Productivity Hacking: What Snake-oil Looks Like

This is the sixteenth post in a series on productivity1. This article adds to content from a workshop I led at The Makers Summit.

I took a few minutes this week to cull through a backlog of blog post ideas and found a few screenshots of what I call ‘productivity snake-oil.’

I’ve written at length about the fact that finding new productivity to use is counter to productivity2, but recognizing snake-oil ‘in the wild’ is helpful because, well, companies are spending lots of money to convince you their product is a balm for your to-do-list pains.

The first screenshot is from Apples desktop App Store. Now, this is a marketplace designed to give consumers options, but it’s that very availability that tempts us to try and buy productivity in the form of a new app instead of putting in the work to build the mental muscle of focus over time.


The second screenshot is even better. Evernote, which I use often, bills itself as a comprehensive workspace for individuals and teams. They released a feature called “Context,” which, in theory, is a really cool idea.


Here’s their description3:

As you write or collect information in Evernote, we begin looking for useful, relevant content that will inform your work. This may come from notes in your own account, notes shared by a coworker, and now from trusted news sources, including The Wall Street Journal.

Relative content that is passively collected could decrease research time and help you discover things you might not have otherwise, but considering new content while ‘writing’ isn’t writing, it’s divided focus. As you’d expect, the feature presents distractions by default, which seems to be the standard for today’s software4.

As usual, Merlin Mann’s writings from over a decade ago cut to the heart of the issue like few have. Here’s a selection from his definition of productivity pr0n5:

It is believed by some that to be truly productive you must rid yourself of all the tricks and ciphers used to “feel productive.” Others simply enjoy the pastime of collecting notebooks, trading tips, and talking about systems, even if these are not items that they use expressly for the purpose of increasing productivity, improving time management, or what have you.

1. You can read the story behind this blog series and find links to all of the resources here.2. You can read my post called “Myths of Productivity: Finding the Right Tools,” here.3. You can read more about Evernote’s Context feature on their blog.4. You can read my post called “Notifications as Distraction-by-Default,” here.5. You can read Merlin Mann’s full definition of ‘productivity pr0n’ on the 43 Folders wiki.

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