Beyond Productivity Porn — Seeing the Problem With Tips and Tricks

leong-lok-262965Productivity drives our work and income. Ironically, it is stagnating at a national level — even though we have an expert-driven industry of productivity advice. Clearly there is something wrong.

For a clear diagnosis of this problem, I turn to Tiago Forte. He runs Forte Labs, a training and consulting firm in San Francisco.

I put Tiago on the same level as David Allen, developer of the epochal Getting Things Done (GTD) method. Using GTD as a foundation, Tiago extends it with insights that surprise and delight me, mapping a territory that’s all his own.

In a radical critique of productivity advice, Tiago notes that it often:

  • Reduces to click-bait. Advice from productivity “experts” often takes the form of “tips and tricks” that are offered as life-changing and even “transformational.” In reality, much of this content is not research-based or presented in ways that we can implement.
  • Ignores individual differences. Most of the advice is generic, based on the naïve assumption that it works equally well for everyone. When it comes to any given technique, however, the reality is YMMV — Your Mileage May Vary.
  • Degenerates into performance art. People who brag about working 80-hour weeks might simply be staging a piece of theater — creating the impression of being productive. In reality, there’s no necessary relationship between the number of hours we work and what we actually get done. It’s possible to work 80 hours per week and still waste 40 of them.
  • Shows evidence of gender bias. This flows directly from the preceding point. Women who deal with the demands of pregnancy and childcare can be just as productive as men. It’s hard for women to prove this, though, when they can’t offer meaningful measurements of their productivity beyond the number of hours worked.
  • Promotes the app industry. This holy grail of Silicon Valley entrepreneurs is the perfect task manager, calendar app, or project management tool. Tiago, in contrast, focuses on training over products: If you understand the underlying concepts of workflow design, you can be productive even with pencil and paper or text files as your tools. If you don’t understand the underlying concepts, however, then no tool is going to help you that much.

I agree with Tiago’s basic response to productivity advice: Question everything. Keep your crap detector handy. No tip is transformational, and there are no magic solutions. The next productivity post you find may simply be an excuse to stop thinking about what really works.

In moving beyond tips and tricks, Tiago distinguishes three levels of thinking about productivity. These are crystallized in the core messages of three best-selling books:

  • The Power of Positive Thinking by Norman Vincent Peale. Values come first. To succeed, develop your character. If you’re a good person, you will do well in business.
  • Your Erroneous Zones by Wayne Dyer. It’s not enough to have values. You also need precisely-defined SMART goals.
  • Getting Things Done by David Allen. Okay, so you’ve got goals. Now, choose the next physical, visible actions that you will take to achieve them.

In short, productivity boils down to three questions:

  • ValuesWhy am I doing this?
  • GoalsWhat, exactly, am I doing?
  • ProcessHow am I doing it?

Our challenge is to link Why and What with Process. And the most powerful processes are individually designed — based on data collected from small behavioral experiments rather than generic productivity advice.

Tiago develops these ideas in Praxis, his subscription-based blog. I’m a member, and I recommend it to you. For an introduction to this body of work, see my previous posts:

Image by Leong Lok, unsplash.com

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