Founder Diary

May 3, 2022

Your next productivity hack: forget about productivity hacks

Your next productivity hack: forget about productivity hacks

Productivity hacks are everywhere. Keeping track of all the tools is now your second job.

A hamster sitting in the middle of a big pile of work tools
A hamster sitting in the middle of a big pile of work tools
A hamster sitting in the middle of a big pile of work tools
Nikita Kazhin's headshot

Nikita Kazhin

Co-founder at Brick

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But wait, isn’t productivity the goal?

Nope, the goal is the goal, whatever it is.

With the number of tasks we’re supposed to deal with — often simultaneously — growing beyond measure, it’s natural to look for ways to make the load more manageable. But the stubborn obsession with productivity hacks that we see online these days reflects an often unhealthy culture of efficiency that hurts meaningful work.

Why are productivity hacks so appealing?

One word…


We love shortcuts. It’s as simple as that. Why work hard if there’s a “hack” that can presumably deliver the same results faster? (Preferably, 10x faster, of course!)

It doesn’t matter if we’re talking about workplace safety or education, shortcuts often start as mere attempts to find the shortest possible route to whatever our destination is; however, they often end in a meaningless search for quick fixes.

Speaking of routes, a recent study looked at the nature of shortcuts by simulating various air traffic conditions where participants, acting as controllers, were tasked with landing planes. The key finding was that, despite clear and well-communicated risks, they consciously and consistently sought shorter but unsafe routes for airplanes, especially if a reward was promised for landing them faster. This behavior persisted even in heightened risk environments (particularly dense traffic) when the controllers had an obligation to achieve maximum efficiency.

Does this remind you of anything?

As I see it, if we omit the risk variable for a minute, the situation isn’t much different from an overburdened office worker. High workload, endless deadlines, and an obligation to deliver maximum efficiency — all prime conditions for shortcut seeking.

In other words, no matter what your job is, when any kind of “obligation” or efficiency rewards get involved, anything goes.

Okay, but the risk variable is important, isn’t it?

The risks are clear in the case of air traffic control. It’s one thing to jeopardize lives, but there simply aren’t scenarios at the office that carry a comparable potential for disaster.

So, what is the risk for knowledge workers? And what are the shortcuts they’re taking?

A (misguided) focus on the tools

Let’s talk about shortcuts first.

Often, when we talk about productivity hacks, we mean tools (mostly digital ones these days). Look at the endless debates: Evernote or Notion? Trello or Zoom or Teams? QuickBooks or Xero?

We’re always on the lookout for better, more efficient tools that might just help us do our work ever so much faster.

But what are they if not shortcuts?

Zoom is a substitute for face-to-face meetings, Evernote — a “shortcut” for pen and paper, and so on.

Of course we need them, we’re not in the stone age. Such tools are designed to help us spend less time doing our core work, be it writing, accounting, or managing a team. Their job is to smooth things over, make work more seamless.

But when there are too many tools, nothing is seamless. What happens when we use all of those shortcuts in quick succession or, worst case scenario, simultaneously? The switching costs balloon out of control. Suddenly, the tools are a time drain of their own and the efficiency improvement they deliver is outweighed by the splintering attention costs, and then some.

That’s your risk.

Work about work

No, you don’t crash emails into your colleague’s face (or do you?). No one gets hurt (at least literally).

But for those on the intellectual labor front, the risk is bureaucratization, or simply “work about work,” is no joke.

We drown in self-regulation. Tracking to-do lists, keeping up with Slack, cleaning up the email, updating the Kanban boards… It goes on and on and on and on and on. At some point, the tools designed to “organize” you, or your team, lead to disorganization because of their sheer number and attention required to keep track of them.

And what is that number by the way?

According to Asana’s Anatomy of Work Global Index 2022, knowledge workers on average use nine apps per day and they are overwhelmed by them. “Overwhelmed” is actually a huge understatement because they spend 58% of their time on “work about work.” Should be 10% at most, if you ask me.

