Five Productivity Ideas I’m Not Buying (Yet?)

By | August 17, 2007
Five Productivity Ideas I'm Not Buying

The body of work on productivity, life-work balance, and personal achievement sits uncomfortably – perhaps perilously — close to the genre of “self-help”. There are good ideas out there, but there are also a lot of hacks, quacks, and worse pawning off half-baked philosophies and poorly conceived analogies as solid advice.

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While none of it is all that dangerous in and of itself, I think there is reason to be cautious about the ideas and strategies we invest our time, energy, and all too often our selves into. By presenting poor advice that promises but, in the end, fails to make us more productive, more able to handle the overwhelming press of personal and professional commitments, or more satisfied with our abilities, talents, and achievements, this mass of bad advice leaves us doubting ourselves, wondering not if there’s something wrong with the authors but if there’s something wrong with us.

After working my way though a good part of my local library’s books on personal productivity and organization, I’ve been struck by the sheer number of ideas that, though popular, seem to promise a lot more than they deliver. A lot of it is built on poorly done, poorly understood, or even fraudulent research. I’m surprised, too, at how shallow so much of this literature is that promises to help its readers deepen their lives.

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Much of it isn’t worth mentioning, but there are a few ideas that are so popular, that come up so much when we lifehackistas get to talking, that they do deserve examination. Here is my list of five ideas that I’m not buying – some of them I’ve tried and found lacking, others simply strike me as outright stupid, and some as sheer BS, but all of them are well-known and carry a lot of weight in the personal productivity world.

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  • Mind mapping. I wanted so badly to believe this one! As an academic, I’m always looking for ways to simplify and strengthen the organization and use of information, tools that would help me to see connections among seemingly disparate ideas. What a disappointment it was to sit down with Tony Buzan’s books and find almost nothing there – a way to make beautiful pictures that seems to offer nothing in the way of actual productivity. I simply can’t see why a handful of colored pencils and an hour of sketching little drawings and cutesy arrows (hey, let’s make this line look like a staircase, because it’s about “moving up” in the world!) should be considered an improvement over ten minutes of list-making. All Buzan offers to support any of this is his insistence that this is how the brain works. And if it isn’t…?
  • The 80/20 Rule. I get the idea here: eliminate the stuff you do that doesn’t make you happier, wealthier, or wiser, and focus on the stuff that does. But why wrap the pretty good advice up in a scientific-sounding pseudo-rule (hey, it’s mathy, it must be true!? What is “20%” of the stuff I do, anyway? How is that measured? Total calories expended on each task, minutes used on each thing, or maybe the amount of worrying I do in getting something done? I’m sure there’s some business psychologist somewhere who has sat down and tracked employees’ workflows – what does that have to do with me? How does that transfer out of the workplace, and why should it? What would “80%” of my productivity even look like? What does 20% of parenting look like? Of painting? Of writing? It’s a bogus measure meant to give more gravitas to advice that, frankly, doesn’t need it.
  • The power of Brand You. This is another one I get the idea of, but think it’s misdirected. Basically, the idea of Brand You is to stand out, to be memorable, to market yourself – through schmoozing, networking, the quality of your work, and so on – as THE person to turn to in your field. But the over-reliance on the idea of a brand, as if you were a product to be put on a shelf – it bother me. What’s more, the idea is that you’re always selling yourself. In no other part of life do we think of salespeople as holding the keys to success, but when it comes to shaping our careers and even our lives, we’re asked to turn to Willy Loman as a model?
  • Making productivity a habit. This strikes me as good advice, but it’s only halfway there. The problem with habits is that they become routines, reflexes – not even “become”, they are routines. As anyone who’s ever tried to quit smoking or stop saying “um” will tell you, habits are hard to break. Habits can hinder our ability to adapt to change, can even prevent us from seeing change at all. They can also blind us to important information, forcing us to push it out of our minds the way the habitual smoker explains away his morning cough or wheezing after the second flight of stairs.
  • Visualizing success. I’ve saved the worst for last – the alleged power of positive thinking. It never ceases to surprise me how much traction this kind of new-agey, pseudo-mystical thinking gets among otherwise hard-headed, practical-minded movers and shakers. The worst part is that it’s not even true: research shows that visualizing yourself as successful, imagining you’ve won that promotion and corner office or walking down the street with the current object of your obsession rarely leads to effective action. Instead, psychologists find that mentally re-enacting the series of events that led one to have difficulty securing a promotion or getting a date is more likely to compel us to act, and in more productive ways. Self-examination is key, not escaping into an imagined but unrealized future.

Like I said, these are ideas that have a lot of followers, which tells me that somebody, somewhere is getting – or thinks they’re getting – some use out of them. So I’m not ready to close the door on them entirely; if you think there’s a good reason to take another look at something in the list above, let me know!

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At the start of the year, if you had asked anyone if they could do their work from home, many would have said no. They would have cited the need for team meetings, a place to be able to sit down and get on with their work, the camaraderie of the office, and being able to meet customers and clients face to face.

Almost ten months later, most of us have learned that we can do our work from home and in many ways, we have discovered working from home is a lot better than doing our work in a busy, bustling office environment where we are inundated with distractions and noise.

One of the things the 2020 pandemic has reminded us is we humans are incredibly adaptable. It is one of the strengths of our kind. Yet we have been unknowingly practicing this for years. When we move house we go through enormous upheaval.

