has changed and figure out a new way to get the result. Without knowledge, you are out of luck.

What are the fundamentals of the topic of productivity? I can’t say I have a good answer to this question, but my guess would be that a good article on productivity should give insights from neuroscience and psychology.

The first would explain “the hardware,” how our brain works. If you are driving a stick shift, you have to know about gears and how to switch them. Driving on a first gear definitely feels like a big deal — lots of noise and smoke, fuel consumption is high, and the car is about to explode. It might even seem you are pushing the car to the limit until someone knowledgeable sits down behind the wheel and shows how to switch gears. The results are fantastic, with no drama whatsoever.

The second would help to come up with a good strategy for growth. One that is based on your character, challenging, but not destructive: “Network as much as possible, introduce yourself at every opportunity” — sane advice for people who like being in the center of attention, and a very bad one for typical introverts. A strategy that is sustainable: “Read for 30 minutes in the mornings” — it’s unlikely this would work longer than a few weeks for an evening person.

There is a documentary series about the internet “Download: The True Story of the Internet” which was released in 2008. One of the series is about eBay and Amazon and it explains how both companies were founded: the former was started as a mere fun project which grew up into a successful business, while the latter was deliberately planned to be big and was built as a business from the very beginning. “It’s amazing that both companies are roughly on the same level” — the authors of the documentary conclude. Well, in 2020, the market capitalization of Amazon is $1,200B, and eBay’s is $30B.

Quick tips and hacks could be helpful, but it would almost never be enough to get high results sustainably.

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Yan Babitski

Written by

Software engineer @ Google

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +787K followers.

Yan Babitski

Written by

Software engineer @ Google

The Startup

Get smarter at building your thing. Follow to join The Startup’s +8 million monthly readers & +787K followers.

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