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How To Avoid The Productivity Trap

17 Aug 2022

Are you constantly becoming more productive, but in the end seem to have less time? You might be in a productivity trap. Read this blog post to find out more!

We all know that overworking is bad. We even did an entire article about the various negative impacts of overworking. Productivity, on the other hand, is great. Or is it just an illusion?

Don’t get me wrong – being productive is great for all sorts of reasons. You have more accomplishments under your belt, not to mention a fatter paycheck in most cases. If nothing else, it just feels nice to be effective.

This is where the risk of a productivity trap comes into play. Getting things done feels so good that people just keep on increasing their workloads. What ends up happening is that productivity leads to a never ending stream of new work which at one point will start to drag you down emotionally and physically instead of lifting you up.

This is exacerbated by the hussle culture and all sorts of self-help gurus that promote the work and productivity cult without much regard for anything else.

In this blog post we’ll look at what a productivity trap is, why we as humans end up in one, and how we can escape it, if we wanted to.

How Did Productivity Traps Originate?

In simple terms a productivity trap is a self-inflicted, self-perpetuating spiral of work. The reasons for this may vary, but when anything is done we just keep pushing forward with more work.

A psychologist Oliver Burkeman and the author of the book “Four Thousand Weeks” believes that productivity traps originate with the Industrial Revolution. Before it, humans followed the natural rhythms of the mostly rural day which was heavily influenced by seasonal differences, weather conditions, and the specifics of working in agriculture.

This millenia old way of doing things abruptly ended when people started working in factories and mills for a fixed amount of time. This change in the type of work and the accompanying reliance on the clock led to greater focus being paid on efficient resource and time management. 

While the nature of work has changed a lot since the dizzying days of the 19th century, the preoccupation with productivity and optimization has persisted. People proudly obsess over time management which allows them to do insane amounts of work and achieve amazing things, but does it actually matter?

Hence the title of My Burkeman’s book. We all have somewhere around 4000 weeks on this good earth. The question remains – should we indulge in the habit of constantly raising our productivity or should we slow down? Which actually brings more joy and fulfillment?

The Productivity Trap

The problem with constantly increasing productivity is that it rarely ends with more free time, less stress, and a better work-life balance. Quite the contrary.

There are several reasons for this. First, it is really hard to escape the feeling that you should be doing more. It’s been drilled into us historically and culturally. Plus, there are just so many great and interesting opportunities that shouldn’t be missed. After all, the more you work, the more you network, the higher the chance of finding “the big break”.

Second, not all of us have the luxury of enjoying a well earned break after a few productive days or weeks. Those working for a company will know quite well that highly efficient employees are tasked with more and more just because they can manage it. Why would your boss give the job to someone slower?

Third, with most developed countries’ fertility rates going down and our economic models geared towards neverending growth, economy-wide output can only be increased by fewer people doing more. Therefore, macroeconomic incentives will be geared towards pushing people to get more and more done.

Fourth, research shows that since we constantly strive for positive change, we become used to it to the extent that any positive outcome (pay rise, promotion etc.) will not lead to prolonged satisfaction. It’s actually those who practice gratitude for what they have rather than those who pursue happiness and desire for something more, that have the most joyful lives.

The conclusion? You end up being more stressed and unable to do what you initially might have wanted to do – have more free time for the things that really matter to you.

How To Escape The Productivity Trap?

Right off the bat it’s important to state that not everyone may want, need, or even should fear productivity. Indeed, productivity is not the same as a productivity trap. The former is positive and can have plenty of positive outcomes. The latter is about what we do with all the time gains once we’ve reached the level of productivity we had initially intended. 

It takes some degree of self-reflection to really understand when the happiness caused by productivity gains do not outweigh the extra stress and loss of free time. Since all of us are different and have different conditions and obligations, the productivity threshold may vary significantly. However, once you feel that something is not right and the productivity gains are backfiring, consider doing the following.

Accept your situation

Much as we would like to think that we are unstoppable, the fact of the matter is that we have limited time and energy resources. We will never be able to do everything. Hardly any of us will ever do anything so remarkable to go down in history. Sure we try to convince ourselves of the contrary, but it’s just us trying to cope with the 4000 week time frame.

Oliver Burkeman (the guy I mentioned before) stresses that there is nothing quite as liberating and anxiety reducing as coming to terms with the finite nature of our lives. Once you’ve done it, stress starts to dissipate.

Ditch some goals

Having goals is essential for anyone, but having too many is unnecessarily stressful not to mention potentially counterproductive. The more goals we have, the more tasks we have to handle. If our attention and resources are dispersed across the field, we will constantly struggle to get anything done.

I know – if you currently have ten goals, it may feel disheartening to limit yourself to two or three. Nevertheless, prioritization is important. Moving resolutely towards a single goal and actually achieving it will make you happier and more fulfilled than pursuing ten separate goals.

To return to the previous point – remember that you are finite and you’ll never be able to do everything. Pursue things that you are truly passionate about instead of living with unrealized potential.

Limit perfectionism

Perfectionists are always eager to toil away to achieve their ideal end-state, no matter how tiny the flaws. Doing things perfectly is by no means a bad thing. It’s just that usually the time spent trying to reach a minimal improvement is disproportionate to the return, especially given that there is no such thing as objective perfection.

For example, you might spend 40 hours writing a report that both the management and you deem to be very good. Still, you think you can do better and spend another 20 hours making it more eloquent, visually appealing, and academically precise. Even though you think you made the end product perfect, your manager might have preferred the more rudimentary version. In fact, they may be frustrated that you didn’t get to the next task on time, but squandered all that time and resources in a seemingly unnecessary way.

Take a break

The more we work, the more the quality of that said work drops. We are tired, stressed out, and under constant personal and external pressures. All of these things definitely weigh on the quality of the work we do. Push yourself long enough and people will start to see you as someone who prefers speed and quantity over quality. 

Take a break, have some time off, let your head cool off – you, your friends and family, and, of course, your productivity will benefit from that!

Keep a “have done list”

Let’s finish off with something our good friend Oliver Burkeman advises. In addition to your regular to-do list, keep a “have done list”!

Contrary to the somewhat stress-inducing to-do list, a “have done list” will help ease the negative emotional effects of a productivity trap. It shows both the goal related things that have already been achieved as well as other regular, seemingly mundane activities that may not make it on to a to-do list, but that nevertheless need to be done. Keeping track of these things will help you feel greater accomplishment for your daily achievements, instead of constantly driving yourself to maximize productivity gains.

Author: Lote Steina

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Life doesen't have a do-over.
Commit to it! BePrime!
Life doesen't have a do-over.
Commit to it! BePrime!