The only surefire way to become more productive

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You’ve probably read a typical ”How to increase your productivity” article. It almost always includes tips like ”make awesome to-do lists”, ”stop multitasking”, ”take relaxing breaks”, ”wake up early like all the successful people do”… and other generalized suggestions that should do miracles with your willpower and motivation. But this won’t be just another how to increase your productivity post. They usually promise to make you more efficient, successful, happier with your job and life, but in the real life it’s like promising you a unicorn: won’t happen.

Once I tried some of the typical productivity tips myself. I’ve even tried the ‘wake up early’ thing, which was probably the worst and the most unproductive week of my life! Maybe Richard Branson can do it, waking up before dawn works for him, but it’s a torture for the night owls like me. And apparently I’m not the only one who has come to the same conclusion – research done by two Michigan universities found that waking up early only helps morning people. [1] Similarly, I tried the ”one thing at a time” tip, which tricked me into perfectionism and made me waste time on details, and other tips with more or less successful results.

Turns out, these ”surefire hacks to increase your productivity” are not that surefire after all. They simply can’t work for everyone. Just think about it – if there’s a study saying social media at work is a time waster, there’s another one saying it can boost office productivity. Or if one says you should avoid multitasking, others argue that working on multiple screens can actually make you more focused. Trying to follow all these hacks is not only confusing, but also impossible. You can’t do two completely conflicting things simultaneously.

I recently read a great piece by James Cowan [1], where he in an ironical tone talks about how people tend to look for shortcuts and quick fixes for their bad habits. It hit me how amusing and absurd some of the popular productivity hacks really are. And life hacks in general – he compares productivity hacks with how people try to lose weight: instead of regular exercise and healthy eating, they often prefer drastic diets that promise us fast results. In Cowan’s words – while we might intuitively know that losing weight is a simple matter of eating less and exercising more, it still takes willpower and tenacity to follow this common sense. Similarly, you already know what it takes to get more stuff done – you have to discipline yourself and avoid distractions. But the ”20 quick hacks to increase your productivity” sounds so much more appealing. I can’t blame you – it really does.

”The worst hack of all is wasting time searching for easy fixes for your work routine,” Cowan adds at the end. And he’s right – there is no shortcut to becoming more productive. There’s no shortcut to success either. You have to go all the way, because there are no easy fixes for your unproductive habits. None of the productivity tips are new and they won’t make you get more things done. It’s not like we’re at Hogwarts – magic simply doesn’t happen here. Seriously.

[1] Cowan, J. 2015, One weird trick to boost your productivity today, Rogers Publishing Ltd, Toronto.

2 thoughts on “The only surefire way to become more productive

  1. Marilyn Rogers

    I agree that willpower plays a role in being productive. But I disagree that productivity tips are not useful. Disciplining yourself to avoid distractions is not the only way to get productive. If you don’t follow a regimen (such as making to do lists and scheduling your time), build productive habits and essentially work smarter (not harder) then you will not make progress and things fall through the cracks. For example, if you don’t build a plan at work, do you think you would ever get projects completed on time? Probably not. it’s important to define goals and build tasks to achieve your goals. It’s important to log your successes to keep you motivated. It’s important to understand what motivates you and to latch onto it. Many of these productivity tips are not drastic like the grapefruit diet. They just outline ways to work smarter. Nothing is black and white, you have to use common sense to decide what life hack might just work for you.

  2. Krista Krumina Post author

    Hey Marilyn,
    Thanks for your comment, and I can’t disagree with you. What I tried to highlight here is that some people don’t look at changing their habits in the long-term. Of course, you need to be organized and motivated to get things done. Where we fail, however, is that we usually want to see the results straight away. As a result, we try hundreds of productivity tips that give no results and end up right where we started.

    And I still don’t believe in productivity tips that works for everyone. Such tips I call absurd.


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