This sinkhole includes on average 32 emails a day, three hours of unnecessary meetings a week, and 129 hours of duplicated work a year. Pepper it all with unending notifications to which over half of workers feel obligated to respond immediately.

As a result, we get overinvested in a particular “way of doing things” rather than the “the Thing” itself. Procedures and tools obscure, and even substitute, the essence — your core work. We walk on handrails instead of the steps. When we focus on the “how” too much, it’s not hard to lose sight of the “why”. Performing core tasks for 30 minutes and then logging them in different ways for an hour is not exactly the definition of meaningful work.

Clearly, equipment, apps, and other “support infrastructure” must get the attention it deserves. Otherwise, no work would be done at all. But the key word is support. If over half of what we do is support, the core work gets lost in the middle. It’s exhausting and frustrating and, yes, unproductive.

The Asana report I refer to gives a few valuable recommendations. More hybrid work and flexible hours, better team coordination and goal setting, mandatory no-meetings days, streamlined processes (read: fewer disjointed apps) and shameless use of do-not-disturb modes are all important and valid solutions, especially if you work for a company with a more or less “traditional” corporate structure.

But I’d like to add my two cents by looking at the individual level, particularly at how we unconsciously put “work about work” first and what we can, as individuals, do about it.

The “unlock work” fallacy

Do you ever catch yourself desperately trying to finish all the minor tasks before starting your core work?

Happens to me all the time!

Remember when you were determined to sort through all your emails first? Or put a lid on those overflowing tabs in your browser prior to getting to “the real work” in earnest? And don’t forget, there are a few appointments to make, can’t have them lingering on your to-do list!

Not good, gotta get rid of all those first or I’ll keep thinking about them. The core work can wait just a bit, I’m bound to get to it anyway. I don’t want to be distracted by thoughts of that little undone stuff, right?

Let me guess how it usually goes. Your five emails become 32, and the tabs take two hours instead of 30 minutes. Story of my life.

To be clear, I’ve spent days just tidying up all those tools and “support functions.” I repeat, I did NOTHING else on those days. I just kept catching up on the little things that would presumably “unlock” work. The hope was that when all of those were “in order,” there would be nothing else to distract me and I could then, finally, do my best!

The result is a nasty trap when we hope to make our core work easier by removing all the distractions and irritants that presumably “stand in the way” but instead:

  • Core work is delayed;

  • We spend our best energy before we get to the main course;

  • We stuff our head with all the little things and it becomes harder to focus, not vice versa;

  • Even when we tidy it all up one day, the “tool mess” stages a spectacular resurgence the very next day!

Yes, the support functions are inescapable, but they don’t have to come first. They don’t actually block your priorities, but simply obscure them. They make you think that “work about work” is just as important.

I don’t know why it works that way, but when my core work is taken care of first (for instance, I make some nice progress on this blog), I have a feeling that the little stuff becomes so much less annoying and easier accomplished. Now, I welcome it, and work about work falls into its designated place.

So what?

To sum up, here are the principles that help me tame “work about work”:

  • Stop solving for quick fixes. When we abandon productivity as a goal, we get the luxury to avoid tool overwhelm. If you look at your tools hard enough, you’ll know which are assets and which are liabilities. Reduce and recycle.

  • Progress, not efficiency. Identify just a few critical habits that ensure you avoid drowning in self-bureaucratization and stick to them. Tackling your core work with your best energy is one of them.

  • Don’t put the cart before the horse and do the important tasks first. Your core work doesn’t need to be “unlocked” and you don’t need perfect conditions (e.g., no other to-dos “hanging” over you) to make progress.

  • Maintain an extremely clear division between deep and shallow work. It’s not always possible, I know, especially in hectic office environments. But, quite a few things are in your control nonetheless.

  • Finally, focus. As in selectiveness, not just concentration. You choose the things you say yes to. You decide in what order you work on them. You control how much attention each gets.

You’re in charge. So, stop working for our tools and make them work for you.

Thanks for reading!

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