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Are You Lifehacking Too Much?

Are You Lifehacking Too Much?
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    Nick Cernis of Put Things Off recently declared that productivity is dead. He said that “our obsession with ‘productivity’ is getting in the way of our lives.” Nick started out by saying that the productivity industry is out of control, and that it’s making us less efficient, not more. I agree with Nick, and I can tell you why the productivity industry is like that: it’s about making money.

    The Productivity Industry is Out of Control

    Somewhere along the way, many productivity merchants realized that us “Productivians,” as Nick lovingly refers to us, will try just about anything if it gives us an extra thirty seconds at the end of the day. So the useful information stopped and the crap that leaves readers unsatisfied became the norm, because productivity is like food: if it doesn’t satisfy you, you’ll go get more until it does.

    Only in this case, unlike food, the chances of you getting full the more you consume are pretty slim.

    One of the things I learned quickly when I started writing for Lifehack was that this is a site run by people who are truly concerned with finding the most efficient and effective ways of not only working, but living. Writing here, the concept of hacking your life begins to permeate the way you think, breathe and sleep.

    The Industry Succeeds By Putting Your Focus In The Wrong Place

    When I first realized that there was something wrong with the productivity industry, I couldn’t quite put my finger on what made it wrong. But writing at Lifehack meant that I not only thought about writing and productivity on a daily basis but also writing about productivity. I had to watch the industry and figure out how to write for it.

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    I did not like what I was noticing as I did my research, and I decided that the research would serve as an indication of what not to do. You know the saying:

    “Give a man a fish and he will eat for a day. Teach him how to fish and he will eat for a lifetime.”

    The productivity industry succeeds by giving customers productivity tips, but not teaching them how productivity works and why. That’s why I knew there was something wrong with the productivity industry: if it worked, then it would teach people right the first time and there wouldn’t be so many repeat customers looking for ‘the secret.’ Lifehacking sites are the exception because their focus is not on systems, but what could reasonably be called extensions to systems; hacks to make life easier.

    The focus is put on consuming information, not taking action.

    So, is lifehacking and productivity making you less effective because you’re addicted to the information, but not to actually implementing things? Or are your efforts sabotaged from the get-go because the system you’re using was designed to sell, not work?

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    Step In The Right Direction

    I know that the bulk of people reading about productivity don’t end up getting more productive. It’s not always because the information is bad; it’s often incomplete, but still works (as part of the aforementioned effort to get repeat customers), or more likely, the user is too lazy to put these things into action.

    There is nothing productive about reading productivity blogs incessantly. And I’ll take Anxiety over a paper to-do list any day, but sometimes the best way of getting things done is to make a list of things you need to do and just do them. It’s never done for you while you’re reading, though. Reading about productivity is a good use of time because it teaches you how to save time, but under three conditions:

    1. The information is honest, complete, and effective,
    2. The information, harking back to the proverb I quoted earlier, doesn’t give the answer to you, but teaches you how it works, and
    3. You implement it.

    If the productivity interest has made you less effective, it’s mostly because the focus is on intaking information and not acting on it. So how do you step in the right direction?

    1. Cut down your information channels

    There is very little quality information around, and I’m not just talking about productivity information. There is tonne upon tonne of crap with only a few nuggets of gold well-hidden in the pile. As Dustin recently wrote, what we need is not less information, but more good quality information. The first step to being able to take in more good quality information is to cut down the poor quality stuff.

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    I’m assuming that you do most of your reading, especially on productivity, from a feed reader, but there’s also a strong following in productivity books, too, so the same advice applies.

    Go through each of your feeds, books, regularly visited sites, and ask yourself: Has this actually helped me lately?

    Then it’s a matter of introspection: is that because I failed to implement good information, or because the information was poor?

    Usually it’s impossible to tell if the information is poor until you’ve done some implementation, so if you can’t decide, put some information to use until you can make a judgement. We want plenty of good information; the point here isn’t minimalism, but getting rid of everything that’s not helping you.

    When you can determine where you’re getting the greatest benefits, you can easily cut everything else out without the fear that you’re going to miss “the secret” to productivity (the secret being, in my opinion, to just do it).

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    More on managing information here.

    2. Start Implementing The Good Stuff

    Steve Pavlina’s 30 day trial is an excellent tool. You can use it on just about everything. When you find information that is going to be useful, the temptation is to flag or star it, or print it out for later. Instead, put it into action with a 30 day trial and see if your productivity benefits from the effort.

    If you don’t start implementing the high quality advice you’re now receiving, then there’s no use reading it all – you could be more productive doing work than learning to be productive!

    Is your addiction to sites like this one, Lifehacker, 43 Folders, Zen Habits and Steve Pavlina actually making you less effective? These are all great sites – the problem isn’t with them; the problem is with the reader. If you fall into this category, do something about it before you realize how many years of productive time you’ve wasted!

    More by this author

    Joel Falconer

    Editor, content marketer, product manager and writer with 12+ years of experience in the startup, design and tech digital media industries.

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    Last Updated on July 17, 2019

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    The Science of Setting Goals (And How It Affects Your Brain)

    What happens in our heads when we set goals?

    Apparently a lot more than you’d think.

