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The Dark Side of Productivity No One Talks About
Progress happens when we’re not being productive
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Productivity advice is more addictive than fentanyl.
Our brain lights up at the thought of more time and freedom. But I rarely see anyone talk about the downsides.
I’ve been writing about productivity for 9 years and have tested pretty much every strategy you can think of. Here are the dark sides.
Productivity advice forgets about this crucial point
Productivity strategies are sold to us by tweet-used-car-salesman as the solution to all our problems.
“Just do these four productivity steps and you’ll be successful.”
This common advice misses the nuance. Life is full of seasons. What works for you in one season doesn’t work in another.
For example, before my daughter was born last year I lived in summer. Life was good. I had enough money to eat and plenty of free time. My wife and I could go to concerts and attend Harry Potter theatre shows.
Then my daughter was born. She’s amazing. She made the end of the summer season better than it could ever be.
But life got tough.
The recession and banking crisis kicked in as a side effect of the 2020 bat virus. Moving houses became a giant pain in the butt. My in-laws moved in and took away my alone time. My daughter dealt with a few phases of sickness that broke my fragile daddy-daughter heart.
Now I find myself deep in winter.
Simple productivity hacks don’t work for me right now. The only strategy that does is to do the least amount possible while I put out all the bushfires in my life and try to find normalcy again.
The lie productivity gurus don’t want you to know is nothing lasts forever.
Try taking 4AM cold showers when your baby is crying all night and you’ve had less than 30 seconds sleep. Ain’t gonna happen.
Hidden anxiety that persists
Being productive can be great.
But it can lead to anxiety too. In my case, I don’t see anxiety as a bad thing. It helps to keep me motivated and focus my attention.
As Andrew Wilkinson says, “Most successful people are just a walking anxiety disorder harnessed for productivity.”
There’s definitely some truth to that. But for some, anxiety can become crippling. Instead of being helpful it can cause them to have dark thoughts and halt their progress.
So don’t expect to be productive without an increase in anxiety.
Transactional human relationships
When you’re trying to maximize your time to achieve a goal, it’s easy to take people for granted.
I drafted an email today to a person who’s potentially going to join my team. I needed them onboard asap and used very direct language to make them understand the urgency.
Threaded between the words of urgency were a few carefully placed swear words. I read back the email and thought “Tim, you sound like an a**hole.”
That’s what productivity can do. It can make you so focused on your goal that you forget to be kind to the humans who make the goal possible. Because nobody achieves success on their own — don’t be fooled.
Always living for tomorrow
“I’ll be happy when…”
That’s a phrase I’ve definitely thought many times and been too ashamed to admit. But it’s true. Productivity makes you look into the future to look for happiness. It makes you think the achievement of goals is what matters.
But it’s not. The process you go through to achieve the goal should be the real win. Because if you can’t be happy right now, you probably won’t be happy once you achieve the big goal.
Productivity doesn’t fix everything. Appreciation of right now does.
Tomorrow you could be dead. It’s too easy to forget that.
The obsession with optimizing every minute
I feel productivity guilt all the time.
If I’m not working on my online business, I feel like it could go backward and implode. The truth is that’s not reality. It’s 9 years old. It’s still going strong. The need to optimize is addictive.
There’s always a better note-taking app. There are always more freelancers that can come on board and solve different problems. My new house could always be better. The walls could be painted. The garden could be redone. I could build a playground for my daughter.
When is it ever enough?
That’s the question I ask myself a lot. It stops my productivity-obsessed brain from going insane. Try it.
It’s okay to take time off to be unproductive. The days I don’t work are the days I have the most amount of insights. Last year when I worked a few weeks of 7 days in a row, by day 7 I felt like all my brain cells had died.
I could hardly think. I became snappy. I felt overworked.
Progress happens when we’re not being productive. That’s the dark side of productivity many of us forget.
Distraction from what truly matters
We all have a few big important goals.
But the big goals can be hard to work on some days because of the impact they can have on our lives. So we settle for bullsh*t goals.
We choose easy, simple tasks that we can do in our sleep to feel the high of productivity. The problem is it makes us feel worse at the end of the day. Because you get to 5PM and realize, “crap, I’ve made no progress on the most important thing.”
Being productive is a drug. Being focused on the right goal is the antidote.
Lack of present-moment awareness
Productivity can teleport out of the present and keep us stuck in our heads.
We become so focused on problem-solving that we forget to live. This shows up in family life for me on occasion.
My wife will notice I’m in the room with her and our baby, but I’m not there in spirit. I’m caught up on a work problem or dealing with whoever this week’s hater with no life is.
If you’re not present are you really alive? And if you have a pulse but you live as if you’re dead, then is there any point to all?
Placing unrealistic expectations on others
I’m more productive than most people … and I don’t say that to brag.
I’ve wired for performance. I’m a workhorse who just gets sh*t done. The dark side is I unconsciously place those expectations on others.
I expect them to work the same hours or care as much about the writing task as me. And that’s not always healthy. Life isn’t a competition between who can get the most done and who can’t.
It’s worth reminding yourself of that daily. Some have different priorities and productivity may not be one of them. They may just be trying to survive the day.
“Productivity bleed” can become a real thing
Productivity is fine for my writing habit or online business.
I’ve found productivity bleed can easily happen, where other parts of life like family and romance become affected.
For example, I can have a holiday planned with my family and find myself unconsciously applying productivity hacks.
I’ll have all the events in the calendar. I’ll check the time to make sure we’re on schedule. I’ll overload the schedule with too many activities so the holiday feels like work (not play).
What happens is the holiday ends up turning into a nightmare. Everyone is more stressed after the holiday than before.
The solution is be “productivity self-aware.” Productivity hacks shouldn’t be applied to every part of life. Otherwise all you become is a box ticker.
Naughty productivity envy
Several of my close friends write online and have similar businesses.
I find myself on some days becoming envious of their productivity.
They do writing sessions in 4 hours. I spend 5 days a week writing. They have all their admin outsourced to a clever virtual assistant they’ve trained up. I do all my donkey work admin because I struggle to delegate.
They go out for nice business lunches with other creators. I stay in my home office and work like a dog.
Everyone’s productivity always looks better than yours. The truth is everyone is fighting a productivity battle you know nothing about.
They have productivity struggles too. They’re just different to what you might expect. That’s why articles like this are helpful.
Productivity doesn’t have to be bad.
There’s a lot of good it can do in your life once you understand no single technique works for everyone, and certain goals need different tools.
Just because the bros take cold showers and insist you drink bulletproof coffee while listening to David Goggins, doesn’t mean you have to.
Experiment with productivity. Just don’t let it take over your life.
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