Be Wary of Seductive Productivity Blogs

by: Christopher Jones

If I asked you what kinds of blogs dominate your RSS feed or Twitter lists, I imagine there’s a good chance that a number of them are productivity blogs. I’m a recovering addict myself. If it’s out there, I’ve probably read it. I have  spent an unhealthy amount of time digesting the likes of Lifehacker, Ben Casnocha, Ramit Sethi, Zen Habits, Brazen Careerist, Tim Ferriss, and more. I realized at one point that I had become an productiv-a-holic. Sifting through productivity blogs like a junkie in an alley desperate for a fix to make my life somehow more efficient. After one of my countless free afternoons spent in a spectacularly unproductive binge with my productivity blogs, I decided I had enough. De-clutter. Turn it off. Unsubscribe. Calm down and focus on the real work.

Here are a few truths I’ve discovered about my relationship with productivity blogs.

1. To a hammer, everything in the world resembles a nail.

There are two sides to this. For me, I was conditioning myself to find ways to be more productive, but over-conditioned to the point where my modus operandi was increasing productivity, but not doing actual work. I’d realize, after downloading a bunch of apps and browser extensions I would never use, that I should have just unplugged from the noise and focused on the work in the first place. Similarly, any website that builds it’s equity from informational content has a duty to keep the pipe flowing. Lifehacker’s purpose isn’t to help you solve your  problems, it’s to put out useful tips, tricks, and news that might help someone solve their problems. I’ve found that I only get something useful from one of these sites if I approach them with a real problem in hand first.

2. Productivity is the arch-nemesis of creativity.

If creativity were a cape-wielding superhero, his arch nemesis would be a massive evil robot named productivity. Creativity simply doesn’t work hand-in-hand with productivity. Let’s face it: there are days when we need to be the engineer and days when we need to be the architect. The parts of your brain that generate the out-of-the-box, ridiculous, never-thought-of-before ideas aren’t connected to the ones that help you sift through and organize your emails more effectively. So if your work stems from your creative side, you might be better off unplugging.  In fact, if you need to harness your creativity, your best bet is to be inefficient. There’s even been some research to show the benefits of inefficiency on creativity.

3. Do you really need it?

Some of the content out there is downright seductive. Who isn’t interested in a productivity hack that can help you make all meetings last 10 minutes, or spend only 20 minutes a day on email? However, it’s important to keep in mind that necessity is the mother of all invention. Identify problems before you identify solutions. If you’re searching for solutions to solve a problem you don’t have, then you’re really just procrastinating from the real work that needs to get done instead. I’m guessing if you’re part of Technori’s readership, you don’t find yourself with a lot of “down time,” so don’t waste it. Amazingly, leagues of inventors and innovators from DaVinci to Thomas Edison, and Henry Ford to Steve Jobs, managed to build empires and create technological innovations that changed the world without soliciting advice from blogs.

4. The true purpose of a productivity website.

If you look closely enough, pretty much every website’s number one priority is self-preservation. There are various means to an end for this. Penelope Trunk keeps your attention by writing provocative personal essays in between her sometimes useful rants about bucking traditional corporate structure and new ways to look at entrepreneurship in the information age. Tim Ferriss might be the information age’s P.T. Barnum. He can’t sell books unless some of his claims are so ridiculous that they may be believable (such as his gain 34 pounds of muscle in 4 weeks with 4 hours of gym time).

Though, I’m not suggesting all of the typical “producitvity porn stars” are snake oil salesmen. For every unbelievable claim Ferriss makes, you can usually find some practical advice. But it’s important to recognize the need for self-preservation that is implicit in any content-providing website or service. When you are wading through a Twitter list filled with links to productivity tips, don’t forget that they are actively vying for your attention. Be discriminating about whom you give it to.

5. The whole landscape of productivity blogs is kind of like a 19th century drug store.

I haven’t even touched on the SEO going on behind the scenes of these sites, but I imagine you’d find some very deliberate practices if you delved deeply into the articles you find on a typical productivity blog. Shortcuts are sexy. If you dig deep enough on the internet, there’s a shortcut for virtually everything. The productivity market is kind of like the drug market of the 19th century. Sensationalist claims litter the web with ways to help you to maximize your potential, upgrade yourself, and optimize your time. Just like the an old drugstore shelf holding various bottles of potions with questionable opiates, herbs, and creams, the productivity blog landscape carries similar grand-promising solutions with unsubstantiated results. We don’t exactly have an FDA that evaluates the claims made by productivity blogs at the moment. Until that happens, your best bet is your common sense. If it sounds too good to be true, well….fill in the blank.

5 ½. Actually, some if it is useful.

For every bottle of “Mrs. Winslow’s learn a language in a week” (aka fluent in three months), there’s some great advice out there. For example, Lifehacker turned me on to a couple of free programs that sharpened my productivity tremendously, like LastPass, FocusWriter, Cold Turkey, and Dropbox. I read Ramit Sethi’s strangely scam-like titled manifesto“I Will Teach You to be Rich” and thought it was actually a pretty helpful guide for young professionals learning how to to manage their income, set up some stable slow-growing retirement funds, and get a credit card with a low-interest rate. As with the rest of the productivity porn, if you keep reading deeper on his website you’ll find yourself wondering why you haven’t easily made an extra $100k this year. Try not to beat yourself up for that. It’s probably not as easy as you think.

Remember. The information age brings you all the knowledge you could ask for in the convenience of your home, at the tip of your fingers. But, it’s a wild west land grab out there. Virtually every interaction you have online is with someone who is competing for either your time, money, or attention. If you have a problem that can be solved, by all means take advantage of the resource. Just try not to lose time in the process, or end up buying some snake oil along the way.

About the author Christopher Jones @JonesTheNinja
Chris has a B.S. in advertising from the University of Illinois and a M.A. in new media studies from DePaul University. He works in communications for an academic research unit in Chicago and he's fascinated in the ways that new ideas and technology make our lives better. He rambles on his blog, and even more so on Twitter. When he's offline, you will probably find him training for an upcoming triathlon, or trying to overdose on coffee.

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