    Goal setting isn’t quite so simple as deciding on the things you’d like to accomplish and working towards them.

    According to the research of psychologists, neurologists, and other scientists, setting a goal invests ourselves into the target as if we’d already accomplished it. That is, by setting something as a goal, however small or large, however near or far in the future, a part of our brain believes that desired outcome is an essential part of who we are – setting up the conditions that drive us to work towards the goals to fulfill the brain’s self-image.

    Apparently, the brain cannot distinguish between things we want and things we have. Neurologically, then, our brains treat the failure to achieve our goal the same way as it treats the loss of a valued possession. And up until the moment, the goal is achieved, we have failed to achieve it, setting up a constant tension that the brain seeks to resolve.

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    Ideally, this tension is resolved by driving us towards accomplishment. In many cases, though, the brain simply responds to the loss, causing us to feel fear, anxiety, even anguish, depending on the value of the as-yet-unattained goal.

    Love, Loss, Dopamine, and Our Dreams

    The brains functions are carried out by a stew of chemicals called neurotransmitters. You’ve probably heard of serotonin, which plays a key role in our emotional life – most of the effective anti-depressant medications on the market are serotonin reuptake inhibitors, meaning they regulate serotonin levels in the brain leading to more stable moods.

    Somewhat less well-known is another neurotransmitter, dopamine. Among other things, dopamine acts as a motivator, creating a sensation of pleasure when the brain is stimulated by achievement. Dopamine is also involved in maintaining attention – some forms of ADHD are linked to irregular responses to dopamine.[1]

    So dopamine plays a key role in keeping us focused on our goals and motivating us to attain them, rewarding our attention and achievement by elevating our mood. That is, we feel good when we work towards our goals.

    Dopamine is related to wanting – to desire. The attainment of the object of our desire releases dopamine into our brains and we feel good. Conversely, the frustration of our desires starves us of dopamine, causing anxiety and fear.

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    One of the greatest desires is romantic love – the long-lasting, “till death do us part” kind. It’s no surprise, then, that romantic love is sustained, at least in part, through the constant flow of dopamine released in the presence – real or imagined – of our true love. Loss of romantic love cuts off that supply of dopamine, which is why it feels like you’re dying – your brain responds by triggering all sorts of anxiety-related responses.

    Herein lies obsession, as we go to ever-increasing lengths in search of that dopamine reward. Stalking specialists warn against any kind of contact with a stalker, positive or negative, because any response at all triggers that reward mechanism. If you let the phone ring 50 times and finally pick up on the 51st ring to tell your stalker off, your stalker gets his or her reward, and learns that all s/he has to do is wait for the phone to ring 51 times.

    Romantic love isn’t the only kind of desire that can create this kind of dopamine addiction, though – as Captain Ahab (from Moby Dick) knew well, any suitably important goal can become an obsession once the mind has established ownership.

    The Neurology of Ownership

    Ownership turns out to be about a lot more than just legal rights. When we own something, we invest a part of ourselves into it – it becomes an extension of ourselves.

    In a famous experiment at Cornell University, researchers gave students school logo coffee mugs, and then offered to trade them chocolate bars for the mugs. Very few were willing to make the trade, no matter how much they professed to like chocolate. Big deal, right? Maybe they just really liked those mugs![2]

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    But when they reversed the experiment, handing out chocolate and then offering to trade mugs for the candy, they found that now, few students were all that interested in the mugs. Apparently the key thing about the mugs or the chocolate wasn’t whether students valued whatever they had in their possession, but simply that they had it in their possession.

    This phenomenon is called the “endowment effect”. In a nutshell, the endowment effect occurs when we take ownership of an object (or idea, or person); in becoming “ours” it becomes integrated with our sense of identity, making us reluctant to part with it (losing it is seen as a loss, which triggers that dopamine shut-off I discussed above).

    Interestingly, researchers have found that the endowment effect doesn’t require actual ownership or even possession to come into play. In fact, it’s enough to have a reasonable expectation of future possession for us to start thinking of something as a part of us – as jilted lovers, gambling losers, and 7-year olds denied a toy at the store have all experienced.

    The Upshot for Goal-Setters

    So what does all this mean for would-be achievers?

    On one hand, it’s a warning against setting unreasonable goals. The bigger the potential for positive growth a goal has, the more anxiety and stress your brain is going to create around it’s non-achievement.

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    It also suggests that the common wisdom to limit your goals to a small number of reasonable, attainable objectives is good advice. The more goals you have, the more ends your brain thinks it “owns” and therefore the more grief and fear the absence of those ends is going to cause you.

    On a more positive note, the fact that the brain rewards our attentiveness by releasing dopamine means that our brain is working with us to direct us to achievement. Paying attention to your goals feels good, encouraging us to spend more time doing it. This may be why outcome visualization — a favorite technique of self-help gurus involving imagining yourself having completed your objectives — has such a poor track record in clinical studies. It effectively tricks our brain into rewarding us for achieving our goals even though we haven’t done it yet!

    But ultimately, our brain wants us to achieve our goals, so that it’s a sense of who we are that can be fulfilled. And that’s pretty good news!

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    Featured photo credit: Alexa Williams via unsplash.com

    Reference

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