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Advice / Succeeding at Work / Productivity

My Motto: Screw Productivity Tips That Only Make Your Life More Stressful

I once dated a guy who tried to tell me how to ride the subway. (If you’ve been in New York for more than a year, this is beyond insulting.)

Sometimes, he’d grab my arm and insist that, rather than stepping directly onto the arriving train, I run with him to the front car, so that when the train arrived, we’d be directly in front of the most convenient exit.

Some of his train “hacks” involved switching trains three times so we got someplace 10 minutes earlier. I’d say, “Dude, we’re on a date. We don’t have to be anywhere at any particular time. How about we just keep sitting on the train we’re on—which is going exactly where we want to go—and enjoy each other’s conversation?”

Personally, I’d rather have a pleasant 30-minute train ride—ideally one where I get lost in a magazine (or a fun date) and forget I’m even on a train—than a 22-minute train ride achieved by having to think about train hacks the entire 22 minutes.

And that’s pretty much how I feel about a lot of productivity advice.

Is it Really Better to Work 5 Unpleasant Hours Than 8 Very Nice Ones?

Some people, like subway guy, would surely say yes.

But do you work only for the money? If you also work for professional respect, a sense of accomplishment, and the enjoyment of seeing things fall into place (among other pleasures), sacrificing much of that to save a few hours doesn’t seem great.

Here is an article that is typical of this genre: “16 Tips for Getting 90% of Your Work Done in the Morning.” That’s a really attractive premise!

But the first three tips are: Schedule your day the night before. Clean your office the night before. Wake up at an ungodly hour.

Hmm, that kind of sounds like it’s going to destroy your sex life, doesn’t it? (The part where you go to bed at 9:30 so you can get up at 5:30; I’m also concerned about scheduling my day during wine time.) I mean, some adult films begin with someone cleaning their office at night, I guess.

More tips: Make 60 second decisions. Wear headphones. Do the toughest tasks first.

Hmm, do you want your boss making 60-second decisions? If she does, I’ll bet you work for an arbitrary tyrant!

I’m not against headphones—they can be great for focused bursts of concentration, even if you’re not actually listening to anything—but one reason many offices insist you actually come in rather than work at home is so you can collaborate with people. There’s a time for headphones, but that time is not “from an ungodly hour to just before lunch, after which you leave the office and don’t come back” (until I guess you re-appear at night to clean your office).

Do the toughest task first? That is good advice—that I intend to follow about once a week (let’s be honest—once a month) when something is really, really important. If I had to do that every day, I’d die of life hacking overload. You could bury me in a coffin made of old eggshells and hashtag it #lifehack. Or, you know, #deathhack.

I’m sure there are some professional levels you cannot reach unless you do the most important thing first, every morning. But I do pretty well, and I like to ease into things with two cappuccinos and Instagram. I don’t want to live in productivity bootcamp, where my day begins at 5 AM with a cold shower and the very hardest part of my day.

If You Need to Work This Way, Maybe You Are Doing Things That Are Not Important

Maybe, maybe not. If you’re an entrepreneur with employees to manage and investors to please, it is perfectly likely that you really do have 16 hours of work per day, and anything that would let you get that done in less time, you should suck it up and do.

But most people are way too busy, and they’re not building a startup. They’re just not getting the rewards for this kind of self-torture.

In The 4-Hour Workweek (parts of which are just the worst of bro culture and parts of which are indispensable!), Tim Ferriss suggests a thought experiment in which you imagine you’ve just had a heart attack and your doctor will only let you work two hours a day—or two hours a week? What would you choose to do?

If you’re waking up at 5 AM in order to do things that aren’t getting a return, you don’t need more productivity hacks.

And if you hate your work, you need to make a bold change—no life hack is going to compress work you hate into a small enough part of the day.

The last tip on the list of “16 Tips for Getting 90 Percent of Your Work Done Before Lunch” is reward yourself at a certain time–specifically, when your “work timer” goes off. If there’s anything that’s going to make you feel like a rat in a maze, it’s a timer that goes off and signals that now you get a fudge pop from the office freezer.

You’re a person. If you’d chafe at a boss who treats you this way, why treat yourself this way? Maximizing your productivity doesn’t have to be the goal, especially if it’s not leading to any particular return—for instance, you’re done with work two hours earlier, but now you hate work, or all you can do after work is anything that helps you forget the pressure.

Sure, sometimes you have someplace to be, and you have to hustle to do your work super-fast. And some people like to live that way all the time. But if you don’t, don’t.

What if instead of maximizing work productivity, you tried to maximize work elegance? Work pleasure? Maybe instead of doing the most intense work task of the day first thing in the morning, you want a little work foreplay? That’s okay.

Try mapping out a workday that would make all your work more pleasurable. What would you add? What would you find a way to stop doing? Would the whole thing end up taking a little longer? Would it be worth it? Not to subway guy. But to a lot of us, yes.

Photo of stressed woman courtesy of Shutterstock.