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Five Productivity Ideas I’m Not Buying (Yet?)

Five Productivity Ideas I’m Not Buying (Yet?)
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.

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    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.

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    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.

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    • 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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    Last Updated on August 16, 2018

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

    The Importance of Reminders (And How to Make a Reminder That Works)

    No matter how well you set up your todo list and calendar, you aren’t going to get things done unless you have a reliable way of reminding yourself to actually do them.

    Anyone who’s spent an hour writing up the perfect grocery list only to realize at the store that they forgot to bring the list understands the importance of reminders.

    Reminders of some sort or another are what turn a collection of paper goods or web services into what David Allen calls a “trusted system”.

    A lot of people resist getting better organized. No matter what kind of chaotic mess, their lives are on a day-to-day basis because they know themselves well enough to know that there’s after all that work they’ll probably forget to take their lists with them when it matters most.

    Fortunately, there are ways to make sure we remember to check our lists — and to remember to do the things we need to do, whether they’re on a list or not.

    In most cases, we need a lot of pushing at first, for example by making a reminder, but eventually we build up enough momentum that doing what needs doing becomes a habit — not an exception.

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    The power of habit

    A habit is any act we engage in automatically without thinking about it.

    For example, when you brush your teeth, you don’t have to think about every single step from start to finish; once you stagger up to the sink, habit takes over (and, really, habit got you to the sink in the first place) and you find yourself putting toothpaste on your toothbrush, putting the toothbrush in your mouth (and never your ear!), spitting, rinsing, and so on without any conscious effort at all.

    This is a good thing because if you’re anything like me, you’re not even capable of conscious thought when you’re brushing your teeth.

    The good news is you already have a whole set of productivity habits you’ve built up over the course of your life. The bad news is, a lot of them aren’t very good habits.

    That quick game Frogger to “loosen you up” before you get working, that always ends up being six hours of Frogger –– that’s a habit. And as you know, habits like that can be hard to break — which is one of the reasons why habits are so important in the first place.

    Once you’ve replaced an unproductive habit with a more productive one, the new habit will be just as hard to break as the old one was. Getting there, though, can be a chore!

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    The old saw about anything you do for 21 days becoming a habit has been pretty much discredited, but there is a kernel of truth there — anything you do long enough becomes an ingrained behavior, a habit. Some people pick up habits quickly, others over a longer time span, but eventually, the behaviors become automatic.

    Building productive habits, then, is a matter of repeating a desired behavior over a long enough period of time that you start doing it without thinking.

    But how do you remember to do that? And what about the things that don’t need to be habits — the one-off events, like taking your paycheck stubs to your mortgage banker or making a particular phone call?

    The trick to reminding yourself often enough for something to become a habit, or just that one time that you need to do something, is to interrupt yourself in some way in a way that triggers the desired behavior.

    The wonderful thing about triggers (reminders)

    A trigger is anything that you put “in your way” to remind you to do something. The best triggers are related in some way to the behavior you want to produce.

    For instance, if you want to remember to take something to work that you wouldn’t normally take, you might place it in front of the door so you have to pick it up to get out of your house.

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    But anything that catches your attention and reminds you to do something can be a trigger. An alarm clock or kitchen timer is a perfect example — when the bell rings, you know to wake up or take the quiche out of the oven. (Hopefully you remember which trigger goes with which behavior!)

    If you want to instill a habit, the thing to do is to place a trigger in your path to remind you to do whatever it is you’re trying to make into a habit — and keep it there until you realize that you’ve already done the thing it’s supposed to remind you of.

    For instance, a post-it saying “count your calories” placed on the refrigerator door (or maybe on your favorite sugary snack itself)  can help you remember that you’re supposed to be cutting back — until one day you realize that you don’t need to be reminded anymore.

    These triggers all require a lot of forethought, though — you have to remember that you need to remember something in the first place.

    For a lot of tasks, the best reminder is one that’s completely automated — you set it up and then forget about it, trusting the trigger to pop up when you need it.

    How to make a reminder works for you

    Computers and ubiquity of mobile Internet-connected devices make it possible to set up automatic triggers for just about anything.

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    Desktop software like Outlook will pop up reminders on your desktop screen, and most online services go an extra step and send reminders via email or SMS text message — just the thing to keep you on track. Sandy, for example, just does automatic reminders.

    Automated reminders can help you build habits — but it can also help you remember things that are too important to be trusted even to habit. Diabetics who need to take their insulin, HIV patients whose medication must be taken at an exact time in a precise order, phone calls that have to be made exactly on time, and other crucial events require triggers even when the habit is already in place.

    My advice is to set reminders for just about everything — have them sent to your mobile phone in some way (either through a built-in calendar or an online service that sends updates) so you never have to think about it — and never have to worry about forgetting.

    Your weekly review is a good time to enter new reminders for the coming weeks or months. I simply don’t want to think about what I’m supposed to be doing; I want to be reminded so I can think just about actually doing it.

    I tend to use my calendar for reminders, mostly, though I do like Sandy quite a bit.

    Featured photo credit: Unsplash via unsplash.com

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