When we change jobs, we not only change our work environment but we also change the surrounding people. Humans are adaptable and this adaptability gives us strength.

So, what are the pros and cons of working from home? Below I will share some things I have discovered since I made the change to being predominantly a person who works from home.

Pro #1: A More Relaxed Start to the Day

This one I love. When I had to be at a place of work in the past, I would always set my alarm to give me just enough time to make coffee, take a shower, and change. Mornings always felt like a rush.

Now, I can wake up a little later, make coffee and instead of rushing to get out of the door at a specific time, I can spend ten minutes writing in my journal, reviewing my plan for the day, and start the day in a more relaxed frame of mind.

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When you start the day in a relaxed state, you begin more positively. You find you have more clarity and more focus and you are not wasting energy worrying about whether you will be late.

Pro #2: More Quiet, Focused Time = Increased Productivity

One of the biggest difficulties of working in an office is the noise and distractions. If a colleague or boss can see you sat at your desk, you are more approachable. It is easier for them to ask you questions or engage you in meaningless conversations.

Working from home allows you to shut the door and get on with an hour or two of quiet focused work. If you close down your Slack and Email, you avoid the risk of being disturbed and it is amazing how much work you can get done.

An experiment conducted in 2012 found that working from home increased a person’s productivity by 13%, and more recent studies also find significant increases in productivity.[1]

When our productivity increases, the amount of time we need to perform our work decreases, and this means we can spend more time on activities that can bring us closer to our family and friends as well as improve our mental health.

Pro #3: More Control Over Your Day

Without bosses and colleagues watching over us all day, we have a lot more control over what we do. While some work will inevitably be more urgent than others, we still get a lot more choice about what we work on.

We also get more control over where we work. I remember when working in an office, we were given a fixed workstation. Some of these workstations were pleasant with a lot of natural sunlight, but other areas were less pleasant. It was often the luck of the draw whether we find ourselves in a good place to work or not.

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By working from home we can choose what work to work on and whether we want to face a window or not. We can get up and move to another place, and we can move from room to room. And if you have a garden, on nice days you could spend a few hours working outside.

Pro #4: You Get to Choose Your Office Environment

While many companies will provide you with a laptop or other equipment to do your work, others will give you an allowance to purchase your equipment. But with furniture such as your chair and desk, you have a lot of freedom.

I have seen a lot of amazing home working spaces with wonderful sets up—better chairs, laptop stands that make working from a laptop much more ergonomic and therefore, better for your neck.

You can also choose your wall art and the little nick-nacks on your desk or table. With all this freedom, you can create a very personal and excellent working environment that is a pleasure to work in. When you are happy doing your work, you will inevitably do better work.

Con #1: We Move a Lot Less

When we commute to a place of work, there is movement involved. Many people commute using public transport, which means walking to the bus stop or train station. Then, there is the movement at lunchtime when we go out to buy our lunch. Working in a place of work requires us to move more.

Unfortunately, working from home naturally causes us to move less and this means we are not burning as many calories as we need to.

Moving is essential to our health and if you are working from home you need to become much more aware of your movement. To ensure you are moving enough, make sure you take your lunch breaks. Get up from your desk and move. Go outside, if you can, and take a walk. And, of course, refrain from regular trips to the refrigerator.

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Con #2: Less Human Interaction

One of the nicest things about bringing a group of people together to work is the camaraderie and relationships that are built over time. Working from home takes us away from that human interaction and for many, this can cause a feeling of loss.

Humans are a social species—we need to be with other people. Without that connection, we start to feel lonely and that can lead to mental health issues.

Zoom and Microsoft Teams meeting cannot replace that interaction. Often, the interactions we get at our workplaces are spontaneous. But with video calls, there is nothing spontaneous—most of these calls are prearranged and that’s not spontaneous.

This lack of spontaneous interaction can also reduce a team’s ability to develop creative solutions—there’s just something about a group of incredibly creative people coming together in a room to thrash out ideas together that lends itself to creativity.

While video calls can be useful, they don’t match the connection between a group of people working on a solution together.

Con #3: The Cost of Buying Home Office Equipment

Not all companies are going to provide you with a nice allowance to buy expensive home office equipment. 100% remote companies such as Doist (the creators of Todoist and Twist) provide a $2,000 allowance to all their staff every two years to buy office equipment. Others are not so generous.

This can prove to be expensive for many people to create their ideal work-from-home workspace. Many people must make do with what they already have, and that could mean unsuitable chairs that damage backs and necks.

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For a future that will likely involve more flexible working arrangements, companies will need to support their staff in ways that will add additional costs to an already reduced bottom line.

Con #4: Unique Distractions

Not all people have the benefit of being able to afford childcare for young children, and this means they need to balance working and taking care of their kids.

For many parents, being able to go to a workplace gives them time away from the noise and demands of a young family, so they could get on with their work. Working from home removes this and can make doing video calls almost impossible.

To overcome this, where possible, you need to set some boundaries. I know this is not always possible, but it is something you need to try. You should do whatever you can to make sure you have some boundaries between your work life and home life.

Final Thoughts

Working from home can be hugely beneficial for many people, but it can also bring serious challenges to others.

We are moving towards a new way of working. Therefore, companies need to look at both the pros and cons of working from home and be prepared to support their staff in making this transition. It will not be impossible, but a lot of thought will need to go into it.

More About Working From Home

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