Why most “productivity” advice is unproductive

Photo by Jordan Whitfield on Unsplash

I have been a self-help and productivity junkie. Like many, I was drawn in by the simplified advice given in a numbered list that could transform my life. If there’s one thing “productivity” writers like it’s a numbered list.

Why does this advice not stick? Why are you not waking up at 5am for a 5 mile jog, drinking 3 green teas chased down by a kale smoothie, then mindfully writing in your life journal whilst practising gratitude as part of your Success Guaranteed Morning Routine?

Here’s why I think this advice doesn’t work:

  1. Happiness. Very little focus in this literature is put on day to day happiness. Happiness needs to be the foundation on which to build: your source of energy, and not some elusive end goal that you will get if you sacrifice enough. That doesn’t mean watching Youtube videos all day — that probably won’t make you truly happy; but equally it doesn’t mean dreading waking up as your alarm screams at you for being lazy at 5am.
  2. Self-worth. Many of these articles make you feel bad about yourself. They take the tone of a disapproving teacher that’s bragging about how productive they are and that you need to do more if you want to be productive too. That’s about as unmotivating as you can get. There are too many “should” statements that make you feel bad. In fact, cognitive behavioural scientists consider “should” statements as one of the thought patterns of depressed people. These articles need to be kinder if they want to be more impactful. They should advise things that might help you reach your goal but be honest and say that they don’t work for everyone, and it doesn’t matter if it’s not for you. You’re still great, and just giving something new a shot is a success in itself.
  3. Certainty. These articles are nearly always too certain — certainty (read: confidence) draws people in but it is a good sign that this person hasn’t really thought about what they’re saying. These authors offer blanket advice on how to be successful but with the assurity that this advice will work…for everyone (if you work hard enough). This is at best unrealistic. Try having a morning routine with a young child around. Try going for a daily 5 mile jog when your job’s lifting heavy boxes for 40 hours a week. Advice isn’t universallly applicable in reality. And it’s fine if it doesn’t work for you. These articles should say “I found this worked for me” or “science shows that this is useful for a lot of young people with a sedentary lifestyle” but don’t claim that this advice will definitely work and it will definitely be life-changing. It’s stupid, unhelpful and leads to unrealistic expectations.

Should you stop reading self-help advice? Well, that’s a self-help guru question itself. I’m not saying what you should or shouldn’t do. You’re probably smarter and definitely in a better position to make that judgement than me. Maybe the kind of article I’m talking about actually works for you — that you’ve noticed improvements due to the sort of advice I’ve mentioned. I’m just saying what I think and why. Take that however you want.

However, if you’re like me and reading these articles hasn’t really had the desired effect, I hope the points above will give some food for thought and perhaps will signal when to mute unhelpful advice or at least read it with a critical eye. Personally, I think there are nuggets of gold to be found in this genre but the difficulty lies in sifting out the bad advice. My hope is that this goes some way to help.

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Humbly questioning assumptions

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Jimmy Gough

Jimmy Gough

Humbly questioning assumptions

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