Why productivity hacks mostly don't live up to their promise

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In a TED talk about the “cult” of extreme productivity, the head of innovation at Vice Media, Mark Adams, speaks about the “chronic anxiety” he felt as a result of the expectation that we’re never quite productive or successful enough; there are always more hacks, more we could be squeezing into our lives.

“It’s time to take a breath and accept that it is another trap,” Adams says. “This whole billion-dollar success industry … it doesn’t work. I was reading everything there was to read … my procrastination was through the roof … I knew what I had to do and instead of doing it, I’d read more.”

It’s time to take a breath and accept that it is another trap. This whole billion-dollar success industry … it doesn’t work.

Vice Media’s Mark Adams

As Adams discovered, productivity hacks can be a distraction from the hard work that is required to get life done and no number of fancy tips is going to change this.

“Productivity is overrated,” Georgetown University professor and author of Digital Minimalism, Cal Newport has said. “Some of the most accomplished people I know are incredibly disorganised. They work at the last minute. They stay up all night. They constantly scramble to find what they’re looking for. But they still get it done. Other accomplished people are incredibly organised.”

Author Taffy Brodesser-Akner describes the push for the streamlined life which provides “maximal predictability with minimal stress” as a push for a new breed of person: in her case, the Highly Regimented Woman.

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“I know some Highly Regimented Women. They are killing it out there. They are happy and focused and getting it done. I imagine being one of them sometimes,” she wrote last year.

But they also filled her with dread, because when the regimented life went mainstream, “it somehow became insurrectionist to have a mind like mine: one that’s always running, one that doesn’t relent, one that races and commands my hands to do a million things at once”.

Yet, it is in this chaos, in the fertile wild of a free mind that creativity can be cultivated.

When we give ourselves the freedom to be human, instead of attempting to run with the relentless efficiency of a machine we have space to think, ponder and just be.

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“The wellness industry has a lot to answer for – it’s pushing us to be busier, better and constantly dangling the pressure to reach our potential in front of us – when often the answer to wellness resides right inside of us in the enjoyment of the moment,” psychologist Lishman says.

“A little chaos, a little adversity, mistakes and failures – all of these help guide us throughout life. We are missing out on these if we are life hacking everything.”

Certainly, there are habits in our lives that can help us feel more in control and less overwhelmed by its pace. Certainly, some people benefit from structure more than others. But, the productivity industry promises more than it can ever deliver: that we can ever be fully in control or do it all.

There can be relief in relinquishing this pressure and acknowledging, if we do our best, some balls may still drop. We can be extremely productive and somewhat chaotic at once.

Body Language is our wellbeing column, examining trending issues in diet, health and fitness.

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