How to Keep Productivity from Making You a Robot


Every once in awhile I’ll get an email from someone who feels productivity turns you into a robot. If you spend so much time focusing on productivity, the argument goes, you miss out on having fun, relaxing and doing all the “unproductive” things that make life worth living. I might get more done, they claim, but at what cost to quality of life?

I hope most of the readers here don’t share this misguided opinion. However, I can understand why some people confuse productivity with being a robot. All this talk about habits, highly organized to-do lists and maximum efficiency sounds somewhat mechanical. And, if you are a two-dimensional person, productivity might dominate your entire life. But, in reality, becoming productive is one of the best ways to enjoy all the fantastic, yet unproductive, times.

The Flip-Side of Productivity

I write about productivity because I’m a productivity geek. What makes people tick and how people get work done fascinates me, so I have a lot of ideas. It doesn’t mean I never procrastinate, fall into laziness or break a habit. It just means that I’ve spent a lot of time looking for ways to overcome my natural shortfalls.

If you met me in real life, I don’t think you would put “productive” as my main feature. To most of my friends, I’m just a guy that likes parties, going to the gym, hanging out and doing all the other things a typical 19-year old enjoys. Getting work done is something that allows me more time to socialize, relax and enjoy life.

The problem with being productive is that it isn’t a complete solution. If you don’t have interesting hobbies, social skills and a flare for spontaneity, getting more work done will just be replaced with more work. But if you have those skills, being more productive lets you get more done while giving more time for the other aspects of life.

Be Selectively Unproductive

When I’m doing work, more is better. I don’t see any side-effects with getting more work done in less time. Even when you love what you do, getting more work done helps you get more out of it. All of these productivity techniques can be used to speed up work you hate. But where they really matter is getting more out of work you love.

Recently, I was initiated into my faculty’s student council. I’m now one of six Managers of Corporate Relations on a council with 40+ members. At our transition day, we had a few too many drinks and made many new friends. Taking on this position and having a late Saturday night would be hard to do with my schedule if I didn’t focus on working productively.

I’ve written previously about how I wake up at 5:30, to get more out of my day. I woke up at 5:30 am to write this article and I still have over an hour before my classes start. Although the first ten minutes can be rough, it’s an amazing feeling to quietly get your work done in the early hours of the morning.

That focus on being productive doesn’t prevent me from enjoying a late sleep on some of my days off. It doesn’t mean I can’t waste an entire day playing a video game or watching the entire series of Bourne movies in one sitting (best action movies ever, by the way). In fact, that focus actually enables me to be selectively unproductive when it counts.

How to Prevent Productivity Creep from Turning You Into a Robot

In The 4-Hour Workweek, Tim Ferriss stresses the importance of work/life separation instead of work/life balance. Balance leads to blending, Tim says. I completely agree. You need to separate the pools of your life where focused productivity is important and the ones where you need to enjoy being inefficient.

Whenever I experiment with a new productivity habit like eliminating television, waking up earlier or batching my email, I look for ways this might impact my non-productive activities. If I can get a big productivity boost with few costs to my time off, the change is usually worth it. But, if the impact is too large, I know I need to tweak the habit so I can keep that work/life separation.

Productivity creep happens when you take the same quantitative thinking that improves your work and try to apply it to qualitative areas of life where it doesn’t. By keeping the two areas in separate pools, you can think about the two areas in different ways.

When I try to implement a new productivity tip, my goal is either to:

  • Use the extra time to take on more projects I love.
  • Use the time to enjoy being selectively unproductive.

For me, both of those things are a plus. If I can take on a new project it means I can move closer to my goals and do something I care about. If I decide to spend the saved time on something unproductive, I can enjoy life more without worrying about getting my to-do list finished.

In the end, the goal with both work and time off is really the same: to spend more time doing things you can get enthusiastic about. It’s easy to see productivity as being purely a reduction strategy. But, where you simplify and reduce you can get the time and energy to do more.