Founder Diary

August 9, 2022

Anxious about productivity? Stop keeping up with the Joneses.

Anxious about productivity? Stop keeping up with the Joneses.

Comparing yourself to others is a surefire way to get productivity anxiety.

A desktop screen full of salesy headlines
A desktop screen full of salesy headlines
A desktop screen full of salesy headlines
Nikita Kazhin's headshot

Nikita Kazhin

Co-founder at Brick

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We all know the type.

They’re astonishingly productive. They have a system for everything. They always know what they want and how to get there. Industrious like beavers, meticulous like librarians, and untiring like robots — yes, I’m jealous!

I’m talking about “productivity gurus.”

They come in all forms and sizes. Some are fervent “early risers,” trying to get everyone to get up at 4 am or nothing gets done. Some claim it’s all about strict adherence to some kind of technique, be it about time management, quick reading, or note-taking. Yet others foam at the mouth preaching a particular tool — there’s always a new one!

You just got the hang of Evernote, and now everyone’s obsessed with Notion. You start dabbling with Notion, and now something called Obsidian is the talk of the town. And weren’t you secretly a fan of good ol’ notebook this whole time? Or maybe you use Excel for some basic formulas, but when you see the mind-blowingly complex stuff some people solve with it, you can’t help but feel that whatever you’re doing is nothing more than child’s play. I certainly feel like they’re about to start quantum-computing any minute, but I’m still stuck with a calculator.

And don’t even get me started about AI.

Same goes for video conferencing, spreadsheets, calendars, to-do apps, you name it.

Often, these gurus have a fix for us, too.

An absurdly expensive online course, a “first-post-everywhere-about-me” ebook, a “secret” track-your-every-fart spreadsheet to presumably make you a work-devouring beast. That increases your unease, because what if eternal productivity bliss is just a credit card away?

Simply put, when we look at such folks, they’re seemingly unstoppable, devouring all work in their way, no holding back. Such “wow” in fact, that the rest of us can’t help but get acute anxiety. When we look at others who are seemingly “super productive” and “laser-focused” all the time, no wonder we’re left feeling inadequate and miserable.

This attitude morphs into “keeping up with the Joneses” on steroids (or, rather, “on Internet”). Think Instagram for work — cherry-picked snapshots at just the right angles at just the right moment. If there’s conspicuous consumption, why can’t there be conspicuous productivity?

And we don’t want to be “losers.” We like to be respected, and, even more importantly, self-respected. Besides, we can’t help comparing ourselves to this idealized image because we love shortcuts and quick fixes. Work is a complex thing with an always-shifting interplay of tasks, conditions, tools, feelings, relationships, and other pressures. We crave one “secret” and no hard work. It’s only natural. Why bother with levels and bevels, if a hammer and nails ostensibly do the job?

“Productivity anxiety” also leads to feeling compelled to always stay busy. Beating ourselves up for not doing enough, feeling ashamed to not work.

The result? Stress and burnout, definitely not progress.

How do we relax?

I think the best way is to look inwards, not outwards — focus on what you feel, not how others make you feel. A few thoughts:

  • There’s no one size fits all in work and productivity (as in pretty much anywhere). No one technique, no matter how persuasive and logical, will work for everyone. There’s no one formula for progress. What benefits software development likely won’t cut it in writing. What makes larks salivate uncontrollably can make owls throw up. What works wonders for Bill or Elon, might backfire spectacularly for Mike. If rising early is a nightmare to you, guess what? Don’t do it just because some other folks do, no matter how successful they are!

  • It’s not a competition. Your goals are only yours and your way to reach them is unique, too. Rely on your own standards of excellence, an inner scorecard. Do what’s best for you, solving for fulfillment.

  • Optimizing for stats instead of solving for satisfaction in your work life is a dead end. You don’t read a book to hit a 200-page mark, you read it for the lessons. Then why in the world should you care how many to-dos you check off or emails you reply to? Stop trying to measure your “output”, you’re not a machine, there’s no “10X-ing your productivity.”

  • There’s no one recipe for meaningful work. We all have to find our own definition. Focus on principles, not on particulars. You’re unique, your way of doing stuff is one of a kind, too.

  • Abandon perfectionism. It’s all about settling on nothing other than ideal. Especially if the ideal is a carefully crafted “instagrammable” version, not what a real person is like.

  • Most people eventually develop an immunity to get-rich-quick schemes. Now, why don’t we do the same for get-productive-quick shortcuts? You like a particular system? Sure, try it, why not. Just don’t expect it to solve all your problems. Nothing can substitute plain old Work — no matter how well you organize it, you still have to actually do it. And progress is always stored before it's manifested. Visible results usually come later — no productivity system can change that.

I know your workday probably includes a couple episodes of watching videos of cute pandas taking falls, too. So what? Everyone does it, some just don’t admit it. Then why chase an illusion? Take what works for you and do you. Shut off the rest.

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