Five Productivity Ideas I'm Not Buying

The body of work on productivity, life-work balance, and personal achievement sits uncomfortably – perhaps perilously — close to the genre of “self-help”. There are good ideas out there, but there are also a lot of hacks, quacks, and worse pawning off half-baked philosophies and poorly conceived analogies as solid advice.

While none of it is all that dangerous in and of itself, I think there is reason to be cautious about the ideas and strategies we invest our time, energy, and all too often our selves into. By presenting poor advice that promises but, in the end, fails to make us more productive, more able to handle the overwhelming press of personal and professional commitments, or more satisfied with our abilities, talents, and achievements, this mass of bad advice leaves us doubting ourselves, wondering not if there’s something wrong with the authors but if there’s something wrong with us.

After working my way though a good part of my local library’s books on personal productivity and organization, I’ve been struck by the sheer number of ideas that, though popular, seem to promise a lot more than they deliver. A lot of it is built on poorly done, poorly understood, or even fraudulent research. I’m surprised, too, at how shallow so much of this literature is that promises to help its readers deepen their lives.

Much of it isn’t worth mentioning, but there are a few ideas that are so popular, that come up so much when we lifehackistas get to talking, that they do deserve examination. Here is my list of five ideas that I’m not buying – some of them I’ve tried and found lacking, others simply strike me as outright stupid, and some as sheer BS, but all of them are well-known and carry a lot of weight in the personal productivity world.

  • Mind mapping. I wanted so badly to believe this one! As an academic, I’m always looking for ways to simplify and strengthen the organization and use of information, tools that would help me to see connections among seemingly disparate ideas. What a disappointment it was to sit down with Tony Buzan’s books and find almost nothing there – a way to make beautiful pictures that seems to offer nothing in the way of actual productivity. I simply can’t see why a handful of colored pencils and an hour of sketching little drawings and cutesy arrows (hey, let’s make this line look like a staircase, because it’s about “moving up” in the world!) should be considered an improvement over ten minutes of list-making. All Buzan offers to support any of this is his insistence that this is how the brain works. And if it isn’t…?
  • The 80/20 Rule. I get the idea here: eliminate the stuff you do that doesn’t make you happier, wealthier, or wiser, and focus on the stuff that does. But why wrap the pretty good advice up in a scientific-sounding pseudo-rule (hey, it’s mathy, it must be true!? What is “20%” of the stuff I do, anyway? How is that measured? Total calories expended on each task, minutes used on each thing, or maybe the amount of worrying I do in getting something done? I’m sure there’s some business psychologist somewhere who has sat down and tracked employees’ workflows – what does that have to do with me? How does that transfer out of the workplace, and why should it? What would “80%” of my productivity even look like? What does 20% of parenting look like? Of painting? Of writing? It’s a bogus measure meant to give more gravitas to advice that, frankly, doesn’t need it.
  • The power of Brand You. This is another one I get the idea of, but think it’s misdirected. Basically, the idea of Brand You is to stand out, to be memorable, to market yourself – through schmoozing, networking, the quality of your work, and so on – as THE person to turn to in your field. But the over-reliance on the idea of a brand, as if you were a product to be put on a shelf – it bother me. What’s more, the idea is that you’re always selling yourself. In no other part of life do we think of salespeople as holding the keys to success, but when it comes to shaping our careers and even our lives, we’re asked to turn to Willy Loman as a model?
  • Making productivity a habit. This strikes me as good advice, but it’s only halfway there. The problem with habits is that they become routines, reflexes – not even “become”, they are routines. As anyone who’s ever tried to quit smoking or stop saying “um” will tell you, habits are hard to break. Habits can hinder our ability to adapt to change, can even prevent us from seeing change at all. They can also blind us to important information, forcing us to push it out of our minds the way the habitual smoker explains away his morning cough or wheezing after the second flight of stairs.
  • Visualizing success. I’ve saved the worst for last – the alleged power of positive thinking. It never ceases to surprise me how much traction this kind of new-agey, pseudo-mystical thinking gets among otherwise hard-headed, practical-minded movers and shakers. The worst part is that it’s not even true: research shows that visualizing yourself as successful, imagining you’ve won that promotion and corner office or walking down the street with the current object of your obsession rarely leads to effective action. Instead, psychologists find that mentally re-enacting the series of events that led one to have difficulty securing a promotion or getting a date is more likely to compel us to act, and in more productive ways. Self-examination is key, not escaping into an imagined but unrealized future.

Like I said, these are ideas that have a lot of followers, which tells me that somebody, somewhere is getting – or thinks they’re getting – some use out of them. So I’m not ready to close the door on them entirely; if you think there’s a good reason to take another look at something in the list above, let me know!

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