Productivity as fantasy

My learnings about the limits of productivity and time management

Oct 9, 2021

My journey with productivity and optimization

I got my first taste of my productivity obsession right out of college with the (in)famous Getting Things Done system by David Allen. I had lived my entire college career a minute at a time: zero time management skills, no routine to speak of, frequent cram sessions or all-nighters to wrap up problem sets or study for exams.

Getting Things Done taught me how to capture my random thoughts and surface them at the appropriate time. I bought Things — to date, the cleanest and simplest implementation of Getting Things Done I’d ever seen — and rigorously adhered to a routine of documenting my life. I felt, for the first time, a sense of control over a life that had been utter chaos up to that point.

Ever the engineer, I sought to further optimize my life. I read all about the power of habits and routine in The Power of Habit, Atomic Habits, and many others.

I developed my own habit system: a group of colored stones I’d move from one box to another daily, each one representing one of my habits I wanted to develop — e.g. write, meditate, draw, do something nice for my wife.

I’ve attempted plenty of other convoluted micro-optimizations as well throughout the years: 1. I tried to program my Google Home to add tasks to my Things list by connecting it to automation software that sends an email. 2. I bought an Apple Watch in part to give me ubiquitous access to my todo list (spoiler alert: it didn’t work because Siri sucks). 3. I built a Chrome extension version of this calendar to track my daily progress.

In short, I spend a lot of energy to feel like I’m bettering myself, meeting the goals that I set, and generally being in control of my life.

Is there such a thing as too much productivity?

I’m now wrestling with some beliefs I picked up from my immersion in productivity culture, no longer certain they’re serving me.

First is that all goals are within reach given proper time management. Many productivity systems care little about human limitations. Every hour has the same potential productivity so long as you plan.

Second is that consistency trumps all else. Thirty minutes to an hour a day of deliberate practice produces great results you need in the long term.

When I combined these beliefs, I concluded that I should be able to pursue all my goals simultaneously. Just give a bit of time to each every day. However, when I write all my goals down in one place, it feels a little absurd:

  1. Be a great husband and father
  2. Achieve fluency in Mandarin
  3. Play more music: practice guitar fingerpicking and piano improvisation
  4. Pick up drawing again: pencil sketches and pixel art
  5. Create a videogame
  6. Get better at writing
  7. Build a startup
  8. Become a better leader and engineer

In theory, I could make progress on all of these ambitious goals with just a few hours of dedicated time per day.

In practice though, my time investment produces uneven results. It took me so long to accept an obvious truth: there are occasions I have all the time in the world for my goals but lack even an ounce of energy. Pursuing 8 ambitious goals simultaneously consumes tons of energy, and doing so for a meaningful stretch of time is unsustainable.

Ultimately, these goals are more than things I want to do; they define who I want to be: creative, artistic, and entrepreneurial. Even if I were able to “time manage” my way to doing everything, I would be mediocre at best.

The challenging part is I’m approaching an age where letting something go feels like — with every-increasing job and familial responsibilities — I may never come back to it. I’m learning that I need to be okay with that. Unrealized goals that I cling to take up a lot of mindspace, even if I’m not actively pursuing them.

So where am I now?

I realize now that I had assumed a concept in productivity culture that may not have been there: unlimited human potential. I wanted to believe there was no limit to what I could accomplish with the right tools. But everyone has limits, whether they acknowledge them or not.

I’m instead focusing on a few of the above goals that have an immediate impact on my career and family life. And I’m going to think of productivity for what it is: a means to achieve a few goals at a time.

I hope I’ll get to do all that I want to someday in this life, but trying to force it seems to guarantee I’ll accomplish little of substance. I’m excited to see where recognizing my limits gets me.