The productivity trap


In a moment of clarity on returning from a much-needed vacation, I realized that I have been fretting about my productivity again, and that was a major source of stress. I have a long list of tasks to do and to try, tasks that I’ve started and am struggling to complete, tasks that I haven’t even thought of yet but I’m sure are important, and tasks that aren’t on the list but that I end up doing anyway.

I discovered and read Oliver Burkeman’s article in The Guardian, Why time management is ruining our lives. It got my attention by saying, “All of our efforts to be more productive backfire – and only make us feel even busier and more stressed.” The article is long - a time commitment for sure. It is a sampling of milestones in the evolution of time management, is full of nuggets of insight, and is well worth the time to read. It concludes:

“Personal productivity presents itself as an antidote to busyness when it might better be understood as yet another form of busyness. And as such, it serves the same psychological role that busyness has always served: to keep us sufficiently distracted that we don’t have to ask ourselves potentially terrifying questions about how we are spending our days.”


“[Productivity challenges] aren’t really about technology. They’re manifestations of larger, more personal dilemmas. Which paths will you pursue, and which will you abandon? Which relationships will you prioritise, during your shockingly limited lifespan, and who will you resign yourself to disappointing? What matters?”

Here are some of the bits of wisdom I’ve drawn from the article:

  • Keep a clear sense of purpose and goals.
  • Be cautious in applying time pressure, and instead trust the process. “Thinking about time encourages clockwatching, which has been repeatedly shown to undermine the quality of work.”
  • Practice idle time, to be able to respond to unpredictable new important opportunities, and for its restorative value.
  • Look for the human connection when pursuing efficiency and effectiveness. People (including me) aren’t machines and don't necessarily think technically.
  • Procrastinate in replying to some emails, because “negligent emailers often discover that forgetting to reply brings certain advantages: people find alternative solutions to the problems they were nagging you to solve, or the looming crisis they were emailing about never occurs.”

And another lesson I learned from pursuing this:

  • Take the time to read (and savor) longer articles like Burkeman’s. Sometimes a page or two isn’t enough. His article is eleven pages, not including other articles to which it referred.