The clock ticked to five past three. Civilization was asleep, covered in the blanket of night. “And that’s one more task off the list,” he whispered as he cleared week-old emails, lying in his bed. The GTD gods smiled down at him – Inbox Zero was finally within sight.
His 7-day social media detox was nearing its end, and he couldn’t wait to tell the world all about it. There was also the new issue of his Substack newsletter waiting to be published.
“7 Things I Discovered From My 7 Day Social Media Detox”
The title was ready. It had the right amount of irony to poke fun at culture’s obsession with the listicle but sincere enough that his subscribers would still click through.
But that would have to wait. The sun would begin its upward climb in a few hours and then the day would be his to seize. He had spent an hour last night calendar blocking, after all.
A restful nap followed. Soon, the clock neared 7. His morning routine started off with 20 minutes of guided meditation on his favourite app. His daily motivational tweetstorm was ready by the time he’d weighed the coffee grounds that he would drop into his Chemex. The coffee bloomed when he added the precisely measured amount of hot water. Watching the carbon dioxide leave the coffee grounds, he thought about how tired he was. But that was the cost of productivity. Sleep was a waste of time – he’d rather spent that time jotting things down in his trusty Bullet Journal or the custom daily-use organizational system he’d crafted in Notion.
The tiredness abated after his coffee. It was time to get to work. He put on his favourite podcast that promised to sate his curiosity through deep, one-on-one conversations with thought leaders and exclusive guests of the intellectual kind. Playback was fixed at 1.5x speed, so he could absorb and retain more information in less time. The podcast did offer actionable pieces of wisdom and practical knowledge, and he wanted to get to those as soon as he could. His eyes focused on the laptop in front of him. It was time to achieve flow state and work on what mattered. If there was one thing he’d retained from all the productivity videos he’d binge-watched on YouTube, it was that flow state was essential to deep work. And wasn’t the quantity of work produced all that mattered?
His state of intense concentration was disrupted when the smart band on his wrist buzzed. He had been inactive for too long, it reminded him. Time to get some movement in – sitting around too long was dangerous.
And that’s where we are right now.
There are dozens – if not hundreds – of creators sweating over every detail of their life. They try to perfect their daily routines. They are driven to extract efficiency, to maximize their outputs to ungodly levels. It is incredible how easy it is to be swept into the rabbit hole of ✨p r o d u c t i v i t y✨. And watching these creators talk for hours on end about their perfect system for note-taking/organization/task-management/planning/time-scheduling, you are certain to end up thinking such a system could work for you. You start to feel like that one particular productivity app that was recommended by them could help you get on top of things.
I’m guilty of a lot of these things myself. I haven’t gone so far as to be a grouchy hipster who brews his own coffee in a Chemex, but I have tried out several ‘systems’ that promised massive returns after the initial setup. Suffice it to say, I never really got any returns since I never did the setup. There’s a lesson in there about how these systems have such a steep learning curve that a user would abandon it during the setup phase.
It feels wrong labeling productivity tools and systems as fads. They have been part of the conversation around productivity for a long time now and will stay that way for the foreseeable future. Apparently there are people who find value from these tools and systems – though I am inclined to feel everyone is lying about it and no one actually derives any value or joy from any of this. It’s all a charade. But I digress. Some of the fads I’ve tried include
- guided mindfulness meditation apps
- crafting a second brain with Evernote
- Getting Things Done (GTD) with Todoist
- the Kanban style of task management and planning with Trello
- time tracking with Toggl
- habit tracking with Habitica
- multiple attempts at physical Bullet Journals
- failed attempts at creating the ultimate productivity and organization system with Notion
- consuming media to boost my knowledge and awareness – examples include talk-show style podcasts and blogs like Farnam Street.
At the moment, I use none of these systems – either the return on investment was simply too low, or I didn’t invest enough time in set up and customization. The greatest lie of productivity YouTubers is that you can be productive with the methods and tools shown. The truth is you only feel motivated when watching the video, not when you have to act on the advice received.
This lofty, intangible and poorly defined end goal of ✨p r o d u c t i v i t y✨ is a rabbit hole with no escape. You become so engaged in the pursuit of optimizing every single facet of your life and work that everything else fades. The actual work you do has no more value – all you care about is migrating to the flashy new system or tool everyone’s harping about. Productivity becomes less of work output quality and quantity, and more about integrating different apps and methods into your life. It is a never-ending game of trying out the shiny new things. The actual act of working and being productive plays second fiddle to the dopamine hit of watching these well-crafted videos about being productive.
Much like the note-taking gurus who lack an actual context of use when writing about note-taking, creators focusing on productivity lack serious perspective on the use case of these tools/methods/systems. They talk only about the tool, not how it might be used by someone in the real world. Watching videos on productivity, improved reading retention, note taking and being an overall better person is akin to watching porn – it feels very good when you watch it, but you slowly realize the real world is different from what is shown. Productivity is an ill-defined metric and we are conditioned to chase it as a badge of honor.
Or maybe it’s all in my head and none of what I’ve written above is true.