Myths of Productivity: Keeping Up

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

In this series we’ve talked about distractions, focus, triage and more. One driver of all of behind unproductive behaviors in all of those areas is the idea that we need to “keep up” with what’s going on. Now, I do believe it’s valuable to build an understanding of our place in history and what goes on in our world (developing a worldview, if you will). More often than not, though, instead of proactively building knowledge, I find myself dealing with an ambiguous fear of “being behind.”

Our fear about not keeping up can come from a variety of sources, both personal and professional, from the fear of missing updates on other people’s social lives to the fear that our companies’ competitors are suddenly going to do something spectacular. We feel pressure to keep up with everything—friends, news, industry, competition…fill in the blank.

For most people, the need to keep up is a myth. The reason is simple: we can do anything with the majority of updates we get. Knowing what happened doesn’t automatically help you make something happen. In fact, in a world where we can access information about almost anything at a moments notice, the sheer volume of content makes rampant consumption one of our default tools for dealing with the flood of information—a productivity-killing habit we discussed in the last post.

Staying up to date isn’t bad in and of itself, but it’s easier than we’d like to admit to believe the lie that keeping up is key to doing our best work.

A lesson from Evernote: we don’t think about what other people are doing

Evernote is a fascinating company2. After operating for a few years, they ran out of cash in 2009, decided to shutter the doors and a single, passionate customer gave them enough cash to stay afloat. When they did start to gain traction, their growth rate was incredible. Here’s an excerpt from a 2014 article detailing their story3:

It took Evernote 446 days to gain their first million users, but the next million took around half that time—222 days to be exact. That number was almost halved again with their next million, which took 133 days, then 108, then 83, and then just 52 days to go from 5 to 6 million users. Over 19,000 new people sign up for Evernote every day.

Their CEO, Phil Libin, is up front about the fact that they don’t pay attention to competition—even gigantic companies like Google who can give away similar products for free. He explains Evernote’s thought process in this video:

Libin hits the bullseye:

We don’t take any action because of that worry, because it doesn’t help you make a better product.

At the end of the day, the only thing you can control is what you are making, so what you are making is what you should focus your energy on.

A lesson from Foursquare: stop reading the blogs

Foursquare, an app that helps you find “food, nightlife and entertainment,” faces intense competition from thousands of competitors4. At one point, they had an opportunity to be acquired by Facebook, but chose not to. Shortly after, Facebook released a feature called Places that replicated much of Foursquare’s functionality. Their CEO, Dennis Crowley, remembers his entire company stopping their work to obsess over the news. Here’s what he had to say about how he responded:

Like Libin’s, Crowley’s charge is a reality check:

This is madness. The only way that we beat these guys and that we own this space is if everyone stops reading the blogs and just builds the stuff we want to build. …We’re just going to do the thing that we think we can do well.

The examples above come from technology companies, but the principles apply no matter what type of work you’re doing. I’ve found a thousand ways to sell my fear of being behind—seeking inspiration, research, seeing what’s new, etc.—but they are almost always reactive reflexes that don’t help move my work forward (not pro-active knowledge-seeking related to what I’m working on).

Whenever we feel the pressure to keep up, the question we need to ask is, “is what I’m about to check pushing my work forward or helping me make a better product?” If the answer is no, leave it behind and focus on the only thing you can control: the work you produce.

1. You can read the story behind this blog series and find links to all of the resources here.2. You can read more about Evernote, an ” app designed for note taking, organizing, and archiving,” on Wikipedia.3. You can read more about Evernote’s growth on the Growthackers website.4. You can read more about Foursquare, “a local search and discovery service,” on Wikipedia.

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