We live in a complex world.
With hard problems to solve.
So we look for a complex system to increase our productivity.
But we have it backwards.
Instead of making hard decisions, we look for a hard process to match the problem.
Here’s why you should care a lot less about productivity and a lot more about your priorities.
Minimal Viable Productivity
Learning more about productivity is certainly good and important. You need to know the basics or else you stack the deck against you.
And if learning a few good behaviours can have such a profound impact on the way you work, why stop there?
Soon, you get the intriguing idea that if you just learned more about productivity, found that one hack no one has figured out yet or switch to the latest tool everyone is talking about, it would finally make all your work problems go away.
Which, unfortunately, is not the case.
A recent call with David Allen reminded me, that the basic recipe for productivity and Getting Things Done is actually fairly simple.
Our brain sucks at remembering information, in particular if it’s incomplete or unclear. So the first step, born out of necessity and our mental limitations, is to write everything (important) down.
Your mind, after all, is made for having ideas, not keeping them.
Then, from time to time, it’s a good idea to go through the list of items and figure out: what do I actually need to do to move this item forward? What is my next action?
Because all too often, we only think “of” a problem (taxes!) and not about it (what’s the next immediate action I can do to get this towards the finish line?).
If it’s a quick thing that can be done in less than 2 minutes, we might as well just do it.
And for everything else, it’s as simple as looking at your list of well-defined next actions and ask yourself:
Which of these actions would have the biggest impact?
Minimal Viable Productivity.
And here’s where the problem starts.
Simple but scary
So the basic process for a more productive life:
- write stuff down
- define what exactly you need to do to get the stuff done
- pick the most impactful stuff and work on it
Why is it then that we try to build uber-complex workflows, jump from new productivity app to new productivity app and read the 10th article about Elons Musk’s secrets to success?
Because of three scary truths:
- It has to be YOUR decision
- You might not like the biggest impact
- You will never, ever get it all done
Let’s take a closer look.
It has to be YOUR decision
In his book and during the call, David Allen pointed out that ultimately, you’ll need to trust your gut.
When looking at your list of things to do, it’s up to you to decide which task will have the biggest impact.
And that’s scary.
How are you supposed to know what’s right? How important is this task? Why do you have to take this responsibility? Isn’t it possible to outsource this decision to some external system?
Just as with careers, it’s much easier to have clearly defined rules to follow than to define your own parameters for what makes an important task.
So what do we do? We look for more and more complex systems to make the decision for us to hide the fact that we are ultimately responsible for picking the task.
And just getting better at productivity, doesn’t help you uncover your priorities.
You might not like the biggest impact
You look at your to-do list.
You know what you should be working on right now.
Yet, you just can’t seem to get yourself to actually do it.
Which means one of two things:
- you really don’t like the activity
- you really don’t care about the outcome
And while it’s tempting to hope that implementing a more complex productivity system, finding a new tool or watching another video on time management might magically trick you into doing it either way, it probably won’t work.
That’s not to say that exploring different angles to a task can’t help. Quite the opposite. But you need to be aware that you’re trying to solve a different problem (”I need to be more productive” vs “I need to find a way to enjoy my work”).
And of course, this also doesn’t mean you should not work on hard things. Or give up at the slightest sign of resistance. But if you keep finding yourself looking for a new productivity systems, maybe it’s time to reconsider what you actually want to use all your productivity for.
You will never, ever get it all done
The worst part about getting more productive: you realise how little you can possibly get done.
Our time is ridiculously limited. And regardless of how productive and efficient you become, there will always be so much more on your to-do list than what you could possibly cross off.
Which means that productivity is a lot less about getting more things done and a lot more about getting the right things done than I’d like.
Because that means making decisions about what’s really important to you and accepting that you need to say no to the vast majority of other things.
Oliver Burkeman sums it up best:
The real measure of any time management technique is whether or not it helps you neglect the right things.
Unfortunately, nothing (not even GTD or that cool Notion template) can give you unlimited time.
So sure, have fun trying out productivity methods, changing up your systems now and then and experiment to see what works for you.
But remember to not chase the perfect system just to do the wrong thing.