Marginal gains: why I've given up productivity blogs

I read too many blogs. On an average morning, my Feedly has about 400 new articles waiting for my attention. And until recently, many of those were from productivity bloggers.

I was fascinated by the idea that small tweaks could give me productivity superpowers. I’d be able to fit twice as much work into my day, compared to your average un-life-hacked human.

Productivity blogs tend to be about doing more, not doing less.

Lots of productivity blogs offer similar advice, which seems sound at first.

Some urge you, with almost religious fervour, to start the day with exercise, meditation and journaling. Fitting this all in meant I was getting to my desk later and later every day.

Others offer detailed daily planner templates or alternative ways to prioritise your to-do list. Learning things takes time and these new ways of working made me even slower. Maybe the new way was marginally better than my old way, but not so much that I noticed.

Doing things differently can be as hard as doing more things

I kept reading that my decision-making powers are at their peak just after breakfast. They are - for low-level decisions like ‘Is this email a do/defer/delegate?’. For big stuff related to serious projects, not so much. Trying to eat my frogs first thing meant I started every day with failure.

Then there’s the one about not looking at your emails till the afternoon. But I’m a project manager. Communicating with the team is a huge part of what I do. Not something I can put off until my afternoon slump.

Trying to fit in all these extra jobs and new ways of working didn't make me feel more productive. It made me feel overwhelmed.

Is the pain worth the marginal gain?

Reflecting on my sense of overwhelm, I realised I’d been through something similar before.

I came late to the road-cycling party. As a beginner, I was slow and tired easily. I couldn’t keep up with my faster friends. This was annoying.

So I scoured the web for articles on how to train, what to eat and how best to recover. Following all this advice I trained way too hard, alternating that with periods of exhaustion-induced idleness.

Overtraining is common, and you can avoid it with a proper training plan. But I realised that for me, that kind of training isn’t worth it. It takes up time that I could be spending just riding my bike.

My productivity obsession was like overtraining for work

Am I prepared to invest 8-10 hours a week doing stuff I don’t particularly enjoy, so I can ride my bike slightly faster? No.

Am I prepared to invest chunks of time every day doing stuff I don’t particularly enjoy, so I can be slightly more efficient once I finally start to work? No.

Adding loads of extra steps to your daily routine (aka ‘creating the perfect morning ritual’) is supposed to make you superbly efficient. But it doesn’t. More often, it burdens you with an unsustainable routine, from which you lapse periodically into utter chaos.

Forgetting about productivity and going back to Getting Things Done

It was David Allen that helped me snap out of my guilt-flavoured life-hacking. He sent out a newsletter recently, where he offered this advice:

There is a common misconception that GTD® is about having things always in order, up-to-date, and squeaky clean, 24/7. Not so. In fact, it would probably be unproductive to keep it that way all of the time. You need to make messes, from time to time. But in order to afford the luxury of letting things get somewhat out of control day-to-day, you’ve got to trust there is a process for getting perspective on where you’re going and making sure your choices are current on how to get there. You don’t have the freedom to make a mess if you’re already in one!

David Allen

So. Time for a more balanced approach to productivity. No more early morning meditation or daily pages. Exercise because I like it, not because it makes my brain sharper. Checking my email whenever I please. And a simple weekly review routine to keep things under control.

Some books that have helped me to get things done

Some of the links in the post above are “affiliate links.” This means if you click on the link and buy the item, I will receive an affiliate commission. Regardless, I only recommend products or services I use myself and believe will add value to my readers.