Productivity's greatest enemy

I try not to think/read/write about productivity, because it often feels like productivity gurus are really only productive at churning out productivity articles. The actually productive people are too busy to write Medium posts about how they get so much done - they just do it. But the insight I’m going to share has been helpful to myself, friends, and family. It also reflects, in its own way, something deeper about human behavior. Here's the nugget:

The greatest enemy to productivity, very simply, is the feeling of productivity. Or, more accurately, the sense of entitlement that follows a burst of productivity.

If this rings true and makes sense at a deep level, feel free to stop reading here and get back to whatever it is you were doing before. I don't want to waste anyone's time.

If not, imagine this. Maybe you just finished a 4-hour studying marathon, and now it’s time for a break. More realistically, it was a 2-hour marathon, but we’ll let that one rest for now.

Enter several problematic truths. First, creating momentum is much harder than maintaining it. Second, we constantly underestimate or overestimate our capacity. And the only accurate way to find those boundaries is by pushing too hard and failing.

Say you take your break, and start a 20 minute timer to keep yourself on track. Then, a friend calls, or you start watching a YouTube video. Suddenly, it’s been 23 minutes, and one more minute in, your timer is permanently dismissed. You still have lots to do, but it’s okay, you had a really good morning and it feels good to know you’ve finished that chapter.

Maybe you even feel tired, and you need some rest to make sure you don’t burnout. You deserve a break, and you’ll get back to it eventually. And somehow, it’s been an hour since you set the timer and it’s almost bedtime and that test isn’t going anywhere. Now you feel guilty for having taken such a long break, but let’s wait until the clock shows a nice, round number before getting back to it. Guilt intensifies, the task you’re avoiding seems harder, so procrastination seems like an even better option short-term. And your day is basically ruined. What went wrong?

I’ll say it again. The greatest enemy to productivity, very simply, is the feeling of productivity. Or, more accurately, the sense of entitlement that follows a burst of productivity.

This is something that can be addressed internally. Like Navy Seals, you just need to learn to push yourself harder. Have more discipline. Keep going when you’re tired, and never snooze that alarm.

Sadly, that won’t get you very far (statistically, unless you are part of a very, very small minority).

External systems work much better. Namely, if you have more work than you think you can handle, you will go until your breaking point. Maybe you took on too many classes. Maybe you’re at a startup and the thing just has to get done, because if you don’t do it nobody will, and there is no safety net.

This will stretch you, and one day you will break, tears streaming down your face as you try to explain to your friend how hard everything is. But after you break, your standard of hard work will never be the same. Two hour study sessions won’t cut it for you, because you’ll be used to seven, eight hours at a time. And even if you never have to push that hard again, you’ll know that your limit is way out there, and you don’t need that break just yet. And you definitely don’t deserve it just yet.

So keep on workin’.