Reflections on productivity and the allure of the ineffective path

I recently stumbled across this idea when reading It Doesn’t Have to Be Crazy at Work:

When people focus on productivity, they end up focusing on being busy. Filling every moment with something to do. And there’s always more to do!

This got me thinking about the nature of productivity.

We’re socialized into thinking it’s always good to be productive.

People wear the label “busy” with pride. They brag about being constantly busy. It’s become a societal status symbol.

(But the opposite of “busy” isn’t “lazy.” You can still be “effective” without being “busy.”)

We may also value productivity because it feels good on a biochemical level.

The brain releases dopamine every time we complete something on our to-do list. This produces a good feeling in the body.

It doesn’t matter if that thing we crossed off is important or even urgent. We feel good when we complete things. And we feel even better when we complete more things.

And the fastest and easiest way to do more things? Do the things we feel like doing. Do the things we can do in the least time with the least effort.

(Not the most important things. Because often the most important things we have to do are complicated, time-consuming, and not something we want to do when we’re not in the right mood.)

These may be some reasons we value productivity in the first place.

But are there any other issues with productivity?

The Eisenhower matrix suggests that we should prioritize important tasks over non-important tasks. And within the important tasks, we should prioritize urgent ones over non-urgent ones.

But we don’t always judge importance the same way.

At our best, we evaluate importance based on our values, principles, and responsibilities.

But sometimes, we evaluate importance from a place of fear and scarcity.

Sometimes things remain undone on our to-do list for weeks, months, or years longer than we wanted them to.

Eventually, we may feel driven to get these things done—not necessarily because they uphold our values, but because we’re afraid that they will never get done or that we’re somehow inadequate for not completing them.

Sometimes things have deadlines that drive us to do them.

We may be compelled to do these not because our best self would prioritize them but because we experience the fear of missing out.

So while productivity drives us to get things done, we aren’t always driven to do the things that matter.

Now, focusing on the important implies that there are things on our to-do lists that aren’t going to be prioritized. This means that we have to choose not to do some things that are on our to-do lists.

This can feel uncomfortable. This can feel like we’re not being productive.

It’s also related to why I sometimes resist scheduling buffer time into my calendar when I time-block my week. Although this buffer time is there to ensure I can complete my highest priorities, I feel like I could be scheduling other tasks from my to-do list.

(Even though those other tasks are, by definition, not priorities.)

This drive to cram as much as possible into our schedules leads to another side effect: no downtime, which can lead to exhaustion or burnout.

(And it’s hard to do the things that matter when we’re burned out or have no energy.)

In reflecting on productivity, one of the outstanding questions I’m still pondering is, what about maintenance tasks?

(Maintenance tasks are those things that aren’t of critical importance, but we usually do them to keep things running smoothly. Chores are one example of a maintenance task.)

Is it that eventually, maintenance tasks will become priorities? The need for maintenance tasks grows the longer they go undone? (In which case, is this different from what I mentioned above, where things appear to grow in importance by virtue of not being done?)

Or should a certain amount of time be budgeted on some cadence for this work? (In tech, we sometimes budget for things like tech debt or bugs when planning the team’s capacity.)

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