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Dangerous Ideas: Productivity is Overrated

I’m introducing a new semi-regular feature: Dangerous Ideas. Each entry in the series will focus on a provocative idea, built out of anecdotal evidence, that challenges a piece of conventional wisdom.

Today’s dangerous idea: Productivity is Overrated

I should be careful here. Much of my livelihood as a writer depends on my good-natured efforts to help fellow students be more productive. So I should clarify…

Productivity is important for being successful. But its role in this endeavor is often blown out of proportion. Some of the most accomplished people I know are incredibly disorganized. They work at the last minute. They stay up all night. They constantly scramble to find what they’re looking for. But they still get it done. Other accomplished people are incredibly organized. What gives? The truths underlying this reality:

  1. Being productive does not make you accomplished.
  2. It does, however, make being accomplished less stressful.

The key to really getting ahead has nothing to do with productivity. From my experience with successful young people (and, as I writer, I have quite a bit of exposure to this crowd) what you need, put simply, is a drive to keep working, with a laser-like intensity, on something even after you’ve lost immediate interest. Tenacity. A grating thirst to get it done. These are the precursors of accomplishment.

Having good productivity habits compliment this crucial skill. They take this intensity and place it in a schedule. They keep small things from crowding your mind. They eliminate the stress of what appointment you might be forgetting or what vital errand has to be done. But productivity is not a substitute for this work.

This is a mistake I sometimes intuit is being made by young people with an interest in this community. There is a belief that if you get just the right system, with just the right calendar technology, and to-do notebook, and task management philosophy, accomplishment will come automatically. You can just turn the system on and watch it churn out what needs to get done.

Alas, this never happens. It’s like the first law of accomplishment thermodynamics: accomplishment can’t spring from nothingness. At some point, even David Allen himself still has to convince himself to do hard things when he doesn’t want to. Effort must be expended. This cannot be avoided.

Within the scope of this reality, productivity plays a crucial role. If you want to get ahead in a meaningful, low-stress, controlled manner you have to pay attention to these little habits. Take college students for example. It’s possible to do really well without all of the philosophies I pitch. This is what grinds do. They want those grades, and they dig in and make it happen. But their lives are pretty brutal. With the right productivity habits, the same goal can be accomplished in a less stressful, more reasonable manner. Along the way, however, you still have to convince yourself to get up, get to library, and open that book, no matter how clearly it’s recorded on your calendar.

It’s important to make this distinction because it helps you prepare. If you acknowledge the role of hard work, you can adjust your mindset to be one that expects and values this trait. This is what, in the end, will make the biggest difference in what you end up getting done — regardless of how you organize, break down, and schedule this work.

21 thoughts on “Dangerous Ideas: Productivity is Overrated”

  1. coupla things. productivity overrated–agreed. tenacity? probably making too much of this. you still need to be able to sometimes just say wtf and do what you want. hard work is really much more than it’s made out to be. i’ve been a big fan of the 4-hour workweek, and it’s done wonders for my earning power, social life, and overall outlook on life.

  2. You’re right. No one needs to be working hard all the time. I guess the myth I want to dispell is that *if* you have some big, audacious goals in life, you can’t rely only on a bunch of productivity tips to do the work for you. I know too many people who delay starting something they want to do while they wait to find that perfect to-do software.

  3. One of the biggest problems (esp. my biggest problem) is what you call (and I love this term, because it’s so precise) pseudo-work.
    You can apply all these techniques, being organized like hell, but if you actually don’t really work and only sit it out (as I am a professional in).

  4. Great ideas, would love to see this post updated and expanded on slightly, as you have done when you talked about this in Scott Young’s blog.

  5. Hi Cal.
    Your blog is impressive, it has pure gold in each post. This idea is very good, it only requires the results, and if you have productivity methods or schedules, know that they are a guide and that they must be broken if there is an objective to be met.
    Do you recommend setting daily, weekly and monthly goals (of different “sizes”) and that the priority is to meet them? Even if you don’t sleep well some days, etc. As long as those objectives are the ones that bring you MOST closer to the goal.


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