Don’t ask how to be more productive next year. Ask why you want to be

The why matters more than the what.
The why matters more than the what.
Image: AP Photo/Craig Ruttle
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A new year is almost here, ushering in a season of resolutions for a successful, productive 2018. But is there a more thoughtful way to consider your goals than simply doing and achieving more?

This was the subject of a recent conversation between Quartz At Work colleagues Khemaridh Hy, who has written and thought at length about the deeper meaning of our cultural obsession with productivity, and Corinne Purtill who . . . hasn’t. The following is a transcript of their conversation, edited and condensed for clarity.

Corinne Purtill: It’s a perennial goal of mine to be more productive and more organized, and there’s so much information out there on how to do it well. I know that. So why don’t I actually do any of it?

Khe Hy: The first reason has to do with habit formation. Forming good habits is extremely, extremely hard. There’s an element of productivity that is habit formation and—sad news—that is actually the easier part. The science of habit formation is pretty well-documented at this point. But the implementation is a little trickier, and it gets into the deeper diagnosis for our desire for productivity.

CP: So let’s start with the slightly easier one: why is habit formation as hard as it is?

KH: We’re probably too ambitious when it comes to breaking habits, or adding new habits. We have limited amounts of willpower.

CP: The ego depletion stuff?

KH: Exactly. The research is mixed here, but some of it suggests that you just try to will your way into working out more or into checking your phone less, eventually you’ll just be physically exhausted by it and you can’t do it.

CP: What about the deeper reason? Why do we care in the first place if we’re productive or not?

KH: It’s really a proxy for the human condition. Productivity is an easy way to feel like you’re notching up wins. If you can go from 50 emails to zero emails, you’ve notched 50 wins. There is that quick dopamine release even from something as simple as—and I’ve done this myself—writing a task in a notebook knowing that I’ve already completed it, just so I can get the hit of crossing it off.

CP: Same.

KH: That’s pretty fucked up. It basically shows that we can’t control ourselves, that we act irrationally. I would take it a step further: in this digital era that we live in, the system is rigged against you by the sheer volume of media. There’s no end. There’s literally no end. There is no end to Twitter. There is no end to a Facebook feed. Tristan Harris refers to them as “bottomless bowls,” and as humans, we haven’t fully processed what that means. We’re still trying to get to zero in these bottomless games. There is this dissonance, and we’re all working through it right now.

CP: When I think about my relationship to these productivity hacks, I think that part of why I don’t do them is that for as long as a strategy is not implemented or a task is left undone, I can keep in my head the possibility that once I’ve done, it I’ll feel better. That once I’ve done this thing, I will feel calm, or in control, or competent. It’s almost like a sense of perfectionism—sometimes I have trouble forcing myself to write a story because for as long as the piece is unwritten, that weird perfect draft in my head that never quite makes it to the page still exists. What is that feeling I’m chasing after here?

KH: That’s where it starts to really get into the deeper complexities of the mind. An example: I put a tremendous amount of pressure on myself to read a lot. At one time in my life, I had the idea that I wanted to read every title on the list of the top 100 works of American fiction. Thankfully I don’t want to do that anymore. But, my poor self! Why would you impose that on yourself?

There’s a small part that’s ego: wouldn’t it be nice to be that guy in the cocktail party, the expert in American fiction. It’s a small thing, but it’s definitely there. Then there’s another part that says, well, I would be a better creator if I’d read that many books. There’s a loose correlation there, but that’s kind of BS. You don’t become a better writer just because you read more books.

And then there’s the sense of achievement. Personally, this is where I tend to get stuck on these productivity rabbit holes. For me the pursuit of achievement is one of the essential virtues of my life. This insatiable desire to be productive is actually an insatiable desire to achieve.

CP: What do we need the achievement for?

KH: Modern society is definitely one that rewards tangible achievement. That would be one reason. In my case, it also ties to a fear of my own mortality. The more I achieve, the more people will remember me when I’m gone. Again, that’s false, but it’s very seductive in the heat of the moment. That’s really what productivity is. That is the obsession. People might have different pathways than the one I just laid out—I’m sure they do—but that is really the question of productivity: is picking up that 99th fiction book really going to make me immortal?

