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Stop Hacking Your Productivity

Are you as productive as you want to be? Me neither. And although it fills me with self-loathing, I still occasionally succumb to the lure of those click-bait articles about productivity hacks based on the words of “wisdom” some sublimely productive human has shared with a business or lifestyle writer, presumably while also shaving and spending quality time reading poetry with their children and beloved pets.

The advice that most of these articles contains always seems itself to be imbued with urgency. Short, staccato points bark commands about how we should max out every moment (Bang out some squats while you brush your teeth! Get up at 5am you lazy monkeys!)

A post from Quartz this week sums up the sinister downside to this genre of advice:

“These hacks aren’t as innocent as they seem. Productivity hacks can also be read as cultural signposts, reminders that the clock is ticking, your output is being measured (as employees’ every move becomes increasingly quantifiable), and you’re now expected to work all the time, from anywhere.”

I’ll admit that there is a deeply attractive optimism underlying this sort of thinking. Why wouldn’t we take every chance to make ourselves just a little better; why wouldn’t we want to keep searching for that tiny edge that could make all the difference?

Except this belief, that we are all just one little boost away from being the next Mark Zuckerberg or Elon Musk, is false. It ignores systemic issues that result in obstacles for minorities and women in achieving success in the workplace. Indeed, the Quartz article I’m referencing, “Productivity Hacks Are Built for Bros”, links to an excellent Atlantic piece on the problems inherent in an uncritical commitment to meritocracy.

Quartz on productivity hacks:

“The promise that makes them so attractive is that you can tweak your way to the top, if you just employ enough micro-strategies—except we know that simply isn’t true.

“…like gamified dating apps and other customs that have infiltrated our lives, the hacks grew out of the culture of “tech bros,” the usually young, wealthy men who work in the tech industry, worship tech’s founder heroes, and mix frat boy brutishness with a nerdy dedication to “ideating” for their startup. Hacks reflect the creeping of tech bros’ work hard, play hard ethos into most other industries, and they naturally perpetuate beliefs about the ideal employee that give higher value to masculine traits…”

If you follow Tim Ferriss, you may already know that Stoicism has become a popular ethos incorporated into the ever-so-slightly cultish brand of super-productivity he writes and speaks about. (Side note that Ferriss’ TED talk on how Stocism helped him manage crippling depression seems truly heart-felt).

Stocism is an ancient philosophy that emphasizes logic and rationality and advises that one must accept the hardships that life offers and seek detachment in the face of that which cannot be changed. It seems obvious to point out how strongly this aligns to traditional views of masculinity, and how easy it must be to embrace the notion that some things can’t be changed when you’re a “tech bro” occupying a pretty privileged place in society.

Critics of applying Stoicism in modern times have noted that the instruction to accept that which one cannot change is a recipe for inaction in the face of complex social issues like oppression and discrimination; simply because we can’t change things on our own doesn’t mean we should accept the hardships they present, to us or others. Again, this ignores the reality that disadvantaged groups face in society and the workplace at a time when it is clear they cannot resolve those issues alone.

So, this post about productivity got a little heavy, and I don’t want to suggest that pursuing personal and professional improvement is selfish or harmful to others. Changes to our work and life habits can offer significant rewards, but a focus exclusively on more individual output without taking into account how it contributes to our broader lives and society can be dehumanizing. There is a broader context, and if we measure our own worth primarily by how productive we are, then we are implying this is how others should be measured without acknowledging that we don’t all have the same starting point, and the difficulty of our paths vary.

Read This Week:

I have to write an article before I go to bed so I wrote this – Sam Spurlin: 

I like Sam’s writing, and I suggest you check it out. He describes himself as an “Organization design guy at The Ready‘ but he writes about a range of things. This short post, which apparently resulted when he left his daily writing until later than usual, stuck in my head all weekend while I was helping my father-in-law move…and I left this weekly post until much later than usual…the dread Sam describes is a familiar feeling. Making a commitment to yourself to write and publish something (regardless of how you feel or what’s going on) is something I admire and respect. It takes discipline. It is a practice. You cannot become a better writer without writing. I know this, but there are days or weeks when it would be much easier to give in to that dread. I’m sitting here struggling through right now (it’s 11:15pm), and Sam’s post is reminding me of what that commitment means.

Generational Differences At Work: Myth or Reality – Science at Work: I fucking love science. This article presents “the counterintuitive results of a very solid and reliable study” about reputed differences between the generations. In fact, this study was “the first known quantitative meta-analysis…They reviewed 265 articles, and finally included 20 very reliable researches across nearly 20.000 workers, in order to see if generational differences had an effect on job satisfaction, organizational commitment, and intent to turnover.” The results?

“Contrary to the claims about generational differences, they surprisingly found that there were no significant differences in job satisfaction, organizational commitment and intent to turnover that can be explained by different generation membership.”

“…one first must understand individual and group differences and learn how to deal with each employee or group of employees rather than relying on unsubstantiated generational gaps.”

Imagine that! Understanding individual and group differences instead of falling back on lazy stereotypes…Share this one near and far please.

Saudi Arabia’s Strains – Bloomberg, Dana El Baltaji & Glen Carey

Really fascinating update on the state of the labour force in Saudi Arabia, which is set to be impacted by a confluence of societal and economic factors. As you may have read, Aramco, the gigantic state-owned oil producer, is aiming to IPO (which may end up being the world’s largest ever). At the same time Saudi leadership is seeking ways to increase the productivity of their workforce considerably. I lived in the Kingdom for 5 years growing up while my father worked for Aramco, so I was already aware that a significant portion of their skilled professional workforce is foreign-born. It’s also no secret that the government is very generous with jobs and cash for Saudi citizens, which is reputed to be a major factor in avoiding the civil unrest many other countries in the Middle East have experienced in recent years.

“Youth unemployment is about 30 percent, and expatriates fill half the country’s jobs. The government wants to phase out foreign workers in some roles. Even women have been encouraged to work outside the home, despite traditional disapproval of face-to-face contact with men.

“While the tradition-bound country is becoming less isolated, its puritanical religious life will create a challenge to reforms. A decade-long push to force the “Saudization” of the workforce has had limited success so far because Saudis lack technical skills and many continue to view occupations such as barber, butcher or painter as beneath them.

“…if more Saudis earn their own living and are asked to pay taxes, they could begin to demand a greater say in how their country is run.”

What do you think about our obsession with productivity? Any thoughts about its broader impact on our culture and society? Are you going to send that generations article to a few people who are always complaining about Millennials? Please do let me know in the comments!

Image credit: Ciocan Ciprian via

2 Comments Post a comment
  1. I learned to be stoic when I was sent to boarding school age 6. I learned to accept some things that were beyond my power to change. Despite this I have been an active change agent throughout my career.

    Magnifying differences between generations has been turned into an industry by some consultants. Thanks for the research paper Jane.

    Back in 2010 we were doing a workforce planning project for a government client and would have loved to have had that paper available then.

    The only research we could find at the time was a 2009 report from the Conference Board of Canada of a study into generational differences in the workplace. The Conference Board study suggested the different age groups have more in common with each other than it seems.

    June 26, 2017

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