A Sense of Accomplishment

Productivity is one of those ideals that is both aspirational and seemingly forever just out of reach. Like some others, I was initially elamored and motivated by the prospect of optimizing my own processes to squeeze out additional output, and realizing that this drive for self-improvement steadily peters out with diminishing returns. That’s not to say organizational systems aren’t valuable; rather, that the treadmill of trading in one system for another approaches a maxima and there’s really nowhere else to go.

There’s another perspective, though, which starts by asking why we’re trying to be so damned productive in the first place. A former colleague of mine asked a question about ways to manage their time, which prompted me to think about this a bit more:

Admittedly, angling away from an objective exactly how hard you’re crushing it into a more subjective how you feel about your own accomplishments is a bit wishy-washy. I don’t mean to denigrate the effectiveness of time management or calendaring systems, either—I make copious use of calendars in personal and professional life, and through trial-and-error have developed a set of working habits that mostly work for me.

Rather, the reframing here is to up-level the problem statement independent of exact implementation. For instance, The Checklist Manifesto provides a compelling argument for why checklists are simple, powerful organizational tools—yet, the overriding psychological motivator of checking items off of a list is providing our brains with a sense of cognitive closure, of feeling good about completing a task systematically. That is, it’s not enough to intellectually understand how a system could manage time better or add personal productivity points; if we’re going to spend the time to learn and stick with a new system, we need an additional push to make that commitment, of feeling that we’ve accomplished something meaningful.

It’s a bit akin to the old saying about cameras: “the best camera is the one that’s with you.”1 In the same way, while there may be some incremental gains in productivity in implementing one system over another or a given app vs. its alternatives, you quickly reach a point of diminishing return, and the greater challenge is actually creating enough activation energy to adopt a process—any process—to begin with. That is: instead of worrying about whether you’re working efficiently enough, it’s better to be satisfied with how you work, than to worry whether you’re working efficiently enough.

  1. Apparently, also a book.

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