Why Productivity?

I write a lot about productivity. While I like to tackle other subjects, how to get things done is a main one. After two years of writing here, I’ve noticed that there seems to be two different types of people who become interested in productivity.

The first category is for people who are trying to survive. They have way to much to do, and too little time to do it all. These people are looking for answers for how to motivate themselves, combat procrastination and cut out more time for relaxation and fun.

The other group fits the people who are trying to do more. They have so many interesting projects they want to work on, that it’s a struggle to fit everything in. Productivity interests these people because it allows them to do more of the work they enjoy.

While both of these groups may become interested in productivity, I’ve noticed completely different results.

Survivors Versus Achievers

I’ll admit this is a broad generalization. I’m sure most people get involved in productivity, Getting Things Done and reading websites like this for a mix of reasons. You might have interesting projects, but you might also have boring work you want to streamline.

The point I’m trying to make is that when you approach productivity from the perspective of a survivor, you get different results. Unfortunately, most of the resources on productivity assume that these two perspectives are the same.

The Downside of Just Trying to Survive

If your only motivation is cutting back, you aren’t going to become incredibly productive. You might make headway in becoming more organized and reducing procrastination. But I think it is unlikely that you’ll reach the same level of effectiveness as someone driven by achievement. A survivor motivation can only get you halfway.

The reason for this is simple. When reducing stress is your goal, you’ll stop improving as soon as the stress is gone. Once you become somewhat more productive, your level of control will go up and you’ll stop. The effort needed to go from 75% to 95% isn’t worth the time you save.

This is why I feel books like The 4-Hour Workweek are somewhat ironic. Clearly, someone who only wants to work four hours a week is coming from a survivor perspective. They are stressed with their current, 48-hour workweek and dream of living a life that pays the bills at less than an hour a day.

Unfortunately, these are exactly the kind of people who couldn’t implement all the productivity measures that the author, Tim Ferriss, suggests. If they managed to cut back to 35 hours, there stress would go down considerably and they would stop. The pressure to be productive would be gone.

This isn’t an attack on an otherwise great book, just an observation.

Motivation from Achievement

If you look at productivity from another perspective, this situation changes. If your goal for productivity is to do more of the work you enjoy, you will be able to reap the full benefits. The time and energy you save from being productive will pour back into the projects you’re interested in. As a result there is no stopping point when reaching a certain level of productivity is “good enough.”

While I don’t rigidly adhere to all of this today, I have at different points in time:

  • Stopped watching television
  • Switched to a vegetarian diet to get more energy
  • Started my day 5:30 am each morning
  • Added daily exercise
  • Cut back my internet/email usage to less than 30 minutes a day

All with the goal of trying to be more productive. I still follow most of these things today for the same reasons.

Taking on these actions seems extreme if your goal is simply to get work finished so you can relax. Why would you bother giving up television, something you enjoy, for productivity? Isn’t that backwards?

But it makes more sense if you approach productivity from the other perspective. If your goal is to add more interesting projects to your life (or just focus more on the ones you already have), these actions make sense. Productivity isn’t a way of eliminating work. It’s a way of getting more out of the work you have.

What’s Your Reason to Be Productive?

If your only goal for productivity is to eliminate work, that’s fine. I come from a different perspective, but it doesn’t make your motivation wrong. But it’s important to keep your motivations in mind when you look at productivity advice. Working four hours a week is probably unattainable if your drive comes from reducing work to only four hours.

What was your reason for becoming interested in productivity?

  • Kali

    My reason for becoming more productive is to reduce stress so I guess I fit into the “survivor” category. The thing is, there was a time I tried implementing “super” early wake-up hours to, like, read or even journal, but it all just seemed to get boring – the same same-old, same-old – plus I would naturally just go to bed earlier. So maybe its just that the “projects” I chose weren’t really projects I was interested in. A little bit of it has to do with faith, as well. I seem to lack the faith that I’ll be able to get anywhere at a decent pace with projects that are totally novel to me, but that, perhaps, would maintain my interest.

  • Jamie

    Again, you hit the nail right on the head. I find myself at a point now, where I’ve achieved enough productivity to reduce stress dramatically…….now what? I have a ton of goals yet to achieve, but I feel as though I’m in a plateau! I may just be looking at things from a “survivor” standpoint. I am extremely organized, but I am bored with, as the previous writer said, the “same old, same old”. I’ve eliminated alot of work, but I really don’t seem to be getting any more out of the work that I have? Maybe time for a perspective change! Thanks!

  • Michael Kwan

    I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with the survivor standpoint, so long as you replace the work that you are doing (increasing productivity and efficiency) with something else that is meaningful and brings you happiness. If this means that you have more time to dedicate to your children, that’s great. If this means that you have more time to travel the world, that’s great too.

  • Snigel

    I am purely what you call an achiever. My goal for optimising is to be able to do more things I want to do, rather than more things that I actually have to do to survive. That might be because I am in such a situation (fairly cheap living, no children and studying Chinese) that allows me to choose quite freely what to do with my time. On the other hand, it might have much more to do with personality (meaning that I do not thing my determination would change if I suddenly found a job). I think the idea of getting the most out of one’s life is something much deeper than circumstance.

    On a more general note, I find your article very interesting. It is obvious when you spell it out, but I actually had not thought about it before. Sadly, I do not have much to add to your thoughts, except to say that I agree with you on every point and that I like your website. It is always nice with people who present me with material I sort of knew myself, but needed someone else, more thorough and clear-thinking, to actually write about. Thanks.

  • J.D. Meier

    My day job is survival of the fittest and productivity is key. Initially it was survival, but eventually it became about spending more time on important stuff, spending less time on unimportant stuff and hitting the sweet spots of windows of opportunity.

    My manager values results and effectiveness over hours and effort. It forces me to work smarter over harder and find the most effective ways to make impact and deliver incremental value. Time is a first-class citizen and that’s a good thing.

    My best lessons have been about figuring out a sustainable rhythm for results, focusing on outcomes over activities, and avoiding the “productivity trap.” To me, the productivity trap is when you become a slave to a system or tools. I think the key to meaningful productivity is where your results framework supports you and whatever you want to accomplish. I’ve kept my approaches lean and effective — I can scale up to million dollar projects or down to just designing a good day, whether it’s for me or my teams. I’m at a point now though where I make more impact, by helping others be more effective. Knowledge really is power.

  • Scott Young

    Thanks for all the comments, everyone.

    I don’t think there is anything wrong with a survivor mentality. But diminishing returns will start kicking in soon if you take that perspective.

    My purpose for this post was to explain how some people can quickly hit a wall with productivity, and other people can take it in completely. The answer, of course, being their source of motivation.


  • Trey Meier

    My reason for becoming interested in productivity was self-improvement. I suppose that fits into the Achiever category because I always want to be learning and growing and improving. I enjoy accomplishing things and the lessons gained from the accomplishments.

    I have many times hit that wall from approaching productivity in survivor mode, and once the item or project is done I start to relax to the point where I become behind on all of my tasks again.

    Now I am working on my productivity to create habits that continue to benefit me in everything I do. I usually take a bit of many different practices and combine them to create practices that fit best in my situation rather than a specific book or productivity mantra. I am finding that the more diligent I am in sticking to a practice, the greater benefits I start to see.

    I agree with you Scott, I think there are more benefits to productivity if you work it in for positive reasons, rather than avoiding negative ones. I know that changing my focus on productivity has helped me immensely.