Productivity Hacking is Not Intuitive

This is the fourth post in a series on productivity1. The articles are based on content from a workshop I led at The Makers Summit.


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When I was a young boy both of my grandfathers had woodworking shops. I used to love (and still do) visiting and tinkering with tools to build things. For some reason, one of my clearest early memories of working with wood is one of the first times I got to use a hand saw. I must have found a branch or log that I wanted to trim and my grandpa probably thought it was a good opportunity to teach me safe and proper use of a saw. Like any eager and impatient youngster, I immediately put every ounce of my effort into cutting. My arm fatigued quickly and my frustration must have been apparent. Gently, my grandfather (who had wisely waited out my short flare of enthusiasm) took the saw and explained that the teeth are designed to cut the wood without requiring extreme, constant effort. “Tools are designed to make your job easier. Just let the saw do the work and don’t wear yourself out so quickly.” He would later reinforce the concept at the driving range, explaining again that a well-calculated, solid strike will beat out an all-out smash on the golf course almost every time. (The lesson stuck, thankfully, but not the love for golf.)

Productivity is one of those concepts that we like to think we understand, but as we’ve seen, taking time to actually contemplate how we use our time and ponder the definition of ‘productivity’ reveals a landscape more complicated than we might have originally bargained for.

One of the reasons productivity can be elusive is that we don’t naturally gravitate towards it on our own. In other words, becoming more productive isn’t an intuitive process. Let’s take a look at why.

Common ways we force productivity

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Think about some of the most common levers we pull to make ourselves more productive.

  • Time – one of the easiest, most effective ways to get more done is simply spend more time doing things.
  • Substances – we often use substances (like caffeine, sugar or synthetic varieties) to push our bodies farther than they might go ‘on their own’.
  • Multi-tasking – if we’re under the gun or need to produce more work, we’ll often try to do multiple things at the same time—the classic desire to kill multiple birds with one stone.
  • New systems – if the way we’re working isn’t working, we’ll try new systems, be it a novel time-management system or new to-do app on our mobile device.

None of these methods is inherently wrong or bad. In fact, the opposite is true. Using time and substances produce real, material gains in productivity. On some level, all of these behaviors make us feel like we’re getting more done, which can be motivating in and of itself.

Therein lies the problem, though: while these methods produce some sort of real or perceived short-term benefit, if used in excess or exclusively, none are sustainable, especially over the long run. In fact, repeatedly pulling one (or more) of these levers to force more output can be harmful to us. Sleep deprivation can wreak serious havoc (as we’ll discuss in an upcoming post) and no medical professional would recommend drinking 10 pots of coffee (or cans of Red Bull) per day.

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The trickiness of time: do more hours mean more productivity?

Time is a great specific example of unintuitive productivity. Think about the question above. The correct answer to the question is yes. This is simple math: if you spend more time working, you get more accomplished. The tricky part, though, is that answering that question with a simple yes assumes that the mathematical equation is constant—that more hours worked equals more work done no matter what.

We all know that reality is different. We have to get sleep some time and non-stop late nights will invoke burnout at some point.

So where does that leave us? Research brings to light several incredibly helpful—but not necessarily intuitive—insights into time as a means of increased productivity. In the next post, we’ll take a look at some research that will help us answer questions about time and a host of other not-so-straight forward elements of productivity.


1. You can read the story behind this blog series and find links to all of the resources here.

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