CP: Why is it so hard to maintain perspective? What is that broken pathway in our brain that links checking off a to-do list item to the fear of death?

KH: I’m no expert in Buddhism, but as I understand it, the fundamental Buddhist concept is that humans suffer. Emotional, mental restlessness: that’s their definition of suffering. Why do we suffer? We suffer because we desire things. Productivity is a proxy for things that we desire: If I’m more productive, I can make more money and I can buy a house. If I’m more productive, I’ll be remembered after I die. It manifests in everything we do. And in our overly-connected world, there are just so many opportunities to feel that. The productivity genre is just exploiting this weakness of ours. I’ve been trying to read less productivity literature and more literature on spirituality, psychology, and philosophy—and, ironically, it’s made me more productive. Philosophy is the new productivity.

CP: So how do we start to confront those deeper issues?

KH: Tiago Forte is a productivity blogger who specifically says that he’s against hacks, because hacks don’t diagnose the root cause of your problem. They’re just a Band-Aid on your problem. Figuring out what that bigger issue is is what we should really be asking ourselves.

A really helpful thing I learned from Tiago is that whenever you get stuck on something, like that nagging item on your to-do list that you can’t seem to cross off, he encourages you to notice the resistance. What is actually preventing you from getting that thing done? In the example you gave earlier, about putting off writing at work, the issue may be a fear of failure: if I don’t start the story, I can’t fail at the story. So the real question is not how can I hack my way to writing quicker, but why do I believe that if this story fails, bad things will happen? It can probably open the door to questions of self-worth, relationships from the past, or a whole bunch of things. But it’s a more existential question.

CP: On a practical level, how do we manage this day to day? You can’t dive into the depths of your psyche every time you run up against a challenge at work—you have stuff to get done. How do you manage the tasks at hand while still grappling with the bigger picture?

KH: This is something that I’ve become really fascinated with: having an emotional fitness tool kit. On one end you have something really simple, like a mantra. A mantra can really act like a speed bump when you start to go down these dangerous paths of self-doubt and self-loathing. Most people just plow through these uncomfortable thoughts, get really stressed out, go home, rinse, repeat. There’s no judgement there, that’s just how we operate. But inserting that little tiny speed bump is actually really useful. I have a friend who uses the Roosevelt quote “comparison is the thief of joy” when he finds himself indiscriminately trying to keep up with the Joneses; former hedge fund trader Sam Polk stops spirals of self-loathing with the mantra “I am enough.”

There’s also a question that Caroline Webb, one of our Quartz At Work contributors, uses: What can I learn from this? By asking that, you switch your mind from the negative self-doubt death spiral to one of curiosity and personal growth. It’s a simple question to reset you in the right direction.

Then there are intermediate steps. I know that meditation is often presented as a silver bullet, but I do think that mindfulness lets you step out of the fray and say, “Hey. You’re doing that thing where you beat yourself up for no reason. You might want to consider stopping it.” I’ve been meditating for three years now, and now I notice exactly when these things are happening. I can’t always stop them, but just noticing that I’m doing it takes the pressure off.

On a more committed level, I have become such a huge fan of coaching—executive coaching, life coaching, whatever you want to call it. It’s truly hard to do that for yourself. Having a coach helps you step above the fray, look across your portfolio of activities, and hear that voice of reason. Or at the very least, have different accountability partners with whom you can share these things collectively that you’re all working through.

CP: So rather than just pushing ourselves to do more and be more in the new year, how can we choose our goals for 2018 more thoughtfully?

KH: I think it’s all about asking yourself the right questions. How will my life change if I read 100 fiction books? How will my life change if I get to inbox zero? Or ask in the inverse: what are the repercussions if I don’t do this thing? And really be honest with yourself. You want some ego. Your ego is your sense of identity, it’s your drive. But if you do everything for your ego, you’re going to drive yourself crazy.