By Tiago Forte of Forte Labs

I once promised myself that if I was deceived into clicking on one more sensationalistic headline promising “10 Magical Productivity Tricks to Change Your LIFE OMG!!!”, I would immediately launch a scorched earth campaign against the productivity industry.

That was 11 minutes ago. So here we go…

Here are the 7 reasons I believe productivity, as an institution, as an idea, and most of all as an industry, is just begging to be disrupted:

1. It is driven by clickbait

I’ve come to believe that the main purpose of the thousands of productivity articles published every day is to allow bored office workers to procrastinate without feeling too guilty about it. It counts as work if you’re reading about work, right?

A vast echo chamber of blog posts, listicles, Twitter bots, and “content marketing” survives solely on the advertising revenue generated by millions of unsuspecting visitors, each one drawn by hyperbolic headlines into believing, if only for a moment, that this time will be different, this time they really will learn the Ultimate 5 Productivity Hacks that will instantaneously and magically transform everything they hate about their job.

This modus operandi is so reflexive, so unquestioned in the productivity media, I’ve had articles written about my own workshops with titles like 3 Easy (and Surprising) Tips to Get More Done. This was an evening where I literally spent two hours berating my audience to not think about productivity in terms of “tips and tricks.” Ugh.

Which brings me to my second point…

2. It reduces productivity to “tips and tricks”

Productivity can no more be achieved by collecting productivity tips than wealth can be achieved by collecting money-saving tips. Or health can be achieved by collecting health tips.

Productivity “tips and tricks,” by their very nature, are reductive and linear. They scrimp and they save, increasing efficiency by a percentage point here and a percentage point there, which is like trimming the sails to perfection as the ship careens off the edge of a waterfall.

Productivity is many things — an emergent phenomenon, an integrated system of systems, a praxeology (theory of practical action) — but it is certainly not merely a collection of wise sayings. Reducing its immense scope and fractal complexity to a series of bite-sized one-liners is great for click-through rates, but terrible for our appreciation of how profound the topic can be.

These tips and tricks and hacks and shortcuts, even when they contain an ounce of truth, are interpreted subjectively, implemented without context, measured subjectively if at all, and passed along at the water cooler as pearls of divinely-revealed truth.

But actually, it’s not our fault. We cannot move beyond the “tips and tricks” mindset of productivity because…

3. It is not systematically applied or quantified

If there’s one thing we’ve discovered from the revolution in data collection and analysis in websites and apps, it is that human intuition is often very wrong when it comes to predicting human behavior.

Our predictions are littered with conscious and unconscious biases. Yet in the most subjective of all possible situations, as we self-assess, self-diagnose, and self-prescribe productivity remedies, we neglect to follow any sort of systematic process to measure results.

I’ve come to believe that we as a society, employers and employees alike, have made a collective pact not to ask too many questions when it comes to measuring productivity. We don’t want to define objective metrics for success, because we would realize that our day-to-day responsibilities barely resemble the job description we were hired for. We don’t want to quantify the time we spend, as this may reveal the ungodly number of hours we work every week, at the office and on our digital tethers. And most of all, we are afraid to understand the real factors that affect our productivity, lest we discover how deeply dysfunctional the modern workplace has become.

Until the productivity industry develops a more systematic approach that works at the level of a single individual, it will remain in the realm of speculation, conjecture, urban legend, and…economists.

The one way we do measure productivity, meanwhile, is actually a problem, because…

4. It is top-down and authoritarian

There’s been a blizzard of announcements recently from companies announcing new products and services to “measure employee productivity.”

Companies like Workday offer suites of tools to track everything from average email length to social media activity to time spent in the bathroom.

This may seem a direct contradiction of my previous point, but virtually all the services I’ve come across have one disturbing thing in common — they are designed to be used by management as essentially surveillance mechanisms, microanalyzing and micromanaging the most minute behaviors of their workforce.

The rationale behind these services ranges from questionable — tracking an employee’s online activity to determine how likely they are to quit — to downright dystopian — predicting which employees are likely to exceed their budgets, fall short of performance targets, or do something unspeakably heinous like take paid maternity leave. I don’t know about you, but I’m not willing to trust that upper management’s definition of productivity is in line with that of individuals.

Even corporate wellness programs, which have grown to a $6 billion business serving over 50% of large companies, are a little scary. Putting aside the evidence that these programs don’t actually, you know, work, your employer can now penalize you for behaviors it deems “unhealthy” with a 30% increase in health premiums (50% if you’re a smoker) under the new rules of the Affordable Care Act.

Subjecting your employees to surveillance and blanket metrics goes against everything we know about employee satisfaction and motivation, and I predict a backlash from top-performing employees against management-by-metric. The alternative is a bottom-up approach, one relying on education, training, and peer-to-peer support to help employees both define and measure their own progress. But that is a subject for another post.

5. It is overpriced and unscalable

I have a theory about why productivity has historically been so top-down: it has its roots in executive coaching, that high-touch, hyper-personalized, one-on-one service that generations of C-suite executives have relied on.

You see it today in the typical prices charged by productivity coaches. Typical rates for freelancers run between $150–300 per hour, and daily rates for corporate trainers start at $5,000 per day. $10,000 if you have a published book, I’ve been told. It is the very definition of inaccessible.

This is partly because one-on-one coaches of any kind are expensive, but there are other reasons as well:

  • The lack of alternative models of productivity instruction (insider knowledge is passed directly from coach to client)
  • The lack of alternative models of accountability and support, like peer-to-peer (coaches like being both the mode of instruction and the accountability mechanism, because…more hours)
  • The lack of a credentialing system (where do you go to be certified as a productivity coach?)
  • Proprietary models with copyrighted materials (the typical career path for a productivity coach goes coaching > consulting > book > corporate training > keynotes, and they keep their intellectual property closely held throughout)

There are many arenas dominated by proprietary information and insider connections, but times have changed. Productivity is no longer only the concern of top management. In a world of alternative employment, of exploding numbers of people starting businesses, becoming freelancers, and evolving into independent contractors, everyone needs to be able to understand what drives their productivity.

This is what excites me so much about Lift and other mobile-based behavior change apps. They have the potential to solve all four of the above bullet points: to become a new medium of instruction, delivering content and instructions in daily chunks; to become a network for peer-to-peer accountability and support; to support credentialing via success metrics in the app itself; and the Lift team is very open about the science and methodology behind their efforts.

I recently created a Lift plan and coaching profile for my class on behavior design to test out this hypothesis. I’ll report back if I discover anything interesting.

Another reason that productivity has not been scalable is that…

6. It ignores technology implementation

I teach another class called Get Stuff Done Like a Boss, where I teach people, step-by-step in explicit detail, how to set up a GTD workflow using specific programs, on their computer. 10,000 people have taken the class over the past year, and you know what the most common positive feedback is?

“I finally understand how to implement this system in the real world”

Many of these people had read and tried numerous times to implement GTD. Many of them, judging by their in-class projects, are avid productivity fans. But the fact is, most of our tools have not approached the intuitiveness and ease of use required for wide-scale adoption. Developed by and for our tech-savvy peers here in Silicon Valley, it is all too easy to forget that even the tiniest barrier can keep people not only from using your app, but from implementing an entire system because they don’t trust their tools.

This problem is greatly exacerbated in the corporate environment. Corporate trainers see themselves as purveyors of Big Ideas, unconcerned with the trivial details of mere implementation. Meanwhile, the IT department, which does concern itself with such details when it’s called in to fix the problem, has no conception of the bigger ideas these people are trying to adopt. BYOD is already a big enough problem for them to handle, nevermind BYOI (Bring Your Own Ideas).

These barriers prevent many people from adopting the latest technology in mobile and wearables that could create some of the scalability we’re lacking.

7. It is inhumane

Throughout this piece, I’ve treated productivity as an end in itself. I’ve assumed that the benefits of more/better/faster are self-evident. But this is obviously the deepest, and most problematic issue with productivity — it’s not self-evident at all.

There are real risks to an excessive focus on improving your own performance. Overoptimizing your life, paradoxically, makes it harder to enjoy it. Perfectionism has now been shown to be an underappreciated risk factor in suicide. Stories of burnouts with long-lasting physical and psychological consequences are slowly becoming more commonplace.

At some point we will need to redefine the very meaning of productivity, away from impersonal statistics and toward more holistic ideas of wellbeing, satisfaction, and happiness. We’ll need to acknowledge that our current definition of the term, and therefore the implicit assumptions of the tools we build, is centered on a white, male, affluent worldview.

There are encouraging signs, with the upswell in interest in mindfulness, meditation, simpler living, and social entrepreneurship. I’m hopeful that the increasing awareness around the importance of diversity will eventually reach the walled garden of productivity, changing the very terms of the debate.

As Albert Einstein purportedly put it, “You can never solve a problem on the level on which it was created.” I think we will find that many of the problems we are facing with our stagnating productivity and wages will not be solved by more technology, nor by improved workflows, but by a deeper reassessment of what really matters in our pursuit of